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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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William Salganik hasn't worked at The Sun since March and says he plans to finish up his term as Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild president and move on. As a veteran of Sun labor negotiations, Salganik says the role of the union has changed. Once the focus was on higher wages. Now, he says, the guild must learn how to bargain for "quality": employing the minimum number of reporters necessary for a paper to maintain a serious relationship with a community. And, given the fact that the two co-chairs of the Sun's chapter of guild are leaving, too, the union seems to be on the losing side of that battle.

As is the city itself, some worry. With the latest buyout, The Sun is losing beat reporters in droves. Beat reporters are what Baltimoreans are going to miss most, Salganik says, whether they know it or not.

"When I started out here," he says, "we were at every school board meeting and every zoning board meeting." Salganik acknowledges that covering such meetings often lead to dull stories, or no stories at all, but being there, keeping an eye on things and making contacts, led to "the best investigative reporting" The Sun has done in years past.

Asked for an example, Salganik offers two words: "ground rent."

"June Arney, who left the paper this year, was covering real estate as a part of the business section," he adds. "She picked up reports about it. That's not something that you think up at a meeting of editors."

Most discussions with Sun reporters about beat reporting bring up the subject of ground rent. The 2006 series, titled "On Shaky Ground" and written by Fred Schulte and Arney, was the Sun's most recent Pulitzer Prize finalist. The story grew, literally, from the ground up.

With his gray-flecked bedhead, after three decades spent with Tribune papers, Schulte has the aura of someone who either gets too much sleep or too little. That may have to do with the decades the 56-year-old spent doing health investigative reporting at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., before being called up to The Sun by then-new editor Tim Franklin in 2004. He doesn't have much to say about Zell--good or bad--and is reluctant to talk about the current situation, except to give Franklin and managing editor Robert Blau his support. But the wariness evaporates once he dives into the ground-rent story, which he says started with a phone call to Arney.

"There was the case of this Vietnamese woman in Pigtown," Schulte recalls. "She was driving by this house that she thought she owned, and it had been rented out to this guy, and there's an auction going on, and they're selling the damn house! Her son called the paper, and the business section did a story on it. Everyone said, it's a weird thing, and this never happens."

Ground rent was, for many Baltimoreans, another quaint Charm City quirk: an archaic system left over from Colonial times in which some local homeowners own their homes, but not the ground they sit on, necessitating modest semiannual payments to the land's owner. "Everyone tells me, you know, it's not a story," Schulte says. "It's an innocent little thing."

Nonetheless, Schulte and Arney spent six months digging into court records and knocking on doors all over the city, only to discover a small group of businesspeople using unpaid ground rents to exercise liens on properties and even threaten foreclosure. "Thousands of these cases had been filed for something that `never happens,'" Schulte says. "The way this thing had developed, you could owe $48 in ground rent and they could take your house." The series detailed the case of Canton homeowner Vernon Onheiser, who had found himself owing over $17,000 in legal fees and liens after failing to pay a ground rent of $24.

Following the Sun story and subsequent outcry, ground rents suddenly became a legislative priority for Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Sheila Dixon. Eventually a cap was put on legal fees. And, as Schulte notes, it all began with a phone call to the business section.

As of July 29, the daily business section had been cut and replaced by a business page elsewhere in the paper. It will now be included in what some reporters call the "%uFFFDber-news" section. Schulte's colleague on the story, Arney, took a buyout earlier in the year and is now preparing for a new career as a teacher. Schulte is also leaving the newsroom, but he plans to do contract work with The Sun.

For Sun city hall reporter Lynn Anderson, phone calls to the paper are at the heart of the relationship between the paper and its readers. They're what she'll miss, she says: tips, leaks from disgruntled bureaucrats, insane ramblings, and, occasionally, concerned citizens who've noticed something strange that no one else knows about.

After nine years at The Sun, Anderson, 40, is taking a buyout and, for the moment, says she's going to work at a Bethesda public-relations firm before moving to France. She's been at the paper long enough to become a force on the city hall beat, and as a local guild co-chair, she's campaigned strongly against the recent rounds of cutbacks. By the time she sits down for this interview, she has just a week left on the job, and she wonders about the Baltimoreans who are being left with a radically downsized newsroom.

