Death in the Afternoon  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1992

Death in the Afternoon   

From Baltimore to San Diego, jointly-owned A.M.s and P.M.s are merging. That's good news for the bottom line, but what does it mean for readers and staffers?

By Cynthia Mann
Cynthia Mann covers Capitol Hill for States News Service.      

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In Baltimore, traditions run deep and proud and they are fiercely guarded. The same holds true for its newsrooms.

So it is no surprise that the recent decision to merge the staffs of Baltimore's Sun and Evening Sun has been greeted with skepticism and a profound sense of loss, outside and inside the papers. The overhaul has all but erased the distinct identity of the Evening Sun, the newspaper of H.L. Mencken and a host of other luminaries and the faithful chronicler of the city for eight decades.

The papers, though commonly owned by Times Mirror, have competed intensely and maintained sharply disparate styles. The morning paper features a large Washington bureau, a network of foreign correspondents and a more formal voice, while the evening paper has always been grittier and more sensitive to the city's neighborhoods, the spoken language and the common man.

In mid-January the staffs merged after a traumatic shake-up that saw close to 300 employees, including 85 from the editorial side, opt for buyout offers. Many left the newspaper business behind. The exodus was so large that the company now plans to hire more reporters and copy editors.

The merger clears the way for the morning paper to provide more intense coverage of targeted local news with eight zoned editions, starting by late summer. And it has reduced the Evening Sun to a recycled, if updated, morning paper with some columns and comic strips to call its own.


A Common Fate

The consolidation of jointly-owned papers has become commonplace in an industry squeezed by the recession; papers in Newport News, Roanoke, Richmond, San Diego and Charleston, South Carolina, share the same fate.

"Newspapers like the Sun are following a pattern that is well-established..but that is being accelerated by the recession," says Leo Bogart, media and advertising analyst. "Managers are under corporate pressure that is relentless..to cut costs in every way they can. The added burden of staffing two newspapers on the editorial side is not justified by the returns in circulation and advertising."

The Sun scenario is typical for commonly-owned morning and afternoon papers that long had kept separate and competitive staffs, though Baltimore's afternoon circulation is a little stronger than most, says media analyst John Morton.

Merging "is often the prelude to shutting down the afternoon newspaper," says Morton, who observes such a move "will result in a significant increase in profitability."

The dust no doubt will settle in Baltimore. But debate continues over what such consolidations mean for the future of the newspaper industry.

Critics say the changes are dictated by the bottom lines in the ledgers of remote corporate headquarters without regard for their impact on the community or for the mission of journalism. But the Sun and other engineers and defenders of consolidation say the industry must respond efficiently to changing demographic trends and demands or become obsolete in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Stephen Vicchio is a Baltimore native, a lifelong reader of both papers, and the head of the philosophy department at Baltimore's College of Notre Dame. Vicchio, who has written numerous op-ed pieces for the Sun papers, says the Evening Sun, "like a lot of good newspapers around the country," is a casualty of market research focus groups, "which seek the lowest common denominator." For him the merger is a shortsighted and disturbing trend that impoverishes community life.

"The powers that be [Times Mirror executives] were brought there to kill the Evening Sun and now that they have done it they will probably move on," Vicchio says bitterly.

Kathryn Christensen, the managing editor of both the morning and evening papers who came on board last year, rejects Vicchio's charges. She says no decision has been made on the fate of the evening paper. And she says the changes at the papers are a result of intensive local market research and are homegrown.

"People think Times Mirror is directing the destiny here," she says. "To the extent that I know, this is not a Times Mirror plan or even a suggestion. This was designed here."

John Carroll, the editor of both Suns, also contests the notion that the evening paper has been killed. "It is still a substantial newspaper and we will continue to publish it," he says, but adds, "I don't want to specify time periods.

"You can look at [consolidation] as the end of the Evening Sun, but it actually has more resources."

When Publisher Michael Davies announced the changes to readers, he conceded the "Evening Sun has a more difficult future than the robust morning Sun." And while he said "reports of its death continue to be exaggerated," he conspicuously didn't contradict them.

Some say the disappearance of papers like the Evening Sun is inevitable.

"These corporations won't fight to hold onto p.m. papers in two-paper towns the way they have in the past because [the recession has made them] more hard-headed about the bottom line and..because their research shows a rapidly declining market for afternoon newspapers," says Bill Winter, director of the American Press Institute in Reston, Virginia.

But Winter isn't worried. "The people at the Sun are the best in the business and they are trying to cement their position in the marketplace," he says. "If you don't have a healthy business, you won't be able to carry out your mission."

Christensen concurs. "There is not a single newspaper in the country that isn't looking at how it can change, not to save money but to survive or jump ahead," she says. But she acknowledges the changes at the Sun were traumatic for many, a situation aggravated by "glitches" in the process.

