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The Sun's Ever-Shrinking Newsroom Isn't Good News For Baltimore

The City Paper Digi-Cam™

By John Barry | Posted 8/20/2008

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"The first time I came in here, I was completely overwhelmed," Laura McCandlish says. She's looking up from the cavernous main lobby of the Sun building at the glass-lined balconies. One wall is covered with portraits of Sun Pulitzer Prize winners. Another wall features portraits of the current publisher and editor, Tim Ryan and Tim Franklin, respectively. Over the stairway into the basement hangs a large banner inscribed you own this paper!, which reflects the recent transition of the Chicago-based Tribune Co., which owns The Sun, from a public to private corporation with stock options for some employees.

McCandlish is now in her third year as a reporter at The Sun. After a stint at Newport News, Va.'s Daily Press, she landed a job as an intern in the Carroll County bureau and worked her way up to reporter on the airline-industry beat.

Carroll County, she notes wryly, was the punishment assignment for wayward reporters in the fifth season of former Sun reporter David Simon's HBO series The Wire. That's no longer the case: Thanks to cutbacks mandated by the Tribune Co., the Carroll bureau was closed in December 2007. And now, in the latest round of staff reductions, McCandlish will be leaving The Sun. On June 25, The Sun announced that it would be reducing its newsroom staff by about 20 percent, from 282, meaning about 55 newsroom staffers are leaving, through resignations, buyouts, or layoffs. This follows previous newsroom cuts of about 45 total editorial personnel in June 2007 and March 2008.

Many of the departures in the last 18 months are voluntary. In the face of an uncertain future for daily newspapers in the current media and economic climate, combined with a parent company that hasn't ruled out still more cuts, reporters like McCandlish are leaving in droves. "Getting to work at The Sun was a really big deal," she says. "It wasn't easy getting that job. It's what I really wanted to do." She says she'll be heading to Oregon at the end of this month, looking for freelancing work.

We head up to the third floor and start winding through a maze of cubicles in the circulation department. There's a light-up sign listing, stadium-style, the circulation stats for the day, which at 10 a.m. is still young: Renewals: 1. New subscriptions: 0. Then we're in advertising and human resources. A few workers in the advertising area are in the process of dismantling the chairs and desks on the west side of the office. The other side includes a few staffers hovering around phones.

We head up to the sixth floor, at the top of the Sun building. It's an enormous, hollowed-out space lined with gray concrete where The Sun used to house its presses. (Since 1992 all of the paper's printing operations have been located at Port Covington in South Baltimore.) Tribune chief executive officer Sam Zell has mused publicly about selling some of the paper's real estate and referred to the Calvert Street building--now only about two-thirds full, according to some Sun staffers--as space that could be leased or sold. As he put it in a meeting with Sun employees on March 13, everything's on the table.

Back down on the second floor, the winding path to the newsroom floor is lined with six-foot-tall framed photographs, the prize-winning work of Sun staffers, taken during a time, McCandlish notes, when the paper regularly sent photographers to places like Malawi and India. Now, two photographers are leaving as part of the staff reduction. As part of Tribune's ongoing cost-cutting strategy, several Sun reporters contend, management is encouraging reporters to take their own digital photos.

Up another ramp and we're in the multimedia section. It's a nexus of new-media technology, with display screens, a television camera, and a mini-TV studio, where Sun reporters ostensibly learn to combine video technology with print reporting. But multimedia reporter John Lindner is taking a buyout, too.

A glass-lined conference room to our left is hosting an editorial meeting in progress. There's a portrait on the wall of deputy managing editor Sandy Banisky, who took a buyout during the most recent round after more than 30 years at the paper. The conference room, McCandlish explains, has just been renamed in her honor.

And below us, visible over the lip of a balcony, is the football field-sized newsroom itself, a maze of desks, PCs, and cubicles broken up by the names of sections hanging from the ceiling: business, metro, sports, national.

