From AJR, October 1997 issue
Its ambitious editors are trying to make Baltimore's Sun a great paper by avoiding modern newsroom trends and stressing big projects, hard-edged reporting and powerful storytelling.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
THE TELEVISION SHOW IS NBC'S ``HOMICIDE: Life on the Street.'' A Hildy Johnson-type female reporter isn't happy with changes her editor has made on a police story at a fictitious Baltimore newspaper. She knows she doesn't have the story properly sourced, nor does she completely trust the one source she has. But her editor isn't listening. The story moves on to the copy desk.
The editor says critically: ``And you're not thinking about A-1. In Philadelphia they taught me how to have impact, how to keep a story out front by printing everything I knew. If the facts change, we fix it the next day. And I don't have to tell you how many Pulitzers we brought home to Philly.''
The script's author is David Simon, a former reporter for Baltimore's Sun who spent 13 years there and vaulted to fame with his book ``Homicide,'' on which the eponymous Baltimore-based detective show is based. When he wrote that episode, Simon had in mind a similar speech he says was given by a Sun editor formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the award-winning newspaper that has become a legend in print journalism circles for its past glories and a real-life major influence at today's Sun.
``That speech was given to a reporter in more or less the same words and tone...,'' says Simon, a ``Homicide'' producer who left the Sun in 1995. ``It's their newspaper, they can write what they want. It's my TV show. I get to tease.''
The teasing is directed at the regime that's been dramatically reshaping the Sun in the last three years into a paper with momentum. Its leaders are Editor John S. Carroll and Managing Editor William K. Marimow, both of whom readily admit that they developed their journalistic ethics and ideals under the tutelage of the vaunted Gene Roberts, the Inquirer's executive editor from 1972 to 1990. Carroll spent six years at the Inquirer, Marimow 21.
``I loved the Inquirer and the way it was,'' Marimow says. ``I think what's happening at the Sun is a variation on what happened at the Inquirer in the 1970s. There's a robust, slightly chaotic feel as well as intense pressure from competition.''
Says Stephen Proctor, the Sun's assistant managing editor for features and a veteran of the paper, ``Basically the Philadelphia experience John and I talked about was an aggressive response to daily news, smart and edgy. And literate, thoroughly researched stories. Storytelling. That's what we're trying to do here.''
But trying to recreate the spirit of the Inquirer of the past, where creative freedom dominated in unprecedented ways for a newspaper, and reporters were given endless time and money for stories, has brought with it a tension that is palpable at the 160-year-old Sun.
Many staffers who were at the Sun before Marimow and Carroll teamed up feel undervalued and somewhat daunted by the influx of Philadelphians and the parade of other talented hires. The paper is dubbed Inquirer South; a new reporter is said to be ``area-code enhanced'' if he or she came from Philadelphia's 215 area code. Since Marimow arrived in April 1993, the Sun has hired at least 10 people who had worked at the Inquirer. Among them are the Sun's city editor, director of photography, page one editor, book editor, regional editor and an enterprise editor.
Since the start of this decade, the Sun has been through more traumatic change than it experienced in the years after Times Mirror bought the morning and evening Sun papers from the Abell family in 1986. Carroll was hired in 1991 as the first editor to oversee both papers in more than a generation. There have been buyout programs in 1992 and 1995 (the latter considered ``ugly'' by some), a 1992 consolidation of the a.m. and p.m. staffs, a tense rift between Editor Carroll and then-Managing Editor Kathryn Christensen, who left in 1993, and the death of the Evening Sun in September 1995.
``Prior to 1992, you have to understand, the Sun was like watching paint dry,'' says former features editor Lynda Robinson, a 10-year veteran who left to join the new magazine ``Capital Style'' in August as managing editor. ``Then, suddenly, there was all this turmoil after a long period of stagnation.''
Carroll admits his first years are nothing he'd put on his resumÄ. But, after the 1995 buyout, the focus shifted toward upgrading news content and hiring new people. In less than two years there have been 54 new newsroom hires.
``Compared to most corporate regime changes, it's been velvet gloves for the most part,'' says reporter Scott Shane. ``I would say the paper is significantly better than when they arrived. Most of the carping is about filling most key editing jobs with white male cronies from Philadelphia. John and Bill often refer to those glory days in Philadelphia. They're respectful of the people here. But the feeling they convey is that they are taking a paper that is mediocre or good to make it better.''
