First delivered by horse-drawn carriages to Paris newsstands and hotels, the International Herald Tribune marks its 125th anniversary on Thursday amid troubling times for the newspaper industry.
But the pioneer of global journalism — a dependable presence for international travellers whether in Paris, Kuwait or Tokyo — is confident it can adapt to a digital age that has turned the newspaper business model on its head.
“Like everybody else, we’re sort of searching for the silver bullet,” executive editor Alison Smale said in an interview at the IHT’s new offices in La Defense, a skyscraper business district just outside Paris.
The flood of news websites, 24-hour broadcasters and Twitter have all changed how news is produced and consumed, but Smale said the IHT believes its future lies with its traditions.
“What you obviously can do, and all of us do it every day, is surf around the web and get the information you’re seeking,” she said.
“But you don’t have the serendipity of a newspaper, where sophisticated, incredibly intelligent and talented editors have made a great choice for you of ‘this is what you need to know about the world today’.”
Founded on October 4, 1887, by New York Herald publisher Gordon Bennett, the newspaper aimed to provide American expats living in Paris with news from home, from stock prices to the latest baseball scores.
Under several owners and different names, it became a lifeline for the rising number of Americans travelling abroad, suspending publication only once for the Nazi occupation of Paris from 1940 to 1944.
It also became a symbol of US expatriates, with actress Jean Seberg playing an American who sells the paper on the streets of Paris in Jean-Luc Godard’s influential 1960 New Wave film “Breathless”.
It settled on its current name in 1967, after the New York Times and Washington Post took stakes in the paper following the collapse of the New York Herald Tribune.
The New York Times took full ownership of the IHT in 2003, and today it employs more than 100 journalists, has editorial hubs in Paris and Hong Kong, prints at 38 sites and is distributed in more than 160 countries.
Now dubbed “The Global Edition of the New York Times”, the IHT contains a mix of stories from the Times, news agencies and its own journalists, including well-known writers such as fashion critic Suzy Menkes and columnist Roger Cohen.
It has moved far beyond its original Paris base, with 41 percent of its 226,267 circulation in 2011 in Asia. About half of its copies are distributed in Europe, including 11 percent in France.
The New York Times takeover was controversial for many longtime readers, who felt the loss of stories from the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times made the paper less lively and too uniform.
“It became different once the shareholders changed and the New York Times in effect took it over,” said Axel Krause, who worked as a business correspondent and editor at the IHT for nearly 20 years after joining the paper in 1978.
“It was more diversified, it had Los Angeles Times coverage, it had a lot from the Washington Post,” Krause said. “The paper was ‘New York Times-ed’ and it changed, but it’s still a great newspaper.”
The takeover also left the paper’s finances unclear, as the New York Times Company refuses to disclose financial information regarding individual properties.
Current and former staff said it is common knowledge in the newsroom that the paper loses money, though not enough to outweigh its benefits to the Times as a global brand and a lure for top-end advertisers. (Smale would only say the paper is “economically viable”.)
One journalist at the paper, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many in the Paris newsroom are concerned about its finances and fear that operations may eventually move out of France, where labour costs are high.
“I think people are really worried about the future,” the journalist said. “We aren’t really making money and nobody knows when we are going to start.”
The naming in August of a new CEO at the head of the New York Times Company, Mark Thompson, has also raised fears of a new round of cost-cutting within the company, the journalist said.
Still, experts said there are few signs the IHT is under immediate threat.
“The IHT is definitely viable,” said Larry Kilman, the deputy head of the Paris-based WAN-IFRA global association of newspapers.
“The more we get into the digital culture, there is a sense that more isn’t always good and that a concise picture, concise information edited and presented well, has value,” he said.
“It’s a good model and I don’t think there is any doubt the IHT will survive.”
At its new offices in La Defense, where the IHT moved in September from its longstanding home in the posh suburb of Neuilly, Smale has been overseeing plans for the 125th anniversary celebrations.
As well as publishing an eight-page special report, the IHT will host a debate on European competitiveness on Thursday and organise an exhibit of 125 photographs from its archives later this month.
It has also released an IPad App with 185 front pages from its history.
Flipping through some front pages, Smale pointed to a few favourites like Louis Bleriot’s first flight across the English Channel, the sinking of the Titanic and the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the incident that triggered World War I.
“The history of the paper is closely connected to the history of the 20th century and now the 21st century,” she said. “I think as a daily newspaper this one — and it’s a word I always hesitate to use — is unique.”