Times' policy kept Friedman from Sun readers

February 13, 2005|By Paul Moore

THOMAS FRIEDMAN's syndicated columns have been missing from The Sun's Opinion/Commentary page since the beginning of the year, a fact that has made a number of readers unhappy.

Friedman is perhaps the nation's most expert and influential newspaper foreign affairs columnist and is particularly strong on the Middle East. He works for The New York Times, and other newspapers buy his column through subscriptions to that newspaper's news service.

In the process of trimming the 2005 newsroom budget, Sun editors re-examined all of the paper's wire service subscriptions and decided to switch to a less extensive and expensive package from the Times. It provides all of the Times' front-page stories and other news features, but does not include columns by Friedman and other commentators.

When Sun editors realized that Friedman was not part of the new package, they tried to negotiate a deal to acquire his twice-weekly columns separately. (The column began its regular run on The Sun's Opinion/Commentary page Sept. 10, 2001.)

New York Times News Service managers rejected that effort. "Employment agreements between the Times and its columnists prohibit individual deals," said Bob Farnell, sales director of the news service. "When The Sun altered its subscription level it went from a Cadillac with a navigation system to a Chevy Cavalier. You can't put a navigation system on a Cavalier."

Sun editor Tim Franklin was disappointed. "We did everything possible to try to negotiate a deal to retain Friedman's column, but they would not budge," he said.

While Franklin said the Times news service offers some excellent material, he added: "We also have in our own company [Tribune Co.] several of the best newspapers in the country and ones with accomplished foreign and national staffs. They also produce journalism that, in this market, is unique to The Sun. So, given the choice of being more like a competitor who circulates here, or being more unique, I'll take unique every time."

Still, the situation has left many Sun readers perplexed and frustrated. Hundreds of e-mails and phone calls, plus letters to the editor, have repeated the same message: We don't understand why Friedman's column isn't in the paper, and we want him back.

"Your choice to no longer carry Thomas Friedman's column is one that lessens the stature of what has the potential to once again be a great newspaper," Fronda and Richard Ottenheimer wrote. "If The Sun is looking to reach new readers, it should look at the interests of its market. We suspect that a review will reveal that Middle East issues rank at or near the top of any list of priorities."

"I just want to join the frustration of your dropping Thomas Friedman's insightful commentary," Lloyd Snow said. "Please reconsider your misguided decision before another day goes by."

Reader Larry DeMarco made another point. "The Sun has eliminated the most balanced point of view in the editorial pages. It's as if you're trying to eliminate more moderate or conservative points of view."

This is what happens when cost reductions translate into content reductions. Editors might understand - but not like - the situation, but most readers do not.

"In no way did editors discontinue Thomas Friedman's column because of its content or point of view," said editorial page editor Dianne Donovan. "He was a great asset."

The editorial pages do not routinely notify readers when new columns replace old ones. "However, we would have done so in this case because of Friedman's popularity," said Donovan. "But we simply did not want to send a confusing message to readers while we were negotiating. ... Because the Times would not make his column available outside the larger package that the newsroom doesn't need, I could not make a case that we should buy it just for Friedman."

Richard Gross, editor of the Opinion/Commentary page, said: "Tom Friedman is an influential, original voice about foreign affairs and U.S. foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the turbulent Middle East, and I considered his column a valuable component of the page. My gut feeling in deciding to use him regularly was that he would have a large and appreciative constituency in the Baltimore region."

Elaine Katzen is representative of that constituency. "As a member of the large Jewish community here, I sorely miss Mr. Friedman's columns," she said, "especially during a week like this when Israel and the Palestinians declared a cease-fire. It is not that Friedman is always pro-Israel, but he is the most balanced and reliable voice around."

Some subscribers who find Friedman's column indispensable now read him online or have decided to subscribe to the Times. The Sun risks losing those readers.

In an effort to fill the void, The Sun commentary page has added a twice-weekly column from Trudy Rubin, a veteran observer of Mideast events.

Longtime subscriber James Gibbs takes a philosophical approach: "Although I am disappointed, I can understand the choices you've had to make. The Sun remains my newspaper. I'll just go to the public library to read Mr. Friedman's columns."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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