Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Why I Love the International Herald Tribune

I'm quickly learning that it's easy to be unpleasantly bitchy when writing a blog, even one that is meant more than anything as a fanzine. One picks out the stories where you feel let down by the object of your admiration, and spend little time praising and admiring.

Sorry about that, IHT folk.

So can we take it as a given that unless I do pick up on something about the International Herald Tribune that I wasn't happy with as a reader, that I remain, for most editions, a contented reader full of admiration for the IHT?

It will take a long time to show why I believe the IHT is the greatest newspaper in the world, so what I am going to do, and only once, because it is going to take me a really long time, is to take one issue of the paper and try and show IHT readers and non-IHT readers alike, why it is just so damn good.

I read the IHT pretty much cover to cover; every article at least the first two paras, if not to conclusion; the majority read in full. Which is why the edition of Saturday-Sunday, December 15-16, 2007 is perhaps worthy of a mention.

I might make a few observations to myself as I read, but the ideal edition for me is one where one can literally take a red pen and draw a continual line, connecting the dots between different articles; then put the paper in the recyling bin with the sense that from my remote mountain outpost I have a fairly good handle on world affairs, opinions and trends.

I'm a fast reader, I don't watch TV (at all) so it's not too onerous a task to find the time each day to do this. The Saturday paper I often keep until Sunday to read.

Last Saturday's early European edition (four stars and closed at around 8.30 pm CET I think), led with 'Paid in Dollars, expats struggle to make a living', which captured, better than many articles I have read on the subject, the existential crisis facing many Americans as the dollar plunges.

(Written by IHT Paris journalist Doreen Carvajal - who is on record as saying she tends to write about things that interest her - it did strike me whether this was in fact a front page appeal to the owners of the IHT to increase the salaries of any IHT employees - and there are a few; Doreen are you one of them? Full disclosure? - whose contracts are negotiated in dollars. Did the interview with the CEO of U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe based in Prague, serve as a substitute for an interview with IHT Publisher Michael Golden, head of another American owned, if not State-backed media organisation with its HQ in Europe? I think Doreen might have mentioned how many IHT employees in Paris have US$ denominated contracts as part of the piece....But anyway, I am sure the powers-that-be got the point.)

There below it was a neatly placed reefer to an article on page 13 giving the flip-side of this story - For Europeans, the US is one big discount mall, side by side with the jump from Doreen's article. Perfect.

Effortlessly moving across a column on page 13 I found Dilemma for central banks as prices rise, a great piece by the IHT's Carter Dougherty and Julia Werdigier which pulled us away from the individual experiences of the current global financial crisis into the realm of macro-economics and monetary policy. It concluded with two paras on the effect of the most recent inflation figures on the value of the dollar and the appeal of dollar-denominated investments, with a reefer to a page 14 article on U.S Inflation data help give dollar a lift.

Off to Page 14:

Now I'm firmly ensconced in Weekend Business, I take a quick stroll around the global markets, not too much info but enough to confirm my beginning of the year decision to move into Turkish stocks (based considerably on the IHT's coverage of Turkey) and then have my eye caught by a catchy headline on the market for Christmas trees: It's like growing gold.

I briefly reflect on how expensive Doreen's Christmas tree is going to be, before mulling over whether I should be planting up a small plantation I own (and have recently had clear felled and sold the pine) with Nordmanns. I wonder if Nordmanns would fair well in our soil and altitude - must look into it.

I'm also interested to note that in Denmark alone, 15% of their farmers have stopped growing trees since the EU stopped subsidizing the industry in 2005.

Then it's a quick zoom down the Briefing column: glad to see the Danone/Wahaha story is still being followed - one of my great complaints with most newspapers is how they run important stories and then just forget about them - and find out about Knol, Google's new competitor to Wikipedia: must check that out.

