Baltimore becomes a two-newspaper town again

Public Editor

April 23, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

Baltimore becomes a two-newspaper town again

Daily newspaper competition returned to Baltimore this month as The Examiner began delivering more than 200,000 copies of its free tabloid to many of the region's highest-income areas. (The Examiner does not publish a Sunday edition.)

This is a positive development for an industry struggling with declining circulation and advertising revenues.

Competition in newsgathering helps stoke a fire under reporters and editors, leading to better journalism. The Examiner's entrance into the Baltimore marketplace also creates jobs and opportunity in a field that has been steadily cutting positions.

Since the announcement last October of a Baltimore Examiner - others are published in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco -readers and nonreaders of The Sun, journalists and advertisers had been anticipating its April 5 publication launch.

In an e-mail last month that was critical of The Sun, reader Lawrence Hurley said: "Hopefully, the arrival of The Examiner to Baltimore in a few weeks - which is sure to be full of the kind of news people actually want to read about - will awaken The Sun from its slumbers."

Now that a number of readers have had the chance to experience The Examiner for several weeks, some have offered their observations.

"Finally, citizens of Maryland have an alternative to the left-wing Baltimore Sun," said Allen Ridge. "Today I read for the first time a positive article on our governor, Bob Ehrlich."

A different opinion came from Dave Bernstein: "The Sun doesn't have to worry about any competition from the new Examiner. The articles have little or no substance."

Mary E. Wyatt said: "Thank you for allowing the city of Baltimore to enjoy The Sun. Unlike The Examiner, which is only delivering to the affluent neighborhoods, The Sun delivers and sells newspapers everywhere."

"What The Examiner has done in two weeks is make Baltimore grateful for The Sun," said Christopher Corbett, a former editor with the Associated Press and a full-time lecturer in journalism at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It reminds us that The Sun is still an important American newspaper."

In truth, it will take a few months before the quality of The Examiner's journalism and its market penetration can be fully evaluated. And it is no small feat to launch a newspaper from scratch. Unlike the first two free Examiners, the Baltimore Examiner did not evolve from previously existing newspapers.

But developing consistency in reporting and editing is a difficult task for any newspaper, especially for a new venture. In my view, some of The Examiner's local reporting and editing suffers from the apparent inexperience of much of its staff.

To be competitive also means delivering late-breaking news on deadline. In its first week The Examiner's editions did not contain anything about two major late-night news stories: the General Assembly's failure to reach a compromise to reduce pending BGE rate increases and the University of Maryland women's basketball team's NCAA championship victory.

But even if The Examiner has not yet challenged The Sun journalistically, it has affected the newspaper's service.

More than 100 Sun home-delivery carriers switched to The Examiner at the beginning of April. The Sun since has struggled to get newspapers to subscribers in those affected areas on time. Because only half of the carriers who left gave The Sun the required notice, the newspaper has had scramble to cover those delivery routes and hire new carriers at the same time.

Sun subscribers also often were unable to report late or missing newspapers because the customer service phone system often did not work correctly in recent weeks. This prompted a number of complaint calls and e-mails to this office and other departments. By late last week the number of complaints had dropped significantly.

Sun vice president for circulation Lou Maranto said things were almost back to normal. "The challenge will be to allow the new carriers to gain experience so they complete their routes accurately and on time," he said.

Examiner Publisher Michael Phelps acknowledged in a commentary Monday that his newspaper was also having problems with its delivery system. This is to be expected.

Phelps also extolled the virtues of The Examiner 's being free - which is, of course, the key component of its business model. Compared with The Sun, it operates with a much smaller and lesser-paid newsroom staff and offers cheaper advertising rates.

Phelps noted that with gas nearing $3 a gallon, rising college tuition and higher BGE bills, the savings gained by not subscribing to The Sun "could go toward a college fund, gas for your car or heat for your house."

The question is: Can readers do without serious and consistent reporting about rising gas and electric prices, college costs and the hundreds of other issues that affect their lives? I don't think so.

The Sun must use its resources to the fullest to ensure that despite the uncertainty in the media industry, it remains required reading for many in this region.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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