Featured photo by Chris Montgomery

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 And one simple fact that few people talk about is that newsprint, as a vehicle for disseminating information, is obsolete.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.

The Organization

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 

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 Campaign

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.

 

About The Author

Justin is a co-founder and publisher of What Weekly, Creative Strategist at What Works Studio, and co-founder of Light City.

  • Natan Ezra Lefkowits

    This is the exact conversation that needs to be happening.

  • JonGant

    What an egomaniacal owner of this”new media” website Justin Allen is. Seriously?:

    “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.”

    Romanticize for the sake of nostalgia? The “medium was developed out of practicality”? What is Justin’s background or even present training that has allowed him to develop such an arrogance that he is a media “guru”?

    May the Al Jazeera journalists held in Egypt never lay eyes upon this rubbish. May Peter Jennings and Walter Cronkite rest in their graves. “Mr. Allen”, nobody other than “new media” wannabes “romanticizes” journalism “for the sake of nostalgia”. Completely loss upon you is the integrity and breadth of knowledge that the “old media” was able to cultivate through their depth of individuals trained and adept at cultivating relationships and applying years of tutelage from masters of the craft. It is a craft.

    Seriously, Mr. Allen. What is your expertise on the matter of journalism? We all understand your bent towards new media, but from where do you come?

    Crowdsourcing?! Mr. Allen, IndieGoGo may appeal to you and your wife as a way to pay the rent and raise a few extra $100 for GoDaddy fees. But it does not provide the hay to keep a stable of journalists.

    Your offer of a solution that “an annual membership fee is $100″ is a child’s words for what had been accepted as “subscription”. A $100 will NOT pay the costs of printing a newspaper. Please do not insult those in the journalistic world who have held positions of publishing with your arrogant, non-trained journalistic “i am a publisher” of my “wordpress website ‘magazine’” consisting of non-paid contributors “understanding” of, well, nothing. Naturally, you have attended conferences and read a bunch of blogs. Of course, you have seen the writing on the wall.

    What The Sun and, albeit increasingly less so, City Paper offered were trained and resource granted journalism. Mr. Allen, look back at any and all of your site’s published works. Can you seriously and honestly hold any up to the standards of journalism? $100 annual membership fee might provide you and your wife with a few computers, and a few employees, but no journalists. Journalists.

    You and your wife offer a much loved and appreciated “Socialites pages” site. But, for the sake of Baltimore, please do not consider WhatWeekly a journalism site nor offer insights into the journalist world.

    “Stop the Presses”? Perhaps Mr. Allen could stop propagating a romanticized self-image of being a Media Savior.

    • Anonymous

      I think you misunderstood. I’m referring to newsprint as the paper that newspapers are printed on. I’m not saying journalism is obsolete or being romanticized, I’m talking about newspapers as a vehicle to deliver journalism. There’s a big difference.

      • JonGant

        “I think you misunderstood” is a cliche response. We understand your use of “newsprint”. But, that is not the cause of the loss of revenue. Nor will $100 a year support an online version of the same caliber. Have you spoken to any of the Sun journalists? Or those who have moved on to other news outlets? They are passionate and deserving of more than your simplification of “newsprint” vs. ??? blogging? And, really, if your are supporting “journalism” and the traditional Baltimore Sun, then why are you not allowing them to speak in your blogpost? This really sounded like a call to gather around WhatWeekly as the elephant slowly dies. Precisely, which “independent, locally-owned media outlets” are you proposing we should “move on” and support in your closing paragraph? : “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.”

    • Michael

      Man oh man, just from the vitriol exhibited by JonGant, I think the idea of buying back the Sun sounds like an even better idea. Unless, of course, journalism is unknowable and unlearnable as JonGant suggests, and you’ll spontaneously combust if you try to manage a journalistic endeavor without a license.

  • Kelly Louise Barton

    While I am personally still holding out for the lifespan of print media, I agree that the place for newsprint in the information age is relatively obsolete, an is becoming even more useless as online media progresses. That being said, I think campaigning for a printed news outlet would complicate the success of this plan, as I don’t think the model necessarily fixes the lack of a need or practicality for printed news, and I’m not so sure a campaign rooted in nostalgia could foster a need for printed news. Maybe if the campaign was as successful as idealized, print could hold up to the easily updated online competition.

    I don’t think the question is whether or not people in Baltimore care about journalism. I think the question concerning print media is, and has been for some time, how quickly can they access it?

    • Anonymous

      There might be an opportunity to bring back some sort of print edition or possibly even outsource the printing of the Sunday Edition.

  • ayukna

    The idea of a Trust is brilliant. To tackle the money issue, what do you think about going a step further and declaring News as a right and allocating a portion of the City budget to it? This way, all citizens can get News for free- because they have already paid for it. As you’ve outlined, the Trust can’t be swayed (and can’t influence Editors) and City Hall would have to answer to the Trust come pay day and never, ever the other way around. A news source for and by the people.

