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.)

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