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Elements of Style

Incoming Sun Editor Timothy Franklin Brings With Him Both Newsroom Promise And Corporate Ties

By Brendan Coyne | Posted 1/21/2004

On the afternoon of Jan. 6, Sun publisher Denise Palmer held a press conference in the daily paper's newsroom to deal with the fallout from a move that shocked Sun employees and surprised media industry observers across the country. That morning it had been announced to the paper's staff via e-mail that Palmer had dismissed editor William Marimow, a Pulitzer prize-winning veteran journalist who had led the paper since 2000, and replaced him with Timothy Franklin, the editor of the Orlando Sentinel, which, like The Sun, is owned by Chicago-based Tribune Co. At the press conference, Palmer praised Marimow's work and leadership, declared that Franklin was well-qualified to lead The Sun, and explained that "personality" and "style" differences between Marimow and herself led to the abrupt switch in leadership.

But as Franklin settles in to his new position, many Sun staffers and industry observers around the country question the official line. They worry that this latest move at The Sun is part of a series of actions designed by Tribune to improve the paper's bottom line, chasten the union (the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild), and rein in the independent-minded nature of former Times-Mirror-owned papers such as the Sun (Tribune Co. bought the Sun's previous owner, Times-Mirror, in 2000)--all at the likely expense of quality journalism. And while current Sun staff members interviewed for this story say the word of mouth on their new boss is good, some observers question the timing of the decision and the selection of Franklin, a relatively young journalist--he's 43, Marimow is 56--who has worked for Tribune Co. for all but 11 months since he began as a sports reporter for the Chicago Tribune after college.

Franklin's professional reputation isn't in question. After less than a year as editor of The Indianapolis Star, Franklin took over the Orlando Sentinel in 2001 and by all accounts pulled the paper out of a slump. Sean Holton, a 16-year Sentinel veteran and the current metro editor, says Franklin provided needed leadership and "really raised the bar" at the paper.

"We felt like were finally getting to do kick-ass journalism again," Holton says. "Tim came in and set up a classic metropolitan newsroom situation. He beefed up the local news staff and set up the 'projects team' [investigative unit]. We started going after city officials in a way we never had before. We were doing fun, important stories, and morale was pretty high. Tim is a big thinker, the staff here hates to see him go."

Jim Clarke, editor of Orlando Magazine and a regular critic of the Sentinel, agrees that Franklin was responsible for "massive improvements" at the daily, and that he is a committed journalist. "All this guy cares about is the newspaper," Clarke says. "He doesn't care about cutting costs, he's not a back-slapper, and he isn't out networking, ever."

Clarke credits Franklin's workaholic nature for his rapid rise, but also his close relationship with Tribune Co. management in Chicago. While Clarke notes that he has "great respect" for Marimow, he says "I think Franklin will help the Sun staff. He has Chicago's ear. If he says, 'I need 400 people,' he'll get it. If Marimow said, 'Hey, I need to pay the light bill,' well, Chicago would probably ignore him."

Marimow's tenure was marred by contentious Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild contract negotiations during the summer of 2003 that brought the union's nearly 550 members within hours of going on strike, as well as layoffs, staff attrition, and several voluntary contract buyouts. "I'm not sure how much control [Marimow] had over resources," says Guild Local 32035 President M. William Salganik, a Sun business reporter. "Given Tribune's focus on the bottom line, I think the journalism here was pretty good."

Despite the opinions of some editorial staff members that Marimow could be abrasive and difficult to work with, one newsroom staffer who asked not to be named says the editor strove to lessen the negative impact Tribune Co. actions and policies had on the newsroom. "Marimow was quite protective of the newsroom budget," the reporter says. "He was always a middleman trying to keep things from falling apart."

