Shortly before 2:30 on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 29, Baltimore Sun technology reporter Gus Sentementes went to pick up his lunch around the corner from the paper's Calvert Street offices.
It had been a rough couple of days: On the 28th, The Sun's management laid off 21 non-union employees, and just before he left his desk, Sentementes received an e-mail in his capacity as one of two representatives in the newspaper workers' union, the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, announcing that management was enacting a "reduction in force" among Guild members and including a list of 41 more employees to be fired.
"Everybody was expecting the cuts to the Guild to start happening, but not the very next day," says Sentementes. "But by Wednesday afternoon, Sun management decided to get the ball rolling."
Sentementes stepped out to get his sandwich, along with some air and some courage to face the afternoon. He returned to The Sun building's impressively large lobby, where a portrait of the paper's most famous alumnus, H.L. Mencken, "the Sage of Baltimore," looms over visitors. "As I look back over a misspent life," a quote beside Mencken's visage reads, "I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings."
As he entered the building, Sentementes saw graphic designer Wes Harvey trying to get into the newsroom, but his badge wasn't working. Sentementes recalled Harvey's name among those in the e-mail that he had just received and his stomach turned as he realized the awful truth: Management had deactivated Harvey's badge before telling him the news.
"You should just go and talk to your supervisor," Sentementes told Harvey as he let him into the newsroom.
Working at The Sun had long ago stopped feeling like the life of kings.
When Sentementes returned to his desk, the newsroom was frozen as management and supervisors roamed the aisles like grim reapers, tapping victims, who immediately knew the implication. A couple of staffers learned of their layoffs when they went to login to Sun computers and found their access had been cut off. Infamously, sports reporters David Steele and Rick Maese and photographer Elizabeth Malby were laid off by telephone calls to the press box at Camden Yards, where they were covering the Orioles game.
"When the phone rang in the middle of the day and it showed up Baltimore Sun in the caller ID, I guess I intuitively knew what it was," says Maese, who, one week earlier received his employee review, acknowledging that he "exceeds expectations." "I don't even know if I said 'Hello.' I just said, 'Are you serious?'"
For most Sun staffers, the layoffs were not a huge surprise. For the past several years, largely as a result of free news and classifieds on the Internet, ad revenues and circulation have been sinking for newspapers nationwide. Sun management and their bosses at the Chicago-based Tribune Company, which owns the paper, have responded with repeated rounds of buyouts, layoffs, and reductions in print content. A newsroom staff that numbered 500 in 1992, when The Evening Sun was still being published, had been whittled down to about 200 before the April cuts.
As a result, staffers lived in a state of fear, mostly keeping their heads down, trying to do good work under less-than-ideal conditions. "Everyone is miserable," says one writer who has survived all the cuts and asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. "Whatever shred of morale there was has disappeared."
Early this year, Sun editor and senior vice president Monty Cook indicated that another round of cuts loomed, and with the end of the second quarter approaching—Sun staffers have long trained themselves to keep an eye on the fiscal calendar, as Tribune Company does—it was impossible to focus on anything but that potential tap on the shoulder. Still, when the latest blow did come, it left staffers at the paper—and many concerned residents of Baltimore—rattled at its scope and its implications for the paper's future.
"There was no surprise that there was a staff reduction," says City Desk reporter Brent Jones, The Sun's other Guild representative in the newsroom. The union had estimated that there might be 30 total layoffs. "People were surprised with the scope of it and the callous way it was handled."
In the days after the April cuts, which reduced The Sun's newsroom by 30 percent, to 148 employees, heated recriminations were everywhere. Current and former Sun staffers took to blogs like "Baltimore Brew" and "The Real Muck" to bemoan the once-great paper's downfall and rant about Cook and Tribune Company.
"Greetings from inside the tomb, where you can hear the air conditioning running," an anonymous staffer wrote on Baltimore Brew the day after the largest cuts were made. "Welcome to The Sun, where no one can hear you scream."
Cook, who manages the paper's news operations and reports to publisher Tim Ryan, acknowledges that some aspects of the layoffs were handled poorly, but suggests that there's no good way to lay people off. "It was a very difficult time and I think there are some things that we clearly can learn from it," says Cook. "But there is no perfect way to do this. It hurts no matter what."
Cook, short in stature, with a hard-bearing brow that belies his friendly demeanor, grew up in small-town North Carolina and got his start as a sports reporter—including a stint at The Washington Post—before shifting to design and production at the Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel. He impressed Tribune Company bosses enough that he was sent to The Sun in 2004 as deputy managing editor, before becoming editor last year. His folksy roots come through when deflecting criticism of the recent layoffs.
