Like his father before him, Paul A. Banker was a Sun man.
He started as a reporter while home from Yale in the summer of 1939, the year after his father drowned in the Magothy River in a boating accident. The Sun put him through college and he rose to become managing editor of a proud and distinguished institution, inheriting traditions that have governed the Baltimore newspaper for a half-century.
At The Sun, tradition dictated how obituaries should read and how wedding pictures should play on the society page. As the paper's top editor, Mister Banker, as he is known to many, was the guardian of those traditions for 16 years, and at the end of his career he was the man who embodied them as well.
Three weeks ago The Sun's new publisher, John Reginald Murphy--who likes to be called Reg--outlined a new organization in which Banker was no longer in charge of the newsroom. The Sun man decided to retire.
It is hard to mark exactly when an era passes, but the retirement of Paul Banker at 61 is a matter that encompasses much more than a masthead. It reflects changes that have overtaken both the newspaper and the city it serves.
Where The Sun has adhered to the past, ("The last reassessment at The Sun was the white paper in 1919 that steered The Sun to greatness," says editorial writer Barry Rascovar), Baltimore has embraced the future. The city's favorite word is renaissance and its centerpiece is Harborplace, where esplanades and boutiques have been fashioned from a once-decrepit waterfront.
The Sun and Baltimore grew together but in recent times the city has outstripped the newspaper. City officials crow that Harborplace last year drew more visitors than Disney World. Last year The Sun's circulation dropped 3,000. For the past four years, while Baltimore's indomitable mayor has done everything he can to hawk his city, including jumping into the new aquarium in a turn-of-the-century bathing costume, reporters and editors at The Sun have brooded over the paper's future, wondering what to do to bring The Sun abreast of the times.
People such as William Boucher, the former head of the Greater Baltimore Committee, credit Baltimore with providing The Sun an opportunity. "The city's renaissance has made possible changes at The Sun that I think might be revolutionary," Boucher said. "The city has moved and made it possible for The Sun to move."
In a barrel-chested town of shipyards and steel plants and blue-collar neighborhoods, it's easy to overlook the history of wealth and refinement that had shaped Baltimore and its morning paper. With 40 private preparatory schools in the area and a reputation as the lacrosse capital of the United Sates, Baltimore is one of the bastions of preppydom.
Power in the city is vested in a WASPy, conservative and somewhat aristocratic order of bankers and brokers known as the Establishment, that has habitually bought tweeds at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers (headquartered in Baltimore), lunched at clubs, and read the morning Sun. Members of the Establishment live in fancy homes in Roland Park or in "the Valley" in the county that surrounds the city. That's where Gary Black, The Sun's 67-year-old chairman of the board, lives on his estate and where he hosts the Hunt Cup, the premier social event of local society. (One story on the benefits of a foreign bureau goes that Black once pressed The Sun's London office into scouting some English fox hounds.)
The Sun is one-half of the Sunpapers of the A.S. Abell Communications Co., which also publishes the Evening Sun, the paper of H.L. Mencken. The Sunpapers share a printing plant, and advertising and circulation departments, but their news staffs are separate, and their editorial voices independent except when making political endorsements.
The morning Sun, the flagship paper, was founded as a penny sheet by Arunah Sheperdson Abell in 1837. It owed its early success to factual local reporting, though a Sunpapers history edited by Mencken and dedicated "to the memory of all Sun men," describes The Sun's early journalism as "fabulously bad." Court reporters, for instance, cheerfully confessed their inability to ascertain the names of defendants.
Today The Sun is scarcely so insouciant about its responsibilities.
As Maryland's paper of record it is as much a part of state government as the governor's mansion. The late Charles Whiteford, The Sun's longtime Annapolis correspondent, was referred to as the "145th legislator." Baltimore politicians figure the paper's endorsement is worth 10,000 votes, and it is a common sight to see people stepping up to voting booths with The Sun's views on referendums clipped out. Politicos point to The Sun's endorsement of a relative unknown--and a subsequent Sun poll that showed his star rising--as the turning points in the 1978 campaign of now-Gov. Harry Hughes.