Activity is at a low hum down on the newsroom floor, with scattered reporters hunched over their keyboards. The desks in the business section are largely vacant. One week earlier, The Sun rolled out its daily business section for the last time, another victim of cutbacks.

One newsroom PC monitor is plastered with computer-printout photos of the distinctive bald, bearded face of Zell. Several cubicles feature a sticker that seems to have been circulated among reporters some years back, when the downsizing was just beginning: i am irreplaceable. Nearby, investigative reporter and four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Fred Schulte is emptying out his files into cardboard boxes. He's taking a buyout and giving up his building pass, but he says he's going to be doing some contract work with The Sun until the end of this year.

That morning, July 31, buried in an otherwise jovial farewell column, 34-year Sun veteran Mike Himowitz offers this bleak impression:

You've probably read about the cutbacks here at The Sun and other Tribune newspapers--although our company is hardly alone in this regard. By tomorrow afternoon, more than 50 of us will exit the newsroom--about 20 percent of a staff that was already a third smaller than it was just five years ago.

The sense of grief in the newsroom is palpable.

Back up on the balcony, while getting one last look at the Sun building, nodal point of Baltimore's news industry for the past 58 years, a woman comes out of the glass-lined editorial conference room and strides over quickly: "Excuse me, who are you?"

I respond that I'd been offered a tour of the building.

"Who signed you in?" she asks, then asks me to point her out.

She identifies herself as Sun editor Tim Franklin's assistant, and explains that if I want to visit the Sun newsroom, I should do it through him. I respond that I've been trying to reach Franklin for a while; as of press time, he has not responded to repeated requests for comment for this story. (Requests for interviews with Franklin, publisher Tim Ryan, and managing editor Robert Blau were referred to Judy Berman, the Sun's marketing director, who is of no relation to the City Paper contributor of the same name. After asking the purpose of the proposed article, Berman offered no interviews.) Unmoved, Franklin's assistant guides me toward the door. "We can't just have people walking around here and looking around," she says.

The Sun, of course, has had its own issues with gaining access to stories in the past. In June 2002, the paper strongly defended two of its reporters criticized for finding their way into the nursing home room of 80-year-old former Congressman Parren Mitchell and asking him questions. More recently, The Sun was confronted with a freeze-out from former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who forbade state employees from talking to two Sun reporters. But with only scant mentions of the cutbacks making it into the city's largest, oldest, and most esteemed daily newspaper, the news on downsizing at the Sun has been mostly limited to press releases.

But Baltimore should probably take a closer look. Layoffs are hard to track. Disappearing bylines and occasional farewell columns don't provide enough information. And as one reporter who's staying at the Sun for now warns, it could be a bigger story than anyone wants it to be: "If you cut back the newsroom drastically, this is going to be a very different city."

 

Anyone driving down Calvert Street during lunch hour on July 17 sees a line of 100 black chairs and a small crowd of about 200 people scattered across the steps of the Sun building. Sun employees, dressed in black in the midday sun, are protesting the recently announced downsizing with a lunchtime rally; each empty chair represents one of the jobs lost in the most recent round of cutbacks. The stream of cars driving by offers support in the form of an occasional honk. This is a rally held by people who cover rallies, people without whom rallies wouldn't be worth holding because they'd very likely go unreported. And it's a rally that will receive no mention in the next day's Sun.

On the steps, Tom Pelton, environmental reporter and 10-plus-year Sun veteran, explains why he's leaving, even though he's considered by many a rising star. "America is becoming increasingly beset with complex problems, and our distant corporate owners are turning us into a tabloid full of press releases and Miley Cyrus photos," he says. "We're desperate for paid subscribers, but we're trying to bring them in by offering them less. It's not going to work, it's wrong, and I want no part of it."

The rally reflects the anger of a middle-class, educated work force that suddenly finds itself in the position that, say, Bethlehem Steel workers found themselves in 2003, when The Sun covered the closing of those plants. The protest signs themselves reflect an anger that is more than a little helpless: you own this place. now lay yourself off. Another reads zell hell.

