Volume 12, Issue 27 ~ July 1-7, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Farewell Bill Schmick
Credibility, integrity and caring were the bywords of the publisher of the Baltimore Sunpaper

It was a phone call I looked forward to each year as Christmas approached. The calls stopped coming several years ago, and I missed them. Yet I understood; time and age take their toll.

On the other end of the line would be William F. Schmick Jr., long-time president of A.S. Abell Co. and publisher of its prized media flagship, the Baltimore Sunpapers, for which I toiled as outdoor columnist/editor for 37 and a half years until retirement in 1992.

I never quite understood why I was so fortunate. I was pretty much way down in the hierarchy of the trenches of the Sunpapers, but perhaps it was because Bill Schmick figured one good turn deserved another. At times I provided him with wild geese or plump rockfish for his table. I never addressed him as Bill. To me, he was always Mr. Schmick.

It was with sadness last week that I noted the passing of the 90-year-old gentleman who for perhaps 15 years dialed me at home, saying “This is Bill Schmick. It’s getting to be that time of year.” Then, he would invite me to a Christmastime lunch at either the Maryland Club or the Elkridge Club.

When there were no longer those lunches, there was a void. I lost touch with the credibility, integrity and, shall we say, caring that once were the standards guiding the people who owned or managed the big newspapers of our country.

Big Men
Over the years as we lunched and chatted over a single drink as the Christmas holiday approached, a few others of credibility, integrity and caring sat at the table. There was Gary Black Sr., the first of the group to depart this world. He was chairman of the board and principal A.S. Abell owner, and he was ever so many times my companion on fishing and hunting junkets.

Next was Phil Heisler, for many years the managing editor of the feisty and colorful Evening Sun, he retired more than 25 years ago and passed away more than a decade before the paper he loved and nurtured also died. He was a newspaperman’s newspaperman. He wanted an interesting and provocative paper, and he had the patience and wherewithall to keep on track a gang of reporters and editors known for their fierce individuality and independence.

Then came the turn of Paul Banker, retired managing editor of the morning edition. His personality was akin to that of his newspaper: serious, straight to the point, facts and analysis above all right up there with decorum. I recall a memo he once dispatched — and there had to be much inner anguish as he wrote the words in the late ’70s — informing his male reporters they no longer had to wear a necktie when on the job out of the office.

But that didn’t mean an open-shirt-collar appearance. He figured Clark Kent (which he described as his favorite comic character) when not in his Superman attire dressed the way all reporters should. But he allowed that because times were a’changing, a turtleneck could be beneath a sport coat. Yet more than a few of the more formal Morning Sun’s newshounds didn’t take him up on it. They didn’t want to be mistaken for one of the ragamuffins who pounded the pavement for the evening side.

And now gone is Bill Schmick, who — with the exception of the several times we fished together — I not once saw without coat and tie. No doubt he didn’t approve of the beard I grew after a few years with his paper — I was the first modern times staffer to do so — but he never mentioned his displeasure. At least, to me.

Mr. Schmick
I recall about 35 years ago as Christmas approached, a small ad sneaked into the staid am Sun featuring a gag gift: a fur-lined jock strap. Egads: the presses were stopped, the advertisement was pulled and there was no doubt in the newsroom from where the hurried order came. Mr. Schmick monitored his newspaper closely, and while he ruled, the paper would be decent and tasteful. He figured readers deserved respect.

He was of the formal, reserved type; he was a businessman who, despite his sharp awareness of the bottom line, adhered to the traditions of journalism. Maybe it was business first, but not above all.

He and his managing editors let it be known that regardless of how much space an advertiser purchased, he was not entitled to any more ink than was Joe Q. Public who bought only an occasional classified ad, if that. The independence of the writers and columnists was guaranteed. For many years, regardless of the patronage of a prominent advertising firm, its name could not be used unless it was vital to a story. No one was due preference; no one intimidated the Sunpapers or its personnel on the advertising or editorial side.

In a tribute to Bill Schmick, G. Jefferson Price, the Sun’s Perspective editor, mentioned the time one of Baltimore’s biggest department stores — and a big advertiser — tried strong-arming the Sunpapers because it didn’t agree with coverage of a story or two. The store threatened to withdraw its advertising.

Not about to let such a challenge go unanswered, Mr. Schmick beat the department store to the punch; for more than a year his newspapers would accept no advertising from said department store. True story, and told to me by Gary Black when I was concerned about my job after an Abell board member and prominent Baltimore lawyer who didn’t like something I wrote threatened to have my job.

No one, board member or not, can intimidate the paper or its employees, Black assured me, and he used Bill Schmick’s response to the department store’s folly as an example. Then, Black told me the appropriate response to anyone — including members of the board — who tried to interfere with what I wrote. Among his suggestions was a word used by veep Dick Cheney in an encounter last week on the Senate floor with Sen. Patrick Leahy.

The Golden Era Passed
Messrs. Black, Heisler, Banker and now Bill Schmick have departed, and I am left to appreciate what they contributed to journalism — and not just in Baltimore, but in its broad and far-reaching scope. With few exceptions, independence, integrity, credibility and so much more within newspaper chains has fallen victim to the bottom-line thinking of bean counters.

Journalism for journalism’s sake is pretty much a thing of the past other than within the continually diminishing number of independent newspapers, among them a few I write for these days. Sadly, it’s even worse with radio and television. Traditional journalism went out with the dishwater in the quest for profits and stockholders’ dividends.

As I look back on a career that started in 1947, I am thankful that I was involved for years when journalism was respected and honored thanks to those like Bill Schmick. The golden era passed as the likes of them retired from the scene. Enough said …

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