"Growing up in a furniture town and living through recession periods, I used to see companies shut down for a month or two at a time until orders started popping up," he says. "I know people who have gotten multiple pink slips in their lives, and talking to one of them, he told me there was no good time for anybody to tell him that he was out of a job. It wouldn't have made it any different or any better, he was still out of a job."
Many Sun staffers groan about Cook's incompetence and complain that he has tried to solve the paper's problems with endless redesigns. "I have zero respect for [Cook] as a journalist," says one laid off Sun staffer, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of alienating potential employers. "Monty impressed the wacko guys in Chicago with his ideas—and none of them are journalism-based."
Cook's orders came from the top, the Tribune Company, where cutting back expenses has become a business model. The Chicago-based Tribune Company acquired The Sun and six other newspapers in 2000 when it bought the Times-Mirror Company for $8.3 billion—the largest acquisition in newspaper industry history. At first, the ability to streamline advertising and national news at papers across the country proved profitable: In 2002, Tribune Company earned $5 billion in revenue. But as the newspaper business soured, Tribune's value dropped and real estate tycoon Sam Zell—the 68th richest man in America—bought the entire company for $8.2 billion. A year later, he was forced to file for bankruptcy.
"He's in way over his head," says Simon Dumenco, the one-time City Paper editor who now writes "The Media Guy" column for Advertising Age. "Zell thought, 'I'll buy up the company as a distressed business the same way I buy distressed real estate. Polish it up a bit, and I'll get richer!' But he's surrounded himself with corporate-level idiots who are not only damaging the cause of journalism but seem to be running his businesses into the ground even quicker than they would have on their own. Imminent question for The Sun: At what point does Zell run for the hills?"
The Sun, a cherished institution for generations of Baltimoreans, is a tiny piece of Tribune Company's crumbling empire—and that's a big part of the problem. Two months after he was laid off, Rick Maese was in the process of filing for unemployment and looking for a cheaper apartment when a miracle call came in from The Washington Post: Someone had quit and they wanted to hire him to cover the Redskins. A month into his new job, Maese says management at The Post is noticeably more responsive—and responsible—than its counterpart at The Sun.
"The Sun still serves a very important role," he says. "But managers, whether they're in Chicago or in glass offices in Baltimore, are making it more and more difficult for the paper to function."
In recent years, The Sun has shed sections, pages, and beats as quickly as it has employees. The paper's once formidable investigative strength is "a husk of its former self," in the words of one former editor. Revenues are shrinking year after year and employee morale is as low as it has ever been. It's enough to make concerned Baltimoreans wonder: How long can The Sun survive?
Nationally, the newspaper industry is in a state of collapse. In the last year, 100 papers have stopped printing, including Denver's Rocky Mountain News, which had been published since 1859. In March, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer went web-only*. Several papers, including the Detroit Free Press have limited home delivery to two or three days per week. Many of the major newspaper companies, including the Tribune Company, are operating under bankruptcy. Even the lofty New York Times has been forced to seek outside investors and employee concessions to stay afloat.
Much of the problem, as everyone knows by now, is the Internet. As more and more people get their news, weather, sports, classifieds—even their comics and crosswords—from computers and cell phones, newspaper circulation is shrinking and ad revenues have disappeared along with readers. In the age of instant access to news and information, the idea of employing massive presses and trucks to print a daily digest of news and deliver hundreds of thousands of copies to people's doors seems desperately antiquated.
"It's a heavy machinery business," says Dumenco. "An insane amount of 18th century technology is employed to physically get newspapers to you. And it's unsustainable."
Like a lot of people who study media trends, Dumenco believes that print newspapers will be entirely gone in the very near future. "In less than five years, papers the size of The Sun will have to abandon newsprint," he says.
In some ways, The Sun is healthier than other dailies. Daily circulation has shrunk to 210,000 and ad revenues have plummeted, but as a result of constant cost-cutting, the paper has managed to keep expenses in line with dwindling revenue.
"We've been working very hard to position ourselves in a way that we can potentially succeed coming out of this," says Cook. "You've seen the situation with The Boston Globe, where they're expected to lose millions upon millions of dollars this year; The [Washington] Post has said they expect to lose money this year. We've been fortunate that we've not been in that position."
As a matter of strategy, the Tribune Company has slashed costs—mostly in terms of manpower—at all of its newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, and Hartford Courant, in an effort to keep expenses from exceeding revenue. "We are uniformly focused on the realities of the current marketplace and advertising environment," says Gary Weitman, Tribune Company's senior vice president of corporate relations. "We brought expenses more in line with our revenues in this very challenging environment to ensure that we gave each of our newspapers the very best chance to thrive when the economy improves."
