Monday, May 4, 2009

Newspaper weights and measures

Sun puts new spin
on ‘The Vanishing’
as staff, paper shrink

Something is missing in my Sunday paper – you know, The Baltimore Sun. An entire section has vanished. I seem to recall it as Section B, or Maryland Closeup, and though I'm told it happened a week or two ago, I just noticed yesterday.

Over the past two years, as The Sun was moving its elements around, eliminating some sections and consolidating others, there was usually a note to readers explaining the changes. Sometimes there was even a little audacity in suggesting the changes were improvements.

And after my initial wee-hours posting of this blog, I received an email and a Facebook note from friends who informed me that I missed the note to readers. As one of the fired editors put it, "The section was dropped two weeks ago, and a brief announcement was published saying that some content formerly in the section would be printed in the A section. Not, I concede, a conspicuous notice, but it was there."

I didn't find it on the electronic archive, so I'll have to wander down to the library later to see if I can find a copy of the notice I missed.

The disappearance of Maryland Closeup came just days before the newspaper’s purge of nearly a third of its editing, news and opinion staff through what has been charitably described as “layoffs.”

I called it a massacre. Firings. I had a comment from a reader criticizing my use of the word “fired,” saying it carries an implication that the employees had done something wrong. They hadn’t. But they were fired anyway.

In this world, you don’t have to do anything wrong to get fired. You can do a job better than anyone, and get fired because your higher salary was considered excess baggage by corporate bean-counters.

And these wonderful people, friends I worked with in my former life in the newsroom, did nothing wrong. They did their jobs well, demonstrated their professionalism and dedication by working longer hours than the standard 40 under their union contract (mostly without putting in for overtime), won honors for the newspaper, and were rewarded with unending abuse by the company – including a worthless, arbitrary employee evaluation system intended to justify giving one worker a $50 raise, while another gets $10 or less.

One of my thoughts in asking for a buyout in the newsroom reduction Class of 2007 was not wanting to ever fill out another evaluation of the small newsroom contingent I ostensibly supervised. It didn’t seem to matter what praise I wrote, how I graded. They all did their jobs to the point of excellence, but you couldn’t tell from the raises they would get.

Weights and measures

On a whim Sunday night, I drove down the road to my local Giant supermarket and picked up copies of The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, carried them over to the produce section and plopped them on a scale.

From a purely size-and-price standpoint, here’s how they measured up: The Post was half a pound heavier, and cost 38 cents less.

And the Post news report had Section B – and a Section C. That’s “Outlook” and “Metro,” respectively. And all three newsy sections, A, B, C, had an ample supply of Washington Post staff bylines, as opposed to The Sun’s sparse news beyond the Baltimore Beltway. (And they were followed by the sections for Sports, Style & Arts, Travel, Business, and a crappy advertising-driven Jobs. Sealed in a plastic bag were the Post's magazine, full comics section, TV Week, Parade, ad inserts and coupons.

Fair to compare? Maybe not. After all, Washington is the nation’s capital and the Post has greater resources and a definitively wider reach in its global coverage. The only purely local story on the front page is about Virginia politics. And Metro has entirely too much Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties news for this Baltimore-and-burbs reader. I’ve never understood why The Post so disdains wider coverage of Maryland news, allowing its competitor 30 miles up the B-W Parkway free reign over metro Baltimore for the past two decades.

I’ve never been a Post subscriber. Only The Sun – and I buy it still. I thought about canceling in protest, as some readers of this blog say they have. But I still have friends on the inside, and don’t want to see the rug pulled out from under them through declining circulation numbers despite their own employer’s seeming intent on diminishing its value and angering readers. One equally dismayed newspaper friend suggested we go out and sell subscriptions to The Sun despite it all, in an effort to keep the print product alive.

Seems strange to me that the newspaper has gone to such lengths to get rid of 30-year employees and 30-year readers, though.

Baltimore Sun publisher/president/CEO Timothy E. Ryan (a triple-threat player!) has a “to the readers” note on Page 3 about the newsroom changes and how proud the newspaper is to provide “award-winning journalism to more readers than any other local news media organization.”

“We truly value the more than 1 million people who read us every week.” (Doubtless a one-page online click is counted as one of that million, and people who buy the paper on multiple days count as more than one reader. Numbers are so easy to manipulate.)

