A gentler era

December 07, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- When Donald Patterson, The Sun's last Baltimore publisher, died this past week at 81, some of us imagined we heard the unmistakable sound of a door somewhere out of sight gently swinging shut.

It was not just any door we seemed to hear, but a massive old-fashioned oaken one with decorative carving and hand-cast hardware. The sound it made as the latch slid home -- ker-thunk -- evoked craftsmanship, pride and, in this case, a sense of finality, for it will not open again.

A modest man

Mr. Patterson, a modest, friendly man whom just about everyone liked, represented many of the qualities which made The Sun of his era and earlier a unique and in some ways eccentric Baltimore institution. He was Baltimore to the core, a second-generation Sun executive, bearing one of those famous old Sunpapers family names like Schmick and Owens and Banker and Dorsey.

It could be argued, but seldom is, that an institution which regularly hires a few of the children and grandchildren of its best people is making an intelligent business decision, for such a policy can contribute to stability and continuity. But, of course, it can also foster envy and resentment, which is why most of the modern corporate managers who run newspapers today embrace anti-nepotism rules.

Reporters, especially, who are born with irreverence in their chromosomes, used to snicker about the second- and third-generation Sunpapers people they saw in positions of authority. Don Patterson, who didn't set out to follow his father, Paul, to the newspaper and would have become a lawyer if a war hadn't interfered, was an occasional target for snickering, too.

He must have been painfully aware that there were people on the paper, and particularly in the newsroom, who assumed he owed his job to his bloodlines. But over time, as he took on a succession of demanding assignments and handled them all with the same quiet competence, most of the envious whispering died.

The Sun is a different paper now, and a different institution. For 11 years, it's been a subsidiary of a communications corporation headquartered on the other side of the country. The old family names are long gone from the masthead, and the prospect that any of today's executives might one day be succeeded by their descendants is about as likely as the return of the Linotype machine.

It's equally unlikely that their descendants will want to succeed them. Society has changed, not just company policies. We live now in an era in which few people stay with one employer for their entire working life. A child of 8 may go to the office with his father and decide that when he grows up he wants to have a job like Dad's, but by the time the kid's out of high school, Dad's probably had two identity crises and three career changes, and the job he used to do has been abolished.

Newspapers are changing, too, and not always happily. Recently, the trade press has been filled with reports of the tumult at the Los Angeles Times, the flagship paper of The Sun's parent corporation, Times-Mirror.

A self-appointed post

The new Times publisher appointed himself to the job; he could do so because he is also the chairman of the corporation. He arrived two years ago from General Mills, famous for making Wheaties. There he began firing people and was dubbed Captain Crunch, the Cereal Killer. As the blood flowed, profits rose and the price of the company's stock nearly tripled. The Captain got a $1.35 million bonus.

As the new publisher, he shocked newsroom purists by openly linking editorial and business functions, and having business people work along side section editors. He named a new editor, Mike Parks, who before going to the Times as a foreign correspondent had been an outstanding reporter for The Sun -- back in Don Patterson's day.

In Don Patterson's day, of course, there were crises, too. Newspapers need regular crises in order to survive. In hindsight, that earlier era does seem a little more humane and civilized than the present one, but maybe they'll be saying the same thing about the Crunch regime another 25 years on.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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