Monty Cook, like Weitman and a lot of other bigwigs at major newspaper companies, puts hopeful stock in the theory that much of The Sun's struggles are a result of the slumping economy, and that they can continue to cut expenses as needed until the money starts pouring in again—just like at the furniture factory in his hometown. But after waves of layoffs, buyouts, and shuttered sections, bureaus, and beats, the strategy has taken a tremendous toll on the newspaper itself, which has been reduced to what one former staffer calls "pamphlet-size." The decline in heft and depth, with increasing reliance on wire service stories and large images—including the full-body columnist photos, which have recently, mercifully, been jettisoned—have also taken an irreversible toll on newsroom morale.
The April layoffs focused largely on editors—the copy editing department was almost completely gutted—while writers and reporters were mostly spared. (Maese and Steele were the only exceptions.) The strategy was to maximize content-generation, while skimping on some of the levels of editing that had been built up during more comfortable times. Editors from baltimoresun.com—many with only a couple years of experience—have been brought in to edit the print editions.
It's part of what Cook describes as the paper's "platform neutral" strategy. "We push our journalists to think content first, method of delivery second," he says. "It means that we'll figure out if it's best to go in print form, online, or in mobile or in video. Is it better told in graphic form, some kind of alternative storytelling?"
The shift has resulted in a vast uptick in factual, typographical, and spelling errors in the paper, and has sparked resentment among writers. "Everything is much more first draft," says one reporter. "For breaking news stories, you type it, send it, an editor glances at it, then, bam, it's online."
Another element of the new strategy is an emphasis on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. As part of the post-layoffs restructuring, former copy editor Mary Hartney was named to a newly created position, director of audience engagement. As such, Hartney oversees a team of six people shifted from other parts of the newsroom to use social networking sites, blogs, and mobile applications to bring new readers—ideally, younger readers—into The Sun fold.
"We're charged with finding people we weren't reaching before and reaching them in new ways, helping bring traffic back to our site," says Hartney. "Generally, sort of turning down the big media megaphone and connecting with people."
But where's the revenue in Twitter?
Even if Hartney's team succeeds in bringing new readers to The Sun website, it is widely acknowledged that web advertising brings in a fraction of the money of print advertising. But Hartney, sharing the optimism of her boss, Monty Cook, is adamant that, somehow, some way, there's money in social networking. "There are monetization things that are going to come from using social sites that we don't know about yet," she says. "It's important to stake our claim there and be part of them and learn how they work so that we don't jump on a bandwagon when something is introduced into the mainstream."
Everyone at the paper acknowledges the need to take advantage of new technology, but considering the vast contractions in manpower and reduction in actual reporting, several staffers are baffled by the extent of the paper's commitment to social networking and wonder if Sun management has its priorities in order. "Do you really need eight people to update Twitter?" asks one, sarcastically. "They missed the Internet thing and now, it's as if they're screaming, 'Please, something help us be relevant!'"
As the weeks and months have passed since the April layoffs, the newsroom staff has acclimated to the new normal, while trying to measure up to The Sun's one-time reputation as one of America's great newspapers. "We're pushing forward," says Guild rep Brent Jones. "Those of us that are still here are going to continue to try and do the quality journalism that our predecessors have done at this paper."
The setting, however, is increasingly grim. These days, the vast Sun newsroom looks grossly underpopulated. Like New Orleans after Huricane Katrina, you can see whole sections that were clearly once vital but now have been left to wither.
And while most staffers have been able to stay focused on their increasing workloads, which often include writing, editing, blogging, and even taking pictures and shooting video for the web, new conflicts have cropped up. Several younger staffers express resentment toward their veteran counterparts who produce less content, but are retained in layoff after layoff, because of Guild contract terms that require Sun management to lay off employees on the basis of seniority instead of merit.
"People who have been here for a long time are people who weren't good enough to go to The Washington Post or New York Times or USA Today in the '70s and '80s," says one disgruntled young staffer and Guild member. "Here we are 30 years later and you've got all these newer people who are busting their asses and getting laid off through no fault of their own."
Clearly emotions are running high. But even amid all the adverse conditions, The Sun has produced some stellar content. This summer, when Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andres Alonso tried to quietly hire steadfast school board ally Brian Morris to a new, unadvertised $175,000-a-year position as Deputy CEO for Operations, The Sun was all over it. They trumpeted the news on page one, uncovered Morris's questionable financial dealings and close ties to Alonso. Within days, Morris resigned. It was a sign of the powerful role newspapers can still play in civic life.