There’s also some bragging about how the newspaper benefits in being part of “the Baltimore Sun Media Group (BSMG)” that includes 28 community newspapers in the Baltimore metro area – most if not all of which, the note doesn’t mention, have been cut in staffing and frequency of publication.

That latest note to readers is just spin, I’m afraid. The readers are getting less than ever before, unless they rely on digital sources for their news. There’s an awful lot of readers, or would-be readers, who are not equipped or able to do that, and The Baltimore Sun has fired them, too.

BSMG, hmmmmm. There’s probably other uses for those letters. Maybe I should hold a contest.

The final photo

In recounting the last day at work for veteran, award-winning Sun photographer Chiaki Kawajiri, The Real Muck last week noted her final assignment before being given a mutually tearful layoff by her department boss: A lawyer with his pet bird.

The photo taken Wednesday afternoon appeared in Sunday’s editions, accompanying an article by Personal Finance columnist Eileen Ambrose. The early Sunday edition hitting newsstands on Saturday had an enormous photo on the front page of a dog wearing a dollar-sign neckband, and the lawyer-with-parrot photo on an inside page. The later editions had both the large dog and a shrunken lawyer-with-bird on the inside page.

Not to criticize the maximum waste of space in a news-shrunken newspaper with a two column-by-13-inch photo of a dog with jewelry, but there was no credit line saying whose photo it was. Probably a stock-agency photo of a dog, but usually a credit line will identify the source.

There also was no credit identifying Chiaki under her final photo for the newspaper. It just reads: Baltimore Sun Photo. I'm told that the lack of a credit on Chiaki's last photo was her own request.

Attention TV News

Since The Baltimore Sun does not seem likely to throw a farewell party for the 60-plus staffers given the bum’s rush last week, the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild is planning a reception for them – for the fired union-jurisdiction staffers as well as the editors and managers who were in the nonunion “merit system.”

The party – to which newspaper alumni and friends are invited – is being held from 6 p.m, to 10 p.m. Thursday in the Rockefeller Room of the Standard Building at 501 St. Paul -- at the corner of the Franklin Street hill just up from the Sun building. Anyone thinking about starting up a real Baltimore/Central Maryland newspaper (or buying the old one) will find plenty of available talent -- top talent!

Also in the works: A job fair for the suddenly unemployed newspaper staffers, beginning at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday (May 6) at St. Ignatius Church, 805 North Calvert St.

Also on Wednesday, the personnel massacre and downward spiral of the newspaper are sure to be the main topic of conversation at the annual luncheon of the Baltimore Sun Retirees Association, beginning at 11 a.m. with a cash bar, at the Engineering Club, 11 West Mount Vernon Place.

The Sun’s firing of many of its best, brightest and most senior employees has been grossly under-reported by the area television news programs that for years have relied on the newspaper to cue its own coverage of what’s happening in and around Baltimore. The old A.S. Abell Co. founded and owned WMAR-TV (Channel 2) until its 1986 sale of The Sun and broadcast properties to Times Mirror Corp. required divestiture under federal regulations. It has in recent years had news partnerships with the various stations, and currently with WJZ-TV (Channel 13).

We’ll see if Channel 13, in particular, takes this hint.


Anonymous said...

I was laid off from one of the other Tribune properties (sorry for the anonymity, but I'm still in the job market), and my heart goes out to everyone in Baltimore.

I'm a little late to the table on this, but I've been wondering about something.

I have no idea what kind of play the Sun's layoff story received in print, but did anyone else think it was odd that the story was placed so far down on the Sun's website? And that the Sun's own editor wasn't even quoted? And that there was not a word about this (at least that I could see), in the Tribune-owned b, despite the story's obvious importance?

And did anyone else think it was odd that when the Tribune-owned Morning Call announced its own staff cuts, the Morning Call put the story far down on the web page and did not allow reader comments (even though it allowed comments on almost all the other stories on the page)?

Robert Hamilton said...

David, the credit line was left off of Chiaki's photo at her request.

David Ettlin said...

Thanks, Bob. Correction made.

JenM said...

Heya Dave.

Excellent reporting over these last few days. Thanks for keeping so many people informed and so well-connected to what's happening to our friends and former coworkers.

