A newspaperman's reminiscences

April 28, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,Perspective Editor

This week marks the beginning of my 34th year with this enterprise once known as The Sunpapers. It's still called that by Baltimoreans who don't like to admit that the institutions which distinguished this city are gone, gobbled up by conglomerates whose far-away chief executives probably would imagine that a Natty Bo is some sort of necktie.

I started here on April 29, 1969, when the newspaper was still owned and managed by "the families," as we used to call them. Abells and Blacks were the most directly involved owner families. Schmicks and Pattersons were the manager families. They handed down the board chair and publisher's title to their descendants through most of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Once I got past the fact that these people were living far, far more comfortably than I was ever likely to do while they paid me next to nothing, they were likable; some were downright lovable. William F. Schmick III, whose father and grandfather were publishers of The Sunpapers, is the godfather of my oldest son. He has been my best friend for more than 30 years. The late Gary Black, chairman of the board, turned out to be such a happy guy that I was one of the few foreign correspondents who looked forward to a visit from the chairman.

Now we are just The Sun. There is no Evening Sun, as there was when I began work here. The poohbahs at the Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co., exercising their fiduciary responsibilities on behalf of some hungry heirs, mastered the sale of The Sunpapers and The A. S. Abell company's other holdings for a record amount in 1987 to the Times-Mirror Corp., of Los Angeles. Now The Sun is owned by The Tribune Company of Chicago, which bought Times-Mirror in 2000. The Chicago Tribune wants synergy between its newspapers and television stations. If you had asked Gary Black what he thought of synergy, he might have responded "straight up or on the rocks?" No matter that The Sunpapers bought a television station decades before and used newsroom staffers for broadcasts. This is what started James McManus of The Evening Sun staff on his way to becoming Jim McKay of network broadcasting fame.

It occurs to me now that a person who had been with The Sunpapers for 33 years in 1969 when I arrived at the newspaper, would have been old enough to have covered the Spanish Civil War and certainly World War II. God only knows what they thought of the brash new generation.

In my first week at the newspaper, unaware of an unspoken pecking order, I sat at a desk next to Charles Whiteford, a huge veteran who was The Sun's senior political writer. One day he was filling out his expense account and he showed it to me. It was in the hundreds. "One day," he said, "you'll be filling out expense accounts this big."

(Later I learned that one of Whiteford's regular charges was the cost of replacing the door of Room 301 at the Maryland Inn in Annapolis, where he stayed when the legislature was in session. Often he would forget his key, and he couldn't be bothered to go back downstairs, so he'd just kick in the door.)

Newspaper people love expense account stories. In the 33 years I've spent at this newspaper, I've been City Hall reporter, State House reporter, investigative reporter, political reporter, editorial writer, foreign correspondent and foreign editor. I've turned in expense accounts that would have boggled old Charlie's mind. Once I chartered a freighter for $10,000 to get to a war; another time an airplane. I paid a telex operator in Chad more than the president of the country was earning just to make certain I always had a line out. When I lost some clothing in the Cyprus war, I replaced it from Saville Row in London.

Once, the foreign editor complained that I was missing deadlines.

"Don't you have a watch?" he demanded.

"No," I replied.

"Get one," he ordered.

I expensed a Rolex GMT Master that month. He was shocked, but I never missed another deadline.

My confidence that I could get away with all this was supported by none other than the chairman of the board. Waiting to board a plane that would take us from Beirut to Athens one day, Gary Black said to me: "We are in first class, aren't we?" I assured him we were. "Good," he said. "Always go first class."

The only excesses ever challenged: one bottle of champagne -- not so much the idea of a bottle of champagne, "but with a club sandwich?" And a bottle of superior French cognac that cost several hundred dollars at the George V hotel in Paris. I had to agree this was excessive, but it seemed like such a marvelous idea at the time.

Other, far more important differences exist between how it was three decades ago and how it is now. Without commenting on whether they are for the better or worse, here are some of them.

Then, there were hardly any women in the newsroom, outside of the features department. Now, they're all over, some of them senior editors. Everyone smoked; now no one is allowed to smoke in the newsroom, or anywhere else in the building.

We worked with paper and typewriters. If a writer or editor wanted to move a paragraph in a story, he had to cut the paragraph out with scissors and paste it in elsewhere.

There was a regular poker game in the sports department. If a reporter wanted research information, he went to the library and waited, sometimes a long time. Now, most information is available on the Internet; reporters don't have to leave their desks. Some of them never do. Most reporters and editors came to work around noon and didn't leave until after midnight. Now the schedule's closer to 9-to-5.

There were far fewer editors. When I started here, all of them seemed to have come from Baltimore, or to have been here a long time. It was such a WASP place that a young reporter named Tony Barbieri, once complained that "no one with a name ending with a vowel" would ever get ahead here.

Now he's the managing editor.

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