When newspapers become news makers

December 18, 2005|By PAUL MOORE

What are newspaper journalists supposed to do when newspapers make news?

That basic question suggests a simple answer - cover the news. But the challenge of writing about yourself is not simple at all.

Sometimes it is tempting to write little, on the theory that what happens at newspapers isn't that important to people who don't work at them. Sometimes it is tempting to write more because it seems important to explain changes in the newspaper, such as The Sun's recent redesign.

This year newspapers, including The Sun, have been at the center of an extraordinary pileup of bad business news - declining circulation, lower advertising revenues and a growing national debate over the future of the industry as many younger Americans turn to the Internet and other sources for their news.

Not surprisingly, this has prompted a steady flow of e-mails and calls from concerned readers. They are worried about the future of The Sun and newspapers in general because of reports of layoffs, buyouts and budget cuts.

The Sun has provided substantial coverage of the debate over the uncertain future of newspapers and other media. But The Sun's reporting of its own staffing cuts through buyouts and other moves has been limited.

An article published Nov. 12 reported that The Sun offered buyouts to cut 75 jobs, including 12 to 15 from the newsroom. Placed on the Business section front, the article quoted Publisher Denise E. Palmer, Editor Tim Franklin and Newspaper Guild Unit Chair Michael Hill. It provided readers with some context for the newspaper's decisions.

In contrast, a Dec. 3 article, "Sun averts layoffs as 70 take buyouts," was played on an inside Business section page and had no quotes and few details. It provided the yearly revenue figures for Tribune Co., The Sun's corporate owner, and mentioned that the editorial cartoonist Kevin P. "KAL" Kallaugher was among those taking the buyout.

The news that Tribune Co. executives had told investors at a meeting in New York that the company had eliminated 900 jobs, or 4 percent of its work force, this year was relegated to a three-paragraph Business Digest item in The Sun's Dec. 8 edition.

Reader Timothy Kjer found the coverage wanting. "What concerns me is, it seems that whenever positions are eliminated at The Sun or there is corporate restructuring, the paper keeps a tight lid on the story. It strikes me as hypocritical for the media to do this in a democratic society."

Longtime reader Henry Ballantyne is concerned about The Sun's future. "I really like and respect the newspaper and I'm proud of its national reputation," said Ballantyne. "But the things I hear and read about staffing cuts and corporate profits make me nervous."

Mr. Kjer and Mr. Ballantyne were among the thousands of Baltimore-area residents who received recent e-mails from MoveOn.org, the liberal activist Web site. It recently launched online petition drives in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago, Orlando, Fla., and four other metropolitan areas where Tribune Co. owns newspapers, protesting staff cuts that the group said would undermine "watchdog journalism."

Adam Green of MoveOn.org said more than 3,700 signatures of the 45,000 on the petitions that were presented to Tribune Co. executives at a Dec. 7 meeting in New York were from the Baltimore area. Tribune Co. executives refused to discuss the petitions with MoveOn.org.

The MoveOn.org e-mail disseminated in Baltimore had two mistakes. It said The Sun planned to cut 75 jobs in the newsroom (the actual number was 17), and it included comments from Sun reporter Larry Carson that he says he never made. "I was never contacted by anyone at MoveOn.org until I e-mailed them to alert them about the quotes mistakenly attributed to me," Carson said.

But the e-mail's point that newsroom cuts can mean less news gathering and less information generated in the public interest is legitimate. It hit a nerve, especially with those who first learned of staff reductions at The Sun and other Tribune Co. newspapers from MoveOn. org's e-mail.

"I signed the petition and know other Sun readers who did because I rely on the newspaper for information," Kjer said. "Once that starts to erode, we're in trouble."

Not to take the sentiments of readers and customers reflected in MoveOn.org's petition very seriously would be a mistake.

Newspapers such as The Sun face turbulent times. But other media, such as radio and television, are more immediately threatened by continuing changes, because The Sun has a significantly broader reach and uniquely powerful assets - the experience and expertise of a still-substantial newsroom staff.

No other media outlet in Maryland devotes even a fraction of The Sun's resources to covering the news here. The news you hear on radio or see on local television, as often as not, comes out of something first reported in The Sun.

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