Volume 13, Issue 40 ~ October 6 - 12, 2005
Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

Our Sun is Dimmed
Light for All

From the masthead of The Sun

Pardon me for asking, but is the light referred to on The Sun’s masthead now only a glimmer? Does it shine only faintly? Or unsteadily?

I would hope not.

Yet for the past weeks I’ve harbored this nagging and begrudging realization that the newspaper I read each and every morning has traded grist, as in news to be ground, for glitz, as in not-so-dazzling glitter.

As a reader and as a writer who toiled for that same newspaper and its sister newspapers under the same Calvert Street roof for nearly 40 years, I think back longingly to the times when these and other newspapers were what their name implies. News papers, first, foremost and always.

It’s not without reluctance and hesitancy that I write, somewhat as the dog that nips at the hand that feeds it. Since 1956, I have received checks regularly and promptly from that newspaper, for the past 13 years in the form of retirement.

Where I’m Coming From
I started writing for a newspaper regularly in ’47 at a college newspaper that also served the small Vermont town of Plainfield as the community newspaper. By my second semester I was editor of the Plainfield News. Late in my third semester, I departed Goddard College to take on news editor duties at WSKI, a new radio station — and the only one — in nearby Montpelier, the capital city.

Since then — but for one year when I turned salesman for much more money but far less satisfaction — I have written, broadcast or edited words for my beans, including stints in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Alaska, Nebraska and Vermont. I am currently writing as a columnist in several other Maryland locations, including Annapolis, Anne Arundel, Calvert and Kent counties.

All those years provided more than a little insight into the relationship between the media and their constituents, citizens who want the latest, most accurate, fair and thorough news possible.

When I came to the Sunpapers (I wrote for all three in the beginning) as outdoor editor in late August of ’56, The Sun was ranked midway in the Top 10 newspapers in the nation as listed annually in the trade publication Editor & Publisher. I doubt that more than several dailies could now warrant such recognition on the basis of evaluation at that time. Such, to my way of thinking, is the status of today’s newspapers. Indeed, today’s journalism.

Glaring Graphics, Lightweight News
A couple weeks ago, The Sun unveiled its new look amidst much hoopla — and my fears proved well founded. What I found in my copy printed only eight miles away was a first edition that appeared more akin to a mix of USA Today and People magazine (and not the best of each): glaring graphics and short on news and substance.

Monday editions are so light by weight as well as content (other than for Ravens coverage) that the deliveryman should attach fishing sinkers to them to keep them from blowing away in a light breeze.

’Tis said a picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe so, but not when it means that big picture steals from readers a thousand words of bonafide news.

I was in the news business before television, and I watched the latter from its infancy, when it started out copying the news formula of newspapers. Now, it seems, newspapers are copying the news formula of the boob tube: glitz and glitter, little depth. As a reader, I feel short-changed. As a professional newspaperman, I feel dismayed. Have newspapers as a whole sunk to the likes of USA Today and People magazine? Or even television? Have they joined ’em rather than fight ’em?

Whatever Happened to Reader Friendly?
Some thoughts at the new look of The Sun:

  • Think of all the words of news that could fit into colored bands that adorn the top of so many pages. Wasted space.
  • Editorial/Op Ed pages: Well there’s hardly any reason to turn to them other than for Kal’s editorial cartoon; the best columnists have been kicked out. Bring back the Perspective section Sundays; the diversity is truly missed.
  • Not only does The new Sun appear to target younger readers, it seems more of it is written by younger, sophomoric writers. Where are the old seat-in-the-pants newshounds around long enough for continuity not just in the newsroom but also in their areas of coverage? Readers deprived of background notice.
  • Pity those not hitched up with the Internet. Readers in need of a bit — or a lot — more from a story cut too short in the interest of saving space are advised to get the full story on the Sun’s website. Methinks it’s the same for late sports scores.

If you don’t go to the Net, forget it. Seldom do you get much the next day; it’s as if the game wasn’t played. In the old days, scores of games still being played at press time were chiseled in lead so readers could get an idea of how a game was going. Today it’s tune in the web — yet isn’t the Internet one of the main culprits in newspaper circulation woes? Why push readers into it?

  • Comics, which for the most part are no longer comics, appear to have been squeezed again. The type is now so fine if you can read it, you’d qualify as a Ranger sniper in Iraq. How can one sit back and relax reading the funnies after all the troubling news these days with eyes teary from squinting? The single-panel “Speed Bump,” designed for two columns in width, is compressed to one; try and read it. Whatever happened to reader friendly?

I recall when The Sun claimed not only Light for All, but also Rain or Shine, the Sun will be out Tomorrow. A strike in the early ’60s caused the latter motto to be dropped because we missed some editions. Today it appears that glimmer is more appropriate than light on the masthead of The Sun. The story’s much the same with so many other newspapers today.

All that Glitters
It was with pride and satisfaction that I looked upon my daughter Heather’s decision to study journalism when she registered at the University of West Virginia in the early ’90s, and later to serve a summer as an intern at The Evening Sun. She subsequently took up another vocation.

Had she learned something I didn’t due to my long association with journalism and readers over a half-century when both rated above profits? It doesn’t seem right that dividends to a Tribune stockholder living in, say Peoria, rate above readers in Maryland.

All that glitters is not gold; not for readers anyhow. I’ll take the old traditional gray newspaper. To hell with how it rates on Wall Street’s Big Board.

Enough said …

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