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Who Is This Guy?

Maverick Journalist? Company Man? Sun Editor Tim Franklin On The Record

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Editor Tim Franklin in the Sun's Newsroom

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 8/24/2005

Tim Franklin was dropped into pretty cold waters at The Sun 20 months ago.

The career Tribune Co. man was replacing editor William K. Marimow, whose abrupt firing shocked many reporters already nervous about Tribune’s intentions for the 168-year-old paper it acquired in 2000. Was the 43-year-old editor of the Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel dispatched to Baltimore to shore up the Sun’s name as a regional powerhouse with a national reputation for excellence? Or to shepherd the newspaper’s transformation into a less ambitious—but also less expensive—metropolitan daily, content with publishing national and international news gathered by Tribune’s flagship properties, the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times? Fears of the latter intensified six months later with corporate-mandated downsizing.

“It sucked the oxygen out of the room,” Franklin says of the cutbacks, which included reductions in both news hole and staff. “There were a lot of veteran staffers who left during that period, and some people with a lot of institutional knowledge, and there was a lot of questioning of the future from that point on.”

2005 brought more dispiriting news to Calvert Street. In February, a district court judge dismissed the newspaper’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a directive by Gov. Robert Ehrlich that no member of his administration speak to two Sun journalists, David Nitkin and Michael Olesker. The paper is appealing. In May The Sun announced one of the steepest circulation declines in the country for the previous six months.

Personnel anxiety at The Sun has “settled down quite a bit,” Franklin says, but in an interview last week he made no attempt to paint an overly rosy picture of the emotional temperature of his staff: “Newsroom morale ebbs and flows. At every newsroom I’ve worked in, there are always periods where morale is worse than at other times, and we’re in an industry that’s going through really watershed historic changes. And I don’t think that any of us have a crystal ball about how that’s going to work itself out in the end.” He adds that a spate of new hires, including several editors from The Washington Post, have energized the newsroom.

Despite the tough times, the paper has managed to perform under his leadership at a level equal to its legacy reputation, Franklin contends. “We’ve continued to do groundbreaking enterprise investigative reporting. Whether it’s been David Nitkin’s reporting on the land series, which resulted in the ban from the governor, our investigation of a prisoner’s death in the Maryland correctional system, the group-home series earlier this year, or our national security reporter discovering that [U.S] troops didn’t have $20 tourniquets in their backpacks and were dying unnecessarily,” he says. “That kind of public service journalism is the reason I got into this business, and I think we’ve consistently still been able to do that and will do that.”

At stake in the Sun’s uncertain future is far more than the careers of the people who work there. The newspaper is a cultural institution as integral to Baltimore’s sense of self as Hopkins Hospital or the Inner Harbor, the aquarium or orchestra. Its permanent decline would be a blow to the city’s prestige that no number of waterfront condos or convention hotels could soften.

As he approaches the two-year mark of his tenure here, Franklin remains something of an unknown quantity to the Sun’s readers and, according to several staffers, many of the reporters who write for him. On the eve of the daily’s first major redesign in 10 years, due to roll out next month, Franklin agreed to talk about himself, his paper, his critics, and his commitment to the city.

City Paper: In 1988, you wrote a political story for the Chicago Tribune about Baltimore. Was that your first visit here?

Tim Franklin: I believe it was. I came to Baltimore in advance of the presidential primary. I was filling in on the Washington bureau, so I came up for a quick story.

CP: What was your impression of the city then?

TF: I liked it. I remember the harbor and waterfront. I spent most of that day in Little Italy talking to people and then driving back to Washington to file. I believe there was a festival going in Little Italy that day. I was impressed with the connectedness of the people here to the city—the generations of people that had lived in the same part of the city. That was very much like Chicago.

CP: You grew up playing high-school basketball in Indiana. You were a Hoosiers fan at Indiana University, and then you worked at the Chicago Tribune for 17 years, among them the glory years of the Bulls. In Orlando you had the Magic. What’s it like for a hoops junkie to work in a city without basketball? Have you switched to lacrosse?

TF: I haven’t switched to lacrosse yet. (laughs) In fact, I vowed that I would never live in a city that didn’t have an NBA franchise, and if you talk to my former colleagues in Orlando, they’ll tell you that I spent a lot of time going to Magic games.

CP: We did talk to Sentinel consumer columnist Greg Dawson, who said you played basketball with him a couple of times. He said you were a scrappy player.

TF: Roofball? (laughs)

CP: He said you weren’t bad.

TF: Yeah, on top of the [Sentinel] building—it’s not the greatest basketball court in the world—they have a hoop, so I went up there once and played with the guys. It would have been nice to have gone up more often. But I’m a competitive person, and I like beating the competition on stories. I like challenges, and so whether I’m playing basketball or editing the newspaper, I enjoy the competition.

