Politics & Media
May 05, 2009, 05:50AM

INTERVIEW: The Baltimore Sun's Dan Rodricks

A 30-year veteran of the troubled daily talks about his career and why he still loves the city.

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Photo by ktylerkonk

Dan Rodricks, an award-winning columnist for The Baltimore Sun, is perhaps the most notable “name” journalist in that city. Rodricks, 55, a native of Massachusetts, was first asked to write a metro column at The Evening Sun (later folded into The Sun) in 1979, just a few years after graduating from college, and hasn’t stopped ever since. In addition, he’s hosted local television programs and currently holds forth on WYPR-FM, 88.1, the public radio station in Baltimore. In the following interview, conducted last weekend by email, Rodricks muses about his long career, the newspaper industry’s current dire predicament, and what he loves about his adopted hometown.

SPLICE TODAY: You've spent more than 30 years at one newspaper, which today is the
equivalent of a baseball player starting and finishing his career with a single team. You've undoubtedly had offers over the years from other newspapers: what's kept you at
The Sun?

DAN RODRICKS: I’ve had the opportunity—I’ve been blessed, as they so frequently say in Baltimore—to have complete freedom to write whatever I want to write about, three times a week for many years, twice a week the last three. I’ve also had my own television show, worked as a television commentator and producer, hosted AM and now FM radio shows, contributed to a couple of books. I never had to leave the town to have those other opportunities. Plus, there’s never been a dull moment here, news-wise. I wish we had our own NHL team, but you can’t have everything.

ST: When did you objectively realize that print media was rapidly becoming a dying institution?

DR: Only recently, really. Even with all the downsizing we’ve been through at The Sun—so many farewells to good, professional journalists—it wasn’t until this recession hit that I realized we may not be coming back from the slide. I thought by now The Sun and other newspapers would have figured out how to make money off the Internet, and that doesn’t seem to be happening. We lost the classifieds; the recession has taken a wicked toll on retail advertising . . . so here we are, in bankruptcy with Tribune Co. The last round of cuts at The Sun were not buyouts—they were layoffs—and no one seems to know where we’re going, if anywhere.

ST: One of your recent columns was about the dangers of text-messaging while driving, and Maryland's intention of penalizing those caught in the act. I doubt there are conclusive statistics at this point, but do you think traffic accidents caused by distracted motorists will become just as big a problem as drunk driving?

DR: I doubt a $500 fine is going to make people stop. New Jersey outlawed it and they had something like 100,000 citations for it last year. Plus, there are all those cell phones and cell phone calls. I think people are addicted, which was the point of my column. Even a reasonable, rational, swell guy like myself can get hooked.

ST: What is happening with the legal difficulties of Baltimore's mayor Sheila Dixon? It seems to me, as an observer, that there's so much bad news this year that her indictment has elicited little more than a yawn. Do you agree?

DR: Yes, well, we haven’t heard all the evidence yet. It’s pretty juicy stuff, and it doesn’t look to me like any local judge has the stones to dismiss the charges. So there will probably be a trial. At least, I’m hoping for one. You’re right, though—so much recession news, with people worried about real problems like jobs and houses, they may not have the attention for another political soap opera. On the other hand, reality TV is huge in this country—and the Sheila Dixon story is perfect reality TV. Unfortunately for local TV stations—and fortunate for The Sun—cameras are not allowed in Maryland courtrooms.

ST: Your career has included not only newspaper columns, but also regular television spots and your current radio show. I imagine your preference is writing, but what do enjoy most about television, and now radio? Do you feel you reach a different, and perhaps larger, audience?

DR: The best thing about “Rodricks For Breakfast” was this: Every week we showed people who lived in the suburbs and deep suburbs of Baltimore that the city wasn’t such a wall-to-wall scary place. We showed them cool neighborhoods, new restaurants and small businesses, goofy fun you could only have in Fells Point or Hampden, museums, a great bakery on W. Baltimore St. We used to get calls from people in Bel Air and Woodbine, way out there, asking what the name of the library was we’d just showcased. “You mean the Enoch Pratt? You’ve never heard of it, never been?” Television news—and NBC’s Homicide and later The Wire—presented such a skewed, ugly view of Baltimore, we had it easy. We got to show the other side, the good stuff. We dealt with the serious and the depressing as well, just not all the time. And radio—I just enjoy the mix of guests and topics, the daily rush to learn something new, talk about an issue and get quick reactions from the public.