Also interested to see that OPEC don't have a very optimistic view on the U.S economy for next year; as an author but not a member of the Writers Guild of America, interested to follow the strike, just a snippet is all I need, and I like the sound, if not the result, of Thai consumer activists fighting PPT.

The Christmas tree story has reminded me that it is indeed getting close to Christmas so I must get out into the forest and cut a small tree; turn the page and into Christmas retail stories and impact on stocks.

Christmas consumer stories aren't my thing because I'm not a great consumer, but Conrade de Aenlle on Nintento is fascinating - I'm more interested in the new trend in gaming he reports, than the stock price:

"Nintendo's ability to appeal to a wider base of players, some of whom are old enough to shave."

More interesting to me is the expensive quarter page advertisement placed by http://www.betancourt.info/ appealing to Americans to help him free Ingrid Betancourt.

(I can't say I even glanced at the watch advert on the facing page.)

I wonder if the IHT gave the Betancout advert away for free? Or discounted it? I would have, the IHT I worked for would have.

(The news pages often have holes that need filling where an advert for example has appeared in the Asia edition but is not planned to run in Atlantic, and thus the layout folk hold a host of charity adverts for these occasions. My guess is Florence Bourges had a hand in this. Any comments from IHT advertising welcome either on this post or to ihtreaders@gmail.com)

The Betancout advert was an extraordinary appeal, had me check out the site, but it did occur to me what all those IHT ad sales people would make of it - an advert placed in the IHT entitled Good Morning America (replete with the stars and stripes), on a day when the front page lead is about American expats.

Hardly helpful in their ongoing battle to persuade the international advertising community that the paper is not just read by American expats.

Over the page and into sports on page 16:

a beautifully placed report at the top of the Roundup column on Manchester United boss 'Fergusson banned for two matches' for using 'abusive and/or insulting words towards' a referee, placed right next to a story about NBA fans being banned for using abusive and insulting words towards Knicks coach Isiah Thomas.

Two sports, two continents, same problem, flip-side of the story again. Perfect.

My eye runs right to England turning to Capello as manager: I don't like football (sorry, soccer) but every morning on market day I have a coffee in a cafe in town, and the owner always likes to discuss English soccer with me (knowing I am English), ever since he turned down a bet on the outcome of the England/France game during the rugby world cup.

He assumes I must like football, I don't want to disappoint him, so I am pleaed to note that I will be on top of this story for next Thursday. That's called, as Mr. Oreskes would say, being equipped to take part in the global conversation.

Onto page 17, and a report on Bud Selig's reaction to the Mitchell report.

Confession and question: if the majority of the IHT readers are NOT American, and if the IHT is cognizante of every country, captive of none, how come so much room in the sports pages is still given over to US sports?

I have no interest in NFL, NBA or Baseball, and am yet to read an article about these sports that are written with the assumption that the reader is not familiar with even the rules.

Does the IHT hold data that its non-American readership is particularly interested in these sports?

Do American sports make up part of the global conversation?

On this occasion I make an exception and read more than the usual first two paras - doping in sports is part of the global conversation.

Interesting article, even if the names of the teams and players cited mean little to me, and little context is provided by IHT copy editors for the uninformed.

(One small beef: I notice that the picture caption of Selig is "Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball, tried to drown the the Mitchell report in legalese". Actually the article stated that Selig dodged and weaved through a press conference, and that it was only later that Donald Fehr of the player's association, tried to 'drown the report with typical legalese'. Attention photo editors please.)

Then I finish up sports with an NFL story about a team that lost all its games in 1976 - now that's a sports story that any sports fan would be interested in.

So for me, a great sports section.

In fairness to Peter Berlin, a Brit who is the IHT's fantastic sports editor, he has made enormous strides in making the sports pages more international and less American, since the days of the editorship of the sports-mad John Vinocur. His successor, Mike Getler, wasn't much interested in sports, I don't think, which made Peter's efforts at internationalising the sports pages that much easier.