Though Franklin's good relationship to Tribune management might be an asset at The Sun, some observers feel it might also be a weakness. Bob Whitby, editor of Orlando Weekly, an alternative newspaper that is owned by City Paper, acknowledges that "Franklin had a reputation of really improving the [Sentinel]." But Whitby contends that Franklin was instrumental in Tribune Co. plans to train and replace Sun Guild members with nonunion Sentinel staff when Guild members threatened to strike, a charge supported by Guild members and by Clarke. Whitby says Franklin's ties to Chicago should concern Sun staffers, especially in light of the heavy-handed stance Tribune Co. has taken toward the Baltimore daily as of late.

"The Sentinel was going to send scabs to replace Sun workers," Whitby says. "Tribune doesn't care much for its workers, and I think they showed their allegiance with the firing of Marimow."

Here in Baltimore the concerns are more pointed. Salganik questions the handling of the editorial switch, saying Tribune should have dealt with the change in a more tactful manner in the wake of this summer's troubled contract negotiations and the Dec. 19 layoff of 15 Sun workers.

"I think the general feeling in the newsroom is that this was handled with particular gracelessness," Salganik says. "The very way bargaining, layoffs, and this were handled is typical of the way Tribune does things. The message I get is that they're going to try and rule by fear.

While he says he isn't willing to predict what will happen under Franklin, Salganik says the Guild is concerned that Tribune's focus on consolidation and the bottom line might lead to more layoffs, especially since The Sun has more national and foreign correspondents than many papers of comparable size--a worry shared by others at the paper.

"I think people are favorably impressed with Franklin, but I have no doubt that whatever Chicago wants to do, he'll do," says the unnamed Sun staffer. "I'm concerned that Franklin is seen as championing story-sharing within the Tribune family papers. The fear is that Tribune, in the drive for short-term profits, will damage news coverage. We're risking a generic-looking Baltimore Sun with a shallow local presence."

Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll was Marimow's former boss at The Philadelphia Inquirer and at The Sun, where he hired Marimow as metro editor in 1993 and preceded him as editor. Carroll says he doesn't understand why his longtime friend was fired, but he does confirm that Tribune Co.'s corporate culture is different than that of the Sun's former owner, Times-Mirror, though the latter became much more bottom-line focused prior to being purchased by Tribune. Carroll says that all seven former Times-Mirror papers (including Newsday and The Hartford Courant) face similar challenges.

"Bill, and really all of us, are wrestling with the question of how to adapt to a new culture," Carroll says. "Whether that was a factor in Bill's firing, I can't say. I know it was an issue [he dealt with]."

Marimow declined to comment, outside of pointing to already published statements he feels sum up his position well. Sun publisher Denise Palmer was unavailable for comment. Tribune Co. vice president for communications, Gary Weitman, did not respond to e-mails sent by City Paper.

For his part, Franklin acknowledges that staff concerns are expected and understandable. "It was a difficult circumstance to come in this way," he says. "I understand why the newsroom is emotional and skeptical--there's great journalism here. This is not a situation where you need to come in and rip everything up. I didn't come here to be a hatchet man. I want to build on what's working."

Franklin is proud of his history with Tribune Co. He says the company has a long history of quality journalism, has no interest in micromanaging individual papers, and was supportive of his decisions in Orlando--even after a nine-part series on new housing in central Florida cost the paper advertising.

"Tribune is a culture that wants its papers edited in their own markets," he says. "Journalistically, they do believe in market independence. Tribune doesn't impose a lot of mandates on its papers--I'd like to disabuse people of that notion."

He also defended sending a Sentinel copy editor to Baltimore for training during last summer's Guild contract negotiations, saying all nonunion Tribune-owned papers did the same thing. The replacement workers were volunteers, he says, and people expect a daily paper to come out every day.

For now, workers at Baltimore's only daily newspaper expect good things from Franklin, but have adopted a wait and see stance toward the paper's parent company--something they say they've grown accustomed to over the last few years.

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Switching Media (11/3/2004)

Race to the Bottom (8/11/2004)
Sun Staffers Fear That Tribune Co.ís Cost-Cutting Bodes Ill for the Paperís Future

All the News That Fits (6/16/2004)
Newsroom Staffers at The Sun Feel the Pressure as the Tribune Co. Presses for Layoffs, Buyouts, and Higher Revenues

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