Deadline U.S.A. ’06: Old Baltimore Sun Gasps and Leaps

“I think for The Sun, and for most papers our size, that the mission is to be the definitive source of state, regional and local news,” Timothy Franklin said.

Mr. Franklin has been editor of The Baltimore Sun for two and a half years. He was sitting at a conference table in his office the morning of Aug. 11, facing the newsroom through the glass wall, discussing the state of the paper.

The conversation had begun a few minutes late. Mr. Franklin had been busy with his foreign editor, Robert Ruby, who was handing in his resignation.

Mr. Franklin did not mention his meeting with Mr. Ruby. He would announce the result in a staff memo that night, in which he wrote that the paper would be “reorganizing the national/foreign desk operation.”

Under the ownership of the Chicago-based Tribune Company, which bought the paper as part of Times Mirror in 2000, The Sun has tended to make splashier news than it’s written. Mr. Franklin came on after the sudden firing of editor William Marimow, then oversaw a public legal feud with the governor, followed by a plagiarism scandal. This summer the publisher abruptly left, the company floated the idea of selling ads on the section fronts, and the nonprofit Abell Foundation—named for paper’s founder—declared its desire to buy out Tribune and take the paper private.

Both in speaking and in writing, Mr. Franklin tends to use mild and positive turns of phrase like “reorganizing.” Or “trying to adapt.” Or “rescaling,” which he used twice in half an hour.

In the case of foreign news, rescaling means that by year’s end there will be nothing for the foreign desk to edit. The Tribune Company announced last month that it plans to close two of the Baltimore paper’s three foreign bureaus and to “absorb” the third.

“There was a decision made by Tribune Company that wanted a different structure company-wide for foreign coverage,” Mr. Franklin said.

Mr. Ruby, reached by phone, said that the bureau closings displayed “a profound misunderstanding or lack of appreciation of The Baltimore Sun’s history and role, and its very character.”

The Sun has been reporting the news from abroad, in one form or another, since 1887. Through most of those decades, Mr. Franklin’s reference to “papers our size” would have been heresy. The Sun was the No. 1 paper in a well-established Eastern city; its job was to do for Baltimore what The New York Times did for New York. It sent reporters out to cover foreign news because that was the job of a proper newspaper.

The Sunpapers were in the first rank of American journalism, the home of H.L. Mencken, Russell Baker, and William Manchester. A writer of national consequence could spend his whole career in Baltimore, and be read.

The Sun of old was a serious, sometimes dull paper, Mr. Ruby said, “and a lot of people really loved it and were incredibly loyal to it … because of that seriousness. A lot of that has been lost.”

In Baltimore in the 1970’s, it was The Sun, its gray broadsheets spread out on the rug, that introduced me to what a newspaper was. The morning paper was part of the household routine—but then, so was the milk box.

A newspaper is only as strong as its purpose. For nearly 20 years, step by step, The Sun has been acting out the crisis of the newspaper industry: cutting staff, losing readers, shedding content, shrinking the comics. Like Amtrak trimming service because ridership is down, the less it does, the less it can do.

Mr. Franklin said that with only three foreign correspondents—in Moscow, Johannesburg and Jerusalem—the paper didn’t “really have the critical mass to do daily stories covering the world.”

Yet when Mr. Franklin took over, there were five bureaus, not three. The Sun pulled out of London and Beijing at the end of last year, in an earlier round of budget-cutting. The London bureau had been started in the 1920’s; the Beijing one was among the first bureaus established when China opened to the West in the 1970’s.

In all, The Sun had eight bureaus in 1987, when it was bought by Times Mirror, the chain led by the Los Angeles Times. Times Mirror did away with The Sun’s offices in Tokyo, Germany and Mexico City (not to mention dozens of Baltimore staffers and the entire Evening Sun newspaper).

When Tribune took over Times Mirror in 2000, the cost-cutting began anew. After a flurry of war coverage in Afghanistan and Iraq, The Sun’s foreign coverage resumed its fade-out. As things stand, Mr. Ruby will apparently be The Sun’s last full foreign editor.

And the paper has no one anywhere between Moscow and the Pacific Ocean—including Baghdad.

“How many U.S. newspapers have full-time people in Iraq?” Mr. Franklin asked. “It’s dangerous, it’s expensive, and you have limited mobility there.”

The question is, Mr. Franklin said, “Is that the best use of our resources?”

ANOTHER QUESTION WOULD BE, what does “our” mean? On Aug. 10, between local, national and international coverage, all five stories on The Sun’s front page were written by Sun staff—including one from John Murphy, the Jerusalem reporter. Under each byline was “[Sun Reporter]” or “[Sun Foreign Reporter]” in small capitals.

But those were the only places that notation appeared in the entire A section. Instead, there were italic notes at the end of bylined articles: “writes for the Chicago Tribune” … ”writes for the Los Angeles Times” … ”writes for the Los Angeles Times” … ”writes for the Chicago Tribune.” Or else the stories were credited to wires. Datelines were not merely the war zones in the Middle East, but Mexico City, Caracas, Beijing, Hartford, Conn., and even Washington, D.C.

Not counting news briefs, there were 16 stories from other papers and wire services, to five from Sun staff.

The only thing that made it unusual was that the staff had been able to cover the whole front page. Outside stories made the front page on eight of the first 10 days of the month.

Officially, the Tribune Company regards this as a matter of economies of scale. The news is the news, and the company trawls it all up, for the use of its member papers.

