Friday, February 20, 2009

Celebrating Police Blotter

Baltimore Sun staff honors
veteran reporter Richard Irwin
for 30 years of crime news

In a morale boost for a troubled newsroom, the staff of The Baltimore Sun had cause for a little celebration Thursday night: The 30th anniversary of longtime cops reporter Richard Irwin’s Police Blotter.

Likely the continuously most-read element inside the newspaper, along with obituaries, the local version of Police Blotter first appeared in the Baltimore News American in February 1979. Its authors were Dick Irwin, Bill Lally and Robert Blatchley.

Seven years later, Hearst Corp. shut down the News American – an afternoon daily that competed head-on with the Baltimore Evening Sun and, to a lesser extent, the morning paper that was then simply called The Sun (Baltimore was formally added to its name and front-page design only a few months ago).

Dick Irwin was surprised when The Evening Sun called, offering a job. It was the same job Dick had just lost with the demise of his newspaper, as a police reporter chiefly responsible for the Blotter. And when The Evening Sun was euthanized by then-owner Times Mirror Corp., the morning newspaper became Dick’s home.

It was my privilege during six years as night metro editor to work with Dick, editing his Police Blotter and shepherding it into the Maryland section from 2001 to 2007. And it was especially wonderful to witness his dedication, night after night, making telephone calls to every police station in the city and Baltimore County in search of the crime reports that were the grist for Blotter – not the murders that make headlines, although he would write them as separate stories, but the endless procession of vandalism, burglary, armed robbery, auto theft, trespassing… even assaults, rapes and lesser shootings… that are so much an unfortunate part of the urban America experience.

Why is it so popular with readers? I always figured it was close to home, reporting police district by police district the crimes that are happening to our neighbors and, on rare occasions, even to newsroom staffers. No one, it seems, is immune to being a crime victim. It could happen to you.

Dick always took it as a personal affront when police would refuse to divulge what he rightfully insisted was public information – people have a right to know details about the crimes committed in their communities, the names of people arrested (heaven help us all when police in this nation can make secret arrests), even the names of cops who, rightfully or not, shoot people. And he loves reporting on cops who perform their jobs especially well, solving crimes or helping a community, and rarely would get public credit anywhere else.

For thirty years, Dick Irwin has been fighting for that noble cause, into the wee hours when most of us are asleep. He arrives in the newsroom around 5 p.m., and when the final edition is done near 2 a.m., he’s still there, making the calls to gather information for the next day’s paper, one police station at a time.

Occasionally, there’ll be a cop who doesn’t recognize the name of Dick Irwin. It’s a cop who will never make detective.

You can find a longer report on the Police Blotter anniversary, a brief video interview of Dick Irwin, and a collection of some entertaining Blotter highlights compiled over the years by now-retired chief makeup editor Tom Gibbons and myself, at crime columnist Peter Hermann’s Baltimore Sun blog at,0,550771.column

On an uphappier note

The Baltimore Sun is shrinking again – not just in staffing through continuing buyouts and layoffs, but in the size of the newspaper itself. Take a good look at next Tuesday’s edition when, if the change goes according to plan, the newspaper will be an inch and a quarter narrower. This will make the newspaper seem more vertical in appearance, but it will be smaller.

According to folks I talked to who are familiar with the technical aspects, the shrinkage is a result of reducing the size of the press “web” by five inches – reducing the width of the enormous rolls of paper, called newsprint, that wind through the high-speed, three-story-high presses, saving some costs in materials.

In whole numbers, the paper is now about a foot wide. Next Tuesday, it’ll be close to 11 inches. The tabloid width used by the free daily Baltimore Examiner, which went out of business last week, was a little over 10 inches. But at least the much greater length of The Sun will be unchanged, for now.

And soon to come will be a second page of the newspaper produced entirely in Chicago – baseball news in the Sports section. The Real Muck reported recently on Tribune Company’s imposition of a standard “nation & world” page across most of its chain of newspapers, a change detectable by the jarringly different (and ugly) typefaces used by the Chicago Tribune mother ship. Word is that changes wrought by multiple redesign projects aimed at making The Baltimore Sun look better will largely be undone in the effort by Tribune to cut costs by making all of its newspapers look the same. (And while the union-jurisdiction jobs of writers, copy editors and page designers are being eliminated in Baltimore, the work is being shifted to non-union personnel in Chicago.)

