‘Sun’ bright or ‘Sun’ lite?

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By: Joe Strupp

It was less than a year ago that The Sun newsroom in Baltimore experienced one of its proudest moments ever. Chalking up its 15th Pulitzer Prize (the beat reporting award for Diana K. Sugg), along with placing finalists in two other categories, the editorial staff had every reason to brag and expect positive times ahead.

Take a walk through the same second-floor newsroom today and it’s hard to miss a feeling of frustration and uncertainty. Many staffers remain troubled by events of the past 12 months, including the firing of longtime editor William Marimow and a bitter Newspaper Guild contract fight that nearly ended in a strike and the use of replacement workers. For some, this angst is expressed in the pro-union signs that still decorate desks, proclaiming “Make It Fair” and “Go Baltimore! Beat Chicago!” ? a reference to the union’s anger toward the Tribune Co., the Sun’s out-of-town ownership.

“If Tribune believes employees are valued, it hasn’t communicated that well,” says Bill Salganik, president of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild and a 25-year Sun staffer. “There is a lot of lingering distrust and hurt.”

Even more pronounced is fear of the future. Staffers don’t know whether to believe that the difficult times have passed and much-needed changes are clearing the way for journalistic improvements, as Tribune executives contend, or if things will get worse with more cutbacks, loss of employee rights, and a greater demand for profits and revenue. “It’s a little too soon to tell,” says Connie Knox, a features copy editor who has worked at the paper for more than two decades. “People are still trying to digest what changes are going on.”

As new editor Tim Franklin, who took over Jan. 6, slowly puts his mark on the paper, and Publisher Denise Palmer walks tall following the Marimow firing and guild contract battle ? both of which effectively sealed her power ? many employees remain cautious. Franklin’s reputation as a passionate newsman is solid from his editorships at the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel and The Indianapolis Star. Several newsroom staffers already give the new editor high marks for being more approachable than Marimow. “Marimow was not the kind of guy everyone sat around and talked to,” said one reporter who requested anonymity. “He was not everybody’s buddy.”

By contrast, Franklin, who quickly met with guild leaders and formed two committees to review the paper’s quality and diversity, is credited with reaching out to bolster relations. “I think he can bring some healthy change to the Sun,” says reporter Howard Libit, who has been at the paper for nine years. “He’s said a lot of really good things.”

Still, this does not completely overshadow the hurt and anxiety caused by Marimow’s departure. Fired Jan. 5 after 11 years at the paper, reportedly with no warning, Marimow became almost a martyr in the eyes of several editorial employees already angry at Palmer for her handling of the guild battle. Marimow, a prot?g? of legendary editor Gene Roberts at The Philadelphia Inquirer, practiced journalism one way ? with dogged, shoe-leather reporting. Some believe that approach would not work under a rigorous corporate owner. As another Sun reporter said, “Bill speaks Gene Roberts, Palmer speaks Tribunese.”

The publisher has said only that she and Marimow were not a good fit. The consensus view is that the two had different personalities and, perhaps, he would not eagerly go along with suggested cutbacks or changes. Marimow declines to comment on his expulsion, saying he is “committed to moving ahead.”

Towering over all of this from its perch some 700 miles away is the Tribune Co., which receives most of the rank-and-file wrath. Although Palmer is seen as the one spearheading the new regime, many believe she is merely following orders from a company whose obvious need for higher profits and happy shareholders requires a healthier bottom line and more disciplined operation. “The perception is that she is somehow coming in to impose Tribune’s will,” says Lee Gardner, editor of Baltimore City Paper, which covers the Sun regularly.

Jack Fuller, president of Tribune Publishing, strongly disagrees. “The local publisher makes the decisions,” he declares.

Palmer shoots down accusations that she is a Tribune company pawn sent in to do the company’s dirty work. “I think Jack [Fuller] saw that I care about journalism and I take a holistic view,” she says. “Without great journalism, you have no franchise.”

Investing in quality

It’s been more than three years since the Tribune Co. bought the seven newspapers formerly owned by Times Mirror, which included the Sun. At that time, Times Mirror, the longtime property of the Chandler family, had been through a wave of tough times and Tribune was seen by many as something of a savior. It instilled a sense of discipline over the Los Angeles Times, and steadied its reputation with the transfer of Editor John Carroll from the Sun and Publisher John Puerner from the Orlando Sentinel.