Almost everyone applauds the new hires and commitment to excellence. But the way the Sun's veterans are treated sometimes rankles: the demotion of a longtime editor, pressuring certain people to take buyouts, reassignments from the newsroom to bureaus. Neither Marimow nor Carroll spoke in the newsroom of Ed Goodpaster's 15 years of service when he retired as deputy metro editor in May. Yes, there was a sheetcake. ``But someone who's been at the paper as long as Ed had deserved some congratulatory remarks in the newsroom,'' says Ginger Thompson, who left in June after eight years to cover Cuba for the Chicago Tribune. ``All of us noticed the silence.''
Yet most are thrilled to have top-notch editors who tout traditional journalistic values at the helm. Daily circulation is 313,000, up 7,000 over a year ago, and Sunday is 480,000, a 3,000 increase. The Sun has the feel of a paper on the way up, with big ambitions, space for long, riveting stories and numerous opportunities to do world-class reporting.
Its 1996 series in which two reporters purchased a slave in the Sudan was a Pulitzer finalist, as was a series the same year on city ownership of rundown rental housing. A third story, Lisa Pollak's piece on a family with a rare genetic disease, did even better, winning a Pulitzer for feature writing, ending the Sun's 12-year Pulitzer drought.
Compelling narrative journalism is a strong part of the ``new'' Sun, as are investigative projects for which a reporter might spend a year looking into a topic. ``It would be hard to find many other newspapers putting as much emphasis on storytelling as on investigative work,'' says Enterprise Editor Jan Winburn, who came to the Sun in 1995 from the Hartford Courant, where she edited the Sunday magazine. ``When I come to work I feel the only thing that's holding me back is my imagination.''
Unlike some other newspapers, the Sun eschews such journalistic trends as public journalism, newsroom consultants and creating teams and pods. ``It's just not our thing,'' Carroll says. The paper is striving to be a traditional newspaper, with traditional journalistic values. A recent redesign resulted not in a flashy new look but an older one, with narrow, vertical columns, seven across on section fronts.
``Bill and I are old-fashioned,'' Carroll says, ``in the sense that we make a conscious effort to remain editors.''
TO UNDERSTAND THE ``NEW'' Sun, one needs to look closely at Marimow, 50, and Carroll, 55. Their similarities are vast, their differences stark. Both came up as reporters. Both were Inquirer city editors. Both love investigative work. Both believe in being accessible and strive for a calming presence in the newsroom. Screamers they're not. Both learned the trade from Gene Roberts and are unflinching in their reverence. ``I've learned more about editing from Gene than anyone else,'' Carroll says. ``You can't spend 15 minutes with him without hearing something you never thought of.''
Carroll joined the Sun as a police reporter in 1966, and covered the White House, the Middle East and Vietnam for the paper before going to work in 1973 for Roberts, whom he'd met in Saigon when Roberts was the New York Times' bureau chief. Carroll became the Inquirer's night city editor.
Marimow joined the Inquirer as a business reporter in 1972. He went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes at the paper, one for a 1977 series edited by Carroll, who rose to be city editor, then metropolitan editor.
Carroll left the Inquirer in 1979 to become editor of the Lexington Herald and then executive editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, like the Inquirer a Knight-Ridder newspaper. ``I always wanted to come back to Baltimore,'' Carroll says. ``I always felt the Sun had potential. And I'd done everything I could do at Lexington. This paper had great strengths, but I felt it could be improved in all ways--reporting, the writing, photography, the design; did I say the writing? Graphics, the headlines, the copy editing.''
Soon after he took charge, he hired senior producer Kathryn Christensen away from ``ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings'' in August 1991 to be the Sun's first female managing editor. By many accounts, there was a great deal of uncomfortable, uncreative tension between the two. In August 1993 Christensen returned to ``World News,'' where she is now managing editor.
Marimow--eager to leave the Inquirer, which he saw as foundering after Roberts left to teach at the University of Maryland College of Journalism in 1991--became the Sun's metro editor in April 1993. He quickly rose to the paper's number two post.