A supposed goal of Tribune to maintain the unique character of each of the company’s newspapers is lamentably dead. I wonder how many readers these days will notice, or care.

As a former colleague still at The Sun told me this week, “I hope we get sold soon.”

It might be the only hope Baltimore has for an independent, locally produced newspaper that fully reflects the needs of its readership.

Today's fortune cookie message

Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.

Daily number: 538 (I get that same number in at least a third of these cookies. Very strange. But I play 322 and 812 when the gambling impulse strikes me. In any case, the latest doses of the Szechuan Cafe's orange chicken and hot and sour soup were excellent.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Out-sourcing the news

Sun’s 'nation & world' page
latest in cloning journalism

There was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire.

And there was a time when you could almost say that about The Baltimore Sun, for all the foreign correspondents it had spread around the planet. London, Paris, Bonn, Rio, New Delhi, Moscow. Over the years, the countries changed with the times. There was Tokyo, then Beijing. Johannesburg. Mexico City. And its Washington Bureau was not too shabby, with a dozen folks reporting the goings-on of government just for Sun readers.

Nothing new about the cutbacks, really – what was left of the foreign offices closed last year. The Sun's Washington Bureau has pretty much become overview reports and analysis by the very capable Paul West.

The latest move, inevitable given the trend, is the source of The Sun’s “nation & world” page: Not Baltimore.

About the time I took leave of The Sun in 2007 with a voluntary buyout to end a 40-year career, unsettling plans were under way to replace the newsroom computers used for writing, editing and page design with equipment like that in the parent Tribune Company’s Chicago Tribune flagship newspaper. It would simplify production of news outside Baltimore – I foresaw a day when the national desk would be fully located in Chicago, with pages designed around advertising holes that would be common for every paper in Tribune chain.

I wasn’t the only staffer leaving the paper then, or in the subsequent series of other buyouts and layoffs that saw the reporting and editing staff shrink substantially.

So I really wasn’t surprised when I noticed the change on an inside page in Sunday’s news section: It was readily apparent from the jarringly different headline style and typefaces that the page did not originate in the Baltimore Sun newsroom or, necessarily, in a unionized newsroom.

Something you need to know about Baltimore natives, of which there are few these days in the newsroom: They’re xenophobic. Many of them, anyway. I haven’t sufferered from that malady beyond my intense dislike of the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Steelers, and what became of the Baltimore Colts, of course.

Now I have nothing against the cities of New York, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis – and I kind of like Chicago. But it just sticks in my craw when folks from there come here, take over and muck things up so badly.

This is not to say that Jim Puzzanghera, Maura Reynolds and James Oliphant are bad journalists. They’re fine, I’m sure. They’re the folks whose bylines appeared in Wednesday’s “nation & world” page atop an identifying line stating “Washington Bureau.”

Trouble is, Toto, it’s not the Baltimore Sun Washington Bureau anymore. They’re Tribune folks covering the news for papers in Baltimore and probably every other city in the financially bankrupt chain -- although not in same shrunken format for the company's "major" papers in Chicago and Los Angeles, I'm told.

It’s the price readers across the nation are paying for consolidation of the newspaper industry: Unique and varied reporting is diminished. The Fourth Estate is weakened.

I remember when The Sun redesigned the back page of the Maryland section, back when it had a Maryland section, to compete with the colorful weather page produced by USA Today. (Now the weather report in The Sun is minimized on an inside page, pretty much the way it was decades ago.)

The news stories, alas, are following suit – smaller, minimized inside. Except there aren’t nearly as many stories as in USA Today. And if you hunger for national and international news, The Sun is in eclipse.

A newsroom friend told me the change took place last Thursday, and others likely are coming – more national and international news created, edited, designed in Chicago for readers in Baltimore, and a likelihood there will be ever-fewer copy editors and page designers needed locally to produce The Sun. There might even be a redesign so the ugly typefaces and headline fonts used in Chicago are duplicated in Baltimore.

As I said, I’m not surprised. I saw it coming. Maybe the readers didn’t even notice, it’s such “inside baseball.”

