Playing Monopoly

Ombudsman

October 03, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

The News American has been gone from Baltimore for seven years, since May 1986, although it lives on in the work of 25 alumni who work for The Sun.

When competitive papers die, leaving monopolies, some readers begin to wonder, what's missing? What stories do readers no longer see, stories they might have seen if daily competition flourished. Since The Evening Sun ceased having a separate reporting staff in January 1992, the curiosity is heightened.

Sentimentality and time can obscure the faults of the quirky News, which in the 1960s had a bigger circulation than either The Sun or The Evening Sun but dropped to about 100,000 before it was killed by the Hearst Corporation.

Nevertheless I asked some News alumni what might be missing for Baltimore readers because of no competition. It's a pertinent question, since single papers are the standard today. Only nine American cities are left with truly competitive daily newspapers, according to John Morton, newspaper analyst of Lynch, Jones & Ryan.

News American alumni at The Sun now work at a broader-based, more sophisticated paper, earn more money, have union protection and have more professional opportunities. They are aware of that, but they are also forthcoming in this game of tTC speculation.

The first thing that disappears with no daily competition is a bit of the urgency to get into print. Some stories are never thought of and never make it. Who knows how many?

Before, some News American, Evening Sun and Sun veterans daily tried to outdo each other on different beats.

Then, Sun and Evening Sun writers continued sparring, but since January 1992, those two staffs, separate since 1920, became one. So, some staffers say, the News demise led also to The Evening Sun's decline.

"I always thought the papers were good for each other," said Peggy Cunningham, The Sun's Carroll County bureau chief, who first walked into the News in 1966 and later came to The Evening Sun. "They kept each other alert. Reporters took it personally when they were beaten; it helped keep them sharp."

My feeling is that the paper in recent years knows of the need for more urgency and is pushing for more of that. It seeks closer ties to the community, which it has especially shown in more local news in Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties but not in some other areas.

Another alumnus, Bob Swann, an Evening Sun copy editor who laid out the News' Page 1 at the end, recalled the News featured a constant barrage of updates on local stories. "If the News got a good running story, like some politician in trouble, we'd keep it on Page 1 for days, more days than The Sun does now."

While not day after day, I think The Sun's coverage of Maryland Blue Cross problems, guns and drugs on the streets of Baltimore, the Ron Price scandal in Anne Arundel County, the Clinton health care proposals, the Mideast peace plan and the deficit debate have been good 1990s examples of sticking with big running stories.

Dick Irwin, who brought his News American Police Blotter to The Evening Sun and The Sun, said Baltimore readers might have known more before about murder victims in follow-up stories. "At the News, we felt obligated to the victims' families to talk with them as a routine thing, to find out what kind of people they were. We do that on big stories [here at The Sun] but not so routinely."

Mike Olesker, who began his News column in 1976 and moved to The Sun in 1979, noted that "the News had a real feeling for working people, The Sun historically not so much, but we do more of that here now."

John Steadman, sports columnist, recalls that the News "had soul and a special rapport with the Baltimore community," showed it, for example, in its eight-year fight for major league baseball.

Reporter Joe Nawrozki remembered a campaign that led to the first methadone program in Baltimore, other probes of police spying, Patuxent Institution and the city sheriff's office.

Although more is anticipated, probing by The Sun has been in evidence this year. Some samples: Reporters uncovered trash bins of problems at Baltimore's Flag House Court Project, the splintering empire of Eli Jacobs, twists in the National Football League franchise search and developments related to the death of a Harford county inmate.

In the end, much of the News American talent came over to The Sun and The Evening Sun and made them better, whether it was copy editors who can spot a misplaced modifier or The Evening Sun's authoritative Jacques Kelly, who knows every brick in town.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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