Marimow says his and Carroll's primary interests coincide. ``But we come at stories differently,'' he adds. ``John is truly a visionary. When he sees something, he sees the whole forest, and sometimes he sees it first. I'm someone who after eight to 10 stories, I say, `Holy shit. I'm in a forest.' I need lightning and thunder and rain to have a vision.'' Carroll on Marimow: ``Bill and I are very similar. I didn't pick him because he's different. Bill's better organized, though. He's better with people, very sensitive and empathetic. I try to be.
Bill's a better manager than I am.'' Carroll likens the relationship to tag-team wrestling: One takes over where the other leaves off. Both are often in the newsroom, attend the afternoon news meeting, lavish praise, take reporters to lunch and encourage an open-door policy that can sometimes thwart the chain of command.
Differences? Carroll is said to be patient, Marimow impatient; Carroll a big picture editor, Marimow a detail man. ``I think John is intensely interested in big projects,'' says Gil Watson, a 29-year Sun veteran who is the paper's Sunday editor. ``Bill's biggest interest is hard-edged investigative reporting which is city focused. Bill is much more daily focused.''
BUT BOTH PLACE A GREATpremium on hiring well, particularly valuing strong reporting experience. ``One hire can make you look smart,'' Carroll says. ``An incompetent reporter takes a staggering amount of an editor's time just to make a story presentable. No editor can make it great.'' The paper keeps lists of reporters to watch, especially young ones. It's tracking about 100 now. ``Every time I meet someone who has just left a newspaper, I ask who is the best reporter there,'' Carroll says.
Not surprisingly, Carroll and Marimow have hired some friends, people who are known quantities and share their style of journalism and sense of excitement. Kate Shatzkin, considered one of the best reporters at the paper, came from the Seattle Times in 1994 to cover prisons. Her connections: She and Carroll are both alumni of Haverford College in suburban Philadelphia, where they met when Carroll spoke at his alma mater. Ten years ago she was a stringer for Marimow at the Inquirer. Both men stayed in touch with her. ``Bill loves the role of critic and mentor,'' she says.
Shatzkin jumped at the chance to work for the Sun. ``How often do you find real journalists in the top editing jobs?'' she asks. ``They know the time it takes to do good work, and they give you the time. They both are constantly walking through the newsroom, back-reading stories.''
Shatzkin is considered part of the Marimow mafia. So is Jan Winburn, who spent the last decade at the Hartford Courant. ``When I first arrived, someone introduced me as `Jan Winburn, she's from the Philadelphia Inquirer.' I laughed, since it was by way of a decade ago. But it tells you a lot about the sensitivity.''
``There's a great deal of resentment from old-time Sun people,'' says Proctor. ``But it's only logical to hire people you personally know as good. A lot of people took the hiring as a slight to the Sun. But there's not a single assistant managing editor who isn't a veteran of the Sun.''
The new hires aren't solely from the Inquirer. Debbie Price, former executive editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is now a Sun reporter. Rosemary Armao, once the widely respected executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, left the organization to become the paper's Anne Arundel County bureau chief. Ken Fuson joined features from the Des Moines Register last fall. This year's Pulitzer winner, Lisa Pollak, who was offered a job during her interview, came from Raleigh's News & Observer in July 1996. But even the non-Philadelphia hires haven't erased the tension. Many privately cheered when Pollak won journalism's highest prize, because the AME/features, Proctor, and Pollak's direct editor, Lynda Robinson, were Sun veterans.
``The Baltimore-Philadelphia divide is everywhere, and it's very bitter,'' says Armao, who joined the Sun in February. ``It's perceived by people from the old Baltimore Sun, whether it's true or not, that they were not valued. The guys from Philadelphia are here to show you how to run a paper. It's amazing that it still exists. There's very much a sense of `We're building a paper,' which has to be annoying to the people here.''
IT'S INEVITABLE THAT NEWSROOMstaffers feel threatened by change. What's different at the Sun is how many dramatic changes the ``old'' staff has had to weather. In 1991, Carroll consolidated the 250-person morning Sun staff, 125 editorial employees from the Evening Sun and 76 from a separate suburban staff. A buyout helped reduce the roster by 78.
Meanwhile, Carroll was fighting backroom battles over suburban zoning with then-Publisher Michael Davies and wasn't much of a presence in the newsroom. In Carroll's ``absence,'' many felt Christensen was running the newsroom. Christensen, according to many, ruled with a tight rein, earning her the moniker, ``She who must be obeyed.''