But the Morris story was relatively straightforward and required minimal digging. Long-form investigative pieces and deeply knowledgeable beat reporting are disappearing, as the thinly-spread staff tries to cover ever more broad subject areas. Maryland's senior U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, who has introduced legislation to allow newspapers to register as nonprofits, has noticed a vast drop-off in coverage. "I think now there's one reporter here from The Sun who covers Washington—and that's certainly not what The Sun used to be," he says. "We're seeing continuous demise of the type of investigative reporting that's critically important."
Former Sun and current Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, who has been a Pulitzer Prize juror for over 20 years, laments the decay of The Sun's investigative teeth, along with that of newspapers nationwide. "The number of news organizations producing Pulitzer-caliber work in 2009, compared to when I first became a Pulitzer juror in the late 80s, is relatively small," he says. "That to me is a symptom of diminished staff size and the fact that some of the most experienced, best journalists have left the profession. And that's a great tragedy for democracy."
Given the mighty woes of newspapers nationally and the turmoil at The Baltimore Sun in particular, the question has increasingly been asked, What can be done to save The Sun? There are also the question's more ominous corollaries: Can The Sun be saved? Should it?
Monty Cook, for one, doesn't think The Sun needs saving. He acknowledges that you can only cut expenses so far and says the paper is working on generating new revenue sources. "We believe we can find some ways where we can help sustain us," he says. "Will newspapers, newspaper companies, ever get back to the point where you had profit margins of the '90s? I don't think so, but that doesn't mean that you can't find other revenue streams. And it may not be conventional revenue streams. It could be looking at your archives—this paper has rich archives, we've got 172 years worth. You've got a pretty good mine there."
Cook, like his bosses at Tribune Company, seems intent on re-imagining newspapers as multiplatform entities, capable of delivering content in print, online, on mobile phones—or any other device that may crop up in the future. But they haven't imagined a way to generate significant revenue out of any platform except print. And as much as they talk about using the new technology and embracing the future, they privately know that if the print editions go under before another revenue model emerges, they're finished—no matter how creatively they leverage their archives.
Currently $13 billion in debt, Tribune Company is in no position to reimagine the newspaper industry. Like a lot of newspaper companies laboring in bankruptcy, regular payments to service the debt have prevented them from any real creative changes to the advertising-based business model. Instead, they maintain a laser-like focus on cutting costs and squeezing every penny out of traditional revenue models.
"When you look at the cash flow of the Tribune Company, it's not pathetic; it's still a huge business even if it's been shrinking rapidly," says Dumenco. "The problem is that it's so highly leveraged."
One potential solution is for The Sun to get out from under the Tribune Company's debt-heavy wing and move to local ownership. As it happens, there is a team of investors willing to provide just that, led by former Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis, who previously owned the Towson Times and the Baltimore Messenger and founded the Owings Mills Times—all of which are now owned by The Sun. His Baltimore Media Group, which includes other prominent locals including Abell Foundation president Bob Embry, has made clear its desire to buy The Baltimore Sun from the Tribune Company and turn it into a community-supported nonprofit.
"A daily newspaper is such an invaluable, important institution for a community that you gotta make whatever effort you can to keep it going," says Venetoulis. "There are a lot of other vehicles for communicating news—magazines, cable, smaller local papers—all of them are good, but there is no institution to my knowledge that puts all the resources into the day-to-day accumulation, development, analysis, and distribution of news that a newspaper does."
The Sun's fortunes have sunk to new lows since Venetoulis first announced his desire to buy the paper in 2006, but he remains committed to the plan. His group was the driving force behind the Newspaper Revitalization Act that Senator Cardin introduced to the U.S. Senate earlier this year, which would grant newspapers nonprofit status and allow them to reduce their tax obligations and, more importantly, accept tax-deductible contributions from the community, in the model of National Public Radio.
"Newspapers are essentially a public responsibility, like public broadcasting and public television," says Venetoulis. "They have a big, major public purpose."
Venetoulis is not the first person to suggest that newspapers become nonprofits, but Cardin's legislation is the first serious effort to make the change possible. "The urgency is becoming greater every day, with local papers closing," says Cardin. "Initially, I didn't introduce the bill with the idea that it could pass in 2009—I thought it would take some more time for it to gain a national interest—but I think that's happened so far this year, so we are now circulating a position paper on saving local newspapers, trying to get outside groups as well as interest in Congress, and we hope to test that in the fall."
The idea, says Venetoulis, is to get the community to feel more deeply connected to its local newspaper. "You have to get the community to feel as strongly about a major newspaper institution as they do about a sports franchise," he says. "The community has got to feel that a newspaper—or whatever is providing its daily news and information—is an important element of its community, and they've got to support it."