Multibillionaire Chicago real-estate magnate Sam Zell purchased the Tribune Co., with its 11 daily newspapers and 23 TV stations, after torturous negotiations that concluded in December 2007. Fiery, foulmouthed, 5-foot-5, and larger than life, he's become a voodoo doll for those with a gripe against hitherto faceless corporate media management. Never one to back off from controversy, he seems to relish the role.

Zell plunged into the newspaper business with the confidence of a wheeler-dealer whose gambles had all paid off in the past. The $8.2 billion purchase of Tribune was carried out with characteristic panache: Using only $315 million of his own money, he leveraged and sold some of Tribune's and his own assets, won tax breaks by converting the company to employee ownership (hence you own this paper), and, after agonizing negotiations, managed to seal the deal. Defying conventional wisdom, Zell assumed the title of CEO of Tribune, staking his reputation on his ability to guide The Sun and 10 other papers, including the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, through what many observers have characterized as a "perfect storm" of declining advertising revenue, increased costs, a general economic slowdown, and the rising hegemony of the web. In a Jan. 7 e-mail confirming the new era at Tribune, Zell addressed his employees as "partners" and wrote:

I can provide a vision. I can ask questions. I don't know how to force you to succeed if you think you "can't." If you think you "can't," you are probably right.

I challenge you all to help each other eradicate the "C" word by collecting a quarter from any colleague who says it. Take responsibility for changing our culture. This is your company now.

Let's go for greatness. It's up to us. I know we CAN!

Within a few months, the storm got worse. Zell had been counting on the company's daily papers to continue their slow decline of 2-3 percent in revenue a year. In fact, ad revenues were down 16-18 percent, the economy was continuing to sag, newsprint was becoming more and more expensive, the cost of gasoline went up, and, meanwhile, Tribune was saddled with a $13 billion debt thanks to the deal by which Zell gained ownership. By the time the CEO came to Baltimore for a visit to his newly purchased paper, on March 13, the mood was dark. According to departing Sun reporter Doug Donovan, Zell's display of maverick mojo didn't help.

"We had the meeting in the cafeteria dining area," Donovan recalls. "Against the walls were set up these life-sized figures of Baltimore celebrities: Michael Phelps, William Donald Schaefer, Cal Ripken Jr., John Waters, all the usual suspects. They put it there to impress Sam. Sam comes in there, like, you know, `Born to Be Wild,' that's the song they played." Motorcycling is one of Zell's hobbies.

"A lot of people had hope that this guy was going to come in, you know, talk about himself being a maverick, reinventing the newspaper, because all of us know that something needs to be done," Donovan continues. "We're all interested in trying new things. But his plans turned out to be slash and burn."

Thirty-year Sun veteran William Salganik is president of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, the labor union for most Sun newsroom employees, and over the last eight years he's seen the size of the newsroom almost cut in half. Tribune acquired the paper in 2000, when The Sun fielded about 420 news staffers. He became a statistic himself when he took a buyout in March.

"There was some hope when [Zell] came in, because the previous management was so bad," Salganik says. "What he was saying immediately after he took over [in December] was encouraging. He said we're going to involve our employees in our decisions, and we're going to be open about our finances."

The decision to cut Sun staff even further was definitely not a decision that employees were involved in. Nor were employees given much of an idea what the financial situation actually was. What they were told on June 25 was that one-fifth of the newsroom would have to go.

When the hefty new cutbacks were announced, many Sun reporters decided that they weren't willing to gamble any more on what those changes might be, especially since the paper had just finished a round of downsizing. "This is the first time we've had two staff reductions in three months," Salganik says. "I don't know whether this is the biggest cut ever, but it's the biggest one percentage-wise." He shrugs. "We `rightsized' last June. We `rightsized' again in March. Each time it was the wrong size."