Peter would argue that one of his problems is that on many days of the week there is very little European sports action, so he is almost forced to cover US sports more extensively than he would if he really believed the majority of the IHT's readership is non-American.

But nevertheless, to me the sports pages contain way too much American sport, with too little context, that is of no interest at all to the majority of IHT readers. The problem for the IHT, apart from the fact that on most days the IHT gives sports fans information they aren't interested in, is the perception all this US sport creates in the minds of the advertising community in Paris, London and elsewhere: this is a paper for American expats.

(Personally I would rather read more about Asian sports than American sports. I mean, the next Olympics are in Beijging? What sports are they doing well in? Who are their stars? Who is going to be the next big thing in African distance running? More on the turmoil in NZ rugby after their quarter final world cup defeat? What is the Japanese soccer league all about? Is there an Asia equivalent of the Champions League? Horce racing in Hong Kong, equinne flue in Australia; what is the national sport of Indonesia or Vietnam? I have endless questions about international sports that the IHT just isn't answering but the details of a sport played largely in America only, even at the level of between universities in the United States - well, then I can be bang up to speed. Something badly amiss here.)

But back to my perfect edition - this edition's sports had American sport's stories of clear interest to non-American readers like me. Perfect. What now?

Down to the comics/cartoons depending on what type of English you speak.

I read them all with three exceptions: Beetle Bailey which just isn't funny, Dennis the Menace which I presume is for children only and Non Sequitur which is just too damned small to read.

Does anyone play Jumble? Please step forward and declare your interest in this infantile word game. I think you are in a minority of IHT readers, but were it dropped, like for example Peanuts once was, you would write so many letters and emails that the editor would mistake the loud voice of a minority crowd for the voice of reason, and reinstate it.

Comics done, back page:

I will not being going to any of the exhibitions listed but I will speak with people who have or will, so it's good to have a quick scan just to make sure people don't think I really am the hick I really am. Plus beautiful illustrations, in colour. Wonderful.

Elisabeth Hopkins does a great job compiling this page, but I wonder if it couldn't be helped by adding a line or two of critical review of the exhibitions. The IHT could add some value here. Minor beef, but it would help me pretend I have attended the exhibitions if I could drop some compliment or criticism of them into my conversations.

Now down to Globespotters, Urban Advice from people that live their.

As you have no doubt noted, grammar is not my field, but Urban advice? Urbane? Advice about cities? Urban advice - I'm not sure, a bit too Tyler B for me.

Beautifully, and effortlessly, I have been returned full circle to where I started:

US expats (again) fretting about the value of the dollar and the same journalist, Doreen Carvajal (in the company of another IHT Paris journalist, Katrin Benhold), suggesting going to expensive restaurants in Paris for cheaper lunches. (Now I really do think Doreen is on a US$ salary and it's time for full disclosure.)

But some interesting tips, before sliding over to Berlin and the 'pay what you want' honor-system at some wine bars in Prenzlauer Berg. Trend spotting and reminded me of the piece on Radiohead doing the same with their latest album, the fact the NTY ditched Times Select, and made me wonder what would happen if the IHT applied the same system to their cover price at the kiosk.

Back of the book partly done, back naturally to where I started: Page 1.

Thankfully for us IHT readers, Katrin Benhold has temporarily forsaken her dollar saving lunches with her colleague Doreen at the Tour d'Argent, and hoped onto a plane to Algiers to report on life after the suicide bombings, which she had also reported on the day before. I don't know what contacts Benhold has in Algiers or if she speaks Arabic, but her two pieces, this one included, are fascinating.

(Warning: I like the IHT because generally its foreign news coverage is supplied by long-time foreign correspondents in places like Algiers who have been there for a few years before an event like the recent bombing; hence they are better equipped to write the type of follow-up piece Benhold has, who, as far as I know, is not based in Algiers. There is a taste of what I call CNN Christianne Annapour journalism here; someone flying in at short notice to wherever the latest big story has broken, and it's usually appallingly thin. Benhold stands up well, but I'm not sure I wouldn't rather hear from a permanent AP reporter in Algiers on this, ideally a NYT one.)

