Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Saving The Baltimore Sun

Could a nonprofit
ride to the rescue
of its own creator?

I've been watching my blog Statcounter reports of late, fascinated with the flow of visitors to The Real Muck since its public flogging of The Baltimore Sun began two weeks ago over the insulting treatment of dedicated employees in the firing of nearly a third of the newsroom staff.

The links to my accounts of the newspaper’s death spiral from more than a dozen blogs and Web sites brought readers by the thousands – so many that I could hardly keep up with watching where the visitors came from, the links that brought them, and which of my links they followed to other information and opinion sources.

But now that the shock value has worn off and the numbers are dropping into the very low hundreds, my eye caught an interesting digital footprint this week – of a visitor from the Abell Foundation. And Statcounter reported three previous visits from the same computer there.

I hope for another – for today’s entry – because of the Abell Foundation’s history, and a longshot hope in some quarters that it could factor in an eventual purchase of The Baltimore Sun that would return the nearly 172-year-old newspaper to local ownership, perhaps even a nonprofit.

You’d have to think that the price for buying The Sun is dropping, seeing as how its owner – Chicago-based Tribune Co. – is in bankruptcy and, while supposedly reorganizing under protection from creditors, is running its print media properties across the country into the ground.

What would it take to save this newspaper, here in Baltimore? Once upon a time (1986), Times Mirror Corp. valued it at about $400 million – paying some $600 million to the A.S. Abell Co. for The Sun and related properties, then selling off WMAR-TV for $200 million to comply with federal regulations on media cross-ownership.

The privately-held Abell company, largely owned by a small core of families, had created the A.S. Abell Co. Foundation in 1953 – launching it with an initial company contribution of $100,000. It grew, of course, but the sale of the company in 1986 had an enormous impact on the scope of what was renamed the Abell Foundation --- its assets multiplying tenfold to about $112 million, according to its own history (

What could be more appropriate than the Abell Foundation reclaiming the company that gave it birth, or at least playing a supporting role in its rescue from midwestern marauders.

And as I said in a radio panel discussion last week, if the Abell Foundation is looking around for donors to such a cause, I pledge $1,000 (from my personal ‘fortune’ as a Tribune retiree) – and would work for the newspaper six months for free to help out in the transition. (Then it's back to my seven-day weekends.)

The Sun was acquired by Tribune in its multibillion-dollar Times Mirror merger/takeover nine years ago, and then investor Sam Zell took the company private in an $8.2 billion deal a year and a half ago with a resulting debt burden that figured in the bankruptcy.

So, Sam – what would it take for a buyer to acquire The Baltimore Sun from Tribune? Clearly it’s worth a lot less than $400 million, now that Tribune has overseen substantial reductions in revenue and circulation through a combination of bad management, rapid growth of the Internet as an information source, industry-wide failures to adapt to that digital revolution, and now a global recession.

And you can hardly add ‘goodwill’ to the price – that’s pretty much been squandered. You and your yes-men flunkies treat its employees like chattel, and disserve readers by eliminating from the daily newspaper reason after reason why anyone would want to buy it.

Stock tables? Who needs them? And kill the business section while you’re at it.

National and world news? Who cares. Bury it inside. Makes it easier to import it all from Chicago in news modules, and run whatever fits.

Maryland section? Kill it. Put local news on the front page – only local news, unless you can find a Chicago module if anything really important happens like another war, or Mount Hood erupting.

Sports? Shrink it to a tabloid with half the space. Oops. That didn’t work. Must have had too many complaints. So make the section look larger, but still have half the space.

TV schedules? Kill the magazine, and create an unreadable Sunday section for the listings. Comics? Kill most of them. Sunday comics? Shrink what’s left, and make them unreadable in the back of the TV section.

Features section? Shrink it, eliminate it whenever possible.

Typefaces? Design style? Throw them out, and make The Sun look like all the other Tribune newspapers. And say the reason you did it was to improve readability. Not true? Who cares. Tell them anyway.

