Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Death of the Sun

The cavalry didn't come. There was no airlift. The governor didn't call. And so, today, Sept. 30, 2008, the New York Sun issued its last edition, after seven years of trying to make a go of it as an "alternative" (read "conservative") New York broadsheet.

I never agreed with the Sun's editorial page. It's headlines often made me cringe. Yet, I owe the paper much and, through four years of contributing to its pages, came to respect it. Whereas toward the beginning my tone was sheepish when I told people I wrote for the Sun, in the last year or two I announced my affiliation in clear tones and with a little pride. For the Sun was a quixotic effort, the work of idealists and romantics. It bore many of the earmarks of the upstart magazines and literary journals of New York's past. Its creators were passionate, and its young and overworked staff members tireless.

Moreover, most of the editors I worked with displayed faith in their writers, listening to their ideas for stories, and respecting their copy. This is much more than I can say for the editors of other newspapers and magazines in this town. Detractors and supporters alike often queried me about the quality of the writing in the Sun's pages. It was no mystery why the writing was good. The editors hired talented reporters and critics to write about things they knew and cared about, and then didn't fuck around with the result too much. That simple.

I wrote mainly for the Arts pages and the Food pages—the sections that became the two most praised parts of the paper. David Propson, a kind and intelligent man with an aversion to replying to e-mails, brought me in at the suggestion of then-theatre critic Jeremy McCarter. Propson was the cultural editor back then and he was trying to beef up the theatre coverage and give the Times a run for its money. I was to write theatre features, and began with one on director Kathleen Marshall in June 2004. Soon after I was attracted to the Sun's daily profile, a feature that shone a light on all sorts of characters in the City.

The daily profile allowed me to talk to the oddballs and curiosities that have always attracted my attention: The guy who takes care of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree; the last working glover in the metropolis; the owner of Li-Lac chocolates in the Village; Murray of Murray's Cheeses; a guy who plays piano accompaniment for silent films at Film Forum; the men's room attendant at the "21" club.

It was a story about "21"'s glorious, Prohibition-era wine cellar that led then-food editor Ruth Graham to take a chance on my writing a monthly column called "In the Cellar," in which I looked at the wine collections of many a famous restaurant in New York. Each told a story. Il Buco's cellar may have been the inspiration of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amantillado." Tommaso's in Bensonhurst is stuffed with great, but cheap bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco that the owner bought back in the '80s before prices skyrocketed. The cellar at the tiny Babbo is ridiculously spacious. Daniel's cellar is decorated by designer graffiti. The wine at the Oyster Bar is stuffed in a maze of ancient walk-in fridges and prison-like cages. I met sommeliers passionately championing Austrian wines, Spanish wines, Israeli wines, everything you could think of.

I also began to cover the cocktail world while at the Sun, pressed on by most recent and final food editor, the ever-enthusiastic Jayanthi Daniel.

Often the sommeliers and other various wine and spirits people I talked to were ignorant of the Sun's food and drink coverage. When I showed them what we did, they were always stunned by the quality of the reportage. Thereafter, they picked up the Sun every Wednesday. Many told me, without solicitation, that they preferred the coverage to any other food pages in town. I'm biased, but I had to agree. Between Paul Adams, Bret Thorn, Peter Hellman, and a few others, the writing was lively, smart and fun.

That said, I often wondered whether the Sun's leadership ever noticed. I got the feeling that the Sun often didn't know what it did best, so focused was it on getting its political agenda across. It's food pages were praised throughout the City, yet when times became tight, the editors cut the food coverage from two pages to one a week. The coverage of the arts and the restaurant scene should have resulted in a wealth of advertising—despite the Sun's low circulation numbers. Yet the art and food sections were rarely sullied by the presence of more than one or two small ads. I am no expert on advertising and how its sold, but nonetheless this seemed to me a missed opportunity of gigantic proportions.

I will miss the Sun, and not just because they paid me promptly. My editors always gave my every story idea a full airing. They were worked off their feet, but they made time for free-lancers. And the resultant article was given good play; the quality of the accompanying photographer was always high. If the City's rival publication desire to properly honor their fallen brother, the best way they can do it is the snatch up the former writers and editors who have now been set loose.

And, yes, that is a hint.

1 comment:

Bret Thorn said...

Oh darn, I was hoping to write something nice about our editors at The Sun, but you took care of it. Ruth Graham was an amazing editor, with a firm but light editorial hand and awesome journalistic integrity. Jayanthi Daniel was indeed enthusiastic and fun. Pia Catton was kind enough to hire me and then kicked the whole city's ass as culture editor, and Gabrielle Birkner was a great story-breaking news hound.