Can 'Sun' make a dent in N.Y.'s hard-to-crack market? maybe not, but it's sure fun to watch

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The New York Sun, which on April 16 became the fifth English-language local daily circulating in the Big Apple, wants to go highbrow in its writing and demographics while emphasizing local coverage. That positioning will bring the broadsheet Sun into battle with The New York Times and the city's tabloids, an exceedingly hard nut to crack in a soft market.

The erudite Times is set on being the national power, while the tabloid New York Post and Daily News are busy battling each other, and Long Island-based Newsday is slowly spreading through Queens and circulating its city edition in Manhattan. With each paper fighting a multifront battle, leave it to Seth Lipsky to pick a fight with all of them.

Mr. Lipsky, the Sun's president and editor in chief, is a newspaperman's man-he's a former editor of the Forward, a Jewish weekly, and helped launch the Asian edition of The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Lipsky sees an opening for the Sun at the Times' expense.

The Times' national expansion, which began in earnest in 1997, has left that paper looking mightier than ever. But, as Mr. Lipsky points out, the Times' metropolitan circulation has been declining for a decade to the point where less than two-thirds of the Times' 1.1 million weekday circulation is local.

He wants to find those missing readers immediately for the Monday-Friday Sun, and eventually win over the rest, but in the meantime he'll turn his attention to fighting the Post and the Daily News for ads.

"I don't think the Times is their competition," says Geoffrey Klapisch, a senior VP at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, New York,which handles media buys for Verizon Communications. "If they're going to win in New York, they're going to be stealing from the tabloids. New Yorkers go to the Times for one-stop shopping. When you're making your local newspaper decisions, that's when you look at the tabloids, and that's where the Sun is going to be making its case."

Executives at the other papers in town have responded to the Sun's launch in their respectively stereotypical ways. One gets the feeling from listening to New York Times Co. VP Catherine Mathis that the Times hasn't even noticed the Sun or the missing local readers the Sun is trying to find. The Sun is going to have rely heavily on local advertisers, and when asked about the Times' mix of local to national ads, Ms. Mathis replies, "We don't really break it down that way. When we take a look at the numbers, we look at different categories, but we don't look at local vs. national."

The Sun will face a daunting task in fighting the Times on the ad side. "The Sun needs to knock somebody off and it's extremely tough to knock off the Times," says David Verklin, CEO of Aegis Group's Carat North America. "The Times is multivariant and multifaceted. ... You'd make a mistake to think of the Sun competing only with the Times' daily news section.

"They're going to have to knock off the Times or some other paper, because I don't see advertisers expanding their buys in New York. Do they think they can knock off Newsday? The place they're going to have go back to is the News and the Post."

Adds Serena Duff, strategic director of Omnicom Group's OMD: "The Daily News and the Post carry a lot of local advertising already. I think [the Sun] is going to be in competition with those just as much as they are with the Times. They don't want to be, but I can't imagine that advertisers are going to forgo large papers if they deliver the audience they need to run in a start-up newspaper that's not going to have a strong circulation to begin with."

At News Corp.'s Post, Publisher Ken Chandler boasts that his paper will notch another double-digit gain when the next batch of audited circulation numbers arrive, even more than a year after the Post slashed its weekday price to just 25 cents. As for the Sun, which joins the Post as the city's second right-leaning daily, Mr. Chandler rejects Mr. Lipsky's notion that the Sun is automatically high class by being broadsheet.

Newsday, meanwhile, is busy fighting the Daily News in Queens. After former parent Times Mirror Co. closed New York Newsday in 1995, after a decade of losses totaling $100 million, the flagship paper went back to its old strategy of encroaching around the edges of the city. Today, the city edition has a circulation of 105,000 and 70 staffers in its Queens bureau (the Sun's pressrun is only 60,000 and has 30 reporters and editors total).

Newsday Editor Tony Marro isn't worried about the Times or the Sun. "I don't think we're going to take readers from the Times. We compete with them in the city, but for Newsday to increase its circulation, it has to take readers from the Daily News."

Naturally, Daily News Editor Ed Kosner professes to be unconcerned by both Newsday and the Sun. "They've been at this for a quite a while," he says of Newsday. "We haven't seen any impact on our circulation in Brooklyn and Queens." Mr. Kosner dismisses the Sun as a force because of its tiny staff-"It's impossible to cover New York with a staff of their size. You certainly can't cover breaking news."

While Mr. Lipsky and Ira Stoll, Sun managing editor, have been open with their doubts about the Sun's financial viability, Mr. Lipsky won't back down on the soundness of his strategy. "You can ask me all the skeptical questions you want," he growls, "but I'm going to come back to my conviction there is a very attractive readership in New York that does not feel fully served by the current broadsheet here."

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