1986 was a big year for news: The Challenger space shuttle disaster, the Chernobyl accident, the return of Halley's Comet, the U.S. bombing of Libya. But for the major Baltimore institutions charged with reporting that news, the changes unfolding that year proved equally seismic.
First, on May 27, the 213-year-old Hearst-owned News-American—only 15 years earlier the city's largest circulation daily newspaper—closed its doors after several years of declining ad revenues and circulation. (Ironically, in the midst of the Inner Harbor's revitalization, the waterfront block on which the News-American plant stood was worth far more to developers than the paper.)
That left only one major new-spaper company in town, The Sunpapers, locally owned for 149 years by the A.S. Abell Co., which published morning and evening editions.
And all that was about to change.
Only one day after the News-American folded, Abell Co. sold the privately owned newspaper company, along with WMAR-TV and other holdings, for $600 million to Times-Mirror Co., owners of papers including the Los Angeles Times.
It was just a matter of time before the Times-Mirror would shut- down The Evening Sun—the paper had already significantly cut staff. What was suprising was that it actually took nine years. At that point, Baltimore officially went from a town with three major daily newspapers owned by two competing companies to a town with only one major paper that was now owned by a national conglomerate answering to shareholders.
Of course, Baltimore wasn't alone in its media woes. The change in the newspaper industry was a symbol of the changing city, like the closing of the downtown department stores and theaters, as well as the loss of national corporate headquarters and the city's steel and shipbuilding operations. In the latter part of the century, newspapers were increasingly competing with television for news coverage supremacy—and for advertising dollars.
According to Maurine Beasley, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, the commute home to the suburbs also contributed to the newspaper's decline. "Suburbanization meant that when people got home in the afternoon, they'd fought a lot of traffic and wanted to sit down in front of the television; they weren't interested in reading a newspaper," says Beasley. No matter what edition the consumer bought, it had no chance of being as up-to-the-minute as the news that people could watch on TV. "It was old news by the time it got to the customer," she says.
The events in Baltimore mirrored a national struggle among newspapers, and a wave of consolidation that was sweeping small, privately held papers into large, publicly held chains. When the sale of The Sunwas announced, an Abell spokesman was quoted as saying, "the Times-Mirror offer was simply too generous to refuse."
Involvement in national, publicly traded news groups looked like a panacea to the woes of lagging readership—in theory, with big business-tax incentives and more access to funds to put into equipment and printing, papers owned by national chains thought they could better compete with televised news.
"This is a period when family owner-ship was no longer seen as viable," explains Beasley. "For one thing, the great editors that had built these papers had died and the descendants couldn't get along or the family that survived was no longer interested in the business."
The Abell name remains important, however, to philanthropy in Baltimore. In 1953, the A.S. Abell Company donated $100,000 to the creation of the civic-minded A.S. Abell Company Foundation. When The Sun was acquired by Times-Mirror, the Abell Foundation (as it was renamed in 1986) had grown its assets to more than $112 million. According to the Foundation, it has since donated more than $172 million to the community.
While Baltimore benefited from the Abell Co.'s original largesse, it can be argued that it did not benefit from The Sun's sale. Like other large chain papers, the new owners of The Sun thinned out staff, closed many of the foreign bureaus that had made The Sun one of the nation's most respected papers, and used wire service copy instead of news reported by its own local people.
"My own overview is that Baltimore is a classic example of the steady diminishing of the newspaper industry and its service to citizens," says Carl Stepp, senior editor of American Journalism Review. While he notes that The Sun excels in many areas, "People have lost a lot from the days when they had three very good competing newspapers. You lose a diversity of voices. With more papers, there are more opportunities for more reporters on the street, more points of view, more opportunity for people to speak out and be heard."
The print news industry in Baltimore seems to be cycling through yet another season of change: Former Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis and a consortium called the Baltimore Media Group are reportedly vying to return The Sun to private, local ownership.
Last spring, a new wrinkle was added to the local news scene with the arrival in Baltimore of a new newspaper model, the free tabloid daily. According to experts, The Examiner is still a marginal player whose impact will only be determined over time.
"It remains to be seen whether the public will value something that's free, that they don't make a choice, deliberately, to pay for, and therefore feel an obligation to use," says Stepp. "The Examinerpapers have yet to find a niche of journalism where they are doing better than anyone in town. The one thing they are competitively better at right now is being free."