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Bloodbath at the Baltimore Sun

baltimore-sun-masthead-logoLight For All.

It’s the slogan — manifesto, if you will — that accents the masthead of the Baltimore Sun. The paper that gave rise to some of America’s finest journalists, from H.L. Mencken to David Simon (among others). The paper that has, at many moments, served as a source of pride for this city and this region. The paper that was once a jewel.

As of today, it is officially a shell of its former self.

Over the past two days, management has laid off roughly 60 staffers including several senior-level editors.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with sports, Rick Maese and David Steele are among the cuts. What’s more, a source tells me that both Maese and Steele were informed of the layoffs while working in the press box at Camden Yards.

Let’s put a big red circle around that: two of the Sun’s most respected and visible sportswriters were informed by phone that they no longer had jobs — while they were working in the field.

It’s unconscionable and inexcusable. No explanation could make that OK. Period.

I’m as sensitive as anyone to the changing nature of the media landscape. I’ve invested countless hours in wrapping my head around it, and I’ve been paid once or twice to help other people figure it out. I consider myself well-versed on the issue, and I don’t make these critiques lightly.

The problem isn’t that the Sun felt the need to make cuts. The problem is the way they made them and who and what they cut.

It’s a classic case of business decisions being made on numbers rather than on-the-ground reality. Good strategy in tough times means doubling down on what you do well and cutting the things that don’t add value. The Sun eschewed that in favor of something that approximates a scorched-earth policy. Get rid of “salaries” with no regard to the individuals who make them and the work they do.

Call that simple opinion if you will, but consider this: Sun editor Monty Cook recently gave a speech declaring the need for the Sun to stop being a newspaper and become “a digital media company.”.

Tuesday’s layoffs included reporter Andy Ratner. His beat was blogging and digital media.

Nobody wins. The Sun has saved some money but is a weaker paper for it. The people who depend on the once venerable institution now receive a product that is far less trustworthy than it was just a few days ago.

I honestly don’t know where all of this leaves us or where we’re headed next. Something resembling stability will eventually emerge, but in the meantime we’re bearing witness to some truly dark times.

27 comments to Bloodbath at the Baltimore Sun

  • dan the man

    Wow, what a shitshow this has become. Smells like downright panic to me. The Sun has become an anorexic tabloid that is as thin physically as it is in substance.

    I know this kind of stuff is happening everywhere, but it seems like the Sun wasn’t prepared at all or had any sort of plan for this. My girlfriend yesterday said a high school kid was going door to door in our neighborhood hawking Sun subscriptions.

  • rick

    the way those “firings” were handled is reprehensible.

    The newspaper business, or at least the print portion, is in an unstoppable downward spiral.

    The number of folks who “get their news” from a newspaper has shrunk exponentially.

    Seems to me, an ex-journalism major long ago, that for “newspapers” to survive and be profitable, they should focus solely on local “news” as well as features, opinion, and analysis – as well as in-depth reporting of locally relevant issues.

    To let those two highly skilled and respected sports reports go is really “penny wise, pound foolish” as the Brits would say.

    The ONLY reason I actually subscribe and read the Sun is for the sports and for local features.

    I’m gonna cancel my subscription; like they care!

    “mind over matter. we don’t mind, you don’t matter.” The Baltimore Sun motto. . .

  • Mike Preston stays, but David Steele goes?

    The Sun was always screwed up and biased on the news, but sports? They managed to maintain mediocrity – until today.

  • Greg

    Why is everyone calling the Sun layoffs “a bloodbath”? Roch Kubatko’s blog is filled with comments calling it a bloodbath, and then there’s this column… is this part of the vernacular now? A mass firing is called a bloodbath? I didn’t get the memo I guess.

    Columbine was a bloodbath. Antietam was a bloodbath. I feel this may be a tad extreme.

  • neal s

    For me, I used hyperbole because sometimes that’s what you do with headlines. I did find it odd, though, to see that word used so often by so many different people.

  • Miles

    Maese wrote a brilliant column a couple years ago about the plight of former Colts tight end John Mackey. I can’t think of another time that I’ve ready a column and thought “this should win an award, but that column should have won an award. Not just for content but for the prose and form.

