The city hall reporter: Sun vs. Sun

Shown is Gwen Ifill (former Evening Sun employee) in the WETA studios.
Shown is Gwen Ifill (former Evening Sun employee) in the WETA studios. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun)

I believe to this day that I accepted the job I was offered at the Evening Sun in 1981 because of the Bromo Seltzer clock.

The route from the airport took us right past the downtown tower that (at the time) still defined the Charm City skyline, and I was immediately taken by it. It was retro. It was kitschy. And it seemed real. Just like Baltimore in 1981.

Although I'd come to town for an interview at the morning paper, Bob Keller, then the editor of the afternoon paper, was clever enough to snatch me up at the airport. I had no idea how competitive the two editions were. The two newsrooms shared one giant space in the Calvert Street building but fought tooth and nail to beat each other to stories day and night.

We fought like feral cats. As I slogged away at my late night/early morning deadlines, it was not unusual to worry when my morning competitors seemed to be working a little too hard, a little too late.

And since I chose, unwisely, to live mere blocks from the Sunpapers building, it was also not unusual to get a pre-dawn phone call from the slow-talking city editor, Wayne Hardin, asking me to get right to work for breaking news.

I covered city hall with Rick Berke — now an assistant managing editor at The New York Times — and we frequently worked late into the night to match, or get a jump on, Sandy Banisky and Will Englund, who covered city government for the morning paper. Then and now, we took pains to point out we worked for the Evening, not the morning Sun.

That's because we fancied ourselves more nitty-gritty and real than our morning counterparts. We wrote faster, and we talked faster. They were Ivy League to our state college. I discovered later that a lot of afternoon newspaper reporters around the country felt the same way.

I learned so much about journalism at the Evening Sun. I learned how to stare down a bully — even if he happened to be the mayor. I learned how to dictate a story from a pay phone on the fly. And thanks to Wayne Hardin, I learned how to wake up from a dead sleep and file on deadline.

But mostly, I learned the camaraderie of a newsroom in the days before the web, before the 24-hour news cycle and — most of all — before the financial decline of the newspapers we thought would be there forever.

Most of us were in our 20s, at only our first or second jobs. Baltimore was a glorious place for that. The politicians were caricatures. The city was in the throes of change as Harborplace sprang up while the rest of the city struggled. Race was a constant subtext, and I learned how to cover that, too.

I'm in television now. Still, I've long thought that any journalist of my generation who missed out on working for a newspaper that was later shut down missed an era that can never be recaptured.

I can still smell the ink, feel the rumble of the presses as they kick in on deadline and remember the sensation of being in the middle of a newsroom when Something Is Happening.

And to this day, nothing beats the sensation of picking up a paper with the ink so fresh it rubs off on your hands, and seeing your byline on Page 1. Nothing.

And I still like to think that if I ever need to — even if it means tweeting or blogging — I can still write the first sentence of a newspaper story minutes after being roused from a dead sleep.

They don't teach that stuff anymore.

Gwen Ifill is the moderator and managing editor of "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for the "PBS NewsHour." She worked as a reporter at The Evening Sun from 1981 to 1984.

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