ST: At The Sun, who was the best editor you worked with? And could you name three or four colleagues whose work you admired, maybe even inspired you?
DR: John Carroll was the best editor because he had a vision for the newspaper and he was able to get great work out of people. Mike Wheatley and George Rodgers were my best editors, along with, later, Mike Adams. Of course, they are all gone now. Carl Schoettler of the old Evening Sun and later The Sun was simply the best deadline feature writer in the nation. The late Brad Jacobs had an elegant writing style in editorials. I learned about the city and deadline writing from the late Nick Yengich. There was a time when the newsroom was full of interesting, engaging, educated, well-read, thoughtful men and women who were driven to get a great story. It was the best of times, day after day. It really was. There are still people like that in the newsroom, just fewer of them, a lot fewer.

ST: You write often, especially in the past five years, about crime, drug dealers and prisons in Baltimore—probably more than any other journalist in the city—as well as your opposition to capital punishment and the plight of the homeless. Do you feel that your message is getting across? Would you consider this "crusade" a highlight of your career? And, considering this long and deep recession, do you think that the number of homeless will swell in the next year or two? And do most Baltimoreans even notice it?

DR: There was something about the “crusade,” as you call it, that I embarked on in 2005 and 2006 that struck a chord with all people—liberal to conservative. Most agreed that, yes, drug addiction should be treated medically not criminally and, yes, there’s too little correcting accomplished by the department of corrections and, yes, ex-offenders deserve a chance at a job after they’ve done their time. I never had such support for what I was writing across a spectrum of readers, right to left. I’m afraid politicians don’t get this, even with polls showing them it’s okay to soften up a bit on criminals that have been through the system, and on drug addicts. And I’m afraid the recession is going to make it even tougher for ex-offenders to find work. So, yes, to increased homelessness and, I would imagine, property crimes.

ST: On occasion you write wonderful and poignant stories about your parents, uncles and aunts, sibling and longtime friends. As a fellow in his mid-50s, do you have a melancholy attitude about the passage of time, as you see people whom you remember in the prime of their lives, inevitably become hobbled by old age? Do your own kids like to hear stories about "the old days"?

DR: I save those stories for just the right moment. I wrote about my father-in-law a few years ago, sitting with him in a tool shed while he packed up what few belongings he would be allowed to take to the assisted living center in Hanover, PA. It was incredibly sad. So I wrote a piece describing that scene, and the mail on it was amazing—there really are a lot of baby boomers out there going through the same thing. I wrote about taking my son to college and leaving him there—and, Jesus, did the mail come in. More email on that one than on any column about gun control or the death penalty! Yes, melancholy, and trying not to get depressed about it. Trying to give it my all, all the way through. My son likes stories about the old days. He likes to know about his Italian, Portuguese and French ancestry. My daughter not so much yet.

ST: When will the Orioles have a winning season?

DR: Oh, God, please, we need pitching. We have everything but pitching and pitching is everything. You ought to be able to score four runs and win ball games. I feel sorry for our kids, who have absolutely no memory of the Orioles in post-season.

ST: What do you think was the most significant invention of the 20th century? You could spend hours thinking about this, but for my own part I cling to air-conditioning, since its proliferation changed the population density of the country, leading so many Americans to move to previously uninhabitable cities such as Dallas, Houston and Phoenix. On that thought, one my own pet peeves is that movie theaters are like meat lockers: you'd think that when energy conservation is such a pressing issue, theaters and malls could cool it, so to speak, on the a.c.

DR: I agree about air-conditioning—for the reasons you cite, and particularly for the way it contributed to less face time between neighbors. What do people do around here in summer? They stay indoors. No more fanning themselves and keeping watchful eyes on the neighborhood kids while sitting on the stoop. It changed the social chemistry of modern life. But if you count the automobile as a 20th century invention, I don’t think you can look past it. It fueled white flight and created the suburbs and destroyed city life for a long, long time—like 40 or 50 years. My perspective is as a Baltimorean, so maybe it’s skewed to a negative view about what the automobile wrought. It also contributed big time to climate change. I think the Weed Whacker is often overlooked as a great invention.

