Thoughts on The Evening Sun

May 27, 1995|By DANIEL BERGER

The Cleveland Press, which I joined out of college in 1954, was the archetypal powerful newspaper.

Many Clevelanders blamed it for whatever they thought wrong with their town, on the ground that it could do anything it wanted, so whatever civic need went unmet must be the Press' fault.

It wasn't true, but we weren't going to disabuse them. A lot of what passes for the latest in daily journalism the Press was pioneering. Zoning. White space. Provincialism. Baby talk. Passionate commitment. Sam Sheppard, long before O.J.

But the Cleveland Press died in 1982 after several years of losing money. It succumbed to evening-paper disease.

Parts of it live on. When it moved to a state-of-the-art plant in the late 1950s, obsolete equipment was sold to staff at low prices. I still run a floor fan I bought for $15. The new plant has long since vanished.

The Evening Sun, to which I came as an editorial writer in 1967, was better at many things than The Sun and had a lot more readers inside the Beltway. Not only had H. L. Mencken graced that page at some earlier era. A. D. Emmart, Bradford Jacobs, Dudley Digges, Jim Bready, Richard O'Mara, Tom Flannery and I were working for it then.

The Sun covered Washington and the world better. The Evening Sun was Baltimore. It was scooping The Sun until the day the staffs were merged, ending much of The Evening Sun's separate character, three years ago.

Evening papers used to be rewritten all day for constantly changing editions. Radio in the 1920s doomed that, in theory. The practice continued until the 1970s. A.M. edition writing is better, in theory.

The merger of the two Suns will be completed September 18. Baltimore is an un-trendy place to its credit, and this is happening later here than in most cities.

Three developments conspired against evening newspapers. One is dependence on broadcast news for getting the gist of what happened earlier in the day. The second is the reduction in early-shift factory employment, whose workers were the great evening-paper readers.

The third is the difficulty in finding youngsters to deliver the paper to homes after school. Adults do most of that now, in cars, before morning rush hour.

News media are beset by other trends. One is concentration of ever-more power in ever-fewer hands. Another is fragmentation of any single market place.

Taken together, these produce confusion and ulcers. Ownership acting more insecure. In theory, their newspapers should no longer exist. The trick is to get the extinction date right, within two decades anyway.

It is inefficient to plant forests in Canada to ship as newsprint to Baltimore to ink up and deliver to your doorstep bearing news which its editors read yesterday. So the owners invest in every possible successor technology, so far invariably at a loss.

Newspapers still thrive. The technological successors are all invented, but no one has figured out how to make them commercially viable.

Meanwhile, a few current conditions may be noticed. One is that the surviving morning newspaper in every major city is the place where diverse people come together for common understanding. Broadcast markets are more fragmented and less unifying than ever.

A second is that newspapers have outlived the fads about what would replace them. Reading was supposed to be out and image in. Along came Internet. Reading and writing are back in.

A third is that although legal reasoning allows government regulation (censorship, really) of broadcast communication because it is scarce while anyone may print, in reality channels are many and printing presses few.

But observe: The sedition today is on radio and the pornography on television. You'd never think they were regulated. Print, which is not censored, is pretty clean.

It is edited, meaning that self- restraint based on taste, judgment and the market is more effective than law in elevating the tone.

A fourth observation -- for young people considering careers -- is that newspapers in their current form may have a finite future but society will always pay people to find out and tell what is going on.

What's more, writing is key for the foreseeable future (even television news is written).

So the key newspaper skills will be paramount in whatever replaces newspapers, assuming something eventually will. Reading, writing and finding out are here to stay.

0 Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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