Mr. Franklin said that the Tribune material “distinguishes us from the AP …. The stories tend to be deeper, more multilayered in a lot of cases.”

The members of the Tribune family aren’t equals, however. The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times get to write the national and international stories; The Baltimore Sun (and Newsday, and The Hartford Courant and others) get to run them. After the closings and absorption are done, none of the company’s estimated 40 foreign-bureau posts will belong to the lesser papers; only reporters for the flagships get the opportunity to be stationed abroad.

“That has been a recruitment tool and a retainment tool for as long as The Sun has existed,” said Todd Richissin, the last chief of the now-defunct London bureau. “We don’t even have that bone to offer.”

From London, Mr. Richissin had roamed to Iraq and Afghanistan for war coverage, to Paris for riots, to Rome for the pope’s funeral. Now those assignments go to reporters for other papers.

In new-media terms, the arrangement makes The Sun an aggregator—one that is delivered hours late, in a non-clickable format. It is not even free to aggregate what it wants; given a choice between a Tribune Company story or another one, staffers said, editors generally push for the Tribune piece.

Reporters and readers drew their conclusions about the foreign-desk cutbacks from The Sun’s own treatment of the news. The lead of the July 7 Sun story about the end of the bureaus said that Tribune “plans to implement a system that better coordinates its international coverage.” The piece quoted a Tribune Company vice president, Gerould Kern, promising “strong daily coverage at a lower cost.” (Mr. Kern did not return a call seeking comment for this piece.)

The good news ran at less than 400 words, inside the business section. In response, the paper’s public editor wrote a column saying the piece was “thinly reported, underplayed and did not provide readers with enough useful information.”

UNDER MR. FRANKLIN AND TRIBUNE, the paper has not been entirely in retreat. The metro section has grown, Mr. Franklin said, and there is a new health and science section, to take advantage of the city’s status as a capital in those fields (think Johns Hopkins).

“ The Baltimore Sun should be one of the best, if not the best, medical and science newspapers in the country,” Mr. Franklin said.

The most visible change during Mr. Franklin’s tenure, though, has been in the presentation. In the mid 90’s, under the influence of the Los Angeles Times, The Sun went to a self-consciously old-fashioned format—an echo of Baltimore’s then-new, olde-tyme-style Oriole Park—with narrow columns and multiple-stacked headlines. “ The Sun probably had one of the most retro looks of any paper in the country,” Mr. Franklin said.

So last year the paper brought out a complete redesign, with a jumbo-sized banner, color-coded blocks across the section fronts and, on page 1, a feature Mr. Franklin refers to as the “Hot L”—a color strip running across the top and down the left side, with teasers and photographs promoting stories inside (“driving traffic further back into the newspaper,” Mr. Franklin said, Webbily).

“I think you can be visually appealing and substantive at the same time,” Mr. Franklin said.

Practically speaking, the problem with the Hot L and the rest of the redesign is less a matter of gaudiness than of quality control. The more teasers a paper runs, the better its display text needs to be—and the more it needs to watch out for juxtapositions. On Aug. 7, giant type in the Hot L trumpeted “NIFTY FIFTY”—celebrating Tiger Woods’ 50th P.G.A. win—over the lead news headline “HEZBOLLAH ROCKETS KILL 15.”

More often, the messages are limp or cryptic or both: “100 [in red] It’s hot!” … “TOPS HER RECORD” … “Opportunities overlooked” … “FREE AOL” … “A tragedy compounded.”

The rescaling has included the size of the paper. Following industry trends, The Sun has gotten both narrower and shorter—until, somehow, the final increment put it over some subtle threshold. As I hefted one, the words that came to mind, unbidden, were Vanity Fair: not the magazine, but the brand of paper napkin.

ON AUG. 11, THE HOT L HAD BEEN blown out to make room for coverage of the liquid-explosive bombing plot in England (headline: “‘REAL DEAL’ FOILED”). “I wish you could have been here yesterday,” Mr. Franklin said. “ … This paper’s response was immediate and quick and filled with energy.”

Mr. Richissin had written the page 1 story in Baltimore, collecting the information as it poured in and working the phones with his contacts in Britain. The first-day story, Mr. Richissin said afterward, could be written from anywhere.

The problem, he said, was with the follow-up stories. Once the big news was out there, it was time to get the deeper stories, going door to door in the suspects’ neighborhoods, trying to learn, he said, “Why were those guys susceptible to recruitment?”

That sort of coverage couldn’t be standardized. Even if two reporters were covering the same ground, Mr. Richissin said, a second one might develop rapport with a source that the first one couldn’t.

“The short of it is, the more people you have over there, the more reporters you’re going to have over there, the better your reporting is going to be,” Mr. Richissin said.

Mr. Franklin had said that the paper remained free and ready to pursue foreign stories when the chance arose.

“Did we send anybody over to London for this?” Mr. Richissin asked. “No, we didn’t.”

As job candidates go to papers that still have foreign bureaus, and as veteran foreign correspondents drift away, The Sun may not even have the experience to cover international news when it wants to. “If you’ve never done it before,” Mr. Richissin said, “it’s hard to do and get good copy and be safe.”

So news like the bomb plot sits there. “It’s not being covered as well as it could be, and it’s among the very top stories in the world in terms of importance,” Mr. Richissin said. “And we’re just conceding it.”