Oh, and don’t forget -- fire the writers, fire the columnists, fire the editors, fire the photographers, fire the page designers, fire the artists, fire the editorial writers, fire the infrastructure… fire the… fire… fire… fire… who?

Hmmm. Surely they can find someone who’s really to blame.

A reporter with real heart

My friend and former colleague, Sara Neufeld, who covered the Baltimore schools beat with distinction and reached out to the community through blogging about city education at, announced on her blog today she is volunteering to leave -- in order to save the job of a less senior colleague.

Her blog entry begins:

This is a hard post to write, but as a reporter (for the next five days, at least), I mustn't bury the lead: I volunteered today to be laid off by The Sun.

After the 61 layoffs in our newsroom two weeks ago, former reporters laid off from other job classifications (i.e., columnists, copy editors) have the option of going back into the reporting lineup. As a result of that "bumping," some of the reporters with low seniority are being laid off this week, including a friend with many more personal responsibilities than I have. That friend's situation inspired me to offer my job, but I think it will also be the right move for me personally, sorry as I am to leave the Baltimore schools beat that I've come to care so much about.

And this blog...

Read the full account at:

Noted in passing

Tribune Co. received permission Tuesday from a federal bankruptcy judge to pay more than $13 million in bonuses to almost 700 employees for their work last year – but because of constraints in the law, not to pay more than $2 million in severance payments to more than 60 employees laid off shortly before the company filed for bankruptcy protection, Associated Press reported.

“Judge Kevin Carey authorized the bonus payments after Tribune chief financial officer Chandler Bigelow III testified that the bonuses are critical to keeping key managers motivated as Tribune tries to adjust to a tough economic climate for media companies,” AP reported.

“We need to motivate and incentivize the key people who will implement change," Bigelow said. "These are really good people we're talking about. They're the best and the brightest of the company."

If anyone finds a list of Tribune’s “best” and “ brightest" needing that additional monetary motivation and incentives to do their jobs, please send me the link. I have a list of many of the real best and brightest at The Baltimore Sun, and their reward: Fired without notice, with extra security guards called in to make sure they didn’t steal anything on their way out the door.

Open Letter to Tim Ryan

A friend and former colleague, Arnold R. “Skip” Isaacs, emailed a letter Wednesday to triple-threat Sun publisher/president/CEO Timothy E. Ryan and top editor J. Montgomery Cook, and gave permission to The Real Muck to share it:

Dear Mr. Ryan and Mr. Cook --

I am writing this letter with more sadness and regret than you can probably imagine.

I was a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Sun for nearly 19 years, during which I had various adventures, many enjoyable, some not, some fairly dangerous. I did not agree with every decision the Sun's management made in those years. But there was not a day or a moment that I was not grateful to be working for an honorable newspaper, whose owners recognized their responsibility to readers and their community as well as to their own profit and who expected me and my colleagues and our editors to do our jobs honestly and thoroughly with no agenda except to find and tell the truth in whatever story we were covering.

In our worst nightmares none of us could have imagined how badly the present owners and managers have damaged that tradition. Nor could we have conceived that any Sun executives would treat any employees the way you and those under your direction treated the men and women whose jobs you eliminated last month.

No doubt you will blame business conditions for the drastic shrinkage of the paper and loss of journalistic quality. That can be debated elsewhere. But business conditions didn't require canning people without notice in the middle of covering or editing a story, or letting them find out when they couldn't log onto their computers, then shoving them out the door under the eyes of security guards without time to absorb the event or for an appropriate goodby to colleagues. There is no possible business reason for those practices. The only reason is a thuggish indifference to common decency and human dignity.

