Waterfall on a Monopoly

OMBUDSMAN

March 01, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Listening to complaints about news coverage in The Sun and The Evening Sun is like standing under a waterfall. It's chilly, and the stream is constant. Some of the liquid feels like battery acid. But much is clear water.

Since I began the job of reader representative, or ombudsman, a month ago, I've talked with almost 700 readers, about 37 a day. Here are a few of their concerns I share:

* Readers who get both The Sun and The Evening Sun now see many of the same feature, business, local and sports stories and reviews. News stories aren't updated in the next paper. This unfortunate situation began when the two separate staffs started merging recently after 70 years of friendly competition.

The bad economy helped the company paint the readers buying both papers (about 10 percent of the subscribers) into this corner after the company 1) began planning for expanded new community coverage to start later this year, 2) decided two reporters covering any one story for the two papers is too expensive in a recession, 3) had a generous buyout that deleted 87 news staffers and 4) continued publishing the two dailies.

xTC * The Evening Sun, always our family's feisty tomboy, appears some days a bit of a country cousin wearing hand-me-downs, although big stories still break there, and such fine stalwarts as Dan Rodricks, Wiley Hall, Jacques Kelly, Bill Tanton, Phil Jackman, John Steadman and Ken Rosenthal keep working hard. The company is studying the paper's future.

* The papers failed to tell readers their Baltimore city garbage wouldn't be picked up on Lincoln's Birthday Feb. 12. (City workers were off).

* They ignored, except for an Evening Sun photo, an anti-abortion rally of 1,000 to 3,000 outside the State House in Annapolis Feb. 17.

* The two dailies stopped carrying complete TV schedules -- a problem about to be remedied. Basic radio information is lacking. Certain features like many earnings reports are gone from the business section.

* The Sun buried on Page A20 a story about three Israeli soldiers hacked to death in a major security breach inside Israel while Israelis killing a Hezbollah leader and family was the next day's lead story.

* Writers put little anecdotes on top of news stories or start articles with pronouns instead of nouns for subjects, two writing fads that keep busy readers guessing.

I don't agree with all readers' concerns. Readers saw red last Monday when they saw "Raise Taxes," a fat sledge-hammer headline on Page 1A on a Sun tax poll story. Some angry protesters I talked with or whose messages I read among 56 in all, rejected the poll.

I didn't reject it but I disliked the inflammatory Page 1A headline and a wrong inside headline. The poll of 1,210 randomly selected voters was scientifically done by a reputable North Carolina polling firm used before. Still, I suggested the anger was plenty enough to warrant a great reaction story. Sadly, we missed the chance.

Here's the point: The Sunpapers are a monopoly. The News American folded May 27, 1986, and the two Sun staffs completely merged Jan. 20. Though readers have television, radio, community papers, magazines and more, they have no other Baltimore metro daily. We are fewer in staff number but have an extra duty now to present opposing sides.

What happens to readers' concerns? First I listen to people much of the day. Then I pass along many comments in a daily Readers' Report distributed by computer to all 400 newsroom staffers and by paper to company executives and other employees. It's an eye-opener to many news people here, a wonderful and sometimes harried staff.

Editors are making some changes, such as tightening up writing and correcting mistakes. They are talking about returning some missed features, such as fuller TV listings. Some changes will take time; some requests probably won't be satisfied.

Please be aware: I talk with readers most of the day (on news issues only), and often you're asked to leave a message. Some days because of the volume, I can't return all calls. Messages that you leave when you call (410) 332-6495 will be heard. Remember you can also continue to call reporters and editors here to talk about problems.

Finally, there is talk here of becoming a "first class" or "world class" paper. To my good colleagues, let's first make sure our readers know when their garbage won't be picked up.

Ernest Imhoff became the first ombudsman here Feb. 2 after 28 years of Evening Sun jobs ranging from reporter to acting managing editor. His column will appear periodically.

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