OLD Media Moves

A newsman departee looks back on his career, and changes

August 5, 2008

Mike Himowitz, who left the Baltimore Sun last week after more than two decades of writing its personal technology column, was asked by Talking Biz News to reflect on his career and the changes he has seen.

Here is what he wrote in response:

Mike HimowitzAlthough most people recognize my name from the tech column, that has never been my ‘real’ job, but an avocation of sorts. I spent my reporting career doing the usual things for The Evening Sun — cops, features, politics, local government, education, transportation, the State House and a stint in our Washington bureau. When I got interested in computers, my possession of a Radio Shack TRS-80 made me the newspaper’s ‘expert.’ And since no good deed ever goes unpunished in a newsroom, I served a five-year sentence as the news guy on the team that installed and ran our publishing system — a period during which I launched my column and developed great sympathy for tech support folks everywhere.

“After parole, I returned to the newsroom as state news editor of The Evening Sun, then Baltimore County bureau chief after the morning and evening staffs combined. Then I became ‘electronic news editor,’ a rather vaguely defined new title that involved computer-assisted reporting and developing new ‘electronic products.’ I was also on the team that worked on the first iteration of The Sun’s Web site, known as Sunspot. During one of the two periods when Sun management killed off my column to save a few dollars, I continued writing about computers and gadgets on a freelance basis for Fortune magazine — a great gig that brought a lot of exposure, helped put my oldest boy through college, and for which I’m enternally grateful.

“In the late 1990s, when mangement decided that technology might be worth coverning regularly, I started and edited a standalone weekly tech section called Plugged In, which was great fun for five years and generated enthusiastic readership, but unfortunately, not many ads. About the time it shrank to a a page or two inside the Business section, I switched horses and became medical/science editor, with the assignment of starting up a standalone Health and Science Section. That was by far my hardest assignment, since I knew absolutely nothing about either subject.Â

“But given our location in one of the nation’s most important research corridors, our top management was committed to making health and science a ‘franchise beat.’ That gave me a chance to work with a superb team of reporters and editors who covered their beats with world-class authority. Once again, our Health & Science section generated excellent readership, but no ads, and it died after three years — replaced by a weekly Features cover.

“Whatever the ups and downs of the businesss — all downs lately — I had a great career in newspaper  journalism. There’s no other occupation in the world where you can do all these things, investigate so many subjects, get paid to satisfy your curiosity, and see your work in print so quickly.

“In particular, writing a weekly technology column allowed me to pursue an avocation/hobby that was great fun — and something I probably would have done anyway. It also kept me writing, which I think is critically important. As an editor, if you have to sit down and write something on deadline every week, it keeps you ‘alive’ journalistically — and you have maintain your empathy for the people who work for you and have to do it every day.

“The other great opportunity was creating and editing two weekly sections. In a business that is otherwise so collective, I had a little corner that was mine. Because the subjects (personal technology, science and medicine) were so ‘arcane’ for traditional journalists, my bosses almost never interfered. With this benign neglect from above,  I could get together with a small team of talented people, have fun every week, and share that enthusiam with thousands of readers. If you love the written word, it’s a great life.Â

“What’s so awful to contemplate is that this whole framework is dissolving before us.  I have a friend with a real estate business in another city who told me he used to spend $100,000 a year with the local paper but has cut back to a fraction of that because he now gets so many of his leads over the Internet — and most of them from CraigsLIst. How do you compete with somebody who gives away what you have to charge for?

“For many years, my column made its home in on the front of the Business section of The Sun. The section itself disappeared last week — it’s now a few pages in the Maryland section, and when the latest redesign hits next month, both business and local coverage will be inside a single “news” section. Â

“Here’s what makes me even angrier — even with this falloff in advertising, many newspapers can still generate a positive cash flow. But so many of them have been swallowed up in leveraged buyouts that they’re saddled with debt that they never would have incurred in their independent days. They’re not typical failed companies who borrowed too heavily to finance new plants or ill-fated expansion plans. They’re creatures of a insane investment climate. It’s hard to see how they’ll survive, or in what form — but I have confidence that if anyone can do it, and if they’re given half a chance, the folks at The Sun will figure out a way.”

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