Sunday, April 26, 2009

Newspaper ironies

Dismantling of print edition
picks up speed as Sun editor
focuses on all things digital

'No longer a newspaper company'

In a talk last week at Johns Hopkins University, top editor J. Montgomery Cook declared – to some public amazement – that The Baltimore Sun is no longer a newspaper company.

Unfortunately, he’s right… or nearly so. It’s becoming clear at every turn that the newspaper is being slashed one staffer, one page, one section at a time, to the point of self-fulfilling prophecy: No longer a newspaper company, soon if not already.

You can hear Monty’s talk online, courtesy of Johns Hopkins, at While his characterization of the company was personally painful to me, as a 40-year, now-retired newsroom writer and editor, I was disturbed by his views on the roles of reporters – comments that seemed in opposition to objective journalism. He speaks of wanting reporters to be “passionate,” in nearly the same breath as he uses the words fairness and balance.

But there’s so much to be upset about these days in the print media and at my old haunt, which just last week eliminated the Tuesday features section – a day on which the section’s focus, ironically, was on the digital age. Monday’s features section had been cut earlier. It seems to be part of a dismantling of the newspaper’s entire features department, as some of its daily content is scattered to parts of the surviving news and sports sections and the staff survivors focus on Sunday sections and online content.

As a subscriber for home delivery, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t notice another recent change – the increase in the street-sale price of the daily newspaper to a dollar. There’s that saying, almost a cliché, about doing more with less. When you purchase the newspaper now, it is a case of less for more.


Saturday night, friends held a farewell party for Howard Libit, who in nearly 15 years at The Sun had risen from two-year intern reporter in the suburban Howard County office to assistant managing editor for news. He did not get the ax; he got a job offer from a company engaged in corporate communications.

Amid all the turmoil in the newspaper business, and the burdens of overwork imposed on employees and managers trying to keep it and themselves going, the grass on the other side of the fence held obvious appeal. And it is yet another loss of great talent for The Sun, and for print journalism.

He’s escaped just before the next bloodletting. Staffers are expecting word on deep personnel cuts at The Sun within the next two weeks. One top editor has already been told he is leaving – Paul M. Moore, deputy managing editor and former ombudsman for the newspaper (the last to hold that position before it was eliminated).

Moore is listed among the top executives of the newspaper – with Timothy E. Ryan, former vice president for circulation, at the top as publisher, president and CEO, and Monty Cook as editor. Then come Paul Moore and fellow deputy editor Marcia Myers, along with the editor and deputy editor overseeing the opinion pages. There’s also a half-dozen vice presidents for such struggling areas as advertising, marketing, finance, business development, and operations and technology.

Watching the names these days may become kind of like the era when observers noted the faces lining the front of the reviewing stand for the Soviet Union’s or People’s Republic of China’s May Day parades to determine who was still in favor or power.

Some names you rarely see – notable among them the copy editors who read each story and write the headlines, and serve, unheralded, as a last check on accuracy. There’s anticipation that the next bloodletting will shrink their numbers at a time when some of the work of these union-represented professionals is being replaced with content created and edited in Chicago by non-union employees of parent Tribune Co.

Monty’s talk at Hopkins was interesting. He speaks about the importance of The Sun’s investigative and “watchdog” reporting that are to remain part if its content, but also notes the end of the multi-part series. So those investigative stories inevitably are going to be a lot shorter.

And as for “watchdog” content, that has been a matter of investigating why a particular malfunctioning street light hasn’t been fixed, or the trash in an alley hasn’t been removed for weeks or months on end. Matters that a complaint to your City Council representative ought to be able to fix with one phone call are eating up ever-shrinking newspaper space at the expense of serious content. Pothole journalism.

Numbers games

Monty speaks of a transition for the newspaper into new areas brought on by the digital revolution, and how it is evolving with the production of content for whatever information platforms people use. “Every job will have a digital focus,” he says.

Tweets are big these days, after all. But I haven’t figured how they generate revenue. It’s just part of the overall company goal Monty paints to “cement in people’s minds” that when something happens, they turn to The Baltimore Sun for information.

He cites growth in online “page views” and “unique visitors” and claims that “The Sun’s total audience is larger today than it was five years ago.”

But numbers are so easy to manipulate to justify change. Monty, whose specialty in coming to The Sun a few years ago was newspaper design, was the leader in creating its much-maligned free daily tabloid, b – which he claims has 125,000 readers weekly. I don’t know how that compares to the weekly print run, or who counts the copies left in the vending boxes each night, or whether the number is any more useful than that of “unique visitors” tallied on a Web site.

Online page views count the same, whether they come from a Pakistani using a Google search on an arcane topic that matches the wording in a Sun article or, ideally, from a reader in suburban Towson intently clicking on particular stories from the newspaper’s Web site.

Monty does not say outright that the print newspaper, the company’s Mother Ship, is dying.

But it is dying – and being murdered.