After receiving notice of the reductions, Sun newsroom employees had two weeks to decide whether they would accept Tribune Co.'s buyout offer. Accepting the buyout would entitle them to one week's pay for every six months of service at Tribune properties. Not accepting would mean taking a chance on The Sun--assuming that no more drastic cutbacks were in order--and possibly missing out on opportunities in a market already flooded with career-changing journalists.

Salganik says the 14-day window heaped insult on injury and was bad business, too. Employees at The Washington Post were offered buyouts in April, but, he notes, they "had 45 days to decide. Some are staying on the staff to the end of the year. There's time to deal with it. At Tribune, it's always a kind of panic, Oh God, here it is June, we're having a bad quarter, so we've got to get people off payroll by the end of the month."

That panicked response to falling revenues may be putting the paper further in the hole, Salganik contends: "The planning is backward. You'd think you'd do a plan and figure out how many people you need to execute it. But what we're doing is deciding how many people we can afford, given our revenue projections, and then making the plan."

 

Reporters at The Sun interviewed for this story have no clear of idea of what, exactly, the plan is. The Sun debuts a new design and layout on Aug. 24, but how the allocation of responsibilities in a pared-down newsroom will be handled remain elusive. A brief PowerPoint presentation was leaked recently to the web site TellZell.com, and is also available at NewsoftheSun.blogspot.com, both journalist-written blogs that chronicle Tribune's recent woes. A press release sent out by The Sun on Aug. 11 outlines plans for the paper, including:0

three, robust broadsheet sections--News, Sports and Features. The News (Main) section will provide readers everything they need to know for the day, including local, national, international and business news. Sports will return to a broadsheet format with content from Baltimore fan favorites Game Day and Ravens Weekend taking prime positions during football season. The new Features section, entitled You, will help readers plan their lives with daily themed content, including food, health, home and garden, arts/entertainment, movies and weekend planning.

"They did the same thing four years ago," says one current newsroom employee who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to the rollout three years ago of another redesign. "We had no idea what was going to happen. Then suddenly we had to deal with it on a daily basis."

Some version of the same thing seems likely to take place with the remaining reporters, who may wind up juggling several beats once the buyouts are complete. One reporter who's still at The Sun describes the transition as "a work in progress," adding that trying to make it work is "not a job I would want." Another noted that while some Tribune editors have resigned in the face of newsroom cutbacks, Sun editor Tim Franklin is staying put: "I wish him luck. I've got to admire him for that."

What Sun newsroom employees have had to chew on thus far are the musings of Lee Abrams, a former radio executive hired by Zell to shake up what he sees as the staid world of journalism. Abrams' title is chief innovation officer, and his first contact with the Sun newsroom when he joined Tribune in March came in the form of a lengthy e-mail, which reads, in part:

News and Information has been around since the dawn of Man, but it's a lot like where music was in 1952: Poised for a dynamic breakthrough that re-invest the media. The NEW Rock 'n' Roll isn't about Elvis or James Dean, but it IS about re-inventing media with the exact same moxie that the fathers of Rock 'n' Roll had. The Tribune has the choice of doing to News/Information/Entertainment what Rock 'n' Roll did to music . . . to be the Ray Charles, Dylan's, Beatles and U2s of the Information age . . . or have someone else figure it out, or worse, let these American institutions disappear into irrelevancy. I think Rock 'n' Roll is the best choice. America needs a heartbeat, and we can deliver that on 21st Century terms. Rock 'n' Roll musically is behind us. NEWS & INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK 'N' ROLL.

Rock 'n' roll is definitely something Abrams knows about: He is credited with helping develop and popularize the album-oriented rock, or AOR, radio format in the early 1980s. As a business strategy, it successfully tapped into carefully defined market niches. To critics, it homogenized FM rock radio, which, in its formative days, had resisted neat categories. Abrams initially agreed to be interviewed for this story but did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.

