By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
The news struck like a Dickensian knell right in time for Christmas: the abrupt closure of Editor & Publisher, the fine authoritative journal that covered the American newspaper industry for more than a century. Don't they know that newspapers are the republic's lifeblood, ever since the glory days of the 1790s?
The Nielson Company, corporate owner of the shuttered publication, played Scrooge to the hilt. It also announced the demise of Kirkus Reviews, a respected trade journal for the book publishing industry and another boon to a literate citizenry.
Many journalists like me, who will never get the ink out of their blood, are left with little except scant hopes and dreamlike memories in a bleak, fallow season for our field. As a refugee from the Baltimore Sun writing in Washington, I picture the paper in a time of high cotton—with a couple of Pulitzer Prizes to greet new hires in our first two springs about a decade ago. After covering a ghastly "50 cents" murder trial early on, I was sent out to write a tulip garden story—80,000 bulbs in a feature headlined "Rhapsody in Bloom"—to see the other side of life.
The Sun was then at high noon under the redoubtable editorship of John Carroll and his deputy, William K. Marimow, who had won two Pulitzer Prizes himself as an investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. One of Bill Marimow's stories involved police brutality with dogs, something I could scarcely stand to think about. Marimow is now the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, keeping the lights on and still producing "excellent journalism" (a pet phrase) in spite of the specter of bankrupcy.
Many daily deadlines ago, it was a treat to go to work on the fifth-floor big-city newsroom overlooking the diverse panorama of Baltimore—a place that is its own curiosity shop. Editors who knew the city cold by voting precincts, court records and police districts—editors who laughed as they remembered back when—sent young reporters out ready to get the story in full. It didn't matter if it was the mayor at the Hall, the archbishop, a community meeting, a judge or a jail warden—don't come back until your notebook's full.
Every neighborhood in Baltimore has its own character, based in ethnicity, history, geography and architecture. You came to know the back-stories of Federal Hill rowhouses overlooking the harbor and the uneven streets of Pimlico out where the Preakness Stakes race is run, the linguistic and other differences between working-class Hampden and genteel Roland Park. In Pen Lucy, a tough neighborhood, when something went down, you learned to go to a kindly older resident whom the police called "the blind man who can see." Note the police are actually the "PO-lice." David Simon, the creator of The Wire on HBO, was one of the best police reporters ever at the paper—also one of the angriest when he left without a raise he demanded. Another one of the best, indefatigable crime columnist Peter Hermann, is still there, salting facts of the crime beat with considerable insight and experience. He gave me my first ride around the streets of West Baltimore and introduced me to some homicide detectives.
The amount of human talent poured into a caffeinated morning paper, always a pretty good read, was something just short of a miracle to me. Scott Shane sat next to me—we shared a terminal—and I enjoyed hearing him speak in Russian to former Soviet sources he met while he was stationed in Moscow for the Sun. He is now at the New York Times, his byline frequently on the front page. The Sun had four other independent foreign news correspondents. This was something to write home about, that we had a man or woman in Johannesburg and Jerusalem, London and Beijing. Yeah. Those days are gone now. The Chicago-based Tribune Company, which acquired the Sun and the Los Angeles Times in 2000, has also filed for bankrupcy.
At least I can say I learned how to cover crime scenes and write obituaries from the best of them. Two keeping standards up at the paper now, Jacques Kelly and Frederick Rasmussen (a.k.a. The Captain), write charming columns on yesteryear and craft obituaries as portraits the right and proper way, with middle initials and widows referred to as "the former" complete with maiden name. Only in dear old Baltimore. This pair made me feel a mere degree of separation from H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore in lore. They conjured what a factory full of cinnamon smelled like in the Inner Harbor, where spices were once made.
There have been several buyouts and a brutal round of layoffs since all that good fun. More than 100 Sun journalists dispersed in recent years and went onto the next thing, with countless readers wondering what happened to the paper's comprehensive scope. I left with enough money in my pocket to catch the train to Washington and start over again. Reinvention in the ether as a blogger—well, here I am. The Washington Post and Politico remind me every day that the battle to keep lively, smart print journalism centered in the public square is still on.
But much community has been lost in other cities and it's wrong to pretend otherwise. The sheer noise of a healthy newsroom can't be bottled or replaced. Phone calls, banter, stories, and questions all around you without walls—the sound of all those voices late in the last century—that's what I will always miss under the Sun.