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Fired in the Press Box

Is there nothing sacred anymore?

I first found out about what happened to David Steele and two other Baltimore Sun staffers from an inning-by-inning blog in the Orange County Register (it came in during the eighth inning). I was flabbergasted: Getting laid off by phone. In the press box. In the middle of the game.

I've known David since our days as fellow sports columnists in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's a very good writer, well-versed in all sports but particularly the NBA, of which he was a beat writer for more than a decade. But he's also a great guy, someone who's most definitely paid his dues in this business and yet doesn't have an air of attitude. (Sportswriters can be such curmudgeons sometimes.)

David moved (back) to Baltimore in 2004 to get back to his roots, to be closer to his family. The Sun did its best to pry him away from the San Francisco Chronicle. And now, in less than five years, they couldn't even bother to say goodbye in person.

"I live 10 blocks away from the paper," David said to me the other day, with a chuckle. "But they had to FedEx me all the paperwork. I guess they really didn't want to see me."

He was ready and willing to tell his story. Not just for himself, but for all of his fellow journalists who were so unceremoniously dumped. It needs to be told and he's glad to do it (as he did today in an exclusive for RealClearSports):

And just like that, I was unattached, by phone, while on an assignment.

The next couple of hours were a flurry of shocked expressions and reactions, condolences, bitterness and dread, plus lots of phone calls to family members and friends whom, ironically, I didn't want to hear the news from someone else. Rick - who is roughly the age I was when the National sank - looked as if someone had drained all the blood from his body.

The overriding theme from all concerned: "They couldn't tell you to your face?''

Just why is that?

Last Tuesday, the day before David was laid off, the Sun fired 21 editors. They were immediately escorted them out of the building upon learning the news, by security goons. Marched out of the office. The perp walk. Most criminals were treated with more dignity.

What was management afraid of? That they would smash their desks, assault the bean counters with a pica pole or infect their computers with worms and viruses? Look at the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Didn't their staffs put out top-notch papers to announce their own demise? Did anybody blow up the building on the way out?

These are difficult economic times. People get that. They can accept the fact that they might be laid off. They just deserve a little more respect, that's all.

But all this is just a continuation of Jonestown-style suicides committed by newspapers. They're getting rid of the very people who could help their survival. If anything, they need to keep talented people who can produce the content that keep them afloat instead of booting them out to the curb. This makes as much sense as shooting the soldiers after their officer kept leading them to defeat in battle.

Dan Rodricks, a longtime Sun columnist who wasn't laid off during the two-day, 61-person purge, had this to say:

I thought by now The Sun and other newspapers would have figured out how to make money off the Internet, and that doesn't seem to be happening. We lost the classifieds; the recession has taken a wicked toll on retail advertising . . . so here we are, in bankruptcy with Tribune Co. The last round of cuts at The Sun were not buyouts--they were layoffs--and no one seems to know where we're going, if anywhere.

Say this about the newspaper business - it's not sunk because of its labor problems, unlike the automobile industry. Most journalists don't belong to unions and the few who do aren't paid all that well anyway. And unlike the workers at the UAW, they're not going to get a piece of the company in a restructuring deal.

They get a cardboard box to collect their belongings. Or just a phone call.

Sun Setting Over Baltimore?

The Tribune Co., already in bankruptcy, continued its bloody purges to reduce cost. After trimming 300 jobs at the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, the axe now fell on the Baltimore Sun. On Wednesday, 61 newsroom employees were dismissed, including 21 senior editors and managers who were immediately ushered out of the newsroom by security guards.

Though the management personnel eliminated were not members of the newspaper guild, the union voiced strong reaction to the mass layoffs.

"Tribune, through careless management practices, has saddled itself under $13 billion in debt and now Baltimore is paying a price," said Cet Parks, Executive Director of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. "Tribune is siphoning good jobs from Baltimore and sending work that talented editors, reporters, photographers, copy editors and designers have done here to its home base in Chicago. That is not right."

In January, the Sun entered into a cooperative arrangement with the Washington Post to cover the Beltway area. At the time, both papers insisted that there would be no newsroom reduction as a result. It took the Tribune Co. exactly four months to renege on that pledge. (The article on the "no reduction" pledge also conveniently disappeared off the Sun's web site.)

But leave it to the Tribune Co. to spin its latest move as a "plan for success, not just survival."

Beltway Marriage of Convenience

The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun have announced that on Jan. 1, 2009, the papers will share the majority of their content. The two papers were already part of the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, but previously they were prohibited from using each other's content. That restriction will be lifted by the new agreement.

Both papers insisted that this marriage of convenience will not result in newsroom cuts, but merely reassignments for reporters now doubled up on the same beats. The Sun will concede most of the coverage on the federal government, as well as the Navy football beat, to the Post, while the Post will be using the Sun's reports on northern Maryland counties and horse racing at Pimlico.

"I know journalists in both newsrooms may find this anathema," said Timothy A. Franklin, editor of the Sun, "but we're talking about daily, breaking, fairly routine stories so The Sun can use its resources developing original, unique content, which I think is a key part of our future success."

But one can't help but wonder if buyouts and layoffs would be imminent, particularly on the Sun's end. The paper is owned by the Tribune Company, which just filed for bankruptcy earlier this month and is looking to divest some of its assets, including the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Like just about every other paper in the United States, the Sun experienced a steep drop in readership in recent years. Its 2008 circulation is listed at 218,923, down 6 percent from 2007.