'Life goes on after deadly attacks' her article is headlined as it jumps to page 6.

Now, I don't really like jumps unless they always take you to the same page in the book, and they are jumped with stories of a similar nature.

In this edition, this is what has happened, so I'm happy: the front page article which I also began to read ('Civilians forced to fight Ethiopian rebels') is also a piece that digs deeper, goes behind the headlines or indeed creates non-day specific headlines, and when you look in the blogosphere, this is the type of MSM reporting that the bloggers love - stuff no one else is doing and which they can't get elsewhere.

The two stories read, I see another page one jump on the Bali climate talks, so back to Page 1 to read the beginning of that, and then back to Page 6 to finish it up - all jumps on the same page, so I am happy.

Then time to compete the jump page, starting with a terrifically comprehensive wrap-up of what's going on in EU politics: the differences of opinion between Sarko and Brown on the committee to to examine the challenges confronting the EU and the agreement in principle to send an 1,800 security mission to Kosovo (the IHT has been brilliant on Kosovo - I don't think Smale has forgotten her Balkan years, nor the break up of the Soviet Union: the IHT is all over the possibility and problems of new EU nation states from the Basque Country, Scotland to Belgium).

The piece included reports from Spanish media that the committee chairman (former Spanish PM, Gonzalez was on record as saying in 2004 that the EU enlargement should "stop at the borders of Turkey" because of social and cultural differences. (Kosovo is of course before the borders of Turkey even if it may well share the same social and cultural differences with the existing EU as Turkey does.) All in all, a great, tight, comprehensive piece from Castle and Bilefsky.

Finally for the jump page, a quick scan of Briefly column: a good list of follow up stories to ones the IHT has already extensively covered, keeping me up to speed on the stories that matter, even if they may have temporarily fallen off the front page - UK vs. Russia over Litvinenko, separatists in the Philipinnes (cf Algiers article and the still unfixed global map); North Korea responding to Bush's letter; death penalty in the US; sexual abuse in South Africa, far right in Europe, and illegal immigration into the EU.

Done. Back to Page 1

Where to go now? No less than 8 reefers to take my fancy: fraud at Siemens; Central Bank Dilemma (read that already); Hamas arrest; US House defies Bush on interrogation tactics; Chinese fish farmers and then there are the skyboxes: Souren Melikian on art; Tyler B, and a special report on the year in sports.

I go with Chinese fish farmers - because its on page 2.

Over the page: and what a page 2

Howard French, brilliant as ever on China, reporting on attitudes to mining disasters (For mining victims, pages quickly turned - what an echo the 'Get over it' and 'eating bitterness' ethos provide to 'life moving on in Algiers'; then the overwhelming calamity of China choking on growth (having already read about an astounding 300 miners a month dieing in China); this time it's rivers and lakes due to intensive fish farming and polluted water:


Then, all on the same page, and placed alongside these Chinese human and environmental stories, a geo-political news analysis of US-Chinese relations. (U.S. Hitting difficulties in relations with China.)

'The wheels in the U.S.-China relationship are wobbly right now," said a professor of IR at Georgetown and former Asia Affairs director at the NSC under Bush I [that'll do me as a source] "They're not coming off, but they're wobbly."

A perfect page 2, and a quick read of In Our Pages. Done.

Onto Page 3 - what had caught my eye about the article referred to on Page 1 (House acts to ban CIA questioning techniques) was how close the vote was 222-199, largely along party lines.

That explained perfectly to me what a clear choice US presidential voters will be faced with in 2008: a party that thinks water-boarding is OK, and a party that thinks it's not.