``It was just a bad mix, chemistry-wise,'' says Watson, a Christensen deputy. ``She's very driven. Very intense. Very bright. `She who must be obeyed' was exactly right. She wanted something done, it had to be done then╔. Now there's a difference in style. John and Bill are both more restrained and soft-spoken.''
Christensen says she ``really enjoyed working with the staff in Baltimore,'' but has a policy of not speaking about former employers. Says former Deputy Metro Editor Goodpaster, ``She was tougher than a board and could be really hard on people, and sometimes she did it publicly. But she was a tremendous newspaperwoman, and I really loved working with her. People either loved her or hated her.''
Shortly after Christensen left, the Sun offered another buyout in 1995 as part of Times Mirror's downsizing efforts under new Chairman and CEO Mark H. Willes. To many, it was poorly handled and brutal. ``The last buyout for me was most difficult because we sat down and talked with people about the buyout and why they should take it,'' Watson says.
Asked if he had fired people, Carroll replied, ``Let's say, `No, not exactly.' Everyone who took a buyout agreed to it. It wasn't easy for all concerned. It was nearly all voluntary.''
In the end, the staff was reduced from 419 to 386, and bad feelings inevitably ensued. One staffer who left bitterly was David Simon, who began at the Sun at age 21. Simon believes the ``new'' Sun can't accommodate people who don't fit the Carroll-Marimow mold. He points to Mike Littwin, a former Sun columnist and union activist who lost his column following a long dispute over how it should be written.
``I left because of what amounted to a philosophical difference with John Carroll over my column,'' says Littwin, now a sports columnist at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Says AME/features Proctor, who was Littwin's boss, ``Mike has sort of a '60s way of looking at the world. That's not the way John looks at the world. I personally liked Littwin's column.''
Some believe Littwin's troubles began when he wrote a union memo explaining why reporters should participate in a byline strike in June 1996 while the contract was under negotiation. At issue were merit-only pay increases that Marimow had proposed. Months after it was over, Littwin went to see Marimow to say the disagreement hadn't been personal.
Marimow wasn't mollified. He took a copy of Mario Puzo's ``The Godfather'' from his bookshelf and quoted a favorite passage, one in which Michael Corleone says to his consiglieri, ``Tom, don't let everyone kid you. It's all personal.''
In April 1995, Simon returned to the Sun after a two-year leave to write his latest book, ``The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood.'' ``They [Carroll and Marimow] came in with strong pedigrees, Pulitzers, the Gene Roberts aura,'' says Simon. ``I was a happy guy. I wanted the paper to get better.'' But, he says, he also wanted to be paid as well as some of the new hires. So he asked for a raise.
``You would have thought I'd thrown a dead dog on the table╔,'' says Simon. ``I was told it was bad form to come back after a leave and ask for a raise. It wasn't about the money. The lion's share of my income was from royalties from the books and television show. It was a telling moment of, `Do you value me or not?' The answer was no.'' Six months after he returned, Simon took a buyout.
``I came to the point where I realized any dissent equals disloyalty,'' he says.
For his part, Marimow says he's a big fan of Simon's and thinks his latest book is great. But, he adds, Simon ``was distressed over what I perceive as past injustices over economics. I don't think you reward people for coming back.''
IWhen Sun reporter Scott Wilson left in September after only a year and a half to go to the Washington Post, Marimow was admittedly unhappy and told him so.
Others are miffed about losing prized assignments. ``The rules were changed,'' Marimow says. ``What might have been good in 1991 was no longer good. What might have been accepted when John came in 1991 was no longer acceptable. All I know is we really want the paper to shine.''
The paper did not shine last February when a story written by reporter Ronnie Greene got caught up in a potential conflict of interest inside the newspaper. Although the story eventually appeared, the controversy caused so much turmoil that 40 staffers signed a petition demanding it run, Greene handed in his resignation (it wasn't accepted), and Carroll flew home from a Mexico vacation.
Baltimore's county executive had played a major role in enticing a large credit card company to move its regional headquarters to the county. Greene discovered that the official also owned a debt-collection company run by his brother that did business with the company. Greene's story raised questions about how the county might treat the credit card company, which was bringing 2,500 white collar jobs to the area.
