John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Friday, September 4, 2009

No easy pun here about The Sun setting

Too preoccupied with various editing projects to blog much this week, I still got around to reading the Baltimore Magazine article by Evan Serpick about the parlous state of The Baltimore Sun, my former employer. I wish it had been better.

There is factual matter in the article about the precipitous drop in revenue over the past few years and the consequent reduction of the size and scope of the paper and of the staff — and the electronic version of the article corrects the blunder about the Seattle newspaper scene from the print edition of the magazine.

But I wish that Mr. Serpick had made more of an effort to put the newspaper’s plight in a broader context.

Yes, Tribune Company officials made decisions they came to rue in acquiring Times Mirror, and Sam Zell’s purchase of Tribune saddled the company with even greater debt and brought it into bankruptcy. But Tribune does not stand alone, as Mr. Serpick mentions casually but does not explore. The McClatchy Company, which bought Knight Ridder, may be at risk of bankruptcy, and Freedom Communications, the parent company of the Orange County Register, once a fabulously profitable newspaper, filed for Chapter 11 this week. Lots of colossi are teetering.

Similarly, Monty Cook’s efforts as editor of The Sun to develop “platform-neutral” articles for both electronic and print publication are hardly an eccentricity. Most other newspapers, watching their aging readership steadily decline, are struggling to find new readers and new advertising revenue on the Internet. What The Sun is attempting may not work, but no one else has come up with a better approach for a metropolitan daily.

But it is a series of remarks that I find most regrettable. The most regrettable is Mr. Serpick’s statement, “Many Sun staffers groan about Cook's incompetence and complain that he has tried to solve the paper's problems with endless redesigns.” You’ll note that Mr. Cook’s supposed incompetence is presented as a settled fact, for which the article does not provide substantiation. And two of most the recent redesigns were conducted before he became editor.

Then there are the anonymous comments, some bashing the editor, some scornful of the younger employees, some indignant about the older employees — exactly the sort of backbiting one would expect in a situation in which people are angry and fearful. But once again, they are assertions for which no support is offered. In my time at The Sun, the paper’s guidelines on anonymous quotations held that they could be justified only when they contributed substantially to the meaning of the story. These don’t.

Toward the end of the article, there is a perfunctory effort to look ahead, at such possible remedies as local ownership, about which I have previously expressed doubts, and David Simon’s proposal to erect a pay wall around newspapers — which has been greeted with widespread skepticism, one observer having suggested that Mr. Simon might make an HBO series about the failure of newspapers that take his advice.

Mr. Serpick is quite correct about the diminished state of a proud newspaper, suffering like many others from demographic, technological, and economic circumstances beyond any single paper’s control. He is correct that the remaining staff is struggling to weather the storm and navigate to calmer waters. But his article does not add much to what was already known.

9 comments:

  1. A couple of early responses on Facebook:

    JoAnne Schmitz
    I, too, was disappointed in the article. Not enough "there" there, and I agree, the anonymous quotes seemed rather sour-grapey.

    I don't suppose Baltimore Magazine is looking for a copy editor?


    George Carter
    The incredibly cheap shot of labeling Monty Cook "incompetent" and blithely attributing it to "many Sun staffers" trashes the integrity of the whole article. I was hoping to learn something about the Sun and whether it can recover from its woeful state -- but not from this article, sadly.

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  2. I have to confess I stopped taking the Sun because their carrier was incapable of getting it to me before I left for work. They just talked me into a weekend subscription, though.

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  3. Baltimore Magazine should have done a demographic breakdown of The Sun newsroom and most especially, the folks who attend the news meetings and who are the "gatekeepers" of the news getting in the paper and online. It also would have been interesting to read about what The Sun's online view statistics are like in comparison to some of the regional newspaper websites.
    It is interesting that Sun subsidiary Patuxent Publishing newspapers' websites offer links to headlines on The Examiner's site for those news items that The Sun isn't covering! That's right folks, for local news, check out The Examiner site instead!

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  4. The Baltimore Magazine article greatly underplayed the role that a mountain of debt played in the Sun's decline. Sam Zell attempted to use other people's money to make a potload for himself. Now loan payments drain The Tribune Co. Granted, even with smart owners dedicated to journalism the Sun would be in a finiancial fix, but a decent paper could still be published. One gets the impression that caring about the Sun counted against editors and reporters attempting to stay. It counted as a plus if an employee was willing to try anything new -- quality be damned. When change becomes a publication's mantra, the first thing to go is quality. A company that makes blinds has to care about blinds. A company that makes newspapers had better care about newspapers. If it doesn't, it can hardly expect that readers will.

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  5. To Anonymous: How can the Examiner site cover any news without reporters? Examiner.com seems to be a collection of local bloggers, most of whom don't cover "news" and don't get paid very much (if at all) and very few AP stories. I just checked, and on the Examiner site, there were links to "local stories" and they all pointed either to The Sun or to the AP. So I have no idea what you're talking about when you say people should get their news from the Examiner. What news?

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  6. Patrick K. Lackey writes: "When change becomes a publication's mantra, the first thing to go is quality."
    Really????
    If a company is driving off a cliff, it seems like "change" would be a pretty good idea. Generalizations of this kind perpetuate the thinking that our newsrooms always make the right decision, don't need to reconsider prevailing assumptions, and will be just fine -- once this Internet craze blows over.

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  7. John -- I think you are letting Monty off the hook too easily on the redesign issue. He wasn't the editor yet, but wasn't he closely involved in at least a couple of the redesigns before he became editor? I'm specifically thinking of the infamous "Hot-L" abomination?? If I recall, the paper needed an eight-page special section after that to let people know how to read the paper. It just seems all the redesigns were all window dressing for a failing, thinner, product.

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  8. As you are a copy editor, I might have suspected that you would have corrected the misspelling of my name on the second reference by now.

    Evan Serpick

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  9. Also, your link to the story no longer works, perhaps as a result of our website re-design. Now, the correct link is:

    http://www.baltimoremagazine.net/features/2009/09/stop-the-presses

    Thanks,
    Evan

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