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Red All Over

By Michael Anft | Posted 12/5/2001

When you live in a one-daily town, you can be forgiven for thinking that a lack of competition guarantees that newspaper's financial health. But sometimes you'd be wrong. Like now, when The Sun and its mega-media-giant parent company, the Chicago-based Tribune Co., are swimming in at least as much red ink as black.

A Tribune Co. memo delivered to Sun employees last month announced salary reductions for senior managers companywide and a wage freeze for nonunion employees, thanks to a 37-percent plunge in operating profit this year. Tribune--which claims its newspaper, TV, radio, and Internet properties reach 80 percent of American households--lost money in the third quarter of 2001, its first quarterly loss in 10 years.

So far, Sun sources say, the daily monopoly's status as one of Tribune's fiscal underachievers hasn't had a noticeable effect on editorial efforts; the paper has even added a few newsroom positions of late. But some reporters say they were chilled by a passage in the memo asserting that the company "will be seeking compensation cost savings from our union-represented groups across the company."

Members of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild's Sun local, which represents everyone from reporters and editors to circulation phone clerks, are bracing for the possibility of layoffs. While Sun management hasn't publicly mentioned newsroom cuts, it seems to be setting the tone for considering them: Sources say publisher Michael Waller has been singing the blues at recent management meetings, a hint that the aforementioned "cost savings," of one sort or another, are in the offing.

The paper's current Guild contract, which runs until 2003, does not explicitly bar job cuts. If past is precedent, though, the paper will first seek less-draconian concessions, such as rollbacks in pay and benefits, and wield the layoff threat if the union refuses. Sources who worked at the paper in the 1980s say The Sun, then owned by the local A.S. Abell Co., desperately wanted to change its Guild contract to include a two-tiered pay system for reporters in order to staff its zoned editions in the hinterlands. Management threatened to fire the last 15 reporters hired. The Guild caved, and the zoned editions were then staffed by reporters making far less than those at the paper proper. The two-tiered pay structure was phased out by 1995, union sources say.

For now, Sun employees are watching the economy and waiting to see which way the management winds blow, and hoping the recent hires are a sign that their bosses don't view solid news gathering as incompatible with declining corporate revenues.The Case of the Absent Scribe

Sources say that at least one Sun editorial position may have already been eliminated, that of byline machine Laura Lippman. The reporter and Edgar Award-winning mystery-book author, who could negotiate the twists of a news story as well as she could turn an author interview or political profile, reportedly accepted a buyout offer from the paper in November. Lippman--never a management apple-polisher to begin with--had filed a union grievance over her reassignment to The Sun's Baltimore County bureau earlier this year. Sun editor William Marimow declined to comment on Lippman's status, or on union/management issues.Making Waves

Some folks love the idea of right-wingers tearing into each other in pitched demagogical turf battles. What better way to keep them from doing genuine harm, right? But alas, the war to come between the city's radio behemoth, WBAL (1090 AM), and WCBM (680 AM) is likely to mean more sound and fury signifying even less of nothing.

WCBM is investing more than $1 million to increase its radio signal so that by next April it will reach 50,000 watts during the day, up from the current daytime wattage of 10,000--making local airwaves as full of Tom Marr and the inimitable Les Kinsolving as of WBAL average white boys Ron Smith and Chip Franklin. (To say nothing of the jousting between syndicated titans Dr. Laura on 680 and Rush Limbaugh down the dial at 1090.) Ah, freedom of choice.

WCBM general manager Bob Pettit says that WCBM's considerable investment helped the station win the syndication rights to convicted burglar G. Gordon Liddy's radio show earlier this year. "He came here because he knew he'd be heard in Washington," Pettit says. "We really want to be a two-city conservative talk-radio station." (Liddy does have a spot on the D.C. dial, but on a small AM station, WTNT (570 AM), with a far weaker signal than his former District home, WJFK (106.7 FM), which dumped the Watergate felon in July.)

Meanwhile, to the left of the radio dial (both literally and politically), the Marc Steiner-led group that purchased WJHU (88.1 FM) will announce this month that its proposed new call letters for the station--WYPR, as in Your Public Radio--have been OKed by the Federal Communications Commission. Steiner says the station's holding company, Maryland Public Radio Inc., will name an executive committee and board of trustees as it takes the reins of 88.1 in January.

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