Sun's coverage of bureau closings thin, underplayed

Public Editor

July 16, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

A July 7 article announcing the planned closure of The Sun's three remaining foreign bureaus generated significant reactions from readers - because of the loss itself and because of the article's brevity and its placement inside the Business section.

The story noted that over the next 18 months the newspaper's Moscow and Johannesburg operations will be shut down and that the Jerusalem bureau will be absorbed into the network of The Sun's corporate parent, Tribune Co. The Sun's Beijing and London bureaus were closed earlier this year.

The article effectively announced the end of 119 years of reporting by Sun staff members stationed overseas. To some readers it had the feel of a corporate press release masquerading as a news story. In my view, the article was thinly reported, underplayed and did not provide readers with enough useful information.

The story emphasized that closing the bureaus, and those of Long Island Newsday, was part of a reorganization of Tribune's foreign reporting. A Tribune executive said that the chain's newspapers "haven't done a particularly good job of coordinating their coverage ... and the new operation will fix that."

"Overall," he continued, "this is going to provide strong daily coverage at a lower cost."

This was the article's only reference to saving money. And yet Tribune has publicly acknowledged that it has begun a new $200 million process of "cost savings initiatives." The company's chief financial officer has said that expenses would be reduced partly by the consolidation and sharing of foreign and national news content. This important context was missing.

The Tribune executive interviewed for the article in The Sun said that at the end of the consolidation there would be about 40 Tribune correspondents overseas, but according to Sun reporter Nick Madigan, the executive declined to provide the number of correspondents that its newspapers now have.

Reader Jack Serio, who was distressed by the news of the bureau closings, said: "Why didn't the article provide a means of comparison about the number of foreign reporters before and after these changes? Without that information the article had limited credibility."

The story did quote Newsday's foreign editor about the impact of closing its bureaus but did not include any comment from Robert Ruby, The Sun's foreign editor. In an Associated Press article, Ruby called the loss of the correspondents "a very sad development for the newspaper."

Several readers were not only disturbed by the news but also found the placement of the story too obscure for its importance. "I did not hear of this first in The Sun because I had missed it," said a disappointed Dr. Lauren Bogue, who said she is a longtime and careful reader of the newspaper.

Sun Editor Tim Franklin said: "One of the hardest things we do is report on ourselves. When one has a vested interest in the story, it's harder to step back and weigh things like story length and play. You also weigh other factors like: When does it take effect (in this case perhaps not for another 18 months), how many people are impacted (three), is it an anomaly or part of an industry trend? Was that the right call? Maybe so, maybe not. But, it wasn't like there was no thought on how to play the story from a reader perspective."

The Sun is not alone in its loss. In recent years, newspapers across the nation have been eliminating foreign bureaus and readers have been denied the richly varied reports of those stationed far from places like Baltimore.

Top Sun editors have said the paper will supplement Tribune Co. reporting with periodic foreign assignments for Sun staff members and that the overall quality of the paper's foreign reporting will not diminish.

Many readers and staff members find it hard to imagine, however, that The Sun will be able to maintain the same intensity of foreign coverage without overseas reporters.

Sun assistant city editor Peter Hermann, who served as newspaper's Middle East bureau chief from 2001 to 2005, said: "The overseas bureaus helped elevate The Sun into the top tier of American newspapers. It gave the paper an opportunity to be a ... player on the world stage, and offered readers in Baltimore and Maryland a local voice covering some of the most important and dangerous regions in the world."

In my experience, a loss of foreign correspondents has, at other papers, translated into less serious attention being paid by editors to news from overseas.

The disappointment and pain felt by many inside The Sun was echoed by readers.

Jim Young said of the news about the bureau closings: "I offer my regrets to the Sunpapers and can only feel sad. On the other hand, I hope you will keep on keeping on, if only to demonstrate that newspapers with a real heritage deserve to be part of the future."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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