ST: The Sun just underwent a brutal round of layoffs last week. Any thoughts you'd like to share about this, as well as all the other newspapers that are in trouble?

DR: If the industry doesn’t figure out how to make money off the Internet we’re doomed. The leaner staff works for that, not for print, so I hope they know what they’re doing. I think newspapers should collude, shut down their websites on a Monday, re-open on a Tuesday, charging a small Pay Pal-style gateway fee for all users. People want what we produce; they just want it online. But they have to pay for it, even a nickel a view.

ST: What publications do you still read in the print version? Do your kids read much in print?

DR: My kids read The Sun, actually. I’ve found my son spending hours with it, and my daughter reading the Sunday Styles section of the Times, along with the magazine. I still get The Sun, Times and Post, still subscribe to The Nation, Time and a friend sends over his New Yorkers a day or so after he gets it and tears through it. I buy magazines still. I make sure I see the City Paper every week.

ST: Where is your favorite place to take vacations? And what place in the world that you've traveled to is tops in your mind?  

DR: I would love to go back to Madeira Island, Portugal, not only because my father was born there, but because it’s just a fabulous place to visit and relax—tropical and European at the same time, something almost fantastic—provincial architecture and palm trees. Above all, I’m happy in any pretty river with trout, up in Pennsylvania or in western Maryland.

ST: Had you chosen a different profession than journalism, what would it have been?  

DR: I would have been a teacher, probably English and writing, and I’d have directed the high school musical.

ST: Is there single column you've written in the past 30 years that you're most proud of?

DR: That’s a tough one. There’s a column I wrote a few years ago about a homeless drug addict—a woman—who witnessed the sidewalk execution of a Baltimore police officer. It took every bit of courage she could muster to come into court and tell that story, to look the killer in the eye and know, with her testimony, she could never go back to the old neighborhood. That was courage. That was a simple column, just a description of her, the courtroom scene and the witness’ demeanor and an accounting of her testimony, but very effective. For some reason that one comes to mind—as a columnist I just stepped out of the way and told a heroic story.

  • I really enjoyed this article and don't even know Dan's work. For the first time in a long time, I feel sympathy/nostalgia for print journalism. Too many articles/writers (not intended as a jab on any one writer) whine about the demise of newspapers. This is a wonderful change of pace.

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  • There are a lot of reasons to love Rodricks, especially when he's wearing his Chronicler of Baltimore hat, whether for The Sun, on the radio or, my favorite, during the Rodricks for Breakfast years. But Dan's wrong about online. The Sun's online operation does make money - lots of it. But it does not make enough money to support the newsroom of 1995 or even 2005. Thus the cutbacks as the print side revenues cratered over recent years. And as for that wishful anti-trust thinking (how a journalist misses the irony in openly wishing for the kind of collusion that would feed a hundred columns if it happened in any other business is beyond me), that's just not going to happen. Because if it did, WBAL and WJZ and WYPR and companies that don't even exist yet would flood into the vacuum left by The Sun's withdrawal from the internet. And, with its readership reduced by 80-90%, and online revenues collapsed by the move, The Sun and other papers would only be able to wonder who had THAT brilliant idea. But Dan is right -- the business model is broken and needs fixing. Local papers still have enormous opportunity -- more than any other local company -- to bring people together around news and information, and to find ways to sell that attention and that community to the advertisers who need to reach them. Local, connected voices like his are a big part of the puzzle's solution.

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  • My apologies to anyone who muscled through it. Note to Russ Smith: What's up with stripping the paragraphs from the comments? :-/

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  • I'm sure Dan Rodricks was just thinking out loud about collusion since you're correct that the irony would be inescapable. However, I've no idea where you, and many industry people over the age of 40 get the idea that "local papers" have "enormous opportunity." If nothing else is clear from the past half decade is that a rapidly diminishing number of people are picking up or buying newspapers, and not just the younger generations. Take a look at the "alternative" weeklies around the country; they've all cut their press runs, not only to save money, but because the copies are stacking up in their cities or towns.

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