“The only thing we have ever talked about with Tribune is quality,” says John Patinella, the Sun’s general manager, who began at the paper 34 years ago selling subscriptions door to door in high school. “Tribune is investing in this company.” He cited several areas in which the company has made improvements, including a $30 million renovation of the paper’s headquarters in 2000, a new $6 million computerized circulation program that allows more direct billing, and a new photo archive system.

At the same time, however, the paper is hurting from a drop in advertising revenue and circulation similar to that of most dailies. Patinella says help-wanted ads are down 50% since 2000, while average weekday circ has dropped from 292,034 during the six months ending in September 2001 to 276,848 over the same period last year. Sunday circulation also is down, to 465,807 from 474,230 over the same time span.

The paper has hired a consultant to review all elements of the news delivery process. Patinella adds: “Other [Tribune] papers have saved in the millions by changing their ways.” The Sun cut costs by laying off more than a dozen non-editorial employees at the end of 2003.

But those moves are not expected to stem the tide of revenue problems, workers fear. As 2004 unfolds, many worry that the newspaper’s most expensive resource ? employees ? may see further cutbacks. “I don’t know if they will get to the end of the year again and lop off some more people,” Salganik says. “I wouldn’t say there is no cause for worry.”

‘Fresh look’ or Baltimore chop?

It comes as no surprise that Denise Palmer has been reading Personal History, the autobiography of Katharine Graham. Like Graham, Palmer has taken the helm of a major East-Coast daily during difficult economic times, and has faced a contentious union. Graham gained notice in 1975 when she won a hard-fought battle with the Pressman’s Union at The Washington Post.

But unlike Graham, who detailed her anxieties and fears of running a major paper in her autobiography, Palmer is all confidence as she greets a visitor to her corner office inside the Sun’s mammoth building. Sporting a conservative brown business suit and alternately nursing a coffee cup and a bottle of water, the first-time publisher is polite, but firm in her views of the paper.

For Palmer, who started with Tribune Co. as an auditor in 1980 and joined the Sun in September 2002 as publisher, her labor fight occurred last summer when the local guild was negotiating a new contract and threatened to strike if it did not get one before its previous agreement expired on June 24. Vowing to continue their longtime practice of not working without a contract, members of the guild authorized a walkout and were just hours away from hitting the picket lines when a four-year deal was approved that included a wage freeze and a new, unpopular merit-pay system.

For many guild members, the decision to avoid a strike was prompted, in part, by the Sun’s plan to bring in employees from other Tribune papers ? including Tim Franklin’s Orlando Sentinel ? to help put out the newspaper. “My job is to publish the paper,” Palmer, 47, says, recalling the dispute. “If they go out on strike, I have to have people to put out the paper.” The publisher says the union made life difficult for itself by refusing to work without a contract, something that most guild locals are willing to do.

The new contract provides for no raises in 2004, but a $24 per week increase in 2005 for all guild members, which include 600 workers spanning editorial, custodial, marketing, and advertising employees. The merit-pay system kicks in during the final two years, with each employee receiving a $10 per week annual raise in 2006 and 2007, and an extra $14 or $15 per person is placed in a pool fund to be used for additional merit raises. “If people have confidence in their abilities, they should like that system,” Palmer says. “We are aware of fears and we will do everything we can to see to it that it is fairly administered.”

But the pay change is not sitting well with many employees, who claim it leaves open the chance for unfair distribution of raises. Already smarting from the contract fight, many say they do not trust management to do the right thing. “They had a sense of trust and that trust was betrayed,” says Linda Foley, president of The Newspaper Guild-CWA in Washington, D.C. “The guild is very much a part of the culture at the Sun, and this created a big rift.”

Palmer makes no apologies for her actions during the negotiations. “We got a contract that gives us the flexibility to help the Sun grow,” she says. “The union is the reality here, but we have other unions [that] are more practical and more clear about what they are after.” Five additional unions also represent Sun employees, but the guild is by far the largest.

The publisher admits that her job would be easier without a guild, but says it has never been her intention to drive them out. “Would I like to create an environment where employees would reconsider whether they need representation? Yes,” she says, frankly. “But I am not going to do it in a way that violates any laws.” She stresses, though, that she would rather not have to work with the Newspaper Guild. “I would choose to work directly with the employees,” she says. “It is the employees’ choice to be represented by the Guild.”

