A reference in Jonathan Yardley's column in yesterday's Style section to Baltimore's new city hall should have been to the city's new symphony hall.
For all the glittery new sophistication of its booming Inner Harbor and gentrified row houses, Baltimore remains today what it has always been: a conservative, insular city that does not take kindly to change, especially change of the traumatic and unexpected kind. But it got a real dose of change last week with two dramatic developments involving its newspapers: the folding of The News American by Hearst and the purchase of The Sun by Times Mirror. Both decisions say a good deal about the current state of Baltimore newspapering; whether they also say anything about the current state of Baltimore itself is another matter altogether.
The collapse of The News American is a sad event; for journalists and readers alike, the failure of a newspaper always is, and those of us who have survived closings elsewhere can feel nothing except the deepest sympathy for the several hundred people who now find themselves out of work in a business where jobs are scarce. But sympathy and sentiment aside, the cold fact is that The News American was doomed, the victim not merely of all the familiar difficulties that afternoon newspapers confront but also of its own rather considerable incompetence.
There can be no getting around it: Though from time to time it did some good things, day in and day out The News American was a bad newspaper. A few years ago it made an earnest effort to improve itself, but when that effort failed to arrest the steady decline in its circulation, it lapsed into a holding pattern, offering a diet so thin that only an anorexic could have been nourished by it. If its management cared about its readers, there was precious little evidence of it; its Sunday edition, customarily a newspaper's showcase, was a particular disaster, printed so far in advance that the one delivered to my house, five miles from The News American's plant, contained neither scores nor stories from the previous evening's baseball games. The Hearst people made a good-faith effort to sell the paper and thus keep it alive, but the truth is that by 1986 there was nothing left to buy.
The death of The News American -- the News-Post, as many Baltimoreans called it to the end -- came as no surprise; only the actual date of death had been a mystery. The sale of The Sun, by contrast, was entirely unexpected and, within the hermetic world of Baltimore's elite, entirely unsettling. For a century and a half The Sun had been privately held and intimately involved with the city's power structure; now, in an instant, the newspaper's owners-to-be are a continent away, quite unknown to the bankers and brokers and lawyers who gather at the Maryland Club and other secluded trysting places to do the city's business.
Nothing, in all likelihood, could be better for either the city or The Sun. The newspaper is a good one, but its relationship with Baltimore's movers and shakers has been too close for comfort and, in some instances, too close for journalistic objectivity; distant ownership, especially ownership as responsible as Times Mirror, should help The Sun develop a little much-needed distance of its own. But what will be really interesting to see is whether Times Mirror can persuade Baltimoreans to read The Sun. Astonishingly enough, the circulation of the morning Sun, one of the country's distinguished newspapers, is barely 200,000, and of The Sunday Sun, barely 400,000 -- this in a metropolitan area of 2.2 million.
Over the years various explanations have been offered for The Sun's failure to gain a larger readership, but the most persuasive is that too many Baltimoreans seem to feel that the paper simply is not interested in them. This probably is no longer true -- The Sun's local coverage is far superior to what it was a few years ago, as is its sports coverage, and its good-neighbor campaigns border on the cloying -- but it is what many Baltimoreans think, and persuading them to change their minds may well be Times Mirror's biggest challenge. The paper makes money because it circulates in all the "right" neighborhoods, but it has nowhere nearly as much presence in its region as do The Philadelphia Inquirer to the north and The Washington Post to the south; for reasons of pride as well as profit, Times Mirror surely will want to undertake circulation campaigns even more aggressive than present ones.
But whatever changes Times Mirror may produce at The Sun, it is not going to produce any in Baltimore itself. The suggestion has been made that the purchase of The Sun by an outside corporation is yet further evidence that Baltimore is no longer in charge of its own destiny: another outside corporation closes down The News American, an outsider ships the Colts to Indianapolis, an outsider owns the Orioles, an outside firm gobbles up Esskay Quality Meats, an outside bank absorbs Union Trust, an outside developer is refurbishing the Howard Street shopping area. The list is long and doubtless will grow longer, in this age of conglomerates and takeovers; but it hardly suggests that Baltimore is on the verge of becoming a client state.
To the contrary, all of this outside money has been pure blessing for Baltimore. The most obvious reason is that it has done a lot for the city's economy, creating new jobs and a more competitive marketplace. The subtler and more important one is that it has shaken Baltimore's leadership out of generations of complacency, forcing it to acknowledge its responsibilities to the city. Beyond any question, the event that turned the tide was the purchase of the Orioles in 1979 by Edward Bennett Williams. Not merely did the fear that he might move the beloved if undersupported team out of town alert the city to its vulnerability; his astute, aggressive campaign to raise the team's attendance demonstrated that the city had potential thereto unimagined, and made people realize that Baltimore wasn't a sleepy backwater but a major American city.
Seven years ago Baltimore's private leadership was so complacent that it couldn't raise $12 million to buy the ball club; now it is reliably reported that local money is ready and eager to buy the club at its inflated value of three or four times that, and further that there is ample money to bring a National Football League team to town should the opportunity arise. It's local initiative that's behind much of the downtown construction around the Inner Harbor, that built the city's splendid new city hall, that is remaking entire neighborhoods and putting up new shopping plazas.
Baltimore has more civic self-confidence now than at any time in a quarter-century, and much of the explanation is that outsiders have helped it understand how to develop its native assets; it may be just about as conservative now as it ever was, but it has learned how to take the initiative -- and how to accept outsiders, Times Mirror no doubt included, with good grace.