    That having been said, it’s just terrible what’s happening to so many good journalists. No one in the newspaper business has any vision right now. Everyone wants to put more emphasis on digital, and some bone-heads think that they can put the free content genie back in the bottle. Good luck with that.

    Content is still king. The Sun’s problem, until recently, hasn’t been content. They can’t make money, they haven’t figured out how to monitize their content.

    Whatever form they take in the future will suffer for these short-sighted decisions.

    How smart does Roch Kubatko look in all this, by the way? Talk about taking a buy-out while the getting was good.

  • Miles

    @Greg – Greg, I can’t help but get the feeling that you haven’t been laid off recently.

    It was the first time in the life that I felt like I was being struck by a baseball bat in my chest when no one was actually wielding a bat.

    If you’ve been there and see your colleagues go out the door or are the one doing the walk of defeat with a cardboard box in hand, you understand why “bloodbath” isn’t entirely out of context.

  • dan the man

    Check the quotes at the bottom of this link. Haha.. wow.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/30/baltimore-sun-journalists-baseball-game

    As Joe Angel would say… my goodness.

  • J.M.

    Why o’ why is The Sun still wasting money on the “b” publication? Why can’t they fold that waste of paper and combine its staff into The Sun? Or just fold it and hire back the editors that were axed. If The Examiner doesn’t exist in Baltimore anymore then it really makes no sense for “b” to continue.

  • Greg

    @Miles – You would be incorrect. I lost my job in June 2007.

  • Tomás

    Sorry, I’m going to have to agree with Greg on this one.

    Sure there are human lives involved, but industries change. I’m not even in the journalism sector, let alone newspaper industry, and I’ve seen this coming for quite awhile. Move on. Adapt.

    And before anyone jumps to calling me cold-hearted, my parents have been working for United Airlines since the 70’s (and I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of it), but to suffice to say, the company has been on shaky ground since 9/11 and while no one likes this kind of change, you just have to deal with it. Take off your rose-colored glasses, realize that life-time employment by one company is now a relic, save your money, and try to find something else before the current one falls through. Does my mother like having to reinvent her career at 60 y.o.? No, it is what it is. You live, you learn.

  • Andrew

    I don’t have much to say about this – and I can’t say much about this, because I’m not a journalist – but I do think that this is sort of the bad side of the evolution of journalism which will give us a better, stronger world. In terms of sports, I stopped relying on the Baltimore Sun for Orioles’ analysis and news a long time ago, because there is more and better stuff available elsewhere.

    But, you can’t forget the human element and how there are tons of hardworking guys who don’t have a job or (I can’t imagine anyway) any job prospects in that field in this economy. And that’s tough to swallow.

  • neal s

    @Tomás – To me, it’s not the fact that change has come (I think we all knew it would), it’s the vicious and underhanded way they handled it, and the way they’ve weakened their service to the public as a result. Many of the layoffs involved editors, and most of the design and content will now be delivered to Baltimore from Chicago. A paper has a duty to serve the community, and the Sun has turned its back on that duty.

    That and, yes, the human toll. That matters.

    But, yeah, I said what I had to say about it. Back to regularly scheduled programming.

  • Greg

    I’m not saying it doesn’t suck to lose your job. It’s inconvenient. But if any of those writers are any good at what they do (and the way they are talked about recently must speak to their abilities) then they will find work in short time. Journalism circles are likely pretty closely knit. When Roch left the Sun he was with MASN by the end of the week.

  • jeffrey duncan

    The Sun paper has been irrelevant for years now. The online version is decent, though. Hopefully the cuts will benefit baltimoresun.com. I say this without any knowledge of the internal workings of the company, but I can only imagine that the paper version will soon cease to exist.

    Mark Cuban’s offers his 2 cents on a solution:
    http://blogmaverick.com/2009/04/26/1269/

  • DrBelAir

    I get why The Sun keeps Mike Preston. The Ravens rule in this town and MP’s role as the team beat writer provides some insulation. Still, if decisions were made on talent and contribution, Maese and Steele are at work today and Mike Preston is blogging about how Kyle Boller cost him his job!

