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As Long as We Remember...

January 27, 2009

Setting Baltimore Sun

Roy Meachum

You've heard and read about the calamitous state of America's newspaper industry; it has been firmly fixed on the availability of numerous competitive news sources on the cable channels. Nobody dares to broach the possibility the venerable medium may have done itself in.


That's how it looks from here, using the newly renamed The Baltimore Sun as an obvious example – insertion of the city-of-origin appears to forecast its future readership.


Last week Western Maryland, including Frederick, subscribers received a preemptory warning we no longer could count on The Baltimore Sun greeting us each weekday morning; it would no longer be there Monday through Saturday. It took effect yesterday.


For a huckster's "bargain" $2.50, the journalistic Sun can brighten our lives only on Sunday with the on-line version of "the region's most widely read source of news and information," as it calls itself, available seven days a week. The password dictated to us becomes the long-long number of our subscription.


"No thanks" was my reply to Gary Olszewski, entitled the director of circulation and marketing, whose E-mail address didn't work. I tried twice.


Even before the demeaning letter I had decided to end my 25-year subscription. My problem? The unavailability of news I need.


When I started the columning business in Frederick, the shorter-named The Sun was a must-read. It was the only way to learn what was happening in the state. Being professionally-born and having lived my personal life with The Washington Post, it was a difficult but inevitable position.


Being a veteran of journalistic wars, in Washington and several foreign countries, my primary personal interest lay in national and international happenings. Although I lived in Maryland for years – three of my children first slept in Prince George's homes – local politics were beyond my ken and fascination. I could have cared less.


On the other hand, when Publisher George Delaplaine asked me to write a Frederick News-Post column, in 1983, it was vital that I acquire something more than a nodding knowledge of what took place in Annapolis, Winchester Hall and City Hall. His paper covered the local what's-happening. The Sun was the single means to peek at goings-on in the State House and General Assembly.


Then came The Sun's buy-out by The Chicago Tribune. At first, as you know, it was business as usual, complete with the paper's bureaus overseas; they went first, sometimes replaced by the corporation's employees at The Los Angeles Times and The Tribune.


No one outside corporate management can possibly know how many thousands of dollars went into giving the Baltimore paper a "new look." Twice. The second go-round brought about a total transformation. The only thing apparently unchanged was the paper's Great Seal atop the front page that depicts a sailing ship, coal-burning railroad engine and logos that depict industry and agriculture. Over all, a stylized eagle slightly droops its wings.


Nothing inside stayed the same, except sports. What had been an arts and entertainment section, except for Sundays, evolved into totally different topics: garden, movies, health and new technology are all that I can recall. It matters not that they are all captioned: "...for You." It's a very weak gimmick.


What had been different Maryland and business sections were folded into the main body of news that minimized local and state people and events, mixing all stories together in an editorial mish-mash. Killing national and foreign bureaus reduced news outside Maryland virtually to wire services' clichés. As I said, The Baltimore Sun cancelled last week was a totally different paper; the changes did not come over the 25 years I subscribed but only since the Tribune corporation assumed control.


Frankly, my dears, $2.50 a week is very expensive for columnists who never roused my passions, as they are supposed to do. Admittedly, in recent years, I could have been totally frustrated by the dearth of news that surrounded them. I don't know. I will be content with the News-Post and The Washington Post delivered and The New York Times' on-line version.


What The Tribune's corporate mentality forcefully demonstrated in its product, The Baltimore Sun, is the executives don't give a tinker's dam about readers' interests. They used a lack of profits to doom the paper's integrity and long-time excellence.


This is the real reason why the circulation and ad dollars continue to shrink. And they should.


(In several attempts to cancel my subscription – the circulation director's E-mail address having failed – the only human being I reached was a very competent lady with a slight accent. When asked, she said she was located in Manila, in the Philippines. Wow!)


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