Compared to the off-the-record ripostes directed at Abrams by many reporters, Salganik's critique is subdued, as if he's gently trying to convince an overly enthusiastic newcomer to stop stuffing the suggestion box. "To me [those e-mails] seem kind of fey, New Age-y," he says. "And in terms of what we're doing now, it's not new at all. For 10 years we've been trying redesigns, we've been trying more pictures and more graphics. And circulation keeps declining and advertising keeps declining. And now [Zell] is trying a lot more of it in a much shorter period. I'd be surprised if it works."

 

After 34 years at The Sun as a reporter and editor, technology columnist Mike Himowitz, 61, is taking the buyout and sliding relatively easily into retirement. He has covered most of the beats--cops, features, education, transportation, the statehouse, Washington--and served as Baltimore County bureau chief, state news editor, electronic news editor, and medical and science editor. And like many Sun veterans, his conversation seesaws between love of the job and incredulity at what he sees as the shortsightedness of the corporate management that has controlled The Sun in recent years.

Himowitz was at The Sun when computer technology made its first inroads into the newsroom in the early '80s, and he took it one step further by purchasing a primordial $800 Radio Shack TRS-80 color computer, which he used to file stories from outside the office. Two decades later, he looks back at the dawn of the internet age as a lost opportunity for papers like The Sun. His amiable computer-geek persona seems to fade when asked why print media has allowed itself to be blindsided by the web, and he places the blame squarely on a corporate mentality that refused to encourage the kind of collaboration in the newsroom that might have helped.

"At the beginning they were asking people for their ideas and everything," he says of the Sun's tentative steps toward dealing with the web. "I was on the original team that advised while setting up the web site in 1997. Then the corporate types came down and drew this wall, and no one could talk about it. They cut it off completely from the newsroom."

These days the downtown newsroom generates the stories, images, and blog posts that wind up on the Sun's web site, but the people responsible for putting them up on the site currently work out of Cross Keys, in North Baltimore. Despite the importance of the web in the current media climate, several Sun staffers interviewed contend that there's little interaction between the two offices, and blame management concerns over bringing the nonunionized web staff into close quarters with the unionized newsroom.

Himowitz says that the level of collaboration between the newsroom and the web site has improved in the past year, but still marvels over the fact that Tribune is "paying huge amounts" to rent space for the web site while portions of the Sun building on Calvert Street stand empty. "It is so beyond me the idea that it is so much more important to keep the union at bay," he says. "That's the attitude that upper management took--[former Sun owner] Times Mirror, and later the Tribune Co. even more. It's the kind of thing where you bite off your nose to spite your face."

And then he's on to another subject that causes a lot of Sun reporters to prickle: the April launch of b, a daily tabloid based in Towson (see "Exhibit B," page 23). It's the Sun's latest bid to the internet generation, its version of a hip, free paper, modeled on the Chicago Tribune's successful publication RedEye. To do this, Sun management established the new publication's offices in the Baltimore County bureau, and the county beat reporters were relocated to the Sun building downtown. (The paper's management has since re-evaluated the move and is now re-relocating the bureau to another site in Towson.) For Himowitz, the incident is more proof of Tribune management's shortsightedness, or maybe outright blindness.

"Baltimore County is the single largest circulation area around," he says. "It's the heart of the Sun readership in many ways. And the county's got, what, 780,000 people, and Baltimore's got 630,000, if they can convince enough people to boost the census numbers." He pauses.

"Then they decided to start up b, and sent people [downtown], which was just a terrible message to the community. So they could start up b and, you know, put those kids with nose rings in. What message does that send to your staff? "

Education reporter and guild co-chair Tanika White, who is leaving as part of the recent cutbacks, says the message is clear. Tribune wants to keep union members separate from those at b, even if that means paying more in rent. And in launching the new publication, Tribune is possibly making life even more difficult for its faltering local flagship.

"[With] all the money that they spent advertising [b], they couldn't give us any assurances that it would help The Sun ," White says. "We're like, we're all for innovation, but the reason you're able to market b is you're using The Sun. So are you going to spend money with this to reinvigorate The Sun? They wouldn't tell us. Eventually, we could be cannibalizing ourselves."

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