    I’m sure Ray Frager is a fine guy, but they could have dropped him years ago.

    Does anybody know if I can get early morning delivery of the New York Times?

  • Greg

    Some more “bloodbath” links:
    http://ettlin.blogspot.com/2009/04/baltimore-sun-massacre.html
    http://baltimorebrew.com/blog/?p=2184

    Again, I wasn’t ever criticizing the use of “bloodbath” for a layoff, as Miles made it out to seem that I was… I was simply interested that every news outlet has called it a bloodbath, and I had never heard that word used so much in that context before.

  • Miles

    @Greg – Sorry that you had to go through it recently as well. Just an awful, awful feeling.

    I think the other reason the newspaper cuts matter is that newspapers (The Sun in Baltimore in particular) are at the top of the news pyramid. Everyone in Baltimore radio and TV – and trust me, I’ve worked in both – use The Sun to source stories. Much moreso than AP copy. It’s the first thing assignment desks read in the morning, and then either package the content as their own or occasionally try to advance the story.

    There’s very little enterprise journalism that goes on in Maryland, and everyone that gets their news from broadcast media will suffer.

  • David Steele

    First of all, before I clarify something said here, I want to thank the readers who said such positive things about me and the job I did at the Sun. Lord knows a lot of the audience took great exception to what I wrote pretty frequently, but it’s refreshing to know that my work was respected. I also want to thank the author of this site and of Stet Sports (they linked to this there) for their kind words.

    Now, Greg, I understand what you’re saying about the overuse of “bloodbath,” and I’m guilty, too, because even though my livelihood is being taken from me against my will and through no fault of my own, I know it’s better than actually losing your life. But … there’s a big difference between what happened to us this week and what happened to Roch. Not to speak for him, but he took a buyout, offered weeks in advance, giving him an opportunity to negotiate the MASN deal. He didn’t show up at the ballpark and, in mid-game, get a call saying he was out, effective immediately, and be sure you return the company property in your possession as soon as possible. We’re not going to walk into another job at the end of this week, not in this climate in this country or, worse, in this industry, where every other media organization is doing the same as the Sun, just in a different manner. I know too many people in the biz who got that call and are taking part-time jobs or piecing together freelance work or going into other businesses or collecting unemployment a full year later. That’s just reality, and whether that fits the precise definition of “bloodbath” or not, it feels like a very close relative.

    Last but not least – damn, lay off Mike Preston already! That’s my boy. I’ll keep reading the Sun just because of him.

    Thanks again for letting me speak, and for the positive thoughts. And excuse me if I rambled on. Hey, I’ve got a backlog of words built up in me and no place to put them.

  • Greg

    Well that was completely unexpected.

  • neal s

    Completely unexpected and completely awesome.

    Thanks for chiming in, David. That kind of inside perspective is invaluable in a conversation like this. It’s much appreciated.

    And, hey, The Loss Column is here anytime that backlog hits. Consider it a standing invitation.

  • neal s

    Also, thanks to the other new names as well. New readers and commenters are always appreciated.

  • Big Ben's Motorcycle

    just chiming in to say that i always enjoyed david steele’s columns and have never (for the life of me) understood the mike preston hate in this town.

    what the sun did is some of the weakest shit i’ve ever heard. it’s like something that would happen on a bad sitcom.

    but it happened in real life… to real people.

  • neal s

    I don’t get the Preston hate, either. Love him or hate him, he seems to me like a guy who’s on top of things and is almost always worth reading.

    Sad thing is that I can say the same thing about David Steele, Rick Maese, Ray Frager, and pretty much everyone else who was whacked this week by Monty Cook and his Chicago Tribune overlords.

    For real: Monty Cook. He didn’t even have the guts to talk directly to the public after this week’s events. Instead, he went and hid.

    Damn if it isn’t hard to bite my tongue about that.

  • Big Ben's Motorcycle

    plus his name’s monty.

    that guy is a python so it kind of makes sense.

  • neal s

    hahahaha good call.

  • jeffrey duncan

    its never fun to get fired or layed off…deadspin mentions.

    http://deadspin.com/5242844/what-its-like-to-get-fired-in-the-press-box