No one reading that article can be immune to the importance of the next president of the U.S.A, so quickly over a column to an article on the Democratic primaries (Tough Moment or two in the debate).

Is Obama or Clinton best placed to resolve the Middle East/Palestine problem, comprehensively covered, and as always, balanced, by Steven Erlanger (Hamas arrests aide to West Bank leader: Seized in Gaza, he is to be interrogated).

The interrogation part of this headline took me back to CIA questioning techniques. Who in the USA government can criticise Hamas if they induldge in a little water-boarding?

Finally, at the bottom of the page, an article on Bolivia on alert over states' autonomy push.

Kosovo, Bolivia. Two continents, same dynmanics and the IHT all over it.

On to Page 4: Editorials and Commentaries.

I still think it is a great shame that the IHT does not write its own editorials because there is no doubt they would bring a tremendous depth of perspective. But the NYT seldom dissapoints, calling the Global War on terror as it is (Notes from the global war) and if there is still any doubt that the IHT is more cognizant of American readers than others, an editorial on the Mitchell report.

I don't think the IHT would write an editorial on the Mitchell report.

Mildly dissatisfied, but what remains in the Commentaries section more than makes up for it.

A terrific analysis of Qaddafi in Paris, a fascinating piece on counterfeit drugs ('Medicines purchased over the Internet from sites that conceal their address - and many do - are counterfeit in over 50 percent of cases" - I didn't know that; one of the several times an edition I say those words) and an interesting piece from the associate chief counsel at the U.S Food and Drug Administration on 'Fear versus Science' in the biotech foods debate.

Then the facing page: Krugman on fire-ing form (After the money is gone') and then back to the dollar: As the dollar slides by Howard Watchel.

Let's not worry about Doreen's lunch bills, here's the real question:

"Has the tipping point arrived when the dollar ceases to be the pre-eminent reserve currency in the global economy?"

Now that's a first sentence of an opinion piece I have to read...

Down to the letters to the editor.

Here it's always a bit confused I think as to what the IHT is trying to do here - give space to a global conversation and the opinions of others or let readers comment freely on the IHT, as this blog does.

It seems to me to be neither one thing or the other, heavily biased towards the former.

The only problem is, that unlike in the FT, we don't know who these readers are; what are their credentials to pass comment on world affairs.

What I liked about today's letters were the comments on the CIA/Tapes scandal and someone pulling up David Brooks on one of his pieces.

Personally I would like to see much more space given to letters, even if it means sacrificing the Meanwhile space, which frankly, is of variable quality.


Page 6 is done, straight to page 7.

Tyler B. actually writes a piece of some interest, even if he is a little unkind to 3-year old girls with lurid pink suitcases with ponies and princesses on the side of them. (Only Tyler B. would even notice that.)

The People column I read, just to make sure I don't recongise or know anything about too many of them. Very useful in maintaining my sanity in my mountain retreat.

If the people in one of the pieces are people I have never heard of - in this case Tony Parker, Eva Longoria Parker and Alexandra Paressant - then I know I'm still O.K.

So a good result from this edition.

Movies? I love them, as do most IHT readers, and I love their reviewers. I trust them and use them, in this case A.O Scott on I am Legend, which I will make sure I see.


Never been a crossword fan, so not a problem for me, but I do thnk that to do the NYT crossword, you need to be American or to have lived there for a long time.

What are the implications of this for majority of IHT readers who, we are told, are not or have not? No crossword, which makes me cross.

The IHT needs a global citizen crossword to be true to its claim to be The World's Daily Newspaper.

The Books & Ideas section in the back of the book is a wonderful addition to the IHT since the NYT took over. Interesting books, great reviews.

But as I have mentioned in previous poststs the fact that ONLY books published in the U.S.A AGAIN betrays the bias of the IHT AGAINST its non-American readers.

I've checked this out, and in some cases the books reviewed aren't even published and distributed OUTSIDE the U.S.A.

