Sun working to bring the news into Internet age

Public Editor

December 24, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

The fact that 2006 has been tumultuous for The Sun will come as no shock to regular readers of this column. More than ever I get questions from subscribers, friends, neighbors and colleagues about the future of this newspaper.

These queries come partly because The Tribune Co., The Sun's corporate parent, has put itself up for sale, one of a number of major events that have affected The Sun and newspapers across the country in 2006. Shareholders unhappy with the performance of newspaper company stocks last year forced the sale of Knight Ridder's chain of newspapers. Now, Tribune is feeling the same kind of pressures.

As a result, a group of Baltimore investors has been talking to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Sun itself about its interest in buying The Sun. This trend toward possible local ownership is occurring elsewhere. Several groups and individuals have expressed interest in buying other Tribune-owned newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, The Harford Courant and Newsday as well as The Boston Globe, which is owned by The New York Times. Other investors seek to buy the entire Tribune Company. Some kind of decision by Tribune is expected early in 2007.

All of this, of course, is related to this year's acceleration of the long, steady decline in newspaper readership and advertising revenues. (The Sun's circulation dropped 4.5 percent daily and 9.1 percent on Sunday compared with last year.)

A consensus is building that for newspapers such as The Sun to survive in anything like their present form, they will have to go through a period of rapid evolution - to build Internet readership and revenues to replace declining print income. What's encouraging is that The Sun is adapting to the changing media environment and is working hard to help build and enhance the newspaper's Web site.

The newspaper is more aggressively covering daily breaking news on baltimoresun.com - where the creation of an "All News Desk" has accelerated to a flow of stories from the newsroom to the Web site throughout the day. The All News Desk also oversees getting specific content from the newsroom, such as blogs, Web videos, Q&As and polls, to the Web site. Podcasts with reporters are increasingly found on the Web site, as are sophisticated news and feature photo portfolios with narration.

It's important to remember that even though more people in Maryland are getting their news online or from radio and TV, the majority of the original reporting found on radio, TV and the Internet is produced by daily newspapers, especially by The Sun.

Observant print readers have noticed the appearance of advertisements on selected section fronts in recent months. At one time this would have generated fierce battles between the newsroom and the business side, but the realities of today's media environment have made such fights moot. Newsroom managers understand that revenue from these premium position ads can help preserve journalism jobs.

Still, many journalists worry that the possibility of additional cuts in newsroom staffs and news space will undermine the newspaper's ability to provide the strong, local, national and international coverage that Sun readers want and expect - in print and online.

A decision was made this year to close The Sun's last three foreign bureaus - Moscow, Johannesburg and Jerusalem - partly because Tribune wants to consolidate its foreign coverage and partly to reduce expenses at The Sun. Happily, those moves have been delayed a year, which means The Sun's long tradition of international reporting is continuing.

A great example was last week's two-part series by Johannesburg correspondent Scott Calvert and photographer Andre F. Chung. It documented how much of Nigeria's population is still trapped in poverty despite the country's status as major oil producer (it is the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States).

Reader Ken Domanski said: "Your series on Nigeria - both the reporting and the photography - was superb. It helped me better understand the world of politics, money and oil in Africa."

Everyone at The Sun feels a sense of uncertainty about the future, but there's also a sense the newspaper needs to move forward - and that movement will mean change. In my view, thinking about building an even stronger news organization is better than lamenting the glories of the past - whether they be journalism or profit margins.

No matter who owns The Sun, I believe that readers will still be depending on this newspaper for many years to come so long as it continues to produce the kind of journalism that is essential to the communities it serves.

A letter from Chris Smith about The Sun's recent series on the abuses of ground rents embodies this point: "I have questioned at times whether I would continue to get the paper. But articles like these make me realize all over again how important it is to support newspapers."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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