Killing The Evening Sun

It reminds me of the earlier murder of The Evening Sun, which was in trouble in the early 1990s as part of the trend of circulation shrinkage for afternoon newspapers. Then owned by Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Corp., The Baltimore Sun took steps intended to speed up the evening newspaper’s death by shrinking and consolidating staffs, then making content pretty much identical in both papers except in typography and style and one small new story in a space atop the front page that became nicknamed “the dynamite hole.”

People who subscribed to both the morning and evening papers pretty quickly made the obvious move of canceling one of them – and some of the more stubborn opted to keep the evening paper. But its circulation dropped close enough to the magic number of 100,000 that the company could more readily use that as an excuse to cease publication.

It didn’t create any goodwill, just alienation. In the Baltimore area, many readers staunchly preferred The Evening Sun and resented the moves that first took away its personality and then shut it down. It would have died eventually. But its closing in 1995 was lacking in grace, in respect for the readers. It was a clumsy killing.

The company is being clumsy now. It is giving readers less reason to buy the newspaper in vastly cutting content and raising the price. The readership base out there is not stupid. The company is pushing Webward, burning the print bridge behind it, and leaving many of its customers on the far shore.

Kissing off the elderly

Monty, in his talk, acknowledged with regret that some changes have been painful -- particularly for older readers who have not made the move to the Internet.

“There is a generational divide in this,” he says, “and I’ll be honest with you, that’s the hard part about transitions.”

I don’t know if he thinks, as I do, that those older readers represent a huge part of the audience for The Baltimore Sun’s print edition. It is an audience that is going to leave sooner than it has to because of the changes, and in my opinion that will accelerate the newspaper’s demise.

I was sorry that a scheduling conflict kept me away from Monty’s talk, which was ably reported by the online Baltimore Brew (

The Brew crew followed up with a report ( on a staff reorganization announced at The Sun by Monty a day after his Hopkins talk and geared for increased online focus. Among the changes is the naming of the former assistant managing editor for features, Mary Corey, as “head of print” with duties that sound similar to those of deputy managing editor Marcia Myers.

I’ve always liked both of them, and can’t help but wonder what follows.

Had I been present for Monty’s talk, I would have posed a question not raised by the small Hopkins audience:

“Monty, does Tribune allow you to say ‘no’?”

And I will be watching to see, when the expected round of layoffs is announced, whether publisher/CEO Tim Ryan and Monty Cook will allow The Baltimore Sun to report that news about its own cutback as fully as it reports on layoffs and cutbacks at other companies.

A Tribune lesson for journalists

There’s an amazing account from former Sun reporter David Folkenflik, who now covers the media for National Public Radio, about the layoff of 20-year staffer Lou Carlozo by the Chicago Tribune.

Carlozo, an arts reporter, had been writing at his editors’ behest about the effects of the recession on area families and blogging in recent months in "The Recession Diaries" about his own family's pocketbook concerns, Folkenflik reports. But on Wednesday, Carlozo was told that he was losing his job – and then, after he posted a final blog entry about how the recession had caught up to him, the Tribune removed it or, as they say, “spiked” it, in newspaper lingo for killing a story.

But you can read that last blog entry through Folkenflik’s NPR blog posting at Planet Money:

Carlozo also posted an account of his firing, in context as part of a wider Tribune bloodletting, at

Sadly, it gives me much the same feel of what goes on these days at The Baltimore Sun.


Wayne Countryman said...

Well done, David. Thanks for providing this -- few have your perspective to understand this so well.

It hurts to read this, but you're right.

How long will Tribune hang on to The Sun? The executives in Chicago have never respected it or its readers.

Eva Whitley said...

The single copy price is really a killer. I'm usually in possession of a quarter. Most of the time I have two quarters on me. But I hate carrying change, so me having three quarters for the Post is hit or miss, and a dollar...? Might as well install card readers on the box to swipe a credit card.

I've picked up the SUN a few times since moving to the Dark Side, and it's almost painful to read.

Anonymous said...

There's still someone doing quality, independent, locally based reporting on Baltimore. Several former Examiner writers (none of whom I know) have done a pretty decent job here:

Anonymous said...

I haven’t bought or read a real made of paper newspaper in 10 –12 years but for several weeks one of our local papers put the entire edition online in a PDF version. The stories, ads, some local history, classifieds and so on was all there. The photos were sharp, some in color some in black & white.
I actually looked at the entire thing! I have a chip in my car windshield and found someone close that could fix it. I found that a chicken wing place around the corner has BBQ wings for 35 cents on Wednesdays and I found that there was an Art in the Park show going on over the weekend.
The paper quit doing the PDF and I quit going to the site. I use Google if I want to hunt and pick for my news, but do you think maybe if I would look at an entire newspaper would others?

Connie Knox said...

David Michael: Just want to confirm that I am, indeed, one of the laid-off employees from the Sun. ... Solidarity forever!

Joe said...

Has anyone gotten a handle on the number of Sun subscription cancellations since last week?