A Digital Guy at the Helm  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2013

A Digital Guy at the Helm    

Trif Alatzas, the new executive editor of the Baltimore Sun, is excited about the opportunities for journalism in a transformative era for newspapers. Mon., May 6, 2013

By Kaila Stein
Kaila Stein (kstein1010@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Trif Alatzas used to serve breakfast to the reporters of the Baltimore Sun. Now, he's the executive editor of the 176-year-old newspaper, replacing Mary J. Corey, who died of breast cancer in February.

Alatzas, who grew up in Baltimore County, was raised on the Sun. "I grew up in a family of news junkies. It was my job to get the Sun off the lawn every day and bring it in," Alatzas says. "My parents and I would watch '60 Minutes' together, the local news and read the Sun and the Evening Sun every day."

His parents owned The Bridge diner, just down the street from the Sun building. "A lot of the journalists and people who worked at the Sun would come in for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I got to know some of them," Alatzas says. "When I was in college and thinking about a career, I met one of the editors and asked if I could have an internship."


Trif Alatzas is the new executive editor of the Baltimore Sun

Alatzas, who was named executive editor on March 20, landed that internship in 1987 and worked on the metro desk of the now-defunct Evening Sun while at Loyola University Maryland.

"That's where I got interested and saw how they would chase stories," he says. "That's how I caught the passion for journalism."

After graduating from Loyola, Alatzas , now 46, earned his master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. During graduate school, Alatzas interned at the Illinois House of Representatives. After receiving his degree, Alatzas headed to Rochester, New York, where he worked as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle. He then moved to Wilmington, Delaware, to work for the News Journal, where he became the business editor.

In 2002, Alatzas returned to his roots in Baltimore and joined the Sun's staff as assistant business editor. He was promoted to business editor in 2008, the year that the paper was honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

"There were a lot of big business stories that happened on his watch," says Sandy Banisky, a former deputy managing editor of the Sun. "Wall Street was starting to go bad, housing was starting to go bad, we had a lot of regulatory issues with the gas and electric companies. Trif was always on top of them. I never had to call and ask. 'Did you know about this?' He knew and was already taking charge of it."

Alatzas' career continued to blossom, and he became the Sun's sports editor in 2009. The following year, he was named head of digital media, overseeing the paper's Web and mobile operations.

In October 2011, Alatzas led the newsroom into the world of paid digital subscriptions, using a metered paywall. "We are very pleased with the success of our digital subscription plan," he says.

"We currently have almost 30,000 digital subscribers, and those numbers continue to rise." Alatzas' efforts as head of digital media paid off, and the Sun's was named top Web site by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association the past two years.

Alatzas takes over at a critical juncture for the paper, as the Sun, like newspapers across the country, has encountered serious financial difficulties in the digital era. On top of that, Tribune Co., the Sun's parent company, filed for chapter 11 in December 2008. Tribune has emerged from bankruptcy and is trying to sell its eight newspapers.

In April 2009, the Sun, which now has a daily circulation of 177,054 and a Sunday circulation of 309,061, cut nearly a third of its 205-person newsroom staff due to sharp declines in circulation and advertising revenue. A Sun spokesperson declined to provide the current size of the editorial staff. Despite the significant cuts to the newsroom, though, Banisky says the Sun is doing a fine job maintaining its traditional role.

"I think the Sun continues to cover Baltimore better than any other news outlet in the region, continues to have hard-hitting investigations and continues to play a good watchdog role in terms of state and city governments," says Baniksy, who teaches a course focused on reporting on Baltimore in her role as a professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. "They continue to do good work, even though their staff is much smaller than it used to be."

Alatzas says there have been no newsroom reductions since 2009. "We are investing more resources to build our digital offerings, including efforts to enhance our social media audience and developing interactive graphics and databases to augment our digital storytelling," he says.

Banisky says the new Sun editor "has a really firm grasp of what's happening on the digital side as well as the traditional text newspaper, and I think that's a very lucky combination for the Sun. Today, all news sites have to be able to produce a really terrific digital product, so I think he is well positioned to do that."

While the changing landscape of print journalism poses significant challenges, Alatzas seems undaunted. As the Sun's former digital guy, he sees that the digital world, including rapidly growing mobile platforms, offers opportunities.

"I think the transformation has been amazing," he says. "We've seen our audience habits change with how they consume news. Certainly we've needed to be flexible, nimble and become very good at delivering news in any way through any platform that our audience demands it at any time."

Even though many newspapers have been forced to cut back deeply, Alatzas sees the changes as nothing more than growing pains. "Newsrooms have changed as all professions have changed," he says. "The world continues to change, and our readers demand change."

Alatzas stresses that the Sun's core mission remains the same and that the demand from readers for urgent, in-depth reporting remains strong. "We're going to continue to produce great journalism, quality journalism, and we're going to deliver it any way that readers demand it," Alatzas says. "Some people want it on print, we deliver that. Some prefer online, through social media, we're committed to all of them."

Justin George joined the Sun's staff as a crime reporter in November. Shortly after he started, Corey, who had hired George, went on leave. George says Alatzas quickly took on her responsibilities without erasing her presence. "Trif would bring up something in the newsroom, and he always mentioned her. I thought that was magnanimous, telling the staff that Mary was still there."

George, who worked at the Tampa Bay Times for nine years prior to moving to Baltimore, was immediately impressed by Alatzas' accessibility. "He's a real positive guy. He's kind of like one of those guys who will slap you on the back, and when he compliments you, it's genuine," George says. "He's very hands on, more hands on than most of the other editors I've dealt with."

David Zurawik, the Sun's TV and media critic, has been at the paper for 23 years, He says he's impressed by Alatzas' work ethic. "I do really long hours, and when I look up at my desk, he's always there," Zurawik says. "If I leave at 9 o'clock at night, he's probably still at his desk. Or he's standing over the newsroom desk looking over page one. I've worked for editors who want to go sailing all the time. That's not Trif. He's a hard-working guy."

Zurawik says Alatzas' ability to keep cool under pressure is a vital trait for a leader of a newspaper. "That's the other thing that's really nice about working with somebody who is focused, strong and even-keeled," Zurawik says. "Trif does not get rocked, and that's the kind of people you want to go to war with on deadline, people who make a decision and stick with it."

When Alatzas finds some free time outside of the newsroom, he's home in Bel Air, 28 miles northeast of Baltimore, with his wife and two children.

"I like to spend time with my family." He says. "I'm a big baseball fan, I like to cook, and I like to exercise. I have two kids, and they certainly keep me busy."

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