For decades The Sun has affected a patrician detachment from its home city. Local stories rarely played on the front page. The paper was run in the spirit of noblesse oblige by four well-to-do families who shared a belief that they had a duty to provide the leaders of government with reliable information. So The Sun looked beyond rough-and-tumble Baltimore to Washington, where it has kept a large staff for decades, and overseas, where it maintains 11 bureaus, from Capetown to Tokyo. The Sun is one of a handful of American newspapers to make such a commitment to foreign news, a commitment all the more remarkable given the paper's modest circulation. The Sun owes its prestige and a number of its nine Pulitzer prizes to national and international coverage.
The Sun's apogee was probably in 1966, the year President Lyndon B. Johnson trooped out to Silver Spring to have dinner at the home of the paper's Washington bureau chief. The paper was ranked among the 10 best in the country and its circulation had peaked at 187,635. Yet there was more to Baltimore than the Maryland Club and the Valley: The establishment paper's circulation ranked third that year behind the News American and the Evening Sun, neither of which had foreign bureaus or Washington correspondents.
That was also the year Paul Banker took over as managing editor.
As far back as 1930 Mencken had complained of The Sun's "wooden and uninspired" coverage. In the 1970s The Sun faced the same criticism. It was heavy on government and institutional stories, taking the factual but lifeless approach of a wire service. Whether out of aloofness or timidity, or some pernicious mixture of both, The Sun emphasized only what officials said. It reported in great detail on minor bills in Annapolis, and logged all the ships that entered the port.
Many Sun reporters felt constrained by the paper's narrow view of news. "It isn't right to go to a meeting and report just what happened when what happened is only one part of the story," said reporter Steve Luxenberg, who grew so frustrated with The Sun he resigned in 1978, only to rejoin the paper to work on a task force studying The Sun's direction.
The 1970s at The Sun were a time of task forces and critique committees, of turmoil, low morale and many nights of agonizing over the future. Paul Banker was a shy, distant man, an uncertain leader who took over an establishment institution when establishments everywhere began to waver, and great changes convulsed the country. The Sun lost many crack reporters in the 1970s. Banker made efforts to advance The Sun, putting some local stories on the front page and changing the type face. But he was cautious, rooted in the past, and when people such as Luxenberg proposed ideas, he would often say, "We'll go slowly, which as you know, has always been my way."
As a decade, the 1970s were hard on all the Baltimore dailies. Population shifted from the inner city to the surrounding counties--the city lost 118,000 people while the number of homes in the region grew by 21 percent. None of the major dailies kept pace with the growth of the area. Although The Sun's circulation, hovering around 180,000, did not decline as much as the News American, which lost nearly 60,000 subscribers, or the Evening Sun, which lost more than 20,000 readers, the Sun was stagnating and the costs of producing the paper were going up.
And so, last April, Reg Murphy was hired as publisher of the Sunpapers.
Now 48, a drawling, soft-spoken Georgian, Murphy became a celebrity during his tenure as editor of the Atlanta Constitution. In February 1974 he was kidnaped for 49 hours by a "colonel" in the "American Revolutionary Army," and strangely, the ordeal seems to have been the turning point in his career. He went on to become editor and publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, owned by Randolph A. Hearst III, whose daughter Patty was kidnaped the same month as Murphy.
Writer and former Examiner columnist Paul Hemphill says Murphy is a classic product of piedmont Georgia, "the charming southern hustler." Where The Sun has been reluctant to promote itself, abstaining from Pulitzer prize competition from 1955 to 1964, Murphy is a tireless promoter. During his last year in San Francisco, he delivered 200 speeches.
The notices he got at the Examiner are not especially flattering. "He's ruthless with anybody he perceives as not able to help him get ahead," says Examiner reporter Larry Hatfield. "I won't say that a lot of what he did wasn't good, but the end product was that we have the same circulation we did when Murphy came. Aside from all the b.s. about serving the public, I think newspapers are organizations made up of people. Murphy thinks they're made up to aggrandize himself, and/or make a profit for his employer. When he left, he got up on a desk and gave an emotional speech about how much he loved the Examiner and us. Nobody moved. Nobody applauded. Everybody went back to work or to the phone to call the Baltimore papers to warn their friends."
The board of the Sunpapers hired Murphy in April by a unanimous vote. "We were looking for the best available person in the country--it sounds schmaltzy, but I think we got him," said Sun board member William S. Abell Jr., a descendant of the founder and one of the "young Turks" who joined the board in 1975. "We're looking to Reg to come to us with things he wants to do. We expect The Sun to become a brighter product, to be written in a more interesting way that attracts readership and helps showcase our already high-quality product."
