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Media Circus

Attention Shoppers

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 1/24/2001

Traditionally, newspapers have kept their journalistic and business endeavors separate by maintaining some sort of firewall between their editorial and advertising departments. That's the tradition, anyway. Across the nation, such partitions have always been under pressure from profit-minded managers, even as some editors push back. I had this in mind as I reviewed the last few months' worth of Sun coverage of Arundel Mills, the retail behemoth that opened near Baltimore/Washington International Airport Nov. 17. What got me started on this project was a human-interest story the daily ran Dec. 18. The feature, by staff writer Linell Smith, started pleasantly enough, painting a portrait of Pennsylvania grandmother Carolyn Powell, for whom Christmas shopping is a year-round pursuit, on a bus trip to the new megamall. Smith followed Powell as she sought a gift for her husband, first at the mall's Bugle Boy Outlet and T.J. Maxx. And then. . . . "Pressing forward, Powell also searched for gifts at Sports Zone, the Fragrance Depot, Wilson's Leather Exports, Athlete's Foot, and Game Shop. . . . She paused briefly for a Coke. Then she dutifully entered Just Sports U.S.A." Further along, the super shopper hit 11 more stores in a single breathless paragraph, bringing the total number of plugs in the article to 19. The only thing missing was a sidebar with an indexed floor plan.

For a rather remotely located shopping center, Arundel Mills has enjoyed a lot of coverage in The Sun, much of it on the front pages. Smith's story led off the Today section. And the drumbeat had started more than a month previous: On Nov. 13, the Maryland section led with a story about a possible traffic crunch at the Mills. The Sun played the mall's opening on A1, with a color photo of shoppers pressing around an entrance like groupies at a stage door. On Nov. 29, a piece on the mall's glitzy Muvico multiplex fronted the Business section. And that's just a partial listing.

What wasn't reported amid this lavish journalistic attention was the paper's corporate relationship with the new retail mecca. As part of what The Sun's marketing department calls an "exclusive media partnership" with Arundel Mills, the mall's interminable concourse features an area called the "Baltimore Sun Court," which is set off by 25-foot banners bearing the paper's logo and decorated with enlargements of famous front pages. In the center of the court is a similarly adorned kiosk with two computer terminals intended for access to The Sun's Web site (neither of which was working when I visited recently). Under the partnership--which Sun spokesperson Carol Dreyfuss says was proposed by Arundel Mills management, not the paper--the daily is the only newspaper sold from boxes posted around mall exits and entrances.

True, the humongous mall is hard to overlook as a news story, if only because it seems to have hit the region's retail environment like a Cretaceous meteorite. I hasten to add that my Sun sources tell me there's been no directive to push Arundel Mills stories. And the coverage, while generous, has not all been shameless hype. Some of it, in fact, has a definite subtext of shame, or at least uncomfortable self-consciousness. When, as predicted, mall traffic became disastrously snarled in November, the mess was conscientiously covered, in (by my count) three Maryland-section stories and a solemn editorial.

The most striking evidence of The Sun's conflicted sentiments appeared in a downright schizoid editorial that ran Nov. 17, the day the mall opened. The headline alone was incredible: "Anti-sprawl mall? Arundel Mills: Megamall could become example of good land use with peripheral development." After calling the mall "the poster child for suburban sprawl," gobbling up "120 acres of pristine northern county real estate" and "attracting stores away from . . . struggling commercial districts," the editorial suggests that Arundel Mills "could someday be an example for more responsible land use," if the area around it is developed more wisely than the mall itself.

Help me out. Was this intended as advice to the developers, or as a sop to environmentalists? Or is it just the wishful thinking of editors trying to feel better about providing cover, whether consciously or not, for the paper's business interests?

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