Once upon a time, The Baltimore Sun was among the handful of U.S. newspapers on the desk of the President.

Not much point in that these days.

Baltimore as comic fodder

Jay Leno noted Wednesday night the proposal in Baltimore for a restaurant serving up sushi on topless women.

“Is that a good combination?” Leno asked. “Naked women and seafood in a city famous for crabs?”

Today’s fortune cookie message:

You find beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability.

Daily number: 538

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

TV Review: ‘My Father, My Brother, and Me’

Compelling PBS documentary
on Parkinson’s equally
personal for creator, audience

The PBS television series Frontline presented a compelling and very personal examination of Parkinson’s disease tonight by David Iverson, covering a gamut of issues ranging from the search for causes to the pursuit of prevention and cures, and what people can do who have the degenerative and still-uncurable disease.

Titled “My Father, My Brother, and Me,” the documentary is personal for Iverson because he and his brother both have Parkinson’s, and their father died as a result of it, raising the question of underlying genetic aspects for some of the disease’s victims.

And it is personal for my family, as Parkinson’s claimed my mother-in-law more than a decade ago, and now is being fought, at age 87, by my father-in-law.

There are a million Americans with Parkinson’s, the documentary estimated, and 50,000 new cases are being diagnosed annually. So there should have been an enormous audience, if only those with the disease and their families were watching.

But one person I feel certain was not watching is George W. Bush, whose role in the documentary was his presidential veto of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research that had potential in the fight against Parkinson’s – a disease in which time is a big enemy to its victims.

Bush is shown explaining how destruction of an embryo violates the sanctity of life. And a priest is shown testifying at a Capitol Hill hearing that even if an unused embryo ultimately is destined for disposal, it is nonetheless morally wrong to use it for medical research to help the living.

Inevitably, there was also the presence of actor and Parkinson’s victim Michael J. Fox, who enlisted his celebrity into the political battle by testifying on the need for those federal dollars and was quickly ridiculed by radio commentator Rush Limbaugh – shown criticizing Fox and saying that his shaking was just an act.

Interestingly, the wrangling largely pitting conservative religious forces and politicians against scientific research took up relatively little of the documentary. It was just part of the story, the history of it all, and like the people who have the disease, politics is caught somewhere in the middle between cause and cure.

Overrall, the tone of the nearly one-hour documentary, which ought to win an Emmy award, leaned toward hope and what people can do – including a regimen of exercise and activity that seems to help slow the course of Parkinson’s for many. Afterward, a live online chat with Iverson and three Parkinson’s experts brought dozens of comments and questions from viewers they could not keep up with in answering.

But I can’t get Bush out of my head. He had the wide-eyed expression of a village idiot, talking about the sanctity of life – and went on to launch a war in Iraq that brought the slaughter of thousands of people and untold misery.

So much pain to be undone.

The documentary can be viewed online at

For the show's Web site, and a click-on for the producer's forum (with more than 150 comments and questions by Wednesday night), visit

TV’s other side

You have to wonder how much money NBC dumped into the production and marketing of its Monday night 3-D episode of the series “Chuck.”

I confess to having picked a sheet of 3-D glasses from a display at a local store, and with all the commercials hyping it during the Super Bowl, remembered to watch the show – for the first time. (I watch a lot of TV, but there’s only so much time to waste, after all.)

Let’s see if I’ve got it all: Chuck is some kind of ordinary guy cast into a secret agent job in a team that includes a hot chick and handsome dude, both of whom are far better equipped to battle bad guys. And in this episode, Chuck has to protect a rock star dude whose life is threatened by a terrorist because of a tattoo on his back that has something to do with secret nuclear plans.


Anyway, the 3-D effects were only marginally better than the plot and the acting.

And despite having watched this high-tech event on a high-def 42-inch Samsung TV, it wasn’t as good as the flying spear or the tiger I remember jumping out of the screen in the 1952 3-D version of “Bwana Devil” at Baltimore’s old Avalon Theater. (For the record, a knife thrown in “Chuck” just didn’t cut it.)

Today's fortune cookie message

You are broad minded and socially active.

(Really -- it said that. I didn't make it up.)

Daily number: 538