I know we can all use http://www.amazon.com/ and the U.S postal service, but really, come on! Ridiculous policy. Needs to be re-examined.

Then a great Special Report on the Year in Sports, put together by Peter Berlin, who is, I think, the most knowledgable person I know on world sports. I put it aside to read at bedtime, and it was great: with Hughes, Berlin, Clarey it would be.

But for now, on to Souren. Look, I don't buy £1,364,500 paintings by Ferdinand Bol but reading Souren Melikian on art and the art market has to be one of the reading highlights of my week. His effortless prose, his comprehensive knowledge, the way he weaves the beauty of art with the sometime ugliness of the art market is magical writing.

Just a sampler: the way he pulled up a Sotheby's categlogue description by experts who 'like to be accurate':

"A still life with a pewter jug and an overturned tazza [actually: it lies on its side]"


Page 10 is the daily advertisement for the performance of International Funds. Given the funds pay per line to be listed here, and this is one of the major sources of revenue for the paper (millions of dollars) it's a pity that
a) the page is not headlined Advertisement as all other advertisments are and
b) most of the funds I own aren't listed on this page.

No matter, if it pays for Benhold to go to Algiers and Souren to jet between Paris, London and New York, me no complain.

Then into Business.

The Business and Technolgy sections of the IHT just get better and better, and in the same way the general interest news provides a broader business perspective for businesspeople, the business section provides a broader social and political perspective for non-businesspeople like myself, who I suspect there are a lot of in the IHT readership.

Joe Nocera is consistently engaging, insightful and cuts through the noise to get to the bottom line.

The Craft Capitalism feature was superb. I had no idea there was a web site called Etsy selling the handmade crafts of some 70,000 artisans.

I turn the page and a fascinating interview with a market researcher on the subject of slow food and supermarkets (Spotlight: At the supermarket, shopping for better health).

For someone who avoids supermarkets and tries to buy artisanal produce, this is my weekend IHT edition from heaven.

Two jump outs:

"In the 1960s in France, it was 26 percent of the household budget [spent on food] and now its 16 percent."

Great, I am an 1960s Frenchman!

"In 1980 hypermarkets represented about 13 percent of the business by sales. Now it's about 36 percent."

Only consolation - that's not my fault!

I admit, I am moving fast now through business, as I always do, but I always check out On the Record:

"The last thing you want is to be in a crowded tube at 35,000 feet for two or three hours with some guy going on about his trip to Vegas" Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research, on voice calls on an airplane.

(True, but what about two or three hours with the three year old and her pink ponies or Tyler going on about his last trip to one of the three countries he manages to live in - how does one do that btw, live in three countries? It sounds very clever. And wasn't what happens in Vegas supposed to stay in Vegas, according to a recent article I read, I think in the IHT, about the marketing of Vegas to non-gamblers.)

Floyd Norris?

That's a tricky one, to take seriously information provided by someone called Floyd, but once you get past that, he just does the job.

So, finally I arrive back at the beginning of my journey, page 13, where I finished up the page one appeal for higher IHT salaries.

Citigroup moves to rescue 7 funds - well, I've just read Krugman on this issue so that's interesting.

EU threatens to impose tarrifs on steel imports from China - ties in nicely to the article on U.S.-China relations.

And I finish off my perfect IHT edition with 'U.K. tops U.S. in donations to World Bank' which is useful for my global conversation with a communist I know who makes cheese.

Rather neatly of course, it's much ado about the dollar, and it is with the dollar I began my read and with the dollar I finish.

The last paragraph of this story, and my weekend paper read, ends with "Britain, whose aid budget has been swollen by the pound's rally, is increasingly spending on development to a record. The dollar's drop is eroding the value of the U.S contribution."

And Doreen's dining in Paris.


So, that's why I love the IHT.

I'm not going to take this amount of time again to show you why, but at least it's here for the record.

Now I can get back to nit-picking and being bitchy.

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