Sun role plays out in 2 stories

July 01, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

When I joined The Sun 21 years ago, there was still at least one person in the newsroom who had worked here when H.L. Mencken did. He used to use his pencils down to the stub, she told me.

"Wow," I remember thinking, not so much about his thriftiness with office supplies - although we did receive a memo about that yesterday - but just the fact that I actually knew someone who knew Mencken.

Maybe it's the same in other workplaces - surely there are people in town who knew someone who knew someone who knew the actual Alex. Brown, or the original Johns Hopkins - but The Sun is the first newspaper I ever worked at where I felt a part of such a storied lineage, that had such an illustrious history both within its own walls but also within its city.

It's not something reporters tend to think about on a daily basis, and in fact, we cover the city and its other institutions as outside observers - would you want your only source of City Council information to be the City Council spokesman? - so we see ourselves as in the city if not entirely of it.

But lately, I've been thinking about the role The Sun plays in Baltimore for two reasons, the two big stories that have consumed many of us lately.

First is the City Hall scandal over whether Mayor Sheila Dixon, in her previous role as City Council president, took gifts from a developer in town and voted on contracts and tax breaks that ultimately benefited him.

The fact that the state prosecutor is even investigating Dixon, and that a grand jury has been meeting to consider possible charges, is the result of a series of stories that The Sun first began running two years ago and continues to cover to this day.

The second story may seem like a big deal only for those of us who work at The Sun, but has implications beyond 501 N. Calvert: The elimination of about 100 jobs at the paper, about 55 or 60 from the newsroom.

Like others in the industry, The Sun has been hit hard by falling revenues - many of the ads that people used to pay to place in newspapers have drifted to the Internet, or, as a result of the faltering economy, simply gone away. Couple that with our increasing costs - paper, ink, fuel for delivery - and we find ourselves at this point.

Which is, waiting for the "packet."

The packet is the envelope with the information about what the company is offering me if I'll voluntarily leave - a buyout. I've lost count how many buyouts I've been through here at The Sun, but they've always been more limited, offered to a certain number of people in certain job classifications.

This time, they're going to everyone in the newsroom. Then, after tallying how many opt to leave voluntarily, we move, if necessary, into the involuntary part - layoffs.

I was looking through the archives and was stunned at how often I've written about layoffs - in other businesses, not my own. Companies merged, entire industries faltered, and I covered the stories, never imagining my own company or my own industry would ever be the one merging or faltering. It's the reporter's remove: You're the guy standing over on the side, watching the house burn or the plane crashing.

One of the many and uniformly depressing journalism blogs estimated that almost 1,000 newspaper jobs went away last week. Like many reporters, I feel like I've done nothing but attend funerals these past years - my social life appears to revolve around retirement parties.

But these for the most part have been voluntary exits. People left, often with a nice chunk of money and some health benefits and a chance to do something else. This time, though, it looks like at least some of those leaving might be leaving against their will. Tough luck, you might say, and you might be right. And yet, if you care at all about this city and this region, and knowing what's going on - at City Hall, at the State House, at the White House, at Constellation Energy, at the BSO, at Hopkins, the list goes on and on - it's not just our future but yours, too.

Oh, The Sun will continue to publish, both in print and online - but with a smaller staff.

The best-case scenario is that we've had a horribly bloated, inefficient staff in the past, and this paring down will merely mean a leaner, more efficient reporting machine. If only. You'll have to trust me on this, but any extra reporting poundage has been whittled down by past buyouts. No, what's happening with newspapers these days is more about outside forces - things like the availability of our content for free online, the loss of advertising - rather than an issue of overstaffing.

I hope - and my editors insist - that any cuts will not compromise the newspaper's commitment to public-service journalism. So Sheila, you're not off the hook.

But the axman cometh nonetheless. And hopefully, without damaging the watchdog role that's long been such a part of this newspaper.

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