Evening Sun's Future Unsure Ombudsman

ERNEST F. IMHOFF

May 17, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Readers seeing the exact same stories in The Sun and then The Evening Sun have been asking for months, "Why don't you just kill The Evening Sun? You're slowly letting it die anyway."

The answer: About 133,800 people buy the paper. This is 25,000 fewer than during the same period ending March 30 last year, but too many readers to ignore or to transfer easily to The Sun all at once. When papers fold, many readers just vanish.

How did The Baltimore Sun get to this point? In the last two years, advertising and circulation revenues declined. Publisher Michael J. Davies felt the main hope for meeting revenue and news goals was for extra street-level community coverage. He tried it successfully in Connecticut towns while editor and publisher of the Hartford Courant.

So Mr. Davies is trading in a separately-staffed Evening Sun for a gamble called Sunburst: new full-size, fully-staffed community news sections starting in late summer in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties. Selective county zoning with full-size Sun sections started in 1977 and switched to smaller tabloid sections in 1983.

The 82-year-old Evening Sun had its own staff for 70 years, nourishing and being fed by the likes of H.L. Mencken. From 1910 until October 1920, it was an afternoon edition of The [morning] Sun, started in 1837. After 10 years, the company held a "divorce dinner" in October 1920 and cut the staff in two. They put out two papers, and this lasted until this past January.

Mr. Davies says the Courant's circulation in the late 1980s began to grow at twice household growth, the Courant was the only paper in New England to show gains during the recession, and zoned advertising rose sharply. The Courant didn't have an evening paper.

Will Sunburst work in the counties of Maryland? Mr. Davies says you can't design newspapers with cookie cutters so nothing's guaranteed, but "all our surveys say readers want more and more local news. . . . If we do the job properly, people in Towson or Glen Burnie will depend on The Sun for complete daily predictable coverage of local news."

The bad economy drove several events that shape the newspapers now. Newsstand prices went up twice in a year, 25 to 35 cents and then to 50 cents last October. The company offered a generous Thanksgiving-January employee buyout that cost $13 million but reduced the company's payroll by 300 employees, including almost 90 news staffers. In January, the two news staffs became one. The Evening Sun's fate apparently was sealed.

The semi-annual circulation figures are just out. Not only did The Evening Sun drop 25,000, continuing a decline, but The Sun (233,300) slipped about 14,000, and The Sunday Sun (488,600) declined 3,300. Most metro papers have also declined in readers. The Sunday Sun is now recovering nicely. The hope is the dailies will follow.

Various factors caused the fall-off, including the two price increases. Some subscribers of both dailies dropped one or the other, usually The Evening Sun. Many local stories in The Sun and The Evening Sun since January are exactly the same. In effect, the company is writing off half the papers that duplicate readers buy.

Since staffers will be needed for Sunburst, no plans exist to reverse the same-story, little-updating strategies.

To the fairly new publisher, the change was minimal. "Much of the [old evening] front page was a rehash of the morning Sun," he says, "and many stories by different writers on the two papers were not materially different. We simply couldn't afford to have several reporters covering the same story."

This assessment sidesteps readers' habits, the separate lively tone and quirkiness of The Evening Sun led by its own editors and reporters, the different interests and opinions of the two papers over 70 years and the creativity of friendly competition.

Staffers are convinced we're headed for one metro daily within one to three years, or sooner. Mr. Davies said a decision this summer on The Evening Sun will eventually mean sink or swim: "Sunburst could give a boost to The Evening Sun."

Whether the ultimate trade-off -- two traditional Suns for one bigger "world-class" Sun, perhaps retaining The Evening Sun nameplate -- is worth it, as Mr. Davies argues, remains to be seen. Zoning has a mixed record among metro dailies.

Already studied for a year, the ambitious Sunburst plans full coverage of news usually left to community papers. The five counties and city will each get a separate full-size section with other county and city news summarized.

The loss of the autonomous Evening Sun has been viewed with dismay by many long-time readers. True, its strong columnists -- Dan Rodricks, Wiley Hall, Jacques Kelly -- and some other hallmarks still exist. But more than 200 readers have complained to me in one way or another about repeated stories from The Sun and other matters.

Healthy internal competition between two daily metro staffs is gone. Less is written in many fields; The Sun or The Evening Sun often covered stories the other didn't. Fewer reporters covered the recent General Assembly. Arts fans who want comparisons now read only one reviewer/reporter's work on movies, television, classical music, pop music or art. Some beats are covered part-time, some are temporarily uncovered. Stories break more often in The Sun than The Evening Sun.

In fact, for this afternoon paper, afternoon events are now dead. The daily news window for Evening Sun coverage opens about midnight and closes about noon. It is a late morning paper now.

Ernest F. Imhoff, the readers' representative at The Baltimore Sun, spent 28 years on The Evening Sun.

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