Murphy took charge last July, and as a longtime Sun employe put it, "He's had his face in the paper more times in the last six months than we'd seen the old publisher in the last eight years."
The new publisher sees his job as making The Sun "Maryland's newspaper."
"We have to quit worrying about whether we get read in high places and worry about whether we get read in Maryland," Murphy said in an interview in his fifth-floor office, where a portrait of Mencken, looking cross and well-fed, hangs on the anteroom wall. "It's possible to be absolutely factual and dramatic. We didn't take an oath to be dull."
Although the new publisher has joined the Maryland Club, there was a hint of The Sun's new democratic cast in one of Murphy's first actions: Changing the Society page to the People page. He quickly heard from the Establishment at a dinner party in fashionable suburban Ruxton, where a wealthy matron said loudly: "When I get The Sun, the first thing I do is throw the People section in the garbage." No one seemed to notice, so she said in an even louder voice: "WHEN I GET THE SUN THE FIRST THING I DO IS THROW THE PEOPLE SECTION IN THE GARBAGE."
Murphy says he plans to spend the majority of his time tending to the business of the Sunpapers. But editorially, focusing on The Sun, he has launched a Maryland Kitchen section, hired a new sports writer, ordered more local stories on the front page, and brusquely told his Washington bureau chief to stop aping the wire services and start producing stories that have "the juice of Washington." Five days after Banker announced his retirement, Murphy named James Houck, of the Dallas Morning News and formerly Murphy's news editor at the Examiner, as The Sun's new managing editor, starting March 15. In the fall Murphy plans to tart up the front page with color photographs.
Just four years ago a Sun editorial deplored an issue of Baltimore Magazine that ran an article, "Does Maryland Seafood Make You Sexy?" The Sun felt the story was "matched for vacuity by a color spread of semi-seductive women's clothes . . . " and by other breaches of taste, and wished the owner would change the magazine's name so it wouldn't be mistaken as "representative of Baltimore."
Under Murphy, notions of vacuity are changing. The Sun's Jan. 12 Lifestyle section featured a drooling (and very readable) profile of DiVina (She May Be Shy But She Doesn't Regret Posing Nude For Penthouse) Celeste, the magazine's first centerfold from Maryland. The reporter noted DiVina's gold Penthouse key "shimmers in her cleavage," and Sun photographs confirmed it.
As much as many want change at The Sun, some of the staff fear the direction in which Murphy may take the paper. And the criticism implicit in change is hard to accept. As reporter Robert Ruby put it, "If I'm the one person wearing Oxford shirts and everybody else is wearing something else, there's some pleasure in that. But if there are changes, people have to deal with the realization that maybe they looked funny. You have to decide whether Mr. Murphy's right, and whether you do it with relief or with self-contempt."
Large newsrooms are cauldrons of rumor and gossip; Murphy's revisions and what some view as his tactless, self-aggrandizing style, have many reporters and editors aflutter. An anonymous bulletin appeared in The Sun's computer system, denouncing the paper's "cowardice" for soft-pedaling the story of Banker's "retirement," instead of reporting he was "fired." Thanks to Murphy, Banker has been cast in a new light. Some reporters are willing to overlook the bitterness Banker engendered. He stood, after all, for The Sun's virtues as well as its flaws. Two reporters sent him a bouquet of daisies and daffodils.
It isn't hard to come away with the impression that Banker was a man whom time had passed by, a man from the age of linotype machines. Reporters remember him his looking bewildered the day in 1975 when he sat down at the paper's new computer terminals to type the obituary of his brother Peter. His wife died four years ago. "I would assume The Sun was his life," said a Sun man who has known Banker for many years.
Two weeks ago the departing editor tacked a short message to the staff on the newsroom bulletin board. It has been taken down, copied and tacked back again many times. It reads:
It's a terrible thing to end a career as a failure. All my life I had worked hard to be a good newspaperman--tough, cynical, suspicious and sarcastic. Then, last night, I knew that I had failed: I went to bed with the realization that I had ended up as nothing more than a sentimental slob.
Thank you for your words, flowers and thoughts.
I am proud of the paper. I am proud of you.
Thank you for you.