CP: We only found one reference in your Tribune career to the Orioles, also from 1988. In a story about car insurance legislation—

TF: My God, how did I tie in car insurance legislation to baseball?

CP: It was a pretty dry story—

TF: Gee, thanks.

CP: But you had this one good line, which you may regret. You wrote, “ . . . bills requiring vehicles in the state to be covered by insurance have been the Rodney Dangerfields of the legislature, compiling a hapless losing string surpassed only by the Baltimore Orioles.”

TF: (laughs) Yeah, I can see where I may regret having written that now.

CP: You’ve made national headlines at every paper you’ve edited. At the Indianapolis Star you directed aggressive coverage of Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, whose resignation you had previously requested in a 1997 personal essay in the Chicago Tribune. At the Star you suffered the wrath of a community that worshipped Knight and the Hoosiers. At the Orlando Sentinel you received loads of hate mail from readers appalled when the paper demanded—and sued for—autopsy photos of NASCAR hero Dale Earnhardt, after he died in a race-car crash. Less than a year into your tenure at The Sun you sued again, demanding that a court overturn the governor’s ban on Nitkin and Olesker. Most recently, you’ve practically courted the enmity of conservative talk radio by forbidding Sun news reporters from appearing on WBAL-FM. Why is Tim Franklin in the news so much?

TF: It just happened that way. It’s not a case where you go into a job and say, gee, you want to make news. I don’t like being in the news. And I don’t like the newspaper being in the middle of the news. I like covering the news. But each of those circumstances was a case where people were responding to aggressive reporting.

I go to Indianapolis. CNN gets a videotape of Bob Knight allegedly choking one of his players. So the newspaper does what any good newspaper should do. I cut, I think, three reporters loose full time to really go into that basketball program, to find out what the culture was like, what Knight had done, and whether this was a pattern of behavior. And I think a lot of good editors in the country would have done the same thing. So we did this investigation, we broke some stories, and they were unflattering to the coach, and it made a lot of people mad. Indiana University is the one of the biggest institutions in that state. It doesn’t get any bigger than basketball in Indiana. And had we not covered that story as aggressively as we did, I think we then would have been accused of having taken a pass on what ended up being one of the biggest stories of the year there.

CP: Governor Ehrlich prefers to make public statements on talk radio, where he is among friends, rather than to newspaper reporters. Coach Knight was also known for trying to trade reporters’ access in exchange for favorable coverage. Which Bobby is harder to cover?

TF: I haven’t been around Governor Ehrlich nearly as much as I was around Bob Knight, so it’s probably not fair for me to make a comparison, but I think that they both had, and have, a skepticism bordering on hostility to metro newspapers, to big newspapers. And I think neither one has been shy about expressing his feelings about newspapers. I think that they probably both feel misunderstood by reporters to some extent. And you know, I think that in the case of Knight, he was a guy who wanted reporters to understand his system and his program, and he respected reporters who took the time to understand him personally and what he was about. And I think that also he responded to reporters who tried to create this caricature of him. And I don’t really want to get too much into the psychological-analytical motives of Governor Ehrlich, especially since we’re in litigation with him, but needless to say, I think both Bobbys have a general hostility to newspaper reporters for various reasons.

CP: In all these newspaper controversies, what’s the worst thing you’ve been called?

TF: The hardest thing I’ve been through is the Earnhardt thing in Orlando. And the hardest part through that were the death threats that I got. Not just threats against me, but against my family. You realize that most people are just responding emotionally and don’t mean it, and were just upset with what the paper was trying to do, so you try not to take it personally. But in the course of that whole thing there were a couple of pretty specific threats that were made.

CP: Were you scared?

TF: I was concerned, yeah. We went into a mediation session with Mrs. Earnhardt at the courthouse in Volusia County, and it was the first time in my career that I had to be driven with guards to something, where on the way you’re getting briefed about what might happen. Where, when you get to the courthouse, you’ve got guards on each side of you, literally almost lifting your feet up off the ground while they carry you into the courthouse, and sheriff’s deputies looking around.

That’s probably also the most misunderstood thing I’ve been through. We never, ever, intended to have a reporter go and grab the autopsy photos and put them on the front page of the newspaper. Earnhardt was the fourth driver to die in nine months, and it looked like—and in fact it was later confirmed by one of the doctors—that all four of them died from the exact same injury, head whip. So we wanted a doctor, one of the leading experts in the country, to look at the photos and do a medical report, so we could then show the public what happened. The end result of that was pretty damn positive, in the sense that the Duke University doctor did go in and do the report, confirming that Earnhardt had died the same way all these other drivers had died, and it led to the most sweeping reforms in the history of auto racing, and mandating helmet restraints. And as a result of that, not a single race-car driver has died since.

