Redesigned Sun shaped by readers' preferences


The Sun, a fixture in Baltimore since it appeared as a four-page penny paper in 1837, will launch a redesigned and expanded morning edition tomorrow shaped by two years of newsroom planning and supported by surveys, interviews and focus groups with thousands of readers.

The innovations in The Sun are in part a consequence of the demise of The Evening Sun after 85 years, reflecting an industry-wide trend toward consolidating morning and afternoon newspapers. As more resources are directed into morning editions, afternoon papers find it harder to survive.

But, industry analysts say, several other factors have brought down hundreds of evening editions in recent years: the explosion of television, the rise of the suburbs, the decline of the factory worker, the changing habits of readers and the increasing competition for leisure time.

Responding to the needs of readers, the redesigned Sun will feature a new free-standing business section Tuesday through Friday, expanded local and state coverage, a revamped entertainment guide, more comics and an enhanced color weather map.

The Sun will also use a new typeface, which studies by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., found to be the easiest to read. And the paper will adopt later deadlines, a move that will provide later news for about 50 percent of its readers.

Tomorrow's new morning edition also signifies even greater changes for Baltimore, which is now left with only one daily newspaper of general circulation. Less than a decade ago, there were three major dailies -- The Sun, The Evening Sun and the News American -- with a combined daily circulation of nearly half a million. For the 12 months which ended Sept. 30, 1994, the combined circulation of The Evening Sun and The Sun was 343,844, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

"Journalistically, it's sad when a newspaper goes down," said Mary E. Junck, publisher and chief executive officer of The Baltimore Sun Co., but she added: "One great newspaper a day is better than two good ones."

Beginning tomorrow, The Sun will include the following changes, both in its design and content:

* Each section front will have an index in the left column, which will guide readers through the sections. In an era when newspaper readers have less time for their papers, the indexes -- long a staple of newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and, more recently, USA Today -- got an extremely enthusiastic reception from hundreds of Baltimore area residents who previewed the redesigned Sun in focus groups over the last year.

* The business news section, located until now inside the sports section, will add a full page of business news and several new beats. The expanded coverage will include regular reports on the legal profession, tourism and advertising and growing high technology companies, many of them based in Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

* The Maryland section, distributed in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, where approximately two-thirds of The Sun's readers live, will have an extra page of stories focusing on city and county news. This will include an improved police blotter and an expanded digest of shorter articles. Suburban readers in Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties will continue to receive their customized local sections each day.

* Live, a revised weekly entertainment guide with an increased focus on family activities, will appear Thursdays to provide for earlier weekend planning.

* The redesign will bring back a headline typeface adapted from the one used by The Sun from 1920 to 1970 and present multiple layers of headlines, another tool of the past, to summarize stories for readers.

Newspaper designer Roger Black, noted for redesigning Newsweek, Esquire, Rolling Stone, the San Francisco Examiner and the Toronto Star, and John Goecke, assistant managing editor/graphics, supervised the redesign, which began in earnest last September. Starting last winter, prototypes of the new paper were shown to focus groups consisting of current Sun readers, former readers and nonreaders, and their reaction to the redesign in progress helped shape The Sun's planning.

The changes come at a time when circulation of the morning Sun is surging: As of March 31, daily circulation reached a record high of 264,583.

For the afternoon paper, it was a different story. By the time the closing was announced on May 25, circulation had plummeted to a low of 86,360.

As recently as 1976, the afternoon paper sold more copies than the morning did.

No longer viable

In the end, The Evening Sun was no longer economically viable.

"Life itself has changed," said Everette E. Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, an affiliate of Columbia University in New York. "The lunch box brigade that used to march lock-step home at night at 5 o'clock isn't there anymore. People arrive home at very different times, and newspapers have great difficulty producing a product that appeals to everybody coming home on staggered schedules."

The steady decline of The Evening Sun over the past two decades mirrored the pattern of afternoon papers nationwide. In 1975, there were 339 U.S. daily morning newspapers -- less than a quarter the number of evening editions, according to the Newspaper Association of America. In 1994, the last year for which figures are available, a shift was well in swing with 611 a.m. papers vs. 947 p.m. editions.

To a great extent, authorities say, the shift has been beyond any newspaper's control.

Television's influence

"Essentially it began when television became pervasive in the 1950s," said John Morton, a media analyst with New York-based Lynch, Jones & Ryan. "Newspapers were a form of entertainment; they were among the things people did when they got home from work. Kids read the funnies; moms read the women's section. It was a cheap sort of entertainment, and television took over that role."