Joan Jacobson, a housing reporter who was with the Evening Sun for 18 years, opted to stay. She says there were some "hard feelings" as a result of the way management handled the reassignments required by the consolidation prior to the buyout deadline.

"It was nerve-racking for a few people," she says. People who had been at the papers for years found themselves collecting their clips and being interviewed, in many cases, for their own beats. "Some thought they weren't treated well, for some it was real rough," said Jacobson, a former Guild official who served on the buyout negotiating committee.

But Jacobson says management had "a tall order to reorganize two papers in a few weeks' time... And they could have laid people off, which would have been worse."

Says photo librarian Fred Rasmussen, "We're still in a shakeout period when it's hard to tell what will happen. A lot of talent left, but a lot is still here."

"We are introducing a lot of change in a hurry," concedes Carroll. "It made some people unhappy, which I regret, but we tried to do it as humanely as possible. Nobody's been laid off and those who left, left with very big checks in their pockets."

The buyouts ranged from six months of salary and health insurance coverage (85 percent paid) for service of six months to two years to 15 months' salary and five years of fully paid medical coverage for 15 or more years of service and for people 55 and older.

"Before the buyout was over, morale was about as shaky as I've seen it," Carroll says. But "the people who elected to stay will be the happiest people if the paper gets markedly better. The morale of all of us depends on how good the paper is."

Carroll, 50, was a Sun foreign and Washington correspondent in the late 1960s and early 1970s; he reported from Vietnam during the Tet offensive and from the Middle East and covered the White House.

After a Nieman Fellowship in 1971, he became city editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. During the 1980s he was editor of the Lexington Herald and then the Lexington Herald-Leader, a product of a consolidation that he says gave birth to "a paper of an entirely different class." The combined paper benefited from far greater resources, according to Carroll: "Instead of two reporters competing to cover city hall, the new paper could have far more beat reporters." So he has traveled this road before.

Still Carroll, widely respected for his decency and commitment to excellence, seems bruised by a battle Sun staffers say he didn't bargain for when he returned to the paper in March 1991. But he is determined to continue on a course he is confident is right.

"I have great affection for this newspaper, but it is one of the slowest-changing institutions on the face of the earth," he says. "The greatest threat to the paper is stagnation... [It] can't afford to stay the same."


Going Suburban

Carroll says the engine driving the changes is extensive market research that found that the "Number One thing that readers want is local news. It is a cornerstone of the franchise and they don't think we do a very good job." Nor do they feel local news means just Baltimore anymore, hence the zoned editions, Carroll says.

The paper needs resources to cover the counties, he adds, "and in a recessionary climate, we can't add all the staff." So the company decided to mesh the morning, evening and suburban insert operations.

What's happening at the Sun reflects a wide-spread phenomenon, says Carroll. The news hole has been squeezed in recent years, resources have shrunk, and readership demand for an afternoon paper has dwindled because of lifestyle changes and the fragmentation of the metropolitan market. "Readers have left the afternoon papers and gone to the suburbs," he says.

At the same time, the loss of Baltimore's evening paper as a distinct voice exacts a steep public price.

"No one wants to see a paper die, and the Baltimore Sun is one of the great names in American journalism," says API's Winter. "I grew up in Arkansas, and it pained me to see the [Arkansas] Gazette die" last year.

"I really loved that paper," Vicchio says of the Evening Sun. "It was one of a kind." He especially laments the loss of a second editorial page. Ray Jenkins, the liberal Evening Sun editorial page editor, took a buyout and now the papers feature similar editorials by the same writers.

"During the Clarence Thomas hearings," Vicchio remembers, "the morning paper offered glowing endorsements of him, before and after. The Evening Sun said, 'This guy didn't deserve to be Supreme Court justice before and he certainly doesn't now.' This kind of tension is always valuable and it is something we looked forward to."

That tension is increasingly rare nationwide. Of the more than 1,500 cities that have daily newspapers, fewer than 90 now have more than one, and only a dozen second papers are independently owned.

Analyst Morton says the changes should not provoke surprise or undue anxiety; the common-ownership consolidations are part of a 15-year trend while the erosion of the afternoon newspaper market is a 40-year-old phenomenon. In 1950, there were 1,450 afternoon papers and 322 morning papers, while at the end of 1990 there were 1,084 afternoon papers and 559 morning papers, according to Morton. Since the end of 1990, 12 afternoon papers have either shut down or announced they will.

Television has captured time that had been devoted to reading afternoon newspapers, Morton says. Meanwhile, changes in the economy have produced more service and less industry, which means more white-collar workers who go to work later, a pattern favoring morning papers.

Alf Goodykoontz is the executive editor managing the consolidation of the commonly owned but competitive Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader. Goodykoontz says the merger, which saw 91 buyouts and will trigger about 11 layoffs, has been a "trying time." But he adds that the ownership, Media General Newspapers, came to realize that in a slow economy, "we could no longer afford the luxury of competing with ourselves."