One odd thing I noticed last night after picking my husband up at the airport: There's scaffolding up in front of 501 N. Calvert Street. Right in front of the name and logo of The Sun. Ummm, are they changing the name of the paper? Or spending money to do something to the outside of the building? Or selling the naming rights to The Sun's home office? I don't drive by there that often these days, so maybe it's been up for a while. But I was just curious...

~ Jen McMenamin

Stephen Pohl said...

Not a single letter to the editor has been published since April 30.
Nothing but tweets.

Mitch Hellman said...


Just finished catching up with your blog. (As you know, things have been a bit busy in Silver City lately; I wonder how often a town of 10,000 gets covered in the NY Times four days running without having had a natural disaster or mass murder, but it can't be often!)

After moving away from Baltimore ten years ago, it has always been hard for me to let go. While living in Va., it was easy for me to stay connected with my hometown, but moving out here to New Mexico in 2003 made it harder to maintain the necessary level of Polock Johnny's sausages and Attman's corn beef sandwiches in my bloodstream. Losing both my parents late last year severed more ties with my former home. Gradually, I have been weaning myself away from news of Baltimore; I used to read the Sun online every morning, but my taste for it has faded. I thought it was my acceptance that I have changed my life as well as my location that caused me to pull away from news of my former home... but now I know that it was also due to more and more of the essence and flavor of the city as conveyed by the Sun being diluted until I just couldn't taste it, or take it, anymore. Being homesick for a place is something I can handle if it happens to me-- but being homesick for a time is harder to deal with. I miss the Sunpapers and all the Sun meant to me, and I salute all the fine people who kept me informed, entertained and advised for so long. It pains me to read about the firings, and it pains me to know that the owners don't want the newspaper to be a newspaper anymore-- they're laying off readers, too.

Bill Atkinson said...


Reporters, photojournalists and other newsroom staff members, angered at shabby treatment and Tribune’s dismantling of the paper, say no to bylines.

BALTIMORE, Md., May 6, 2009 –More than 50 Baltimore Sun newsroom staff members, including reporters, photographers and other bylined content producers, launched a byline strike today protesting layoffs and heavy handed tactics by owner Tribune Co.
Newsroom staff members informed their managers today that they would withhold their bylines to protest last week’s surprise layoffs of roughly 60 newsroom employees. Tribune, last week, slashed the newsroom by about one third, reducing the staff to 148 employees, a fraction of what it was in 1999 when the Chicago-based company acquired The Sun, which then boasted a newsroom staff of about 420 employees.
Some employees last week were fired while they were in the midst of writing and editing stories. Others were told to pack up their belongings immediately, and others were escorted out of the main newspaper building by security guards.
“Tribune’s tactics are deplorable,” said Cet Parks, Executive Director of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. “Employees who poured their hearts and souls into putting out a great newspaper every day were told to get out and stay out. No fanfare, no thank you, no outplacement help, just hit the streets. Maybe that’s big business Tribune way, but it isn’t right. Through its actions Tribune has demonstrated that it has little regard or respect for its employees.”
“These decisions were made without any discussions on alternative costs saving methods,” added Brent Jones, a Sun editor and Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild representative. “We wanted to do something to show our former co workers that we're upset with how they were treated last week. We produce this paper and expect our voices to be heard.”
Gus Sentementes, a Sun reporter and Guild representative, said “The wisdom and experience that has left The Sun in this period is shocking. Out of town and out of touch ownership has extracted a heavy toll on the newspaper.”
Sentementes criticized Tribune Chairman Sam Zell for miscalculating the accelerating decline in the newspaper industry, jeopardizing The Sun’s future by racking up $13 billion in debt, driving the company into bankruptcy and “degrading our 172 year old institution.”
“As we saw so vividly last week, the way our colleagues were so callously treated is not the way one of Baltimore's top corporate citizens and a civic watchdog should treat its own employees,” Sentementes said.


Gus Sentementes
Baltimore Sun/Washington Baltimore Newspaper Guild
Brent Jones,
Baltimore Sun/Washington Baltimore Newspaper Guild
Bill Atkinson,
410 558 2100
Weber Shandwick

fnchck1 said...

I don't think WJZ has taken the hint yet. I am sick of hearing them pimping out a failing news paper. "According to our media partner, The Baltimore Sun...". Here's one for you: "According to the loyal, hard-working staff that was laid off from The Baltimore Sun - Up yours!"
Having a relative that was recently laid off from The Sun, I can say that was a direct quote.