In its heady, bustling, muscular heyday, the Baltimore Sun newsroom had more than 400 reporters, editors, photographers and such. Now, like so many American newspapers, they’re a skin-and-bones operation with a newsroom body count reportedly under 100 people.
And according to reporting yesterday, Jan. 19, by two investigative reporters at the Chicago Tribune, which owns The Sun, the Annapolis Capitol Gazette and a bunch of other papers, things may get worse.
In a piece written for the New York Times that reads like a public cry for help, veteran reporters David Jackson and Gary Marx offer the latest updates on the Tribune chain since November.
That’s when the hedge fund Alden Global Capital acquired 32 percent of Tribune Publish Company shares, making it the company’s largest shareholder. Alden is angling for control of the company, Jackson and Marx write.
They see this –- with good reason -– as one more body blow for American newspapers.
“Alden’s strategy of acquiring struggling local newsrooms and stripping them of assets has built the personal wealth of the hedge fund’s investors,” they write. “But Alden has imposed draconian staff cuts that decimated The Denver Post and other once-proud newspapers that have been vital to their communities and to American democracy.
“In a signal of what may happen in Chicago, on Jan. 13, we and other newsrooms staff members were offered buyouts. Now, we are bracing for the sight of colleagues with decades of experience walking out with cardboard boxes in their arms and tears running down their faces.”
In The Sun’s case, would such a body blow be the equivalent of a death blow?
The paper has reduced its newsroom by three-quarters and moved out of its old home on downtown’s Calvert Street for distant, deserted Port Covington. Gone are The Sun’s bureaus in Washington, D.C., and in the world’s most important capitals. Now, the paper doesn’t even have a bureau in Baltimore County.
Among the other legendary papers owned by the Chicago Tribune corporation is the New York Daily News. That paper once had the biggest circulation of any American newspaper, with an estimated 2.5 million post-war circulation. Now, it’s down to about 200,000.
In the past couple of years, the News’ newsroom staff was first cut in half, then cut again to less than a hundred newsroom staffers, to cover a metro area of more than 8 million people. Its once dynamic sports staff was cut from 35 to 9.
Is that where The Sun is heading? Once upon a time, there was a morning Sun and an Evening Sun, whose combined circulation was about 400,000. Sunday circulation was big. Advertising was huge.
Today, nobody wants to talk about circulation figures, but insiders say the print edition’s well under 100,000. And advertising’s a tiny fraction of what it used to be.
All are a reflection of the entire newspaper business. In yesterday’s piece, the writers cite a study at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, which says more than 2,100 papers have vanished since 2004.
Give Sun staffers great credit for upholding their newspaper’s journalistic standards during a brutal decade. They’ve been sold out by the corporate bosses in so many ways.
But the latest bit of news might make things even tougher than they’ve been.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.