The wrecking crew in Chicago and your leadership have bankrupted the Sun in more than the legal and financial sense. You are also intellectually bankrupt and morally bankrupt, bankrupt of principles, bankrupt of social conscience, bankrupt of basic decency. Not to mention bankrupt of any idea of what good journalism is and why it matters. I am sure that nearly all present and former employees share my feeling that only new ownership, as soon as possible, has any hope of restoring the serious purpose and public responsibility the Sun once had. If and when there is a change, no doubt many would be happy to see you booted out of the building with the same contempt you showed those you terminated earlier this month. But that will not really even the score, for this reason: You will deserve that contempt. The good journalists you kicked out the door did not.


Arnold R. Isaacs

Thanks for all the comments

Responses at this site and through emails to Muck postings continue to amaze and delight.

From Tim Windsor, on the newspaper’s explanation for its typeface changes:

Not to minimize the pain and suffering of the 61 newly-former Sun employees, but to me the low point of the past several weeks was the obvious dissembling of the reader's note you quote above. There were many ways to acknowledge the change; saying it was for readability was an unnecessary lie. All a news organization has is its reputation for truth. Beyond that clear line lies Pravda and the house organs of a dozen Banana Republics.

From ‘anonymous’:

Didn't The Sun pay a bazillion dollars to have someone create the "Mencken" font used "exclusively" by the paper? Seems to me at that time the Mencken font was praised for it's "readability."

From Len Lazarick, of the recently defunct Baltimore Examiner, who wrote just before the ‘Sun lies’ posting here:

This was much like the explanation when they trimmed the page size and told readers something like "this will make the paper easier to carry."

How can you have any credibility as a newspaper when you can't speak the truth to your own readers?

TV worth watching

Friends Laura Lippman and David Simon are heading to Los Angeles for television appearances later this week.

Laura, a former Sun reporter who has produced some 17 books of fiction (most of them in the mystery genre), is scheduled for an appearance Thursday night on CBS’ Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Not familiar with her? Visit Not familiar with Ferguson? You go to bed too early.

David, a writer, TV producer and former Sun reporter best known as creator of the HBO series ‘The Wire,’ is among the guests Friday night on HBO’s ‘Real Time With Bill Maher.’ David testified last week at a Senate committee hearing on “The Future of Journalism.” If you haven’t seen the transcript already, here’s a link:


Sara Neufeld said...

Dave, thanks for the link and your kind words. I'm really sad to go, but I think it's time.

Tim Windsor said...


As for The Abell Foundation, they've been watching and listening for a long while.

Robert Embry, The Foundation's president, attended Monty Cook's presentation at Johns Hopkins in April.

Photo here:

Tim Windsor said...

This blog continues to be the only significant source of news and detail surrounding the recent layoffs at The Sun. For that, you deserve a round of applause.

But while I find myself often nodding my head in agreement to what you write, I have to speak up against the litany you offer today of what was lost over recent years in the paper.

Because, seriously, stock tables? That mass of treepulp and ink that was the first to go some years back needed to go. As did much of the rehashed wire reporting that stuffed the A section and served as mere binding agent for multi-page Macys ads.

A lot of insiders lamented the loss of the Maryland section. I looked at it the other way -- the A section finally became readable, with original, local reporting. Of course and unfortunately the overall page count came down -- Monday papers have been 26 pages total of late and Saturdays have gone as low as 22 -- but given the declared necessity of page cuts, I think they cut the right ones.

Papers are not museum pieces if they're to survive, and newshole -- especially in a recession -- is an increasingly rare commodity. GIven a zero-sum choice between yesterday's dispatches from London or today's news from White Marsh, I think Monty (and Tim Franklin before him) made and are making the right call. You can read wire reports anywhere, but you can read more local reporting in only one place: The Sun.

Anonymous said...

Dave, I am delighted to see Laura and myself described as friends. It's so rarely true for those who marry.


Anonymous said...

David, I would be wary of the Abell Foundation's getting a major chunk of The Sun. Bob Embry has long been a behind the scenes power broker in town with his own agenda. There would be a real danger in his being able to use the paper as his mouthpiece.
As for the virtues of local ownership, look north to Philadelphia. Jim Keat