Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sun massacre brings byline strike

Newspaper CEO Ryan
to present vision ahead,
but will he apologize?

Retirees, alumni mourn Sun decline;
Newspaper Guild offers counseling

Many staff bylines are likely to be missing from Thursday’s editions of The Baltimore Sun, and from stories on the newspaper Web site, in an action by members of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild protesting “layoffs and heavy handed tactics by owner Tribune Co.”

But it may just as well be an act of mourning in the wake of last week’s mass firings without notice of nearly a third of The Sun’s news and editorial staff. Sort of akin to a flag at half mast -- bylines symbolically gone.

The protest comes as the newspaper’s publisher/president/CEO Timothy E. Ryan was to address employees on the company’s vision going forward – an event that was expected to take place in the company cafeteria Thursday morning.

The question that this blog would offer first to Mr. Ryan: Will you issue a public apology for the manner in which dedicated, longtime employees were fired?

I’m not sure there is a way to go forward without acknowledging mistakes of the past, and the Chicago-based Tribune Co., which acquired The Baltimore Sun as part of its merger/takeover of Times Mirror Corp. a decade ago, has a lot of mistakes to acknowledge and rude and disrespectful actions that require an apology.

The firings and shrinking of the newspaper were, as expected, the main topic on the discussion menu Wednesday as the Sun’s alumni and retirees – nearly all of them from newsroom jobs – held their annual luncheon at the Engineering Club, about the same three-block distance from the newspaper building and the downtown church basement where the union was simultaneously holding a job fair and counseling session for the displaced workers.

The retirees and alumni included many distinguished journalists, and they shared revulsion for the manner in which their brethren were shown the door by the current (absentee) Lords of Calvert Street.

Bob Timberg, a former White House correspondent and three-decade veteran of The Sun, lamented the firings and added a name I had missed: David Wood, who covered the Defense Department with distinction. “He was a great reporter,” said Timberg, whose latest book was the definitive “John McCain, An American Odyssey.”

But greatness doesn’t necessarily count at The Baltimore Sun.

Steve Luxenberg, a former city editor who left The Sun more than two decades ago for the more promising pasture of The Washington Post, told the gathering that he had witnessed many management meetings in his years at the southern end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and “it only takes one person to stand up and say, ‘You’re not going to treat people this way.’”

But evidently there was no one so brave in the top management at The Baltimore Sun to stand up and say ‘No.’

Arnold R. “Skip” Isaacs, a longtime Sun staffer and foreign correspondent who left in the 1990s, called it “a combination of cluelessness and cowardice – it’s hard to discern anything else.”

And John Plunkett, a former assistant managing editor who helps organize the annual reunion, said: “This was done by the standard business school method – not to tell anyone it was going to happen.”

The retirees organization was still trying to compile a list of all those fired, Plunkett noted.

The layoffs/firings went beyond the newsroom, having been going on for several weeks in commercial departments of the newspaper. About eight union members there have lost jobs in the latest round of job reductions, according to Angie Kuhl, the Sun’s Guild unit chair – in addition to nonunion managers who also were eliminated from the payroll.

“Tribune’s tactics are deplorable,” Cet Parks, the union’s executive director, said in an announcement of the byline strike. “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 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.”

To say nothing of the heavy toll on Sun readers, this blogger adds.

Not everyone on the staff agreed with the byline strike. Michael Dresser, a longtime Sun staffer and Guild member, said his byline will appear Thursday.

"That fact does not represent an endorsement of the actions of Tribune management. I am shocked and saddened by the handling of the recent layoffs and dismayed [at] the entire direction of Tribune's response to its current economic difficulties," Mike wrote. "Nevertheless, I have long opposed byline strikes on principle and have refused to participate on past occasions."

He added: "I have many reasons for opposing byline strikes. I don't care to share most of them with management. I will openly state my belief that they are inherently undemocratic because they are called with no debate and no vote.

"I have been a Guild member for 38 years and have always been proud to be one. But on this point I have no intention of backing down -- ever. I have never seen a byline strike that accomplished anything positive. It's a tactic that should have been left behind in the 20th Century."

Coming up: ‘Font Day’

According to sources, the “font” style of The Baltimore Sun will be changed as of Monday’s editions to conform with that of the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers in the Tribune chain, pretty much discarding the style developed in recurring redesigns of The Sun in recent years.

This change has nothing to with making the newspaper look more appealing – it’s all about conforming with the look of news content that will be written, edited and composed in page “modules” by nonuion employees in Chicago. You’ll be seeing those news modules from Chicago in The Sun within a few weeks, the sources predict.


Unknown said...

Dave, thanks so much for your excellent reporting. I am reading about the decimation of our beloved newspaper from afar and wishing I could be there with my fellow Sun colleagues to sort through this mess. Keep the updates coming! -Lynn, your rewrite gal

Jeannette Belliveau said...

Dave have you heard about this event?


Panel to Discuss Local News Options
in Newspaper-less Communities

Maryland’s Merrill College Hosts Abell Symposium
June 2 in Baltimore’s Westminster Hall

BALTIMORE – The Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland will host an evening symposium on June 2 to discuss what happens to local news if the major metropolitan daily newspaper shuts down and what news options might takes its place. The 2009 Abell Symposium, entitled “The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?”, will be held 5 to 7 p.m. in Westminster Hall (519 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD) on the University of Maryland Baltimore campus.

Panelists include:

Monty Cook, editor, The Baltimore Sun.
Mark Potts, former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, cofounder of and proponent of hyperlocal, user-generated news sites.
Jayne Miller, chief investigative reporter, WBAL-TV.
John J. Oliver Jr., publisher, The Afro-American.
Timothy A. Franklin, Louis A.Weil, Jr. Endowed Chair, Indiana University School of Journalism, former editor, The Baltimore Sun.

Merrill College Dean Kevin Klose, former president of National Public Radio and long-time broadcast executive and print journalist, will moderate the evening. The symposium is a program of the Merrill College’s Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism, now held by former Baltimore newswoman Sandy Banisky.
The event is free and open to the public. Baltimore community members are especially encouraged to attend.