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It's the final edition for The Evening Sun

The Evening Sun publishes its final editions today, a victim of changing times and failing circulation.

During its 85-year lifetime, the Baltimore paper gained a national reputation for the social and political commentary of its most famous alumnus, H. L. Mencken. It won a pair of Pulitzer Prizes and helped launch the careers of many talented journalists, including biographer and author William Manchester, and broadcasters Jim McKay and Louis R. Rukeyser.

Lively and irreverent in its heyday, The Evening Sun was created by the morning Sun in 1910 to challenge Baltimore's two afternoon papers, the News and the Star. It won editorial independence in 1920, and has outlived its afternoon rivals. It outsold the venerable morning Sun for 41 years -- from 1936 to 1976.

But company executives say an increasingly white-collar regional economy, and greater competition for readers' evening hours, left fewer and fewer with the time or inclination to spend those hours with words on newsprint.

The Evening Sun's paid circulation had fallen to 86,360 in the last audit in March, a loss of 70,000 since 1992, when much of its news operation was merged with the morning paper.

At its peak in 1960, The Evening Sun sold 220,000 copies daily. By 1991, it had slipped to 156,000. The morning Sun's circulation today was about 264,000.

The Evening Sun's farewell edition today will carry an obituary of the paper, its history told in briefs, and recollections of its most colorful characters. News columnists, editorial writers and contributors to the Other Voices page will offer final commentary.

After the last press run this afternoon at the Sun printing plant at Port Covington, Publisher Mary Junck was to present the Page 1 printing plates to the Baltimore City Life Museums. Representatives of Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Maryland Historical Society and the H. L. Mencken House were to receive copies of the final edition.

Redesigned paper

On Monday morning, The Sun will unveil a redesigned and expanded morning paper. The company believes it will have a strong appeal for former Evening Sun readers it hopes to attract.

This "new morning Sun will be better than the old Evening Sun or the old morning Sun," Ms. Junck said.

It will continue to emphasize "strong reporting," she said. The paper will have new typefaces, new page design and better indexing to make the paper easier to use. Sports deadlines will be an hour later, the Maryland Live section will arrive a day earlier, and the Business report no longer will be buried inside the Sports section.

"I think it's going to be a great newspaper," Ms. Junck said.

The Evening Sun is the latest in a growing list of evening dailies that have fallen victim to "evening paper syndrome" -- the migration of readers and advertisers to morning papers. It claimed the Baltimore News American in 1986, and most recently the Evening Bulletin of Providence, R.I., and the Houston Post.

Sun spokesman Michael L. Shultz said The Evening Sun's closing will mean the loss of no more than 36 news and editorial jobs, and 14 in production. Almost all of the handful of people still in jobs exclusive to The Evening Sun have been offered new ones with the morning paper. But the company is seeking to cut its payroll by up to 50 people with a program of buyouts.

About 300 Sun employees left the paper with buyout packages in 1992 when the morning and evening news operations were combined.

Earlier deadlines, city traffic and suburban sprawl made it more and more difficult to publish "today's news today." But until their paper lost its independent newsroom in 1992, Evening Sun staffers continued to scramble for comprehensive same-day stories on events that broke on their deadlines.

But the paper could not overcome changes in the lives of its readers.

"There was a shift in how people used late afternoon and evening hours," said former Sun publisher Reg Murphy.

Television and cable news are only part of it. The blue-collar jobs that got people home by 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. were vanishing. Nine-to-five white-collar jobs leave little time for an evening paper.

Too busy

Wives and mothers today likely have careers. More people have second jobs, or community meetings or Little League after work. Many say they're too rushed.

Longtime readers, however, hung on stubbornly. "I never had seen the intensity of loyalty that you could find among readers for The Evening Sun," said Mr. Murphy, who came to Baltimore from papers in Atlanta and San Francisco.

It was a loyalty attributable in some measure to the paper's long tradition of fine writing and editing. Its best-known practitioner, Henry L. Mencken, was told in 1911 to "write about anything you please, anything at all . . . as long as it remains irresponsible and readable."

He and editor Hamilton Owens in the 1920s and 1930s took on any and all manner of stuffed shirts, scoundrels and sacred cows.

That period produced "extraordinary editorial writers and commentators, and I think that continued on until recent times. . . . That part of the tradition of The Evening Sun was quite distinctive," said Dr. Reese Cleghorn, dean of journalism at the University of Maryland.

