We've all heard about how newspapers are going the way of the dodo bird. Younger people are flocking to other media sources for news, middle-aged readers are dropping their subscriptions to print media as its quality drops, and old-faithful readers are literally dying off.
What's a newspaper chain like the Tribune Co. to do in order to shore up its declining base and possibly appeal to new, younger readers? Logic would say that the company should beef up its use of alternative media, and find a way to make that pay. This transition is occurring, of course, but so far the electonic media hasn't been yielding anywhere near the 20% to 30% return on investment that newspaper moguls seek to extract from their print "products."
The Big Media bean-counters—much like the oil barons—appear to have decided to try to wring every penny of profit they can from a dying industry before they throw in the towel. Hence, as one horrible exponent of this approach, the Baltimore region has been presented with yet another "redesign" of The Sun. To show the magnitude of the loss to the community this change represents, some background is in order.
Baltimoreans were once justly proud of this 171-year-old newspaper, which for many years ranked among the nation's top 10. The Sun, which once boasted several foreign bureaus, has won 15 Pulitzer Prizes, the most recent of which was awarded in 2003.
Like butter melting, once the family-owned Abell Co. sold out to the Times-Mirror Co. in 1986, The Sun began a slow slide. The electronic media didn't yet hold sway then, but the personal computer age was already upon us. By 1995, the Evening Sun, the company's afternoon newspaper, ceased publication. Times-Mirror was bought by the Tribune Co. in 2000. The latter pressured its newspaper "properties" to generate double-digit profits, at a time when the nation was reeling from the dot-com bust and 9/11. The Sun was clearly struggling. A "redesign" was attempted in September 2005, making the page size smaller, but the newspaper's circulation slide continued. The Tribune Co. was in trouble.
To the rescue came real estate mogul Sam Zell. He took over the Tribune Co. in early 2008. More rounds of buyouts followed. On July 28, Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella, in the business section, told of yet more layoffs coming. She reported Zell as saying, "It is very clear [that] the role of the newspaper is changing and we need to size our organization and our newspaper to reflect the realities of the marketplace." Another 20% of The Sun's workforce would have to walk the plank in order to, to paraphrase Zell, "get efficient numbers up."
These numbers have to be "up" even more significantly because the company, as Mirabella explained, "is carrying billions of dollars in debt that Zell took on in his $8.2 billion buyout through an employee stock ownership plan."
All this is a necessary prelude to understanding how and why The Sun showed up on readers' doorsteps on Sunday, August 24, 2008 in a guise that is unrecognizable. This is no longer "the newspaper of record." In fact, one could argue that The Sun is no longer a newspaper. It is an ad wrapper that passes off columnists' viewpoints as information.
The August 24 edition of The Sun has a newly designed nameplate that clumsily—for the first time—introduces "Baltimore" to its name. While some Baltimoreans have referred to the paper as "The Baltimore Sun," in fact its real name has been simply The Sun; "Baltimore" has traditionally been added in common parlance to differentiate it from other newspapers also called The Sun. Now it's official, though: this paper is Baltimore's paper, we're told at long last, after 171 years of not being sure.
Let's look at the front page. There are only three stories. Two are predictable: Michael Phelps for the 1,000th time, and an "analysis" of Obama's choice of Biden as his running mate. The third is a spend-more-money-to-save-money consumer sop piece about grocers (read: Sun advertisers) hyping bargains to the "thrifty public."
Okay, now--the reader's quickly getting a clue that this "new" newspaper is going to emphasize local stories. So what might one reasonably expect on page 2? More local news? Or perhaps a shift to national and international stories?
No: we are treated instead to a "human interest/gossip" column by Laura Vozzella, 'promoted' from her more rightful place on page 2 of the Today section. (Whoops! There's no more "Today" section...more on that later.) Ms. Vozzella's news value includes details on a Speedo contract for Michael Phelps (who else?), a plug for a local fruitcake maker, and a few mildly interesting tidbits about other locals. Page 2 of the News Section of the Sunday paper! Nothing but Vozzella's piece (and a full-body cardboard-cutout vignette of Ms. Vozzella, so we can "relate" to her) and some ads and a very, very condensed weather section.