CP: But didn’t it also lead to law being passed in the Florida legislature restricting public access to autopsy photos?

TF: Yeah.

CP: And so isn’t part of the legacy of that episode increased restriction on journalistic freedom in Florida?

TF: It is. There’s still ways you can get access as part of a court procedure, but it’s now more difficult to get them. And we fought that law as hard as we could, for as long as we could. And I wish it hadn’t passed. One could look at the political motives behind the passage of that law, but it is what it is, and what happened, happened. But I do think in terms of our journalistic mission, that the goal was to get at the truth, to provide a greater public good, which was improving the safety of the most popular sport in the country. And so in terms of that journalistic mission, I think, it was by any measure a success.

CP: Let’s move onto the current lawsuit, against the governor’s ban. If the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upholds the district court ruling, it will set a legal precedent that applies to an area far larger than the Sun’s domain, to all of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, South and North Carolina. According to Kevin Goldberg, general counsel of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, such a ruling will almost certainly embolden state officials elsewhere to follow Ehrlich’s example. Wouldn’t it be an unfortunate irony if the Sun’s legal action ends up hurting journalism in a big chunk of the country?

TF: Well, we knew when we filed, and when we filed for the appeal, that that was a possibility. But keep in mind that we now already have a district court ruling that’s on the books, and that could be used as a precedent in these same jurisdictions. So the damage has been done by virtue of the district court ruling. And we had some of the best First Amendment lawyers in the country look at this before we filed the appeal, and they all felt very strongly that this is a very strong case, and that we should take it up on appeal and try and get this precedent reversed. So, that’s why we took it up. But the damage, as I say, had largely been done.

CP: Putting aside for a moment the First Amendment issues, as a matter of strategy, was this the best way to respond to the governor’s ban? Surely it would have gone away on its own.

TF: How do you know that?

CP: We don’t know for sure, but Shareese DeLeaver, the press secretary who wrote the memo announcing the ban, says the administration never intended for it to go on indefinitely. “This was never meant to be some sort of ongoing blacklist,” she says. Perhaps it’s easy for her to say that now.

TF: Well, sure.

CP: But you could have contented yourself with simply covering the hell out of Annapolis and letting Ehrlich’s silence speak for itself. Was this strategically the wisest approach?

TF: I don’t know. I guess history will be judge of that. But the message to public officials had we not filed suit, or had we not challenged it, would have been, “Oh, OK, it’s OK for us to just gag taxpayer-paid public officials, because the media won’t challenge us on it. They won’t have the spine to challenge us on it.” Had we not filed suit, I think that right now you’d be seeing a lot more governmental bodies and government officials trying to gag their employees. And I would also reiterate that we spent two weeks trying to get a meeting with [Ehrlich] and say, “Let’s go over your complaints one by one, and let’s see if we can get this resolved, so it doesn’t escalate.” And we couldn’t even get them to agree for a time for a meeting.

CP: One of the governor’s longstanding complaints about The Sun is language in a 2002 editorial endorsing Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor in which the future lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, was described as bringing “little to the team but the color of his skin.” These are words that have offended many people, or at least many people have claimed to be offended by them. Wouldn’t it be the humble and magnanimous thing to just apologize already? After all, you’re about to enter another campaign season with Ehrlich as a candidate, and he’s inevitably going to say that the Sun’s refusal to apologize in print for this editorial is evidence of the paper’s enduring insensitivity and bias against him and the Republican Party.

TF: You know, I don’t . . . this is going to sound like a cop-out. I don’t oversee the editorial pages. I wasn’t here in 2002, so I don’t know what the rationale was behind the editorial or the thinking. I think [editorial page editor] Dianne [Donovan] said publicly that she thought [the editorial] could have been worded differently, or could have been worded better. But in general, and I’m not speaking specifically to the Steele thing, I don’t know that newspapers should apologize for having opinions on the editorial page. We could apologize every single day for someone who might be put off or offended by something we say in an editorial. So where do you draw the line? Diane is a very competent editor, and I’ll leave that up to her if they decide to do that at some point.

CP: In your own reporting career, has a public official ever refused to speak to you because he or she didn’t like your coverage?