The sway of television was so profound, Mr. Morton said, that it affected newspaper advertisers, economic drivers of the business, who considered afternoon papers less desirable vehicles to sell their products. After all, morning newspaper ads didn't compete with television commercials in the evenings.

Television was only part of the problem, analysts say. Afternoon papers also took a hit as the nation moved away from a heavy industrial base to a service-oriented economy, which meant that people commuted to work later than they used to and came home too late to read the paper.

The move to the suburbs

The situation only worsened with the suburbanization of American cities by the middle class, the backbone of newspaper readership. Suddenly, the logistics of delivering papers a longer distance forced earlier deadlines, which meant less current news, which in turn made afternoon papers less urgent to read. The suburbs also meant that more people drove to work, fewer relied on mass transit and, as a result, fewer could read the afternoon paper on their way home.

The pressure has not let up. In recent years, newspapers have been barraged by a multitude of new outlets for information and entertainment, from magazines to the Internet, inundating readers with other choices.

"When you take a look at bookstores and special interest magazines and even the development of the Internet, I think you could make a case that people are reading newspapers less," said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute.

"And that raises a very powerful question: What have we failed to do with newspapers?"

Ms. Junck tried to solve that riddle when she arrived as The Sun's publisher in 1994. But by then, she said of the afternoon paper, "the patient was maimed."

'Longer than most'

Some believed the case was already terminal. "Quite honestly, The Evening Sun held out longer than most would have," said former reporter Kenneth T. Berents, now research director of Wheat First Butcher Singer Inc. in Richmond, Va.

But others take a more skeptical view, contending that managers neglected the afternoon paper, looking instead to cut costs and boost profit. "The death of evening papers is more in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy," said John M. Lemmon, managing editor of The Evening Sun from 1979 to 1992.

Even as early as May 1986, when Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Co. bought The Sun, there were questions about whether the afternoon edition should be closed. "It was certainly a possibility because of the trend" in the industry, said Robert F. Erburu, chairman of the board of Times Mirror. "It wasn't long after the acquisition that the symptoms began to appear."

So it came as no surprise, after months of research and crunching financial figures, when Ms. Junck made the recommendation on May 16 in a teleconference with Times Mirror executives to pull the plug on the evening edition.

"From a personal point of view," Ms. Junck said, "I in my heart knew and know we have worked very hard at it and nonetheless came up short."

And thus ended the daily serving of a paper which a former Sun writer once called "the rollicking son of the staid old lady, the morning Sun," "at once rambunctious, breezy, imaginative, visionary, mocking, whimsical, mischievous, saucy, and sometimes irreverent," the haunt of noted journalists H. L. Mencken and William Manchester.

Yet the publisher is hopeful about tomorrow's launch of the new Sun -- despite the expected loss of 15,000 to 20,000 duplicate subscribers, those who have paid for both the morning and afternoon papers.

Indeed, the company's aim is to incorporate the best of both papers. And The Sun's plans make it clear that its most popular columnists, syndicated features and comics will be published in the new Sun.

What is lost, observers say, is another voice -- what Reese Cleghorn, dean of the college of journalism at the University of Maryland, calls "another set of eyes, another observer of events, a commentator on events."

But the losses, he said, come to mean less if the evening paper has already become a mirror image of its morning counterpart.

Such was the case in Norfolk, Va. When the afternoon Ledger-Star was phased out in late August, it was virtually identical to the morning Virginian-Pilot, both in content and staffing. Few readers called to complain.

Circulation dropped only 2,000 a day from a year ago. "If that [afternoon newspaper] voice was lost," said editor Cole C. Campbell, "it was lost 10 years ago when they merged the editorial page."

The pattern was similar at The Sun.

Editorial personnel on the morning and evening newspapers were merged in 1992. By the time the evening edition shuttered, there were few differences -- the notable exceptions being separate editorial pages, columnists, cartoonists and the direction of circulation.

The morning paper was thriving, and the afternoon edition was dying.

Stories in depth

Some observers see evidence that the industry at large is in decline. But many analysts assert that newspapers have not lost their franchise -- the capacity to tell stories in depth -- that they remain profitable and that the threat of computer-disseminated information has yet to make significant inroads.

What's more, there is hope.

"It wouldn't surprise me if 10 or 20 years down the road there might be an attempt to reinvent evening newspapers for certain purposes," said Mr. Clark of the Poynter Institute. "Dinosaurs are very popular now. Have you thought about that?"

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