As Baltimore City Paper faces the reaper, stakes mount for alt-weeklies

Photo by Baynard Woods

IT WASN’T ENTIRELY SHOCKING when the Baltimore Sun Media Group announced earlier this month that it would close City Paper, Baltimore’s 40-year-old alternative weekly, before the end of the year.

When we found out in 2014 that The Sun was buying City Paper—now, that was a shock. City Paper was founded, in part, to goad, mock, and compete with what we saw as a staid and often boring daily. It was what we were the “alternative” to. Worse, BSMG was owned by Tribune Publishing (now Tronc), which seemed like corporate media at its most vile.

At the time, I was City Paper’s senior editor. I remember the stunned looks on the faces of my colleagues as corporate executives came into our ramshackle brownstone to tell us we’d be moving, in one week, to The Sun’s brutalist headquarters on Calvert Street.

In the kind of language only we were fit to print, we wondered: What the fuck? Why did they even want City Paper? Was it for the racy strip club ads that a family paper couldn’t print? Or was it an effort towards a print-media monopoly in the city?

“Alt weeklies…report on the cultural life of a city in a way that neither big daily papers nor websites can,” I wrote at the time, in a New York Times op-ed:

Big dailies are…being squeezed to cut costs by their corporate overlords, and when they trim, their targets are typically the seemingly marginal, underground and emerging beats that alt weeklies specialize in. And while there are some great hyperlocal websites, the whole idea of the Internet—untethered to geography, universal in topic and voice—pushes against the sort of groundedness that alt weeklies provide.

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I was worried, I wrote, “not that things will change overnight, but that over time, under corporate ownership, we will lose our edge.” City Paper staffers knew people at Metro Pulse, the Knoxville, Tennessee, weekly that was acquired by E.W. Scripps in 2007. They seemed to be doing OK.

But Scripps, which also owned the daily paper in Knoxville, killed Metro Pulse just months after we were bought. And while things went relatively well in Baltimore for a few years, it was hard for me then to imagine a long-term future under The Sun. In 2015, I quit as a full-timer. I maintained a role there as editor at large, and watched my friends continue to do more with less.

Earlier this year, City Paper formally filed for recognition as part of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. Baltimore Sun Media Group recognized the union—and, in the same meeting, told the staff they were closing the paper.

I wasn’t at the meeting, but staff members say it was brief and stunning. After the hatchet man left, they decided to go somewhere to get lunch. They took the elevators, which were decorated with posters featuring the Sun’s new post-election motto: “Journalism Matters Today More Than Ever.”

 

The alternative weekly never failed to do what it was supposed to do—cover Baltimore in a muckraking way and refuse to cave to popular opinion.

 

THE SAD IRONY OF THIS SLOGAN is that alt-weeklies like City Paper are more important than ever. Alts offer an antidote to many of the media problems that became evident during the 2016 election and the beginning of the Trump presidency.

Alt-weeklies have never had the kind of access enjoyed by dailies and TV networks; accordingly, we have never worried about losing it for asking inconvenient questions. We favor transparency over false balance or feigned objectivity. We’ve always been pretty sure that every flack behind a podium is lying, and wonder why everyone else is just starting to realize that.

When the Baltimore Police Department and athletic apparel giant Under Armour—whose owner Kevin Plank is the recipient of one of the biggest tax deals in the city’s history—teamed up to redesign the notorious police station in the Western District of Baltimore, the Sun managed to keep a straight face. City Paper mocked the whole thing as a hollow PR gambit, while also directly addressing the underserved, overpoliced residents of the neighborhood:

“It seems as though the idea is that if the police had better stuff they’d stop beating people and sometimes killing people and, as a video just revealed what so many have said for decades, planting drugs on people. Better working conditions are good, but I’m not seeing how new digs fix the kind of cruelty and lawlessness that we’ve seen out of the department. What about you, the community? What kind of healing do you get?”

“The alternative weekly never failed to do what it was supposed to do—cover Baltimore in a muckraking way and refuse to cave to popular opinion,” wrote film director and longtime Baltimore resident John Waters in a letter to the Sun following the announcement.

Alt-weeklies share the shortcomings of many newsrooms. For instance, too many papers—even in majority black cities like Baltimore—primarily hire white writers who too often cover white parts of town. But several have made memorable strides to address the problem. Former Washington City Paper arts editor Glenn Dixon credits the weekly’s former editor, late New York Times media columnist David Carr, with “creat[ing] a replicable model to identify and cultivate the talent of young writers of color.” Carr’s recruits included Jelani Cobb and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who told Dixon after Carr’s death that he “can’t imagine himself here right now without City Paper.”

“Words fail as to what a loss it would be,” says Lee Gardner about the end of alternative news sources in American cities. Gardner, currently a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, edited the Baltimore City Paper for nearly a decade and also worked at Metro Pulse.

“Many people wouldn’t feel it at first,” says Gardner. “But over time they definitely would.”

 

None of us were professional fundraisers, none of us had experience doing that. It’s a whole new idea. People are kind of used to donating money to public radio stations, public television, but to a newspaper with ads?

 

AFTER STAFF LEARNED OF City Paper’s death sentence, I began working with editor Brandon Soderberg to try to figure out ways to save it before the news went public.

Knoxville seemed to offer hope. After Scripps closed the Metro Pulse, a few staffers started a new weekly paper, the Knoxville Mercury. The Mercury launched as a publication of the nonprofit Knoxville History Project, but maintained its ability to sell print ads, the bread and butter of every alt-weekly.

Before we could call him to ask for details about the model, editor Coury Turczyn announced that the Mercury would cease publication.

“Originally, we thought we’d be able to reattain the same levels of advertising revenue that Metro Pulse had enjoyed before it was closed,” Turczyn wrote on July 5. “That alone would’ve covered all of our expenses to publish the paper with our micro-sized staff. But by the time we were able to launch The Mercury some six months later, the market had moved on.”

Turczyn spoke with me about the paper’s model by phone on July 19, the day the final issue of the Mercury hit the streets.

“Unfortunately, none of us were professional fundraisers, none of us had experience doing that,” he said of the nonprofit aspect of the business. “It’s a whole new idea. People are kind of used to donating money to public radio stations, public television, but to a newspaper with ads? That’s a whole different idea.”

 

OTHER, MORE ESTABLISHED PAPERS are also experimenting with the nonprofit model to fund individual stories and projects—and not just for a single outlet. Chris Faraone, editor of DigBoston, founded the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), which is a possible template that other cities, like Baltimore, could follow.

“It’s still early on,” says Jason Zaragoza, head of AAN, which is contemplating acting as a fiscal sponsor for alt-weeklies that want to incorporate a model like BINJ. “Some papers can make it work,” says Zaragoza about such a model, “but I think it works, at least right now, as a supplement for the main business.”

It seems clear to everyone involved that we need to do something—or a lot of different things—so we can find out what works. The Stranger, Seattle’s Pulitzer-winning alt-weekly, recently announced glossy covers, longer stories, and a reduced production schedule, for instance.

The recent news from Baltimore and Knoxville should remind all weeklies just how high the stakes are. But if the imminent death of City Paper spells the death of corporate alts, Turczyn makes it clear that the Mercury’s fate does not spell doom for a similar model in other markets.

“I think our business model was ultimately too complicated to explain to potential donors,” he wrote in an email, “but that doesn’t mean somebody else can’t still figure it out.”

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Baynard Woods creates Democracy in Crisis, a column and podcast syndicated in more than 20 alternative weeklies, including the Baltimore City Paper, where he is Editor at Large. He is the author of Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff, and an adjunct writing professor at Johns Hopkins University.