Last week, Monty Cook - who took over as editor of the Baltimore Sun in January - led a press and public policy seminar at John Hopkins University. During the seminar, entitled "News and Content First: Protecting what matters most," Cook took the opportunity to tell the audience that his newspaper is "not in decline," before adding "it's in transition."
According to the Baltimore Brew, Cook began the seminar by going over the demise of the newspaper industry, mentioning some of the dead or soon-to-be-dead titles, but did not include his own paper among the list.
As the Baltimore Brew goes on to explain, the Sun is rapidly shrinking in size, circulation, staff and revenue. Circulation figures show, that for the 6-month period ending in September 2008, only 218,923 issues were distributed - down by approximately 14,000 copies for the same period the previous year, equivalent to a 6 per cent year-on-year slump.
Cook avoided talking about profits, saying "we are a private company," playing down problems with the publication but emphasizing the healthy state of the Sun's web version. In 2008, the newspaper attracted 3.4 million unique visitors, up 0.9 million on the previous year with Cook told the 30-strong crowd that the Sun is "approaching 40million."
Cook also managed to get round questions asking him to confirm whether or not the Sun was planning to ditch the print copy, but he did say "we stop being a newspaper company. Right now. The end."
The Baltimore Sun is heading towards newsroom integration, merging both its print and online operations, adding web, video and mobile "not as an afterthought but as equally-important vehicles for the delivery of content," the Brew reported.
"We'll think of content first," said Cook, "and platform second." Sun journalists are being encouraged to experiment with social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook in order to draw in different audiences, create a base of loyal followers and promote interaction between reporters and the public.
Writing on the Nieman Journalism Lab website, one-time colleague of Cook's, Tim Windsor, asked if Cook is "among the most clueful editors working today," referring to Cook's interest in social media and the decision to post highlights from the talk on Twitter. Cook may be taking the Sun in a good direction, but surely assembling dated tweets to post on the site defies the point of using Twitter in the first place?
Meanwhile, further staff cutbacks are expected, with Cook confirming the Baltimore Sun will "be smaller at the end of this transition." Despite the financial pressures, Cook said that parent firm the Tribune Company's decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last December actually alleviated the situation by freeing the paper from crushing debt.
If rumours are right and the Baltimore Sun does decide to abandon print, it will be joining the likes of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer which, struggling with large amounts of debt, was forced to go online-only in March. Nevertheless, some say the benefits of euthanising a newspaper's print version are grossly exaggerated, with a recent study of Finnish newspaper, Taloussanomat - which made the transition to online-only at the end of 2007 - showing that web traffic and quality were significantly reduced by the move.
Newsroom integration, however, is generally regarded as a positive step forward, although even that is not without its opponents. The reality is no one knows for sure; as the Brew says: "Cook's shoulder-shrugging answer was pretty much all anyone in the business can offer right now."