"I mean, the newspaper is still a place where, [when] you're at your wit's end and you don't know what to do, you call a newspaper," Anderson says. "When you have a newsroom full of reporters every day who are having 20-30 conversations with members of the community, that's a lot of sharing of information, sharing of ideas, issues, problems. When you start sending people away, when you start cleaning out desks, shutting off those computers, unplugging the phones, you cut off that dialogue. You mute it."

Coming down to her final hours in the newsroom, she says her phone keeps ringing: "I get all these calls from people who are saying, like, `I can't call you anymore, who do I call?' And as the newsroom continues to whittle down, we're shutting off those connections. How many sources have we lost? It's scary."

At a more healthy Sun, Doug Donovan, 37, would be on the fast track to success. His front-page exposures of nepotism and favoritism haven't brought down Dixon, but as he, Anderson, Jon Fritze, and others on the city hall beat have probed the mayor's relationships with developers and furriers, they've soured her post-election honeymoon and left her political future in question. Donovan is taking a voluntary layoff.

He dates his first big coup in journalism to 1992, when, as editor in chief of the University of Delaware Review, he stumbled upon Bill Clinton shortly before that year's election at a local McDonald's. "He came in on this total photo-op jogging tour. I was circling around him, telling him I was from University of Delaware," Donovan says. "He shook my hand, and pulled me into the circle, and was, like, ask me some questions. I don't even remember what I asked, but he just talked about Joe Biden and Delaware, as if it really mattered. That was when I was sold on the business."

After subsequent stints at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Raleigh, N.C., News and Observer, and Forbes magazine, Donovan landed in Baltimore in early 2003. By then he was less slack-jawed in the presence of authority figures, and Dixon was on his radar. First he investigated gifts, perks, and relationships between City Council members (Dixon was then City Council president) and their families. He did a story on council members getting free parking passes, which violated ethics rules. So they gave back their free parking passes. Then he noticed that Dixon had hired her sister, Janice Dixon, to a city-paid job in her office. So Dixon's sister lost her city job.

Then, Donovan says, "I got this tip that there was a council hearing, and the question was, why Comcast cable wasn't employing more minority subcontractors. The tip said one of those minority subcontractors was a company that employed Dixon's sister." Sitting in on a hearing at City Hall, he heard Dixon mention the company--an obscure firm called Utech--as one of the contractors that Comcast should be employing. It struck him as a little fishy.

Donovan says he went up to Dixon after the hearing and asked the council president if her sister worked for one of the companies she just mentioned: "Her response was, `Who told you that? Who told you that?'

"So I said, `I can't really tell you that, but it kind of confirms that maybe it's true. So why don't you just tell me, because it makes for an interesting story, that she works for a company, and you're advocating for their financial interest, and using your office to do that.' She said, `You're the reporter. You figure it out.' And then she stormed out, then she turned around, and she's like, `Donovan. Not that I'm trying to hide anything.'

"So I called the companies that were mentioned by her. The first one was Utech. And I asked, `Is Janice Dixon there?' And they answered, `She's not here right now.'"

Dixon's office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

After years of reporting on Dixon, Donovan says he's going to become a house husband, taking care of his child--and presumably freelancing between diaper changes--while his wife works. So who's going to watch over the mayor and her possible peccadillos? Donovan pauses.

When he got to Baltimore, he muses, there were three people covering City Hall: "It was me, Laura Vozzella, and Tom Pelton. Eventually Laura left the beat. It was just me and Tom. Then Tom left. Lynn Anderson just left." He pauses again. "Well, Jon Fritze is a great reporter. If he stays, I'm comfortable that she'll be watched." A few days after Donovan says this, Fritze announces that he's leaving for a job at USA Today.

Donovan doesn't seem angry or bitter, just a little bemused at the fact that Tribune's corporate officers are justifying cutbacks in part by saying that journalism needs to become more local. In a June 5 memo to Tribune employees, Zell and Tribune chief operating officer Randy Michaels say that after reviewing dozens of readers' surveys, they'd found that customers want "unbiased, honest journalism" and "LOCAL consumer and community news." So why, Donovan wonders, are they squeezing out people like him?

"I left magazines to come back to newspapers and do the type of journalism that makes more of an impact locally," he says. "And now, I'm being told that that type of journalism isn't what people want. When there's big news breaking, people pick up the paper, because they want to know about serious issues. I don't know how you can fill a newspaper with . . . whatever it is Sam Zell thinks that people want."

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