Giants Graced Its Pages

September 17, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- So The Evening Sun is gone and duly eulogized, after almost 80 pretty good years and a half dozen at the end that weren't so good.

It had some wonderful writers in its day, and plenty of others whose journalistic shortcomings were forgiven or forgotten due to their interesting personalities.

I never worked for The Evening Sun, but that wasn't for lack of trying. Back in the mid-'60s it was the first place I ever applied for a newspaper job, and managing editor Phil Heisler -- not at all unkindly -- turned me down flat. Go get some experience, he said, and then if you're still interested, come back and we'll talk about it.

Implicit in his rejection of my application was Heisler's strong sense of The Evening Sun as an institution, a sense most of the staff shared. It was a paper of character, and of established reputation. Giants had graced its pages; it didn't hire just anyone who walked in. So it was perhaps just the slightest bit presumptuous for a kid who didn't know an overnight lead from (( an overshoe to ask for work there.

In those days The Evening Sun was editorially independent and, apparently, financially secure. It had substantially more circulation than its somewhat more tightly buttoned morning competitor, and almost as much as the truly blue-collar News American. It was a paper proud of its past and confident about its future, and these attitudes were reflected by Phil Heisler. Even as I was shown the door, I was impressed, and hoped that I'd be back someday.

But what I didn't realize was that the implacable forces were already in place which would soon doom most big-city afternoon dailies. Only a few people had noticed them then, but over the next years, as papers began to fall like ripe fruit in a big wind, the old confidence disappeared.

The Washington Daily News. the Evening Star. the Philadelphia Bulletin. the News American. More recently, the New York edition of Newsday. In many other cities, jointly owned morning-evening combinations like Baltimore's were merged into a single newspaper. Usually it was the evening paper that faded away.

Once these papers had served hundreds of thousands of readers, whose opinions they presumed to influence and whom they proudly thought they could ''deliver'' to the advertisers who bought space in their pages. And one by one they disappeared, taking with them jobs and bylines and the editorial quirks which had made them distinctive. The advertisers put their money into broadcast or direct mail instead.

There's no denying the heartache and economic dislocation this causes, but a cold-hearted believer in the ultimate wisdom of the market process wants to think it will eventually be all for the best. If a newspaper fails, it must be because its readers didn't like it enough to support it. If it had been a better newspaper, therefore, it would still be here. That's the theory, anyway. Excellence is the key to survival -- isn't it?

But with a few notable exceptions, the American newspapers which have survived the Great Contraction seem tepid, bloodless things, determined to provide the sort of news the focus groups say they want, and equally determined never to offend. To the certified public accountants and marketing specialists in top management they may indeed appear excellent, and in many respects they're more professional than their predecessors. But neither those who write for them nor those who read them find them easy to love.

Newspaper history makes it hard to generalize about the consequences of closing a paper. Occasionally a paper makes more of an impact by dying than it ever did while alive. The old Washington Times-Herald was an undistinguished morning newspaper, but when it was bought and killed by the Washington Post in 1954 it gave the Post a morning monopoly and set it on course to become a megapaper.

By contrast, the Evening Star had long been considered Washington's ''best'' paper. It held out a couple of decades longer against the Post, but when it finally died it was like losing a terminally ill relative; the end came almost as a relief. A few of its bylines and a glimmer of its spirit can still be seen in the Washington Times, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's venture into pro bono journalism; they're its only real legacy.

The Evening Sun died a similar lingering death, and those who loved it most, the people who had worked for it, were prepared. When the time came they did the right thing, celebrating its glorious and sometimes uproarious life more than they mourned its death. They had known it, or some of them had, in its heyday.

At least it had one. At the typical Newspaper of the Future, whatever that may be, it's hard to imagine that heydays will be permitted.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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