The Sun’s sixth publisher in 14 years, Palmer is only the second woman to hold the post and operates differently than her predecessor, Michael Waller, who spent more than 20 years on the editorial side (with editing stints at The Hartford Courant and The Kansas City Star) and had a knack for talking it up with newsroom folks.

Palmer gained notice shortly after she arrived by spending a night in the newsroom, writing an obituary and visiting different news departments. “It was like ‘Take Your Publisher To Work Day’,” one reporter jokes. “It was nice that she wanted to find out about journalism, but then we never saw her again.” Several staffers note that Palmer rarely visited the newsroom during Marimow’s time, but say she is often there to see Franklin.

“I’d like to spend more time in the newsroom because we will be doing some interesting things there,” she says, citing a likely redesign in the next year. “We will take a fresh look at everything.”

Bill & Tim’s adventure

Caught in the fallout from recent events is Franklin, the 43-year-old editor who was summoned to replace Marimow ? and literally flew north on a day’s notice. Since the Sun gave Marimow a week to clean out his office and pack up more than 10 years of newsroom memories, Franklin was forced to work from a smaller office as he set up shop, sought to calm the startled newsroom, and plan ways to improve the paper.

“The first few days, the newsroom was very emotional,” says Franklin, a married father of 11-year-old twins. “These things are always hard, but I am not going to second-guess what happened.” The new editor admits it was a bit awkward crossing paths with Marimow that first week, but praises him for being gracious and offering advice. “We had several good conversations,” Franklin remembers, while sitting in his glass office just off the main newsroom. “It gave me an opportunity to pick his brain about the place.”

While staffers have mixed opinions of Marimow’s personality, most agree he commanded respect as a top newsman who had served the paper well. Hired by former editor John Carroll in 1993 as metro editor, and later promoted to managing editor before replacing Carroll in 2000, Marimow had a reputation for bringing in young reporters and nurturing them through the ranks. The paper won three Pulitzers during his time in the newsroom. “Of all of the papers to have Pulitzer Prize finalists last year, ours was the smallest to have three finalists,” Marimow notes. “I felt very good about what we did journalistically.”

The ex-editor also earned points for reportedly fighting potential layoffs and even offering to take a pay cut to keep costs down and save jobs. According to sources, he privately opposed the company’s contract offer last year, so some reporters were surprised when Marimow made an 11th-hour plea to guild members in a letter that sought their approval of the contract to avoid a strike. “It was so odd,” says Candus Thomson, a sports reporter, who added that the letter was sent to staffers via e-mail, office mailboxes, and the Sun’s internal message system. “It was seen as excessive and it was weird because it was a horrific contract and he had been a labor reporter and a guild member.”

Some in the newsroom felt Marimow focused too much on young reporters. “He created a newsroom in that image and chased the older reporters out,” recalls David Simon, a Sun scribe from 1982 to 1995, who now produces the HBO police drama The Wire.

Simon also recalls Marimow’s penchant for quoting The Godfather, with references to Michael Corleone’s belief that “everything” is personal. “He took me to lunch one time as managing editor and asked me what people were saying about him,” says Simon. “I wouldn’t give him names and he kept asking me, he asked me five times ? then he used the Godfather line.” The former reporter does, however, commend Marimow as “an honest guy who tried to do what was best for the paper.”

Referring to Marimow’s old-school ways, Thomson explains, “He believes there is a way to do journalism and I could not see him changing. Bill doesn’t have the political will.”

For Sun Managing Editor Tony Barbieri, who has been at the paper since 1970, Marimow stacks up well against any editor. He disputes the notion that a new editor had to come in to improve things. “You are not in a situation where you need a man on horseback riding in to save everyone,” says Barbieri, who stresses that he also respects Franklin and believes he is doing a good job.

Franklin speaking

Franklin seems to have found a way to ease into the job, respecting Marimow’s legacy, but making it clear he is in charge and ready to shake things up. Along with the likely redesign, the new top editor plans to expand some coverage areas, add a staffer to the paper’s 10-person Washington, D.C., bureau, and launch a new investigative unit. His recently created quality committee is already reviewing The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times and The Dallas Morning News for ideas. “They all do enterprise and project reporting extremely well,” Franklin says of those papers. “They all combine storytelling and visuals very well.”