The Sun's publisher at the time, Mary E. Junck, had problems with the story and demanded that it be rewritten. A revised and weaker version ran without a byline. Junck's motives were suspect in the newsroom because she served as chair of the Greater Baltimore Alliance, which tries to attract business to the area, and she had gone to the firm's office to help persuade it to relocate.
Two days after the watered-down version ran, in the wake of much newsroom angst, a 28-inch story on the same subject, much stronger and okayed by Greene, ran in the Metro section.
``The only thing I'm willing to now say is it wasn't a model of how a newspaper should operate,'' Carroll says. ``Although we were criticized, and I fully accept the criticism, it's a pertinent truth that the Sun published all the facts relevant to this issue before any of the [public] criticism.''
(Last month Junck was named president of Times Mirror's eastern newspapers. Her successor at the Sun is former Hartford Courant Publisher Michael Waller.)
The Sun may be opening itself up for criticism with a new mission to improve third-grade reading scores by 35 percentage points in the next five years. In August, top editors and the publisher presented their plan to the Baltimore school board. ``Reading by 9,'' a public service project, promises, among other things, that Sun employees will tutor reading in public schools, and reporters will write about 300 stories annually.
``It's great to help kids learn to read,'' says Eileen Murphy, who writes about the media for Baltimore's Citypaper. ``But they promised the school board stories. It just seems like there are a lot of things that could go wrong. I've already gotten calls from some of the reporters worried about the program. What if they don't want to volunteer to tutor?''
Carroll says they won't have to, and that the paper intends to run solid stories about the problem and efforts to solve it, not booster pieces.
SOME PEOPLE MAY BE UNHAPPYat the Sun, but for others it's a playground brimming with great opportunities. Foreign Editor Jeff Price has been with the paper for 28 years, and he says he's having more fun than ever, even though three of his eight bureaus have been scrapped. ``I know there's this talk about the old and the new,'' says Price. ``But I've had some opportunities to do some projects which were sort of a novel experience for me. You get to the point where you think you've done it all, but then these guys come in with real strong backgrounds in enterprise and project journalism.''
Two years ago, reporters Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn were cut loose to spend a year and a half on a project about Honduran death squads that became a Pulitzer finalist. ``That sort of thing isn't unheard of at other newspapers,'' says Price. ``But it had never been done here before. It was very energizing.'' Last year reporters Gregory Kane and Gilbert A. Lewthwaite wrote a fascinating journal-style account of buying a slave in the Sudan, a project supervised by Price. ``I've been a fairly meat and potatoes Joe, but never involved in something where you take time and have a different reporting, writing and editing process,'' Price says. ``That's what they [Carroll and Marimow] brought. There are a lot of people who've been here for a long time doing quite well, thank you very much. I'm one of them.''
Feature writer Alice Steinbach is another. She recently spent a few weeks in Paris filing offbeat dispatches about Parisian life. Rather than run photos, the paper commissioned a Paris artist to illustrate six of her stories. ``What I really note in the last three years is they are willing to take chances,'' says Steinbach, who joined the paper in 1981. ``Sometimes I think I died and woke up in the offices of the New Yorker.''
Features is one area that Carroll and Marimow wanted to upgrade. Proctor, who took the helm in January 1994, says the department was a ``morass way beyond anything you can imagine. Morale was incredibly low.'' Enterprise Editor Winburn's arrival in January 1995 was the ``turning point,'' Proctor says.
Winburn shook things up by encouraging experimentation with different storytelling formats. She edited a 16-part series by Pat Meisol, written like chapters in a book, about a woman dying of cancer. Ken Fuson tried immersion journalism, spending two months with Anne Arundel high school drama students putting on ``West Side Story.''
``Any person who's an objective reader of the Baltimore Sun has to feel the paper is gigantically better than it has been for years,'' says Proctor, who says he's happier than any time in his 17 years there. ``When I do job interviews, people tell me they think of us as one of the hottest newspapers.''
The Sun has hardly completed its journey. ``It's far from the paper John and I want it to be,'' Marimow says. ``But the gap is starting to close. It's not closing fast enough, but it's closing in a way you can sense. Most people don't know when a mountain has moved except for the people pushing it.''