Readers deserved better account of changes

December 19, 2004|By Paul Moore

WHEN a newspaper publishes extensive notes "to our readers," as The Sun did last week, it signals changes that are likely to have large effects.

Notices on the front page on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday described alterations in the Sunday and daily comic sections and TV grids, makeovers of Page 2 in the Today and Sports sections and changes in the markets pages.

Readers also learned that the Business section's "Plugged In" pages - which along with Mike Himowitz's column focused on technology issues - were being eliminated. The Today section dropped Fred Rasmussen's popular weekly column on Baltimore history, "Way Back When."

The front-page notices used the word "revamped" to describe the changes. But the real word is reduced and that is what thousands of readers noticed and complained about.

The main reason for all of this is simple: cost reductions. The decisions were painful because the editors understood that some of the features being eliminated were very important to readers.

At a time when The Sun is being closely scrutinized, the newspaper was not forthcoming enough in its explanations of the changes (the Business section was the exception). It did not note what many could see: that significant cutbacks had been made. When readers are inundated with this much change, they deserve clarity.

The Features department did make a concerted effort to obtain information about what readers liked in advance of the changes and did provide a hot line number and an e-mail address to handle reactions. But these systems periodically broke down because of the extraordinary volume of responses.

Readers expressed serious disappointment in thousands of calls and e-mails. The vast majority of complaints focused on Today section changes.

"This is a reply based on your redesign of the Today section: It is horrible," wrote Ronald Prihoda.

"You are trying to make it seem as if things are getting better when they are actually getting worse," said reader Dave Lentz.

Perhaps most disturbing for many was the unannounced discontinuation of The Sun's daily crossword puzzle (the New York Times crossword was retained).

Hundreds were furious, dismayed, shocked or frustrated by that decision.

"I can't believe you would actually eliminate the daily Sun crossword," said Peter Gorman. "I've seen it in use in homes, on buses and trains, in factories and office lunch rooms. Please reconsider."

Another summarized the feelings of many: "I've been doing the crossword for 50 years. It was the main reason I bought The Sun, so I am canceling my subscription."

Because The Sun failed to publish a list of comics that had been eliminated, many readers were confused and unhappy about the fate of their favorites.

"The comics have been butchered," one wrote.

Dr. Alvin Frater of Baltimore was unhappy about cuts in the stock tables and thought the overall look of the paper was emaciated.

"My friends and I think it is starting to resemble a suburban weekly," he said. Another reader said: "My sense of The Sun after these changes is that it is thinner and less substantial."

The thought that The Sun was diminished is worrisome. Both the daily Business and Today sections, which usually contained eight pages, had only six pages much of last week. To many, the sections felt flimsy.

The newspaper also made a mistake by letting new internal budget policies determine the fate of Himowitz's and Rasmussen's columns.

Reader Laverne Bell called Himowitz indispensable. "He's a one-of-a-kind columnist who makes technology understandable."

Robert and Ann Heaton said: "Fred Rasmussen has done an excellent job of putting today's world in historical perspective. And it's quite possible that the information he provides is of greater interest to young readers than you might assume. And for old-timers like us, every one of his columns has given us new facts or a different slant."

Seniors were particularly hard hit by the changes. For some, an important part of their world was eliminated.

Catherine Digman, 76, said: "I am so disappointed in the changes. I could not live without my Sunpaper because it is the biggest pleasure of my life. We're old and don't get much else out of life anymore."

Faced with difficult choices, The Sun's editors chose not to cut any of the core news-gathering operations. But in a world of changing demographics and efforts to gain new subscribers, seniors still represent a significant part of any newspaper's audience.

Now, The Sun is dealing with the profound implications of alienating some of its lifetime readers.

S.W. Nielson said he had coped with earlier cutbacks. "But this is not forgivable," he said. "You have taken something away from me, and I will no longer look for The Sun to be a daily part of my morning."

Those are not comforting words.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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