The new editor also plans more visuals and graphics in the paper to provide “layers of storytelling… You can do things with boxes and summaries and graphics and art without losing impact,” he points out. “But I am not talking about another USA Today. I hate USA Today’s design. I don’t want the paper to look like a Hawaiian shirt.”

New beats covering pop culture, and aging and workplace issues also are expected, Franklin says, in addition to more health reporting for the paper whose coverage area includes Johns Hopkins University. Franklin hopes to expand the paper’s two-page Monday medical section to a stand-alone model, along with more Monday business coverage.

Franklin also supports a growing, if controversial, effort at many Tribune papers to increase use of each other’s material, or “content sharing,” a phrase that already has some Sun reporters and editors concerned that it could diminish the newspaper’s personality and local flair, not to mention jobs. “There is a legitimate discussion about what each paper should do on its own and what should be passed around,” Salganik says.

Some reporters point to the four-page “Your Money” report in the Sunday business section that is produced by Tribune for all of its papers. “It is a hodgepodge of stuff from different papers that doesn’t really have a brain to bring it together,” says one reporter.

But Franklin argues that if the paper can allow another Tribune property to cover something and free up staffers for investigative or local coverage, all the better. “I don’t want the Sun to become a generic newspaper, that is not the point,” Franklin says during a chat in his office. “But, especially in the Sunday paper, when it is a choice between an Associated Press story that everyone else will have and a Chicago Tribune story that is more in-depth, it makes sense to have the story that is most in-depth.” He said the same approach is useful for “second-tier” Washington stories, some sports stories not involving local teams, and other national news that has little link to Baltimore.

In another area, convergence may be increasing at the Sun, which recently ended an exclusive two-year agreement with ABC affiliate WMAR, choosing to explore additional broadcast alliances. With WMAR, the Sun kept a television camera in the newsroom for breaking news coverage, and held a segment on the 11 p.m. newscast. Franklin, who had two broadcast partnerships in Orlando, says more outlets means more exposure. “It reinforces in the market that the Sun is the authority,” he claims. “It means more eyeballs.”

Balancing product, bottom line

Despite changes at the paper, Palmer points out that no editorial employees have been laid off, while Franklin stresses that only job cuts through attrition are expected during 2004.

But Palmer is not blind to demands of Tribune, and most media companies, for a profitable bottom line and smart money management. “Yes, they have aggressive financial goals,” she says of her company. “They need to have those to satisfy our shareholders. But I think we care very much about quality. Our goal is to be the best regional paper in the country.”

Visitors to the paper’s home along quiet North Calvert Street, just a few blocks from Baltimore’s downtown, know they are in a home of journalistic history. Inside the large brick building, an expansive lobby displays photographs of past Pulitzer winners, an old-time hand press, and a quote on the wall, in huge letters, from Sun legend H.L. Mencken, describing newspaper reporting as “The life of kings.”

While the Sun has earned a reputation for quality journalism, it has also been seen by some as an overachieving paper. For a daily with a weekday circulation of less than 300,000, its record of expansive coverage that includes the 10-person Washington, D.C., office and five foreign bureaus could be viewed as excessive for a regional newspaper. “The paper always had a reputation of doing more than it had to with news coverage,” says Jack Germond, the Sun’s nationally known former Washington columnist. “I think readers sort of expected that.”

Some Sun employees fear that Tribune, in an effort to trim costs, will view the newspaper as it does other papers of the same size, such as a Rocky Mountain News or a St. Louis Post-Dispatch, instead of keeping it well-staffed to be equated with larger papers. “My fear is that in making the kind of profit Tribune wants, the product will be damaged,” says Michael Hill, guild unit chair and a 30-year Sun employee. “I wish I didn’t feel that the Tribune Company made as many decisions as it does based on how it is going to affect the stock price.”

But John Morton, a leading newspaper analyst, is not surprised about what is transpiring at the Sun. “The former Times Mirror properties had fatter staffs compared to other Tribune papers,” he tells E&P. “You could make the argument that by today’s standards, they were overstaffed. They are doing what they intended to do when they took over the Times Mirror properties ? pared down the staffs.”

Still, Morton does not believe Tribune will decimate the paper. “I think the Sun will continue to do what it has been doing,” he says. “Tribune is not going to destroy the franchise. They bought those papers because of what they are.”

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