FIVE years ago this week the News American shut down its presses and said so long to Baltimore. Now, very few mourn the loss except the sentimental slobs who worked there and a few aging subscribers in East Baltimore who still call the paper the News-Post.
The debate over whether Baltimore is worse off for being a one-newspaper town -- or at least a one-cash register town -- is reserved for journalism school academics, politicians who resent the surviving points of view and reporters who meet occasionally at funerals or in bars.
The last great gathering of News American graduates was four years ago on the first anniversary of the paper's death. And along the way, there were the funerals of Robin Harriss, the closest thing Baltimore ever had to a boulevardier, and Thomas Justin White, longtime editor, raconteur and columnist of the News American.
The next great reunion will be on Sunday. News American groupies will be coming from across the country and -- who knows? -- maybe even from around the world, to the Baltimore County estate of William J. Stump, the newspaper's editorial page editor.
For many, however, the journey will be a short one. They'll be coming from the newsrooms of The Sun and Evening Sun. In journalism, as in politics, it's tough letting go of yesterday.
Between the death of the News and its one-year anniversary was the 150th celebration of The Sun, which was said to have cost more than $1 million, probably as much as the News American was losing every month when William Randolph Hearst Jr. was finally persuaded to pull the plug on his Baltimore gazette. Such are the economics of newspapers: One holds a wake; the other throws a party.
For the truth is that the guts of any newspaper is not its news or its opinion. The real content is the comics, obituaries, horoscopes, grocery store coupons and box scores for rotisserie freaks. They are the newspaper staples that even television doesn't deliver.
Anyone in a hurry can stay on top of the major issues of the day simply by reading "Doonesbury," "Sally Forth," "Tank MacNamara" and "Kudzu." Toss in Mike Lane and a KAL cartoon, and just about anybody can be well-informed without ever putting on hip boots to wade through those boring news columns and dull editorials.
It is simply incorrect to regard Baltimore as a one-newspaper town. The Sun and The Evening Sun are two distinct personalities, and they compete as much as any evening newspaper can compete with the built-in advantages of a morning publication. How long the competition will last is a newsroom guessing game. And on many downtown street corners, it's now possible to buy most major out-of-town newspapers.
To underline the point, The Evening Sun assumed an important part of the News American's identity with the city by immediately signing several of its celebrated columnists -- John Steadman, Jacques Kelly, Sylvia Badger.
The Evening Sun also took on many of the News American's important reporters, writers and editors, with a sprinkling going to The Sun and the newspapers' zoned editions. The list includes Richard Irwin, Joe Nawrozki, Georgia Marudas, Tom Gibbons, Vida Roberts, Claudette Newsom Aarons, Jim Hunt, Helen Jones, Alverta Conyers, Robert Swann, Liz Bowie, Dennis O'Brien, Mark Hyman, Edward Gunts, Martin Evans. (Add cartoonist Mike Ricigliano, who appears regularly in The Evening Sun's sports section and draws the EMCEE cartoon on this page.) Incidentally, The Evening Sun also picked up 50,000 new subscribers.
Baltimore, in more ways than one, is the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Its newspapers are (were) no exception. Its circulation patterns were the reverse of those in every other major city in the country because of its blue-collar population and, for years, its lack of a subway system. In fact, the News American originally opposed construction of the Baltimore Metro because its editors believed the subway would stimulate the growth of morning circulation.
And for awhile, the News American -- in yet another of its many identity crises -- tried to become sort of a morning paper while at the same time preserving its afternoon identity. It was just one more decision that didn't work.
In every other big city, the morning paper is the dominant publication. Here, at the peak of their glory days, the News
American and The Evening Sun sold a combined half million papers a day to their six-pack audiences while The Sun was sinking to a low of about 169,000.
In its heyday in the '60s, the News American was the largest circulation daily newspaper in Maryland. When it folded, the News American's distribution had shrunk to a fewer than 100,000. The News could write and print the paper. Its circulation department just couldn't deliver it.