    • Anonymous

      I have a hard time imagining a situation where the City would allocate resources to the Sun without having influence over it. But then again, if I were to treat it like any other project, I would say it’s too early to rule anything out.

      • Drew

        BAD IDEA. Remember:
        WASHINGTON — National Endowment for the Arts will retain a controversial requirement that grantees sign an anti-obscenity pledge, despite the rejection, or threatened rejection, of more than $1.3 million in 1990 grants.

  • CB

    The faulty premise of this article is that people in Baltimore actually care about the Baltimore Sun and/or journalism in general. Aside from a small cabal of intellectuals and coffee shop hipsters, the only things people care about news-wise in the city are the Ravens and the occasional sensationalism aimed at getting the low information masses riled up about some perceived injustice. The market would seem to indicate that people have no desire to consume news in a way that they have to pay for it. Why would they? Most people own a TV, Radio and Computer where they can consume the content for “free”. I know it’s not actually free, but people will see it this way. And crowd-sourced ownership? Aside from what I can only imagine would be a logistical nightmare, why would people all of the sudden pitch in to buy a form of news they’ve already turned their backs on when they wouldn’t purchase a subscription before? Because they can vote for the editorial staff? They can do that today by pointing their web browser to their favorite “free” news source that jives with their world view. It’s not just that print media is dying, it’s that paid subscription-based news media is dying except in niche genres.

    • Anonymous

      You make a lot of great points. I appreciate the feedback.

    • Anonymous

      I definitely see your perspective, there is a lot of apathy. I suppose this post is a reaction to how people reacted to the sale of the City Paper to the Sun, when having neither is a very real possibility. I don’t hear anybody talk about how to solve the problem. All I hear is complaints. I would much prefer to live in a city with a healthy and respected newspaper. It’s a part of the American mythos.

  • http://twitter.com/benkutil Ben Kutil

    When word of the Sun’s sale first came up, I was thinking along similar lines, but comparing it to the Greenbay Packers, who are owned by citizen shareholders, who vote on the GM.
    https://twitter.com/benkutil/status/375396806794153984. I think the underlying, fundamental issue is that the Baltimore Sun no longer provides value to the the general population of Baltimore… or does not communicate its value to the citizens.
    Without solving that problem, no one is going to pony up money to buy the Sun, whether for $1, $100, or $1000 a membership.

    • Anonymous

      Unfortunately, I think you’re right Ben. The one thing this exercise has shown me is that people like the idea of having a newspaper more than they like the idea of having to do something to support it. The other issue is that the most staunch supporters of traditional journalism seem to be the folks most opposed to change or even entertaining the idea of trying something new.

  • Michael

    What about a cooperatively-owned for-profit, where owners and workers (and maybe advertisers) would have different classes of ‘stock’ in the company, or some other alternative ownership type that lets owners vote for their board of directors?

    I’d imagine that if the first thing this buyout would do is to remove the print edition, you’d get a lot of negative press and negative feelings from the community — It would be tantamount to closing, especially for folks whom a decent computer and internet access is too expensive. And that voice isn’t entirely wrong, so continuing the print side might be necessary, and might go along with the mission of quality journalism reaching the most people. So letting people spend $200 a year for home delivery still makes sense, and maybe there’s some businesses advantages to slightly shrinking coverage area, or raising the price for home delivery based on how much it costs to deliver.

    Two questions:
    - Any sense of what it would cost to buy The Sun from the Tribune Corp?
    - What would be the next immediate step to start any of this?

    • Anonymous

      Not sure what the Sun would cost, but a co-op is definitely an option. The City Paper reportedly sold for less than 4 million which I believe may have been possible to crowdsource the capital if necessary. They’re crowdsourcing real estate now so why not newspapers? I think the next step would be to find a passionate person to lead the effort. I personally have too many obligations to take on another big project. You need someone with an entrepreneurial spirit and enough experience and credibility to be taken seriously. The truth is we won’t know exactly what the model will look like until we start peeling back the layers. That’s what the discussion is for.

      • Anonymous

        … and you might be right about the print offering.

  • Mykel Nahorniak

    It’s a noble, romantic notion, but it’s from an “inside baseball” viewpoint, where it’s assumed that editorial quality is what’s holding papers back. The math just doesn’t work. While the end result might be a more independent media entity, it would likely generate revenue in the hundreds of thousands, not millions, and would not be able to sustain nearly as many jobs as it does now.

    The biggest flaw is the piece assumes that “crowdsourcing the capital” is easy. In reality, it’s incredibly hard. The most successful Kickstarter campaign, which had incredible worldwide viral reach and a well-designed prototype, only reached the low 7-figures. It’d take much more than that to buy up The Sun. Is it realistic to expect the Baltimore region to raise that kind of capital on its own?

