One of the great failings of newspapers is that they don't know how to cover themselves.
We seldom report on our successes. Sometimes we don't cover negative developments, either. And too frequently, we don't cover ourselves at all.
At The Baltimore Sun, we have been wrestling in recent months with a significant number of changes, one of which will have a major impact on how we cover local news.
Our original thought was not to announce any changes until next year, for fear of giving our many competitors valuable advance information. But newsrooms, sadly, are sieves. Put a memo on a bulletin board, and it flies on electronic wings across town to a competitor within minutes.
(And despite the talk about our being a monopoly, we have plenty of competition, both for readers' time and for advertising dollars. That includes suburban papers, cable TV, even the Yellow Pages.)
We have been in the uncomfortable position of having some readers hear about upcoming changes from small magazines and others rather than from us. So here's the scoop:
* Starting next spring in Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties, we hope to increase vastly the amount of local (even neighborhood) news that is found each day in The Sun and The Evening Sun. Later in the year, we will add more local news to the papers delivered to Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Harford County.
Each subscriber will get a section filled with local news. If, for instance, a subscriber lives in Glen Burnie, he or she could be assured each day that there would be coverage of Glen Burnie, both news and sports, in the paper.
The Sun will go from producing one basic edition a night, with later updates, to eight different editions, all featuring targeted local news. There will be one edition each for the suburban counties, three for Baltimore County and one for Baltimore City.
We realize that local news is of prime importance to readers and that we must do a better job of giving customers what they want. Even the editorial pages will contain one editorial each day geared to a particular county.
While providing more local news, there will be no reduction in the amount of state, national or international coverage. Our goal is to maintain The Sun and The Evening Sun as complete newspapers.
Doing all this while being savaged by the recession is no easy trick. We intend to merge some parts of the morning and afternoon news staffs so we can avoid duplication in staffing. We can cover much more news with a merged staff, instead of sending one reporter from the morning paper and one from the evening to cover the same story.
This combination of staffs will result in some of the same stories appearing in both the morning and afternoon papers. But we will cover many subjects, such as neighborhood news and investigative reporting, in even greater depth.
(Obviously, if the economy takes a further plunge or other obstacles occur, our ambitious expansion plans will have to be delayed.)
The increased quality and quantity of local news coverage should result in significantly higher newspaper sales, which is appealing to advertisers.
* Another exciting event will happen next month. We will begin to operate our new printing facility, called Sun Park at Port Covington. It will be the most modern printing facility in the country and will enable The Baltimore Sun to print more and higher quality color. The plant, built at a cost of more than $150 million, is a significant statement about the newspaper's faith in the city.
* Early next year, we intend to expand the space devoted to business coverage and to cover more fully all the activities surrounding the life sciences. If Baltimore is to base its future, in part, on life sciences, then we should be in the forefront of covering them.
* The merging of news staffs brings fresh worries about the future of The Evening Sun. Its death has been predicted for the past 10 years or more. There is no doubt that lifestyle changes are working against evening papers. People simply don't have as much time in the evenings as they once did. The trend is for evening readers to switch to the morning paper.
However, The Evening Sun still has 150,000 subscribers, which is larger than most afternoon papers. While The Evening Sun has a more difficult future than the robust morning Sun, reports of its death continue to be exaggerated.
* The Baltimore Sun is currently offering a voluntary buy-out program to many employees to streamline the organization. To date, more than 100 people have taken the offer. Against a backdrop of cultural change, a severe recession, fears for the life of The Evening Sun, the buy-out program, and worry about what might come next, it's no wonder questions arise.
* Finally, we hope to do something about the problem of covering ourselves and listening to our readers. Within the next few weeks, we intend to name an ombudsman, or readers' representative, to investigate problems and complaints about news coverage. The ombudsman will take readers' calls, investigate and then suggest remedies, where warranted. From time to time, the ombudsman will write a column on a complaint or some aspect of the newspaper business.
We hope this leads to a better bond of trust between the newspapers and our readers. If nothing else, it will help to demystify the journalistic process.