TF: When I covered the statehouse in Illinois for the Tribune, there were a couple times when the governor [James Thompson] was pretty upset with me for what I wrote. You would get frozen out for maybe a day or two, or a week. But never ever in my career have I been in a situation, nor have I seen another situation from afar, in which a government official has put a gag order over tens of thousand of employees, and kept it in place for, what has it been now, nine months? And I’ve also never seen a situation where a politician has effectively run against the newspaper or demonized the newspaper in the way that we’re seeing it now. Often in very false terms. I could go through a litany of falsehoods that have been uttered from this administration about the newspaper.

CP: So you’re proved yourself capable of putting up a fight. Have you had to fight Chicago on behalf of The Sun in the last 20 months?

TF: Yeah. Last year, we were in a situation with the budget cuts that we had in the summer where the Washington bureau was going to be rearranged, and Tribune [decided to move all its papers] into a common Washington bureau. That raised the obvious question: How many people do you want in Washington? And on a corporate level, how many people should you have? So, there were some frank (laughs) discussions with Chicago during that period about the size of the Sun’s Washington operation. And I think if you were to ask people in Chicago, they would tell you that I made a very forceful case for why, given our proximity to Washington, the readership base we have here, our competition with The Washington Post, why we need a certain amount of people in Washington. They heard me. I didn’t get as many people as I hoped for, but I also didn’t lose as many people as I might have.

CP: How did the numbers break down?

TF: There were 10 in Washington, and right now I believe we’re at seven.

CP: And Tribune asked you to cut the D.C. bureau down to . . . ?

TF: I’m not going to get into that.

CP: Do you have any indication of how The Sun is doing financially this year? How it stacks up against other Tribune Co. properties?

TF: The honest answer is no. I’m not a business-side guy, so I certainly can’t give you any specifics about how we’re doing vis-à-vis the other properties. I can talk to you just in general terms, which is that it’s been a tough year, not just here, but in general in the business. And not just in newspapers, but in broadcast as well, because of the dilution and fracturing of the media world. But I don’t toil on the business side too much.

CP: Let’s say there’s more bad financial news for The Sun down the pike, and budget pressures increase. How far would you be willing to go to fight for the paper? Would you be willing to risk your job, if you felt the paper’s integrity was at stake?

TF: You know, we have owners who have expectations for the newspaper, and when you take these jobs on, you’re representing the owners to an extent and carrying out the owners’ mission for the paper. I think there are a lot of editors who have lines that they won’t cross or don’t want to cross, and I certainly have lines that I don’t want to cross. I’m not going to get into hypotheticals.

CP: I really wish you would.

TF: I’m sure you would. But you know, I think that if you look at the Tribune Co. and the quality of the papers that it has, and compare that to [newspaper chains] Gannett or Knight Ridder, I’ll take the quality of our papers.

CP: What’s your general vision for The Sun? Should it try and contend outside its weight class against papers with massively more circulation and staff, like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, or should it be focused on fighting for dominance among the second tier—regional papers with a strong national/international component?

TF: We aspire to be a newspaper that’s much better than our circulation size, and I think we have to be because we compete against The Washington Post for very high-demographic readers in this area, and with a big federal work force. These are people who care about international news, care about national news, who want the latest in pop culture and trends. So we have to play outside our weight class to be successful, there’s no question about it. When people come here and talk to me for job interviews, I say the goal is not to be the best paper of our size in the country. We have to be a hell of a lot better than that.

CP: The Sun competes not only against other newspapers, but with other papers against other information media—TV, radio, cable, satellite networks, the web, and so forth. What can a daily newspaper do that none of these other media can?

TF: Depth, sophistication, context. We have vastly more resources than any other news organization in the area, which allows us to do more state, local, and regional news. And we’re going to continue to do that. We have to continue to do that to differentiate ourselves from these other competitors.

CP: Even if the paper does all those things, why shouldn’t we just read it online, where it’s free? Why should we pay cash money for The Sun?

TF: Lots of reasons. I heard one editor say, “Can you imagine Bill Gates being at work one morning and someone rushing into his office and holding up a newspaper and saying, ‘Bill, Bill, guess what? Someone is delivering this thing to people’s doorsteps every morning for only 50 cents.’” And you know, in this one package that you don’t have to sign on for, you don’t have to have an internet connection, you can get everything you want to know about national, international news, local news, business, and sports. And you get coupons that are actually worth more than the cost of the newspaper. And you can take it with you wherever you go.

It’s the portability of it. There’s the serendipity of going through pages and seeing stories that you wouldn’t find on the internet because maybe you’re just looking for specific content on the web. And I also think there’s something about—and I still hear people say this to me—“Oh, I clipped that out of the paper, my kid’s name was in the paper.” It means something to people when they see somebody they know or can relate to in the newspaper.

CP: What’s the single most important thing The Sun does?

