The Messengers of Charm City

    During the latter half of the 20th century, The Baltimore News-American, The Morning Sun and Evening Sun papers produced some of the best journalists that have ever covered the state of Maryland.

 

From 1979 to 1998 alone, The Morning Sun and Evening Sun won five Pulitzer Prizes.

“You had two great newspapers,” said Al Forman, a former copy editor and reporter for The Baltimore Sun. “Both were excellent. The Morning Sun was generally considered the flagship because that’s where all the correspondents were. Every story was Baltimore oriented in some way.”

The News-American closed in 1986 and The Evening Sun stopped production in 1995. The Tribune Co., which owns The Baltimore Sun, filed for bankruptcy in 2008.

The Sun’s newsroom once had 475 employees. Now it has about 140.

“The Sun was a bulimic newspaper,” said Steve Auerweck, former editor and manager of newsroom technology who spent more than 24 years at The Sun. “They cut a large amount of staff.”

“The buyouts were coming more often and they were getting less lucrative,” said Rafael Alvarez, who worked on the Baltimore Sun’s crime desk for over 30 years.

From left to right: Michael Olesker, Joseph Challmes and David Ettlin enjoy lunch at Romans Place. All three worked for The Sun before buyouts and layoffs eliminated most of the newsroom.

Today Forman, Auerweck, Alvarez and other former Sun and News-American writers can be found gathering at Romans Place, a small restaurant near Patterson Park that is cloaked by a throng of row homes. Every Friday at 12:30 p.m. these writers of Baltimore’s past have lunch together. They have named themselves The Aging Newspaperman’s Club. Some of these journalists still write, but not for newspapers.

“Baltimore Magazine called and offered me a monthly column,” said Michael Olesker, former reporter for both the News-American and Baltimore Sun. “The money was not bad, so I started writing for them.  Then I got a call from The Jewish Times asking about doing a column there. I said sure. Then I got a call from Baltimore Magazine saying ‘Wait a minute. We want exclusivity.’

“Excuse me,” Olesker said. “I’m doing freelance, by definition. They said I had to pick one or the other. I said I’m not going to be pushed around like that and I stopped writing the column for them.”

Like Olesker, Alvarez has contributed his work to magazines. He also has written books and produced television series such as The Wire, Life, and The Black Donnellys.

“I hustle,” Alvarez said. “I get paid to the extent that I write and I can play multiple positions. That’s how I’ve made myself marketable.

“In this world, it’s every man for himself,” he added.

Forman is another one of the former Baltimore Sun writers trying to maintain a career in journalism. He launched his own website, Voice of Baltimore, which provides news and investigative stories, even though the staff has fewer reporters than any newspaper.

“It’s fun because we’re operating on a shoestring,” Forman said. “We don’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, that the large papers and other publications have. We don’t beat The Sun on every story, but we beat them on a lot of stories. Those occasions are very gratifying.”

Not all of the writers that make up The Aging Newspaperman’s Club still write for publications. David Ettlin, a former editor and reporter for The Baltimore Sun, blogs occasionally on his site The Real Muck.

He said most of the guys come to Romans Place to joke around and share stories from their time at either The Sun papers or The Baltimore-News American. His favorite stories are those involving competition between the local papers.

“It was hell to be beaten by The News-American,” Ettlin said.  “You just didn’t want that to happen. Plus you had The Evening Sun. The Evening Sun was competing head-on-head for afternoon papers. But the morning Sun was really competing with both of them. And we shared offices.

“You just didn’t want their reporters finding out what you were doing. But at the same time you certainly wanted to eavesdrop on what they were doing.”

The Aging Newspaperman’s Club is a colorful group that could easily be mistaken for comedians. Possessing one of the sharpest wits of the bunch, Olesker tells many of the jokes that grace the dining room at Romans Place.

He also takes time to lament on the reason that so many of his former colleagues join him every Friday.

“There are a lot of reporters out there who don’t know where to find work,” Olesker said. “It’s a shame. Some are really talented people.

“It felt awful to watch The Sun go because I had affection for the institution and also love for the people I had worked with there.”

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