The Sun's Cook says he welcomes the idea of newspapers becoming nonprofits, but questions whether the financial benefits would make much of a difference to the bottom line. "I think it can work in certain situations—whether it can work here remains to be seen," he says. "Even in the nonprofit world, you can't have more money going out than you're bringing in—you still have to be able to drive revenue at some point."
Cook also questions the benefits of local ownership, pointing to the situation in Philadelphia where a group of local investors, led by public relations mogul Brian Tierney, bought both local dailies, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, from corporate owners for $515 million in 2006, but failed to turn things around, and filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Venetoulis says his group has watched the Philadelphia situation closely and that the problem was that the new owners were saddled with massive debt. "The important thing is not to have overpaid for whatever product you buy," he says. "I believe they were buying very high and they put a huge debt load on the publication itself. From what I gather, [the Philadelphia papers] were profitable, except for the debt payments."
Neither Tribune Company nor Venetoulis would divulge details of their negotiations, but it has been widely rumored that Tribune Company has not seriously entertained the Baltimore Media Group's offer because its offering price is too low. But as the paper's circulation and revenue continue to deteriorate, a low price may look increasingly attractive. "Value goes down as the profit margins diminish," says Venetoulis. "They may or may not choose to take a low offer."
Even if they do, Venetoulis will have to find a way to make profits grow, and he acknowledges that community contributions and tax breaks aren't enough. "I think revenue has to come from different places than it does today," he says.
Much of the discussion about how to generate new revenue for newspapers centers around monetizing the newspaper content that is currently given away for free on the Internet. Among the possibilities are micropayments, in which readers would pay small amounts to read individual articles; pay walls, where users could pay regular (say, monthly) fees to access an entire newspaper website; or ISP fees, where anyone who uses the Internet pays a small monthly fee on their cable bill to access newspapers online, with the payments distributed proportionately, by usage, to newspapers nationwide.
Of course, all of these ideas require a major shift in the way people think about newspaper content. For years, consumers have gotten used to reading newspaper articles—aggregated by search engines like Google and Yahoo, and linked to from all over the web—for free. The real dilemma in media circles is how to put the genie back in the bottle. Former Sun reporter, creator of The Wire, and passionate defender of journalism David Simon thinks he has the answer: Shut it down.
In the July/August edition of Columbia Journalism Review, Simon writes a lengthy feature titled "Build the Wall" that is addressed to Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Katharine Weymouth, publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post, respectively. He urges the executives to stop offering their content for free on their website and, instead, institute a subscription model.
"You must act. Together," he writes, after warning them to avoid the appearance of collusion. "On a specific date in the near future—let's say September 1 for the sheer immediacy of it—both news organizations must inform readers that their Web sites will be free to subscribers only, and that while subscription fees can be a fraction of the price of having wood pulp flung on doorsteps, it is nonetheless a requirement for acquiring the contents of the news organizations that spend millions to properly acquire, edit, and present that work."
He suggests that if the two titan newspapers do as he says, all the other dailies will follow, and, ultimately, a large segment of the public will become accustomed to paying monthly fees to access their news online. As proof, he points to the example of cable television, where the public was conditioned to pay for something it had previously gotten for free.
It's an idea worth considering, although fairly far-fetched: It would take a tremendously risky leap. What if you start charging and no one's buying it?
The sad truth, as Simon Dumenco, among others, points out, is that The Sun—and newspapers generally—will likely never be what they once were. Even if they do survive in some format, their place in the new, localized, Internet-centric media landscape is permanently diminished. Many of a newspaper's functions have been replaced with better alternatives: Classifieds are on Craigslist; restaurant, movie, and music reviews, along with home and lifestyle coverage, are covered ad nauseum—and often, quite well—on blogs; and national and international news can be covered by wire services, national magazines, and web entities.
"The thing is, you don't need a local newsroom that big anymore," says Dumenco, who likes the idea of a nonprofit or public model to support vastly streamlined newspapers that cover strictly local news. "That sounds terrible, because it means layoffs, but the stuff that really needs to be supported, that really is essential to the body politic—and Baltimore's civic good in the case of The Sun—doesn't require that many people."
In a weird way, Monty Cook sounds willing to go along with such a vision of The Sun, if it's what works for the citizens of Baltimore.
"We have a covenant with our community to make sure that we are still going to be here, in spite of what's going on in the industry right now, to provide news and information in whatever form that readers expect it," he says. "We're trying to make sure that, wherever an audience for Baltimore news and information can be found, we are there."
This article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Baltimore magazine
*Editor's note: this sentence has been corrected from the original version.