When Jules Witcover wrote his final column for the Baltimore Sun last week, after 24 years at the paper, it was not by choice.
The Sun dismissed Witcover, a Washington fixture for half a century who launched the column with his longtime pal Jack Germond, after cutting his salary by more than two-thirds and publishing him less often.
"The coldness of it was what irritated me the most," Witcover said yesterday, describing a termination notice sent to him by overnight mail that he says included one sentence of thanks for his service. The 78-year-old political reporter plans to continue writing the column for the Tribune Media syndicate, but is looking for a new home paper because the income from syndication -- fewer than 30 papers carry Witcover -- is minuscule.
Two of the Sun's top editors each said that the other was responsible. Editor Tim Franklin, who does not oversee the editorial pages, said he did not know of the dismissal until reading Witcover's final column Friday. "I think it's their call," he said of the editorial page editors, adding: "We probably should have handled this better than we handled it."
But Editorial Page Editor Dianne Donovan said the decision was made by Franklin's newsroom, which paid Witcover's salary under an arrangement dating to the years when he doubled as a political reporter. She did not, however, make a plea to keep him on.
Franklin said he has "tremendous respect for Jules, and as a political junkie myself have always enjoyed reading his column." Donovan declined to describe Witcover's departure as a loss for the paper but said she would consider buying the column from the syndicate.
"I'm going to look at the mix on our op-ed page and see if he fits or if he doesn't fit," she said. Asked about Witcover's status as a journalistic institution, she said: "An institution doesn't necessarily mean we don't change things around a little bit."
Witcover closed his farewell column with a shot at "this unnecessary and calamitous war" in Iraq, saying: "My principal regret in leaving this space in The Sun is that my readers in Baltimore will no longer read my views on what I consider the most critical crisis facing this country for the foreseeable future."
He said he was not accusing the Sun of dropping him because he has been a vehement opponent of the war since before the U.S.-led invasion, but that some of the nearly 200 readers who have written to him in protest clearly believe that.
Donovan, who joined the Sun from the Chicago Tribune three years ago, called suggestions of political retaliation "outrageous," noting that "we are one of the few papers in this country that categorically from the beginning opposed the war. Why would we want to do something to him because he was agreeing with that stance?"
Roger Simon, a Baltimore Sun alumnus who is now chief political correspondent of U.S. News & World Report, said: "It is in a sense the passing of an era. It's a great loss. Jules did actual reporting."
Simon, who lost his Sun column in 1996 when the Evening Sun folded and Germond and Witcover were switched to the morning paper where he worked, said the duo were constantly on the road. "Even when they were in the office they'd be working the phones. They'd do what's not done anymore, making calls to county chairmen all over the United States."
Germond, who retired in 2000, had long overshadowed his partner because of his prominence on television, including a 15-year stint on "The McLaughlin Group." But the indefatigable Witcover has also won plaudits as a reporter and as the author of 10 books, including a forthcoming memoir, "The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch."
Witcover's problems began last summer, months after a new publisher brought in by the parent Tribune Co. fired the Sun's editor, William Marimow, over what was described as a personality clash. When Franklin, who had been editor of another Tribune paper, the Orlando Sentinel, succeeded Marimow, he asked Witcover to take a voluntary buyout under a program being offered to reduce the newspaper's staff. (Seventeen employees took the buyout; the newsroom staff is now 360.)
Franklin and Donovan told him that if he did not take the buyout, his thrice-weekly column would be cut back to once a week, Witcover recalled.
He said they did not criticize his work, saying only that the op-ed page was being revamped. Witcover says he was also told that, like other Sun employees, he would lose medical benefits once he retired if he did not take the buyout.
Witcover said he reluctantly agreed when the Sun, "as a sop," gave him a one-year contract to run his column three times a week for the rest of the presidential campaign and once a week afterward. Under that arrangement, he was paid less than a third of his previous salary.
Earlier this year Donovan was using the column twice a week instead of once, but halted publication in February, when Witcover had exhausted the money allotted under the contract. The Sun worked out an extension by converting a remaining $8,000 in travel money to salary.
"It benched me," he said. "I didn't go out and do anything. For the rest of the year I wrote from Washington. They didn't seem to care." Then came the termination letter.
Witcover's departure comes as many Sun staffers are worried about further budget cutbacks by Tribune executives. The Washington bureau, which once employed 15 journalists, has shrunk from 10 to seven since Franklin took over. The operation is slated this fall to move into a building with seven other Tribune Co. bureaus, including those of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Newsday -- a move described by the parent corporation as aimed at minimizing duplication.
Franklin said he would use more copy from the other papers and has revamped the bureau by creating such beats as national security and medical news. "We want to produce more enterprise and break more news out of Washington," he said.
Witcover, whose first full-time journalism job was as a night copy editor on the sports desk of the Providence Journal, arrived in Washington for Newhouse Newspapers in 1954 to cover the first term of President Dwight Eisenhower. He was steps away from where Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968 and one of the reporters featured in the 1972 campaign book "The Boys on the Bus." Witcover did stints with the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post during that decade before joining Germond at the Washington Star in 1977. They moved their column to the Sun when the Star folded in 1981.
Asked why he isn't taking this opportunity to retire, Witcover said: "I like to write. It comes as second nature to me."
See you in syndication.