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.