Sun Errors

Ombudsman

August 23, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

When I came to The Baltimore Sun in 1963, they paid in cash. Out of my little manila envelope came nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars, tens and twenties.

They also told me my best stories would be on the back page, and "Stick around, kid, and The Sun will do a great obituary on you."

Welcome to Baltimore.

The papers don't pay in cash any more or put the best stuff on the back page but they still do nice obits on their own people.

Welcome to the 1990s.

Readers ask if much has changed in three decades. Yes and no. We do some things better but we still make mistakes or do questionable things, and that's my topic for today.

Though we don't deny sinning, there's less than meets the eye in some of our alleged errors. Let me mention some misconceptions readers have about newspaper people:

1. We plot and scheme endlessly. My view: We are more disorganized than that, lone hunters rather than organized gatherers. Ask 10 news people here for their judgments on a story, you'll get 11 answers, 10 arguments and 9 hurt egos.

2. Reporters and editors are in cahoots with editorial writers. My view: Many reporters in the downtown Calvert Street building don't even read editorials. Reporters are on the fifth floor, editorial writers are on the fourth floor, and the twain don't meet much. For their part, the editorialists often are wary about reporters' completeness and accuracy.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite examples of recent problems or peeves, beyond those I've talked about in other columns. Most have been noted more than once in a daily internal report for all employees.

On some days. . . .

1. You may look for news, or the correct news, and not find it.

Maryland interest rates were inadvertently dropped one day from The Sunday Sun, horse track entries were printed for the wrong day, no final Olympic team summary or individual medal winners list was printed in The Evening Sun.

Also, no story ran when the much-awaited prostate drug Proscar was approved in June, celebrity birthdays were missing from The Sun for two days, no detailed account of men's Olympic gymnastics trial results appeared in many editions, no Evening Sun story when the House voted against balancing the budget, no obituary on Alison Gertz, who died of AIDS.

2. You can be your own editor and look for some important stories inside. On Thursday, Aug. 13, the far-reaching and much-awaited free trade agreement among Canada, Mexico and the United States was front page news -- but not in The Sun, where it made Page 11E, the front business page. Readers got no Page 1 note saying the story was inside.

3. Look for the point of stories beyond the first few paragraphs.

A long interview profile and a year-after story in The Sunday Sun last week buried the point of the stories in the "jumps," the pages where the stories were continued. Some of you may not have the patience to turn the page, and I don't blame you.

4. You need to bring your Sunpaper de-coder for those news stories The Sun covers with news analyses and quickie boxes but no main news story.

On Aug. 14, President Bush's appointment of James A. Baker III as chief of staff was handled with a front page "analysis" where it talked of "Baker's takeover of the Bush administration" and inside articles: another "analysis," a quickie boxed summary of "who's up" and "who's down", paragraph profiles of Mr. Baker's team. But no traditional Page 1 news story.

The expected move had been telegraphed earlier, but readers deserve a straight account when it happens.

5. You find opinions outside the editorial and op-ed pages.

There are too many news commentaries, with or without signs like "analysis," in the news pages. These short-cuts to the truth often deny readers their need of seeing exactly who's saying and doing what.

6. Be prepared for changes with little or no warning. Readers have been surprised by dropped features, too small notice of vacations of Liz Smith, Gary Trudeau, etc.

Finally, we've talked with or heard this week from more than 500 readers angry at the new hard-to-read consolidated stock table that combines three markets, lists no dividends and other familiar facts. I've passed the complaints to editors who say they are studying making adjustments. Stay tuned.

I liked the comment of one elderly reader: "Young people with good eyes that don't read the stocks decided this for us old people with bad eyes that read the market every day."

Oh, by the way, they stopped paying in cash here in December 1963.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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