So much for the left-hand page; perhaps the slightly more visible page 3 will carry some important news we need to know. Why, what do you know--there is a news story: it's about a concrete manufacturer having to leave the Westport area in order to allow for redevelopment. The large photo of a pile of dirt in the middle distance with the city skyline in the far distance leaves a great deal to the imagination. This is Maryland section material. (But wait! There is no more "Maryland" section...more on that later.) Right below this gripping news is...drum roll...another vignetted photo, this time of the upper body of columnist Jean Marbella, providing a "human interest" story that once would have shown up in the Maryland section (but I repeat myself).
Page 4? "Regional" news briefs whose little headlines are in such an ugly typeface you can hardly read them, along with a brief item about missing handrails on a Fort Avenue "bridge walkway" that once would have shown up in the Maryland section (but...). Page 5? An account of freshmen arriving at UMBC (yawwwwnnnnn). Former Maryland section (but....).
Lots of ads around all this "information," though. Zell will be pleased.
Page 6? There's a half-page devoted to "Crime & Courts." Consultants must have said people want this stuff; how else can one explain its prominent position? But it's not "news." No, indeed. We get treated to another "friendly columnist" photo vignette, this time of columnist Peter Hermann, writing on the topic of the "Baltimore Crime Beat." He's "delving into untold stories—and the stories behind the stories." Most readers would prefer "told stories," as in what's happening. But this is a way to cover a lot of ground without leaving the office, thereby saving a lot of money for the bosses. There's also a "news" item: "Stray bullet wounds 6-year-old playing in Northeast Baltimore," together with a very, very bad photo of the street where the incident occurred, with "officers" standing to one side in the middle distance. We are told they are investigating, but, as I said, they're just standing there—and they're not identified, either.
Page 7: ads. Pages 8 and 9: a full color extravaganza providing a "readers' guide" to the newspaper's evisceration. Sorry—I meant to say "redesign." The paper is "reinvented," we're told; the city's name is acknowledged; news stories will often be short; the "Today" section is now called "You" (is that icky or what?), and we're informed that the paper intends to focus on Maryland news (like we couldn't figure all this out for ourselves). There's another full-body vignette in this spread, this time of Tim Franklin, the newspaper's editor. He assures us that his paper is "passionately committed to a standard of journalistic excellence." This is telling: He should have left out the words "a standard of." As one so often thinks, The Sun could really use a good editor.
Onward! Page 10: ads and a small story about Baltimore County zoning (yaaaaawwwwwwnnnn again). Page 11: ad. Page 12: continuations of the grocers' offering bargains and Michael Phelps non-stories from the front page. Page 13: a full page ad touting guns for sale (like we need that).
Page 14: a story called "Filling up on food and faith," about an event in Edmondson Village; former Maryland section material at best (but....). Moving on: page 15, ad; ditto for pages 16 through 22 (what is this? a shopper?). Relief comes on page 23 with a half-page "24 hours in pictures" feature. These pictures are mediocre and in black and white—and they're not by Sun photographers. Rest of page: ads.
Page 24 brings us yet another columnist—with Paul West in nearly full-body vignette, so we can better "relate" to his comments. More ads here, plus an Associated Press story saying Biden and McCain are friends.
Drum roll now: readers who don't give up, who persevere hoping for some content in their newspaper, arrive exhausted and disheartened to page 25, where they're rewarded with a section called "Nation & World." Afghans investigate bombing of village by "coalition" forces, judges chosen for political ideology are more likely to rule against granting political asylum, and a tropical storm has made landfall in Florida. Ten very brief news items are listed. Page 26 continues the section; we learn 10 people were killed in a plane crash in Utah, with a very large picture that could be of anything, and that the nation of Georgia wants Russian troops to leave (duh!). A half page of ads. A full-page ad on pg. 27, and another on page 28.
Pages 29 through 31 are given over to a stories about Biden—way more than readers want or need to know, when compared to other issues and news they surely must hunger for. Ads are interspersed. Some headlines are way too big.
On page 32 we find the best reporting of the whole section in two companion obituaries about a brother and sister from Talbot County who were killed in a car accident. There are paid death announcements here and on page 33, together with (and this is really odd) an Associated Press item called "Polygraph predicament: Pentagon uses less-than-foolproof test." There's also a small boxed item listing the guests who will be appearing on the Sunday TV morning talk shows. Page 34, the last in this section, is once again a full-page ad.
Reciting all this was painful. Even more painful will be that moment when I, a dedicated newspaper person who has subscribed to The Sun for decades, make that phone call to cancel my subscription. I'm going to give The BALTIMORE Sun four more days to remember who it is and what it's supposed to do, and then I just may have to make that call.
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This story was published on August 26, 2008.