TF: We want to be the indispensable and essential source of news about Maryland and the region. Period. Because news, especially international and national news, is a commodity that is easily attainable. On the web especially, but also from other sources. So we have to ask ourselves: “What do we do that’s different?” And it’s coverage of the region and the state, and Baltimore City and this immediate area. We have to do that better than anybody else. And we have to do it with depth. And it has to be well written and well illustrated and packaged. That, in the end, is how we win.

But we also have to recognize the demographics of our market. Tens of thousands of federal workers, Johns Hopkins, which is an international jewel, the [National Security Agency], which is an international institution in our market, so we have all these very sophisticated, high-end readers who care about international and national news, so we can’t become parochial or myopic and expect to keep our readership.

CP: Given your core mission, is the paper committed to its five foreign bureaus: Beijing, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, London, and Moscow? They must be expensive to maintain. Are there any plans to take one or more down at some point?

TF: We may have to at some point, I don’t know. I got here in January [2004] and was asked that question, and I said, ‘Look, I’m committed to the foreign bureaus,’ and I’m still committed. I think a Jerusalem bureau in this market is absolutely essential. I think a Johannesburg bureau for this market is absolutely essential. I could give you reasons why all five, I think, do stories that relate back to this market and connect with readers in important ways. There is no question that the budgetary pressures are increasing because of the weak advertising climate that we’ve been in in recent years. How that manifests itself going forward I can’t honestly sit here and tell you. I don’t know.

CP: One of the laments we hear from current and former Sun journalists is that it used to be a destination paper, and now many people consider it merely an important steppingstone to bigger papers, like The Washington Post or The New York Times. Does The Sun want to be a destination paper still, or would it be satisfied as a farm club?

TF: Sure it’s a destination paper, and I think if you went and talked to a lot of the people that we just hired, they would tell you that it’s a destination paper. Before I got here and before Tribune bought The Sun, people left the Baltimore Sun to go to The New York Times and The Washington Post. I don’t know that’s changed much. I view this as a destination paper, I think most of the people on the staff view this as a destination paper, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a black mark against the paper that we have talented people who have gone on to those newspapers.

CP: Is it a destination paper for you? You were at the Indianapolis Star for just 11 months, at the Orlando Sentinel for just three years—

TF: And 17 years at the Chicago Tribune.

CP: But as the editor, is Baltimore a steppingstone, or do you plan on sticking around?

TF: I plan on sticking around. I mean, if I went to my wife and my 12-year-old twins and said, ‘Hey, guess what, we’re gonna move again,’ they’d kill me. I’d never get out of the house again. But more important than that, I have things I want to do here, that I want to accomplish here. The redesign was one of them, and that’s coming. I want us to be known for groundbreaking, investigative reporting. I want us to be in the cutting edge of visuals and design. And I think with all the change we have coming, the growth of the internet and some other new media technology, it’s an exciting time to be in this job here. And just personally, I love it here. I love the area, you’re close to a lot of things, you feel like you’re in the center.

CP: There’s a fellow in Orlando who’s got a theory about you, and we were hoping you’d respond to it. He’s the editor of Orlando Magazine, Jim Clark.

TF: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. (laughs)

CP: He praised you for taking on some sacred cows in Orlando and energizing what he described as an overly cautious newspaper.

TF: He said something nice about me? Wow.

CP: But then he also wrote this recently: “[Franklin’s] formula is fairly simple: a little redesign, some staff changes at the top, more high-profile reporting designed to win prizes—whether the readers want it or not—and finally the crowning touch: the Franklin Feud.” Which feud, Clark speculates, is designed to generate attention on you and hasten your ascendancy to bigger and better things, namely the editorship of the Chicago Tribune.

TF: (sighs) You know, Jim likes to write stuff without talking to people and without talking to me. I never talked to him for that [article]. What happened in Indy, what happened in Orlando with Earnhardt, were not feuds that I started, but were things that happened in the course of aggressively reporting a story. I didn’t go to Orlando and say, “Oh, I’m gonna take on NASCAR.” Dale Earnhardt died, and we had just done this big project, and we felt compelled to follow the story through to the end. Is that creating a feud or is it just good aggressive journalism? I would argue it’s the latter.

I had no illusion when I came to Maryland that we would do some story that would lead the governor to put a gag order on state government. How could I have possibly have envisioned that? And we tried to work it out short of going to court. I didn’t want to go to court. So for [Clark] to imply that I am picking these fights is ludicrous. And I also don’t worry about my next job. You drive yourself crazy doing that. Plus, I’m busy as hell here as it is now. I’m happy here, I don’t want to move, and I hope I’m going to be the editor of The Sun for a very long time.

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