On coping with new poohbahs and gadgetry

January 11, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

THIRTY-FIVE years ago, when I began my career at this newspaper, the top executive in the newsroom, was about 20 years older than I. He was a gentleman named Paul A. Banker. Last week, somewhat unexpectedly, the fourth in the line of Banker's successors arrived in Baltimore. His name is Tim Franklin, and he replaced Bill Marimow as editor of The Sun. Franklin is about 20 years younger than I am.

Time has passed me by. In all these years, no one in a position of authority has asked if I would like to run the place.

Please don't ask them why. The response would be embarrassing. For, in this newsroom and possibly others, people in top management are referred to as the "grown-ups." The rest have fun.

At one of the multitude of meetings Franklin has presided over since he entered the building Tuesday afternoon, he said he wanted "to have fun." He obviously understands.

Top editors tend to have less fun than the rest of the newsroom because they have all these responsibilities. The burden wears heavily on them. A few, even here, have been driven slightly insane.

The newspaper has changed in the past 3 1/2 decades. When I arrived in 1969, it was run something like a family estate. In fact, it was a family estate. There were owners, named Abell - as in the A.S. Abell Co. of Baltimore, named after Arunah S. Abell, who founded the paper in 1837. There were others named Black. Gary Black was a major shareholder and chairman of the board; there were Garretts, Keysers and Whites. The Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Co., the most venerable bank in town, helped to manage the money, especially that of the heirs of the oldest partners. The Venable, Baetjer and Howard law firm handled the legal business. It was the establishment law firm.

Then there were the managers. In 1969, William F. Schmick Jr. was the publisher. His son, William F. Schmick III, became city editor in 1970. His grandfather had been publisher before his father. Donald Patterson, who succeeded Schmick Jr. as publisher in 1977, was the son of Paul Patterson, who was publisher earlier in the century. Almost everyone seemed to have gone to Princeton or Yale. Quite a few had attended Gilman, Baltimore's prestigious private school for boys.

Career paths for reporters were pretty much chiseled in stone. Practically everyone started as a police reporter, worked toward City Hall and the State House and hoped to become a foreign correspondent or a correspondent in the Washington bureau.

People who did remarkably well and showed signs of responsibility might make it to editor of the editorial page, chief of the Washington bureau, city editor, even assistant managing editor. But no outsider went to the very top until after John R. "Reg" Murphy was brought in as publisher in 1980 to make the newspaper profitable. The day that happened, I was working as an editorial writer at the now-defunct Evening Sun and received a call from a senior officer of Mercantile, who bellowed, "Price, the lunatics aren't going to be in charge of the asylum up there anymore."

Chacun a son lunatic, but for what the Mercantile man had in mind, he was right. Within seven years, Murphy changed the newspaper substantially, turning it into a very profitable property. In 1986, Times-Mirror Co. of Los Angeles paid a stunning $600 million for the paper and other Abell enterprises. The owners collected their money and disappeared to spend it. Murphy picked up a multimillion-dollar profit on his shares.

That year, I was 43, the same age as Tim Franklin, The Sun's new editor, is today. I was stationed in Jerusalem as the newspaper's Middle East correspondent, happily covering an extraordinary story and living quite comfortably at The Sun's expense. The idea of growing up had long since disappeared.

Murphy has gone elsewhere. He is prominent in golfing circles. The animosities he managed to stir up between management and the newsroom abide to this day. Other publishers and editors have come and gone, each one of them a test and a trial at the beginning. Tribune Co. of Chicago bought Times Mirror in 2000 for about $8 billion, and now the publisher and editorial page editor of The Sun are from Chicago. So is Franklin, by way of Orlando, where he was editor of the Tribune-owned Sentinel.

When a new boss arrives, one looks for hopeful signs of connection. On Wednesday, I was invited to a meeting of senior editors with the new editor. This was the meeting in which he said he wanted us to have fun. Oh, good, I thought. Later in the meeting, he said he wished he had a "BlackBerry." He said he wished we all had BlackBerries.

A BlackBerry? I wondered. What on earth was he talking about? I asked a colleague. Fool, she said, it's the latest communication device - you get e-mail messages; you carry it with you wherever you go.

A few months ago, I was given a company cell phone and am still trying to master its program. Last week, I had to change my password for the company computer system, for the umpteenth time, and kept forgetting what the new password was. My e-mail box is scheduled to be automatically emptied this weekend, and I have not read a lot of the messages. Now comes the BlackBerry?

I'm for the juniper berry, which along with profligate spending on assignment over the years might have contributed to my never having been asked to run this place. One of the great advantages of being overseas was that the home office couldn't find you if you didn't want them to.

BlackBerries could stop the fun.

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