The Baltimore Sun and Baltimore City Paper have been slowly dying for years. The big story behind the recent sale of the City Paper to the Baltimore Sun Media Group, isn’t about the City Paper losing its independence. The story we should be talking about was summed up in the title of a recent Gawker article by Tom Scocca, Baltimore Is One Step Closer to Being a Zero Newspaper Town. For years, the Baltimore Sun and City Paper have desperately needed to innovate to stay viable, but unfortunately, corporate leadership in far away locations decided otherwise. Those decisions to remain stagnant have resulted in a crippled Fourth Estate in Baltimore. Sure, there’s a vibrant and growing ecosystem of online media outlets that cover a range of topics here. And though they continue to improve, they have yet to fill the void left behind by traditional news organizations.
There’s little doubt that the acquisition of City Paper is almost certainly a ploy to make the Baltimore Sun Media Group more attractive to potential buyers. But who would buy newspapers in the current media climate? Odds are, the only viable buyers for media outlets like these are ones that would bleed the brand equity out of the papers, and leave the carcasses to rot. An acquisition of the Sun would start with your typical round of layoffs and consolidation, followed by further quality erosion and sell-off of non-essential assets. Eventually, Baltimore would be left with no newspapers or major outlets for journalism. If these papers continued to exist at all, they would garner little attention and have less impact. The resulting entities would be nothing more than Penny Peddlers, hawking the wares of dubious advertisers.
We need to come to terms with the fact that advertising as the main source of revenue isn’t a viable long-term strategy for newspapers; especially when advertisers can go online and get better rates, more targeted placements, a host of interactive and experiential marketing options, and analytics that can track audience behavior to a degree that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Sure, there’s value in print advertising. But there’s a lot more competition for the same ad spend, now more than ever before. And one simple fact that few people talk about is that newsprint, as a vehicle for disseminating information, is obsolete. Though folks may romanticize newsprint for the sake of nostalgia, the medium was developed out of practicality, not for the sake of tactile experience. It’s not going to capture the hearts and minds of future generations. It may fill a niche similar to what vinyl does for music, but it will never again be a leading vehicle for distributing information.
Though the Sun has obviously waned over the years, it’s still an institution. If retooled, it has the potential to serve the community in a substantial and meaningful way. What it needs is radical transformation. Newspapers are dying all over the country and it seems that nobody can figure out how to save them, because they’re all pretty much just executing variations of the original model. We need to completely do away with the original model and have the courage to try something new. What’s important is that journalism should serve the people, not the advertisers. As much as we would like to think that newspaper staff are somehow immune to advertisers, the fact is that whoever provides resources that enable you to put food on your table, send your kids to college, and pay your mortgage wields influence over your decision making process. Further, advertising alone is not going to be able to provide enough revenue to sustain a healthy regional news organization, unless it’s television news, but local television news isn’t capable of the same depth that newspapers traditionally deliver.
A New Model
If the citizens of Baltimore really care about the state of journalism in the city, it’s time they do something about it, instead of waiting for some mythical newspaper fairy to come and rescue our papers. We can sit around and wait for the inevitable to happen or we can be bold and try something that’s never been done before; a strategy that could work as a model for other cities in similar circumstances.
In the post-information age, access to information is a basic human right. We should treat it like water, health care, the pursuit of happiness, etc. This is something that we can’t count on government to provide since government is often a point of scrutiny. We have to establish the system for ourselves.
A strategy to reclaim the Sun could work something like this. Establish a Trust which will act as the sole owner of the Baltimore Sun. Establish a Board of Trustees and a separate Editorial Board that will carry out the operations of the Sun. Crowdsource the capital to buy back the Sun from the Tribune Group and in exchange, contributors will acquire annual memberships to the Baltimore Sun that will allow the people unprecedented control over the operations.
Members of the Board of Trustees should have a long record of service to the city of Baltimore and its membership should exhibit strong legal, civic, and business acumen. The Board of Trustees will have no influence over the editorial activities of the Sun but will focus solely on the fiduciary health of the organization. After the Sun has been purchased, it will be held in the Trust, whose mission is to faithfully serve the citizens of Baltimore.
In addition to the Board of Trustees, there should be a qualified Editorial Board. The Editorial Board will make decisions about the day to day activities of the Sun as it pertains to editorial content and community engagement.
Revenue will be generated with a membership model that allows inhabitants of the State of Maryland to purchase annual memberships to the Baltimore Sun. The annual membership will enable them to vote for members of the Editorial Board and Board of Trustees. While these positions will be open for election, candidates will have to meet high standards to hold leadership positions. The value for the member is to be able to have a say in the operations of the Sun.
The initial purchase of the Baltimore Sun will be achieved through crowdsourcing to raise the capital. The reward for those who contribute to the purchase will be the equivalent value in years of membership. For instance, if the annual membership fee is $100, and an individual contributes $1000, they’ll receive 10 years of membership. We might consider allowing the memberships to be transferable. No equity in the Baltimore Sun will be transferred as a result of crowdsourced fundraising. Ownership of the Sun will remain wholly in the Trust.
Of course, some would argue that the price of membership excludes certain folks from participation which is a valid point. We can create scholarship and fellowship programs that will enable people from all walks of life to participate and be represented.
The Sun can still derive ancillary revenue from advertising, though advertisers will have to be aligned with the values of the organization. The City Paper suffered because the advertisers with which they did business chipped away at the credibility of the organization. It’s hard to take an outlet seriously when on one hand they’re trying to deliver high quality journalism in the interest of the people, and on the other hand a significant portion of their revenue is derived from businesses like strip clubs and escort services that objectify and often exploit women as well as businesses that appear to contribute to the human trafficking problem in the region.
And though many folks don’t want to hear it, we have to kill the print edition. The writing is on the wall. Print is a drag on the organization. It hinders innovation. It ties up vital resources that could otherwise be used to find new ways of doing business that might be sustainable. We can revisit some sort of print offering once the core model is established and running smoothly. But for the time being, stop the presses.
“We will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.” -Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Chairman and Publisher New York Times
The question now is, do enough people in the region care about journalism to buy back the Sun? I have a feeling, if marketed the right way, we can generate a lot of excitement around the idea. I don’t know of any other city that has tried anything like this. The campaign itself will generate a lot of attention and has the potential to stir civic and state pride. Maryland is the wealthiest state in the U.S. and yet its major city is about to be without an institution dedicated to journalism. It’s a potential embarrassment to the entire state.
If folks are truly dedicated to bringing back to life what once was the only alternative newsweekly in Baltimore, the Trust could let folks buy the City Paper back. Unfortunately for City Paper, the local online media ecosystem is growing ever-closer to matching what the City Paper once offered. The truth is that independent online media outlets are the alternative media of today.
If you have other ideas about how to reverse the trajectory of the Baltimore Sun, I’d love to hear them. I think the basic structure of what I’m proposing is achievable. If we as a community choose to do nothing, then we should come to terms with the fact that we’re letting the Sun and City Paper die, albeit ever-so-slowly. And if that’s the case, we should move on and support the independent, locally-owned media outlets so that they can start to accrue the kind of resources they need to improve and grow to one day match the quality and depth of the papers we’ve lost.