    This “membership” model already exists at newspapers. Most subscribers sign up for a monthly fee that adds up to over $100 per year. So newspapers are already getting that revenue, and are double-dipping by selling ads as well. This new idea just removes a revenue stream newspapers have counted on for decades without replacing it with a more viable alternative. If you _force_ memberships, to the audience, you’re asking them to pay $100 for something they paid $1.50 for yesterday.

    Additionally, to sustain a paper (using fuzzy math, it costs around $15mm per year to operate The Sun at its current size). In order to sustain under the membership model, The Sun would need to have a circulation of 150,000, which is about what it has now. It’s a bit optimistic to assume not a single subscriber is lost switching to a member model.

    Ultimately, what you’re talking about here is addressing the symptom, not the disease. Lower readership is a function of the medium, and the commoditization of the content, not the revenue model. Changing to “members only” will just lower readership (and revenue) even further.

    News is a commodity. The Sun needs to figure out how to position itself to _not_ be a commodity to its customers (read: advertisers). Until then, their value will continue to diminish.

    • Anonymous

      I didn’t mean to insinuate that it was merely the editorial quality holding the paper back. The main impediment has been their inability to leverage technology better. I blame it on management that refuses to invest in innovation or consider the long term health of the organization.

      I’ll admit the membership model may be a little thin for ongoing operations. But it’s not intended to be a subscription in that you pay for content. What you’re paying for is the opportunity to have a say in how the Sun is run. There should be other benefits as well.

      I think crowdsourcing capital, if done correctly is achievable. A strategy would lean heavy on deeper pockets. We helped a number of organizations in raising 5.7m in 24hrs recently for local nonprofits. We were able to do it because someone had the courage to set the bar high. The record for crowdfunding is about 39m. That record won’t stand forever. I’m not talking about just slapping something up on Kickstarter. I’m talking about an integrated campaign that starts by talking with city stakeholders and organizations that can help with the heavy lifting first. Then move into a well executed campaign with a competent and experienced marketing team.

      I doubt that newspapers profit much from subscriptions so pulling the print reduces overhead more than anything else. If anything I would bet that their aim is break even with subscriptions and profit from advertising.

      “We will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.” -Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Chairman and Publisher New York Times

  • Krystina

    Love it. I’m in.

  • Alexander Mitchell

    This sounds good “on paper,” if you’ll pardon the pun.
    But it will most likely self-destruct in actual application.
    “The Sun can still derive ancillary revenue from advertising, though
    advertisers will have to be aligned with the values of the organization.”
    No. With that line alone, you’ve effectively turned a supposed “news source” into a “party organ.” That sounds like a nice way to say “we won’t take ads from strip clubs,” but if you do that, where does the line get drawn? Exclude the supermarket ad because they have meat or processed foods? Ban the pet store ad because they sell puppies? Block ads from churches because of, you know, religion?

    If that line were uttered by a representative of Fox News, it would be held up as blatant “evidence” of “censorship” and “bias” in their company and product, even though such alignment already more or less exists simply from the free market and the free will of advertisers. Why is it any less so just because you happen to favor someone else’s viewpoints?

    Further, I would make the case that those with the resources to spend to support the Sun, either as present or as envisioned in this essay, have already voted with their dollars and advertising–and it’s not for the status quo, specifically the “left-leaning”, neo-socialistic viewpoints espoused by either the Sun or the City Paper. Those remaining appear to read the paper/website primarily for Ravens and Orioles coverage, not coverage of news, politics, education, or what have you.

    Unfortunately for those wishing to present themselves as “the paper of record” or “a definitive source of news,” the audience has by and large gotten more sophisticated, and stories the “mainstream media” could ignore in the past because it didn’t interest or please them can now be disseminated by other means. Just as people felt free to ignore The Examiner when it was around, they now feel equally free to ignore the Sun and City Paper, and for exactly the same reason; not enough people want what they’re pitching and saying to sustain them. Any attempt to skew the paper further “left” in politics is doomed to failure. Just ask the poor chap that keeps trying to hand out the Communistic newspaper at the farmer’s market every week–in vain.

    • Anonymous

      This post was in a response the outcry that erupted from the sale of the Baltimore City Paper to the Sun. It was an attempt to start a conversation about solutions to the decline of Baltimore’s papers but the truth is, I think you’re right Alexander. The people who are having conversations about the fate of these papers are a small segment of the population. Everyone else is moving on. Personally, I’m sad to see their decline, but it’s inevitable at this point. I was wrong when I said “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.” The truth is the Tribune Company has hatched a plan to gut the Sun instead of wait for buyers that may never show up. The story is right here but media outlets in Baltimore aren’t talking about it. http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/02/the-newsonomics-of-the-print-orphanage-tribunes-and-time-inc-s/