Friday, March 6, 2009

Newspapers then and now

Sun's 150th anniversary edition
looked into the future
without seeing own fate

I wasn’t looking for it. Bonnie sent me to the basement in search of an old newspaper I could pose with for a photograph. Just happened that the yellowing edition sitting on top of one of my many boxes of mementos and old newspapers was the 150th anniversary production of The Baltimore Sun.

Ironic headline:

News may be a passing thing,
but newspapers will last forever

That topped a Maryland front page column by then-Sun pundit Roger Simon, who expected that the commemorative edition would be found and looked at 150 years down time’s highway by “your great-great-great-great grandchildren” – who not only would be able to read, but “write and add and operate their fusion-powered VCRs.”

“And I also know,” Roger wrote, “that newspapers will still be around 150 years from today. If there is one thing I am sure of, it is that.”

The question he looked at was whether TV would replace newspapers. It was, after all, the edition of Sunday May 17, 1987, when the VCR was state-of-the-art and the World Wide Web didn’t exist.

On May 17, 2012, The Baltimore Sun will celebrate its 175 anniversary – if it still exists.

The differences between the 1987 newspaper and that of today in appearance and content are stunning. Today’s newspaper, now three inches narrower, is much more attractive visually. But even allowing for the inflated news hole created for the special 150th anniversary, The Sun now is but a mid-day shadow of the newspaper from 22 years ago.

The commemorative edition came almost at the mid-point of my 40-year stay at The Sun, and nearly every byline brings a memory of folks who don’t work there anymore. A few are now deceased, many I haven’t been in touch with for years, but some are still part of my life. Local readers of this blog might remember a few of the names, and some have become nationally known.

Here’s a run-through of staff bylines from this 1987 edition, starting on the front page and turning through the paper, section by section: Vernon A. Guidry Jr., Phillip Davis, Deborah I. Greene, Mary Knudson, Charles W. Corddry, Anthony Barbieri Jr., John E. Woodruff, G. Jefferson Price III, Antero Pietila, Mark Matthews, Karen Hosler, Nancy J. Schwerzler, Lyle Denniston, Luther Young, Doug Struck, John W. Frece, Richard H.P. Sia, Michael Ollove, Michael J. Clark, Roger Simon, Michael Olesker, David Michael Ettlin (Me!), William F. Zorzi Jr., Peter Jensen, Rafael Alvarez, Katie Gunther Kodat, David Simon, Michael K. Burns, Joel McCord, Albert Sehlstedt Jr., Lynda Robinson.

And that’s just the front and Maryland sections.

In Sports, there’s Tim Kurkjian, Don Markus, Bill Glauber, Alan Goldstein, James H. Jackson, Dale Austin, Mike Littwin, Bob Maisel, Kent Baker, Mark Hyman, Vito Stellino, Bill Free, John Eisenberg.

In Business, Stephen E. Nordlinger, Brian Sullam, Thomas Easton, Jesse Glasgow, Ted Shelsby.

In People, A.M. Chaplin, Nora Frenkiel, Abby Karp, Laura Charles.

Sun Magazine has a note from its editor Susan Baer, and articles by Fred Rasmussen and Carleton Jones.

Perspective has a cover story on the newspaper’s 150 years, written by Washington Bureau Chief Ernest B. Furgurson, with a note from section editor and future Sun Pulitzer winner Will Englund. Inside are reproductions of Sun stories by old-time staffers including Drew Pearson, Lee McCardell, David Maulsby, and The Evening Sun’s H.L. Mencken. There’s opinion by staffers Jerelyn Eddings and Barry Rascovar. The names at the top of the editorial page are those of editor J.R.L. Sterne, publisher Reg Murphy and managing editor James I. Houck.

There. Now I’ve utterly bored you with about 60 names.

Oops. There’s more. I forgot to open the plastic-sealed 200-page commemorative magazine, “150 People Who Shaped the Way We Live,” most of whom were dead even then. Rip. Tear. Ah, here they are, the bylines adding these then-Sun staffers: John Dorsey, Scott Shane, Sam Fulwood III, Alice Steinbach (another Pulitzer winner), Tom Horton, Susan Reimer, Mike Bowler, Patrick A. McGuire.

Of all the bylined names, I count just four still at the newspaper. The Maryland, Business and Perspective sections are for all intents gone or reinvented with much less space for content. I didn’t pull out the old comics sections, which now are reduced in size and space, and hidden in back of the weekly TV listings.

So what does all this mean?

Both editions spread out across my kitchen were produced using computers, although the type and pictures in 1987 were not purely electronic. Just looking at the editions side by side doesn’t tell the story about what’s happening now to the newspaper industry, about why newspapers are dying – the latest biggie to fall being the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News last week.

A front-page story by Phil Davis and Deborah Greene on the party celebrating The Sun’s 150 years noted this about its far-flung staff: correspondents in seven foreign capitals; news bureaus in Washington, San Francisco and New York; and reporters throughout Maryland, “from Easton to Towson, from Bel Air to Westminster.”

From all that geographical spread, little exists today. If news happens in Easton, a reporter has to head out from Baltimore – or The Washington Post might agree to cover it for both newspapers. The Sun news offices in Harford, Carroll, Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are being closed to save on rent. The once-powerful Washington Bureau has two regulars left on staff.

The story across the top of the 1987 Maryland section, by science reporter Luther Young, examines the challenge of predicting the future, with the views of folks including a philospopher, business expert, planners, and even the late science fiction writer Jack Chalker, who was my best friend back in high school. I’d like to say no one foresaw the fate of newspapers, but that’s not the case.

Sun publisher Reg Murphy, who was hired by the A.S. Abell Co. and helped engineer the 1986 sale of its privately-held newspaper to Times Mirror Corp., was among those asked to look into the future.

“Information will be, if not the most important industry in the world in the foreseeable future, then one of the most important,” Murphy was quoted as saying. He added that newspapers “are not going away, although they may not be printed on broadsheet newsprint then. You never can guess what the new inventions will be, just that they will occur.”

It’s unclear what time frame Murphy was talking about as “then.”

But it seems clear today that “then” is coming quicker than he or any of us folks who were part of the 1987 newspaper might have envisioned, and for folks still in the newspaper business, “then” is not without pain.

I have another little memento of 1987" I just pulled from a kitchen cabinet. It's a white mug with the newspaper's front-page "vignette" logo in gold and the anniversary slogan: The Story of Our Lives for 150 Years.

Seems perfect for a cup of tea to go with my fortune cookie.

Today's fortune cookie message

Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.

Daily number: 599


Anonymous said...

Ah, fuck, Ettlin.

There ya go, breaking my heart all over again.


Libby Spencer said...

Got here via Avedon. That was a rather gorgeous post.

Wayne Countryman said...

All those names, all those sections, all those bureaus ...

The Future Café said...

Interesting to compare this folly forecast with ATT ads of (almost) same era - 1993 - that had amazing foresight. see -Adam Gordon, Author, Future Savvy, Amacom Press, 2009

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much :)
I'm doing an assignment about "will the newspaper become extinct and how it has changed?" and this was so useful to me.

David Ettlin said...

To the last "amonymous" posting here -- hope you read through the other posts on my blog about the troubles at The Baltimore Sun. Good luck with what I presume is a school assignment.