When war came, The Evening Sun sent its best to cover it. Lee McCardell and Price Day reported on American forces in Europe. Howard Norton, Robert B. Cochrane and Philip S. Heisler were sent to the Pacific. Mr. Cochrane's dispatch from the battleship Missouri on the Japanese surrender was acknowledged as one of the best pieces of journalism to come out of the war.

The post-war Evening Sun produced a remarkable roster of reporting talent, with names such as William Manchester, an author and Mencken biographer; Jim McManus, better known later as ABC Sports anchorman Jim McKay; and "Wall Street Week" host Louis R. Rukeyser.

The paper won two Pulitzer Prizes, both for stories written by then-science writer Jon Franklin, as well as hundreds of national and regional awards.

With fewer resources than the morning paper, The Evening Sun sometimes missed or ignored stories that broke in The Sun. What it lacked in comprehensiveness, it tried to make up for with passion.

"We were always on deadline and full of energy, and more or less bursting with talent," said William E. N. Hawkins, an Evening Sun reporter in the 1970s and later assistant managing editor. "You were writing hard stories, first-edition stories, breaking news . . . and letting The Sun pick 'em up the next day. We liked nothing more than beating The Sun."

Newsroom rivals

Columnist Dan Rodricks, 22 when he was hired as a reporter in 1976, recalled the newsroom rivalry: "You could look straight across . . . and see your competition at work. In 1977, for about three months, I went one-on-one with a veteran morning Sun TC reporter, chasing a major white-collar crime story, and we kept trying to top each other with better stuff day after day. You had to read both papers to get the latest."

The paper's future was in question within two or three years after Mr. Murphy was named publisher in 1981. The questions, he said, came from "board members, advertisers, our own financial people and a broad spectrum of publishers around the country."

"I told them I thought I could make it economically viable and keep it economically viable," he said. Besides, "I didn't have guts enough to kill H. L. Mencken's newspaper."

But he did act to cut its losses. On July 4, 1983, the first "Holiday Sun" appeared -- combining the morning and evening staffs on national holidays. In March 1984, the evening paper's wizened Saturday edition closed.

"I thought they were things that would save The Evening Sun," Mr. Murphy said.

In May 1986, the Hearst Corp.'s ad-starved, afternoon News American suddenly closed. Evening Sun editors mourned, then went after its readers. They bought the News American's comics and hired some of its most popular writers. "We picked up more than twice the circulation the morning paper did," said former Evening Sun Managing Editor John M. "Jack" Lemmon. But the gains melted away in five years.

To the suburbs

In 1991, a new publisher, Michael J. Davies, saw The Sun's future in the growing outer suburbs. He set out to expand news coverage in those areas. But it was expensive and the move came during a deep recession. To cut costs, The Evening Sun's news operation was absorbed by the morning paper, and 90 news staffers took buyouts.

"We simply couldn't afford to have several reporters covering the same story," Mr. Davies said. The Evening Sun's independence was doomed by its lagging circulation. "You can be romantic as long as you wish. You can continue producing a product people don't want. But at some point reality has to take over."

In effect, The Evening Sun became a late edition of the morning paper, and too much like it for readers who took both papers. Evening circulation went into a tailspin. Nearly 30,000 readers bailed out in the first year after the newsroom merger. On May 25 of this year, after a loss of nearly 70,000, Ms. Junck announced the paper's close and more staff cuts.

Evening Sun alumni remain fiercely proud of their paper. Some are angry that more wasn't done to save it. "I tell you, we're closing the wrong paper," said Joe D'Adamo, a makeup editor for 41 years. "It didn't die of its own accord. It was killed. It was murdered."

Some Marylanders lament the loss of The Evening Sun as it once was. But not what it had become.

"I don't think it [the closing] makes much difference," said former mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer. "I'm sorry to see the jobs lost. I hate to see anybody lose a job. But when you have a paper that's just a copy of morning paper . . . If we had a competitive newspaper, that would be something else."

A "saddened" Mr. Murphy worries about what newspaper closings mean for the future of "the American democratic dialogue."

"The democratic dialogue is best done by people who have a shared information base," he said. "And too many Americans are going to have such a small information base about what is going on in their own community, never mind the world, that we may have more single-issue politics, and single-minded attitudes about politicians. And that concerns me."