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By Russ Smith | Posted 4/12/2006

The success or failure of the new Baltimore Examiner won’t be determined by the quality of its journalism. That much was made clear by its editor, Frank Keegan, in the paper’s debut issue published on April 5. Keegan’s cliché-riddled introductory column was remarkable, either for its naiveté or cynicism—you choose—and left me wondering why he was chosen for the job. He wrote:

    Gather, people. Get on the same page for news about neighbors, communities, state, nation, world—and beyond. Your Baltimore Examiner is the place to get it all in less than 20 minutes. . . . This new daily newspaper is—along with—your fast, sure 21st-century news portal.

Granted, the communications industry is grappling today with consumers who have shorter attention spans and, with the internet, an enormous selection of diverse venues to choose, but Keegan’s boast that his paper, a “21st-century news portal” no less, can be read in less than 20 minutes isn’t a ringing endorsement of the Examiner’s editorial content. I read pretty fast, but digesting “news about neighbors, communities, state, nation and world,” not to mention sports and entertainment, in Keegan’s prescribed time limit would be impossible.

Then again, the Examiner’s mission isn’t to win Pulitzer Prizes or even the respect of “legacy” newspapers like the Washington Post or New York Times. It’s all about staking turf in a region where The Sun, which now sells less than 250,000 copies on weekdays, is underperforming in circulation, too expensive for small and midsized advertisers, and subject to the bottom line concerns of its owner, Chicago’s Tribune Co.

Sun business writer Jay Hancock, in an Oct. 19 column last fall about the upcoming Examiner, was uncharacteristically shortsighted about the paper’s odds for survival. He acknowledged that owner Philip Anschutz—who has registered the Examiner name in some 60 cities and began with the San Francisco and Washington Examiners—is a billionaire and successful businessman, but said the Baltimore launch was “part of a bold long shot.”

Anschutz’s scheme for a network of free dailies across the country isn’t a sure thing, but given the decline of his paid competitors it’s by no means a “long shot.” The reclusive tycoon isn’t the typical vanity proprietor who seeks publicity, political clout, and access to celebrities (e.g. the New York Daily News’ owner Mort Zuckerman), but rather an unsentimental investor who shuns interviews and concentrates on making money. It’s likely that Anschutz has evaluated the media market and decided he had more than a reasonable chance to turn a profit. The opportunity to take advantage of a vulnerable and mature franchise like The Sun, selling far cheaper advertisements and operating with a far smaller and nonunionized staff, is smart.

It will take at least six months to get a bead on the Examiner’s potential; right now, distributing 250,000 unsolicited copies in the region will probably result in a combination of curiosity, indifference, and annoyance from its targeted readers. Last week’s first four editions contained an impressive bulk of advertising, but I’m sure the paper’s offices are currently inundated with calls from homeowners asking them to stop delivery, as if the paper was another irksome takeout menu. And the kinks in the Examiner’s delivery schedule need to be straightened out: The paper is promised by 7 each morning, but made that cutoff just once, at least in my North Baltimore neighborhood. If the Examiner really wants to make an impact, it ought to make sure copies are distributed to homes before The Sun, since early-risers will get into the habit of turning to its pages first.

Still, the paper did manage to secure somewhat interesting interviews with gubernatorial candidates Robert Ehrlich, Martin O’Malley, and Doug Duncan, and has given a home base to former Sun columnist Jules Witcover, a recognizable name to many readers. I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Olesker, let go by the Sun in January, eventually lands at the Examiner as well. As Tribune Co. continues its layoffs and buyouts at The Sun, there will likely be more familiar bylines at the Examiner.

Sun editor Timothy Franklin told Wall Street Journal reporter Joseph T. Hallinan, in a story published April 5, that his paper’s local coverage in the suburbs—where the Examiner is attacking most seriously—would be increased. “We’re going to have vastly, vastly more news in those counties [Anne Arundel and Howard] than the Examiner has,” Franklin said.

Presumably, that means Franklin plans on hiring more reporters at a time when his staff is being reduced. How Tribune reacts to the new competitor is the real question. No one expects Tribune to abandon Baltimore, but should the Examiner cut into the Sun’s market share, it wouldn’t be a shock if the older paper followed suit and switched to free circulation. That notion is heresy to journalists and readers over 40, but it’s not such a radical idea. Since the Sun’s content is free online, a paper like the Examiner, if it’s not a complete joke, could make Sun readers think twice before renewing their subscription.

Keegan’s nonsense of the Examiner as a “21-century portal” notwithstanding, the media business is in flux right now, and if The Sun isn’t proactive in its approach to the competition, a lot more of its employees, including executives, will be looking for work.

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