They Hate To See That Ev'nin' Sun Go Down

Ombudsman

June 20, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Drip. Drip. Drip. The Evening Sun droplets of discontent continue.

Marcia Rubin, of Randallstown, gets her news from TV in the morning, works during the day and relaxes at night with The Evening Sun. She switched when The News American died in 1986. One recent day she was off. The paper came at 10:20 a.m. ''That's crazy. . . . What good is that?''

Della Shanahan, of Pasadena, says, ''I liked The Evening Sun better when it was a newspaper. I like Dan Rodricks and the editorial pages, but forget it for the latest news.''

Bette Teich, of Pikesville, says her Evening Sun comes at 10:30 a.m. She doesn't read The Sun. ''Where's the news? I love people like Kevin Cowherd -- he's crazy like I am and belongs in a home -- but where's the news?'' Her daughter Ronnie is sorry The Evening Sun is no longer sold in Rockville.

These people called me in the past few days. Complaints of ''rip-off,'' ''you should be ashamed'' and ''Times Mirror has ruined the paper'' come in each week, almost without fail. I've talked with at least 800 readers who have cussed, crabbed and canceled their Evening Sun, the longest running complaint I've had about The Baltimore Sun.

Readers who call me tend to be negative, but some have stressed they like new things in The Evening Sun such as the expanded county coverage in Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties, ''blanket'' high school sports and more major league baseball coverage (also in The Sun).

Yet most caller-readers of the paper say something else:

* They want to read an evening paper in the afternoon or evening, not before lunch, with its current final deadline of 11 a.m.

* They want more late news, later developments on stories that might be in The Sun or on TV last night. They like it when breaking stories make the paper some days, such as Monday when the Ruth Ginsburg Supreme Court choice was predicted in the final edition.

* They are comfortable with but also fire back at the columnists, the opinion pages and comics, all different from those in The Sun. Unlike the morning paper, The Evening Sun carries West Coast and other late sports. Readers love that.

* They are less frequently the type of earlier complainer who got both Sun and Evening Sun; many have dropped one paper, mostly The Evening Sun. Complaints about no fresh news continue .

* Many blame Times Mirror Inc., the parent company, for $H changes they don't like since the Los Angeles company bought the paper in 1986.

When I first wrote about this subject in May 1992, four months after the paper's separate staff was re-assigned to more expanded county coverage, the circulation was about 133,800. It is now just above 100,000. I claim no great objectivity on this subject, having spent 28 years on the evening paper when it had its own staff. Forget that. Consider the readers who call.

Besides the problem of steadily disappearing readers, I feel this continuing drip-drip-drip is eroding the reputation of The Baltimore Sun as an institution in this area. For each person who calls, others grumble. ''What's happening to The Baltimore Sun?'' the older ones ask.

Aside from mentioning improvements aiding both papers, I do explain to complaining readers the well-known fact that evening newspapers have declined all over the country. Total U.S. evening circulation has gone from almost 33 million in 1980 to below 18 million in 1992 while morning papers have gone from 29 million to 42 million.

Reading and news habits here have splintered. Total Baltimore circulation of general-interest metro dailies is almost half what it was in 1965: 613,000 for three papers including the now-dead News American compared with 350,000 for the two Sunpapers now. Other papers, TV, other interests have moved in. Meanwhile, the area population has risen from 1,727,023 in 1967 to 2,382,172 in 1990.

But this can serve as an alibi. The Evening Sun's decline has been aided internally, the paper set aside for newer projects. One of its few remaining staffers describes its presence within the company during the past 18 months as ''the corpse at the tea party that no one talks about.''

But readers out there still talk about it. There's life yet in The Evening Sun. Editors at the newspaper have been studying ways to shore up the paper. I'm in favor. It won't stop all complaints but I think readers would appreciate more of today's news in the evening paper. That's what it's for.

Ernest F. Imhoff is The Baltimore Sun's reader representative.

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