By consolidating, he says, the company will eliminate the duplication of costs in distribution and production as well as news-gathering to create a stronger product that "combines the best elements of both papers" and better serves readers.

This is the kind of rationale written off as "public relations baloney" by media critic Ben Bagdikian. "It is a standard speech I know by heart." He says newspapers are merging to economize and increase profits at a time when the recession has cut into the industry's tremendous profit margins not primarily to benefit readers.

Newspapers always were "money machines" but became "super money machines" in the 1970s and 1980s, says Bagdikian, author of "The Media Monopoly." And while affected by the recession, "they are not hurting financially in any way compared to other American industries," he says.


Vanishing Ads

But the newspaper industry has reason to reexamine and even redefine itself. It sustained its worst performance last year since World War II and prospects for economic recovery look grim.

"Newspaper publishers are very pessimistic about recovery this time around," says API's Winter. "They're asking whether the recession is a cyclical [drop] or whether there are more fundamental long-term changes afoot."

The biggest culprit is advertising, the industry's lifeblood; total U.S. spending on advertising in 1991 was down for the first time since 1961, with the largest drop since World War II, and some growth forecasts for this year are lower than 1 percent. Newspapers' increasing reliance on classified advertising, the most sensitive to economic changes, means their ad revenues will be unstable.

At the same time, the number of Americans who read newspapers regularly also declined. In 1970 that figure for adults under 35 was 76 percent; by 1990 it had dropped to 29 percent.

The Sun papers won't reveal their revenue or profit figures, but they sustained a drop of 8 percent in ad volume in 1991, according to Regina Swearingen, director of marketing and communication. And the Evening Sun's circulation (about 156,000) has fallen 20,000 since 1988. The morning paper's circulation rose 8,200 to 237,000 during that period.

Parent company Times Mirror's newspaper division saw a decline in ad revenues in 1991 of 8 percent, to $1.56 billion, but a rise in circulation revenues of 9.3 percent, to $418 million, says Martha Goldstein, director of corporate communications. The division's profit margin fell from 8.6 percent to 7.7 percent.

The Times Mirror division not affected by advertising, which includes book publishing, training, and cable television companies, saw a rise of 10.4 percent in revenues. The corporation overall had an 8.7 percent profit margin, down from 10.6 percent the previous year.

Morton, like Bagdikian, is sanguine about the industry's viability. People are "crying the blues, but the industry is still healthy," he says. Investors in the '90s simply have to adjust to profits that are one or two times more profitable than most industries instead of two to three times as profitable. He estimates the average newspaper profit last year to be 12 percent, a level not sustained by many industries even in boom times. He predicts that while newspapers will never again see the high profit margins of recent decades, they will remain strong.

Larry Tarleton, who managed the consolidation of the Evening Post and the News and Courier in Charleston last October, is also upbeat. "We all hate to see a nameplate disappear and there is a lot of sadness about there no longer being an Evening Post, but most people understand the industry has to change... Lifestyles have changed and hurt papers. But we will bounce back."

Tarleton, the newspaper's executive editor, says there is a need for papers to turn their attention to the decline in readership, particularly among the computer generation that doesn't read them. "But I don't think [newspapers] are dinosaurs. There still is a place for them."


Welcome to Reality

Meanwhile, journalists, who traditionally have been shielded from economic pressures and believed they were not vulnerable to the financial forces that drive other industries, must reckon with the discovery they are.

"As badly as I feel about [the changes]," says Evening Sun op-ed page editor Mike Bowler, "the reality of the newspaper world in 1992 is that afternoon papers are not going to survive in the big cities... A lot of losses are never going to be recovered."

Winter, for one, is confident the best traditions will endure. "We talk to lots of [editors] every day and there is a strong feeling that the franchise must be protected," he says. When they come to API for seminars, "They don't talk about manufacturing widgets, they talk about maintaining a mission."

Bagdikian predicts more turmoil as newspapers continue to reposition themselves in the changing market. Many realize advertising revenues never will be as high and must be replaced by circulation increases, he says.

The Sun's strategy of zoned editions is one way to entice readers, says Bagdikian. The real test will be whether it is a sustained commitment or a gimmick to attract readers, and whether it will increase coverage overall or merely shift resources and undercut other beats.

Bagdikian says it will be difficult for editorial staffs to adjust to the industry's inevitable changes, because of their unusually personal investment in it. "You're asking a reporter to produce a new intellectual product every day, which then goes out to the community; it's a very personal psychic and intellectual involvement."

But if editors like Carroll have their way, news operations should not only gird themselves for change, but embrace it. "Years ago Mencken was raising holy hell by writing stories that offended traditionalists," says Carroll, "but he was right.

"When I came back [to the Sun] I had a sense of stewardship," he says. "I want it to be a great newspaper. I want it to honor its past. But responsible stewardship doesn't necessarily mean staying the same." l

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