To Improve The Sun

OMBUDSMAN

March 14, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

The job of ombudsman has just passed its first anniversary at The Baltimore Sun, its creator, publisher Michael J. Davies, is leaving, and spring is around the corner.

The approximate meeting of these events isn't likely to cause high tides as when the sun, moon and earth were in alignment last week, but it's an excuse to talk a little about readers and note Mr. Davies' leaving.

"Fiddlesticks," a reader told me the other day about a story she didn't like. "Fiddlesticks and buncombe." I knew it would be a good day for the reader representative.

Readers can be wonderfully light-hearted. Some days I wish more were. In our first year, ending Feb. 3, we talked with 7,916 of them, roughly 30 a day. We heard another 1,560 messages for a total of 9,476 calls. Readers wrote 1,137 letters, and we answered almost all for a grand total of 10,613 communications.

In the 12 months, we wrote 254 daily internal reader reports for all news staffers and many other employees, one each working day. Readers' and my concerns are shared with all. There were 22 columns in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun. I have the freedom needed.

What do these readers say about our coverage of the news? Human nature and this job dictate that about 95 per cent complain, often angrily or sarcastically. Sometimes they smash fleas with pile drivers, and I wonder if they're mad at spouses or phone bills.

They are moved by money in their pockets, baseball games in their edition, schools, movies, travel and crime in their neighborhoods, the wish for good health in body and mind, proper English usage in their sensibilities and a strong Evening Sun in their memories. Many dance in an old courtship with The Sunpapers.

My colleagues keep me busy because readers are often right; we spell "too" as "to" or get a street wrong or make more serious mistakes such as missing stories. They may be right when we use possibly bad taste or are insensitive or fail to cover different aspects of a controversy.

Readers can also praise coverage of the Baltimore city schools problems last year, the John Arnick case last month, more community news from three counties and stories about children, crime, polio victims, AIDS and more.

It's a standoff, sometimes. Readers want improvements. I may agree but can't promise things because there are other priorities or because I don't run the joint. They may ask, "What good are you?" You win some, you lose some.

In a metro monopoly like Baltimore, better reader access to The Sun is a good check on us. For a year now, editors and reporters have been hearing what readers say in an organized way.

Enter Mr. Davies, who brought the ombudsman idea here. To be precise, exit Mr. Davies. He leaves this week, he says, to take one year off after almost 30 years in the business.

Several readers have asked about Mr. Davies' impact in his two and a half years here. The publisher's nature was not given to easy mixing with news staffers as he presided over major changes with his vision of a different kind of local newspaper during a tough recession. Despite his official meetings with groups of employees, the publisher and the news people were mutually distant forces.

Mr. Davies felt that his major feat during this period was "improving the quality of The Sun while cutting staff in an absolutely severe way, without layoffs but with a buyout. That's a pretty good one-two punch. There are now close to 20 per cent fewer employees."

After a daily circulation drop of 15 per cent since he came here, Mr. Davies and a circulation official said circulation of The Sun is up 27,000 over a year earlier and expects to average about 240,000 in 1993. The Sunday Sun is 3,000 up from a year ago.

The Evening Sun is down 22,000 from a year earlier and expects to average somewhere above 100,000 (it stood at 117,000 Oct. 1). The Sun's circulation is up 14 per cent in Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties since new sections began Sept. 28.

On the news side, Mr. Davies praised "better writing, improved graphics, much better local news in some areas and more relevant foreign coverage."

Left unreached is his goal of doing full community news sections for Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Harford County,

decisions awaiting an improved economy and a new publisher yet to be named. Still unsolved is the future of The Evening Sun. Speaking of the company, Mr. Davies said "The Baltimore Sun has wonderful traditions and a very good future."

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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