Today is a dismal day for the Baltimore media landscape, whether you liked reading Baltimore City Paper or not.
I walked to five different yellow boxes this morning for a copy of the last-ever issue of the City Paper. All of the issues were gone at the first two stands; two others had been carted off for good from my neighborhood. The papers are usually picked off quickly on Wednesday mornings as soon as they’re delivered. I’ve never had to walk more than a few blocks to find one.
J.M. Giordano’s photo on the cover of today’s paper, seen above, shows one of those iconic yellow boxes crushed and beaten in, lying toppled on the sidewalk below a leaning, broken street lamp. To a journalist who’s admired the paper’s work (and had the opportunity to write for it), it reeks of defeat, both that of the paper, and of the city.
You don’t need me to tell you why City Paper matters to Baltimore. I’m a newcomer, having arrived here only within the last couple years. The vast majority of Baltimoreans have known CP for longer than I have.
They’ve seen its moving, prodding or jolting cover art. They’ve read its countless features telling the stories of the city’s underserved, ignored and hidden. They were here during the Uprising when the paper’s staffers inserted themselves right into the mix of the chaos, chronicling black residents’ movement lashing out against institutions that had failed them for as long as they’ve been alive, in a way to was unpopular to many in and around Baltimore.
Two weeks after the tronc, inc. (remember that name)-owned Baltimore Sun Media Group announced in July that it would be closing City Paper, John Waters wrote in a brief letter to the editor published in The Sun, “Sometimes they liked the things I did, sometimes they didn’t, but they were always fair. 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.”
Look also to former staffer Michael Anft’s op-ed published two days ago. Among other reasons to mourn, he wrote, “The paper collected overlooked geniuses and lost souls, talented people who couldn’t (at least not yet) ply a trade elsewhere, not because they were deficient, but because their roundness wouldn’t fit in a world of squares.”
Or you can (and should) ultimately look to the essays by CP staffers that ran in today’s edition, detailing the blood, sweat, and tears that went into writing, editing and photographing for the paper, and what they see in Baltimore’s future. Each one speaks for itself, offering a look inside the minds of the paper’s final team as they watch their ship go down.
As a newbie freelancer, I can tell you that the CP staff helped me produce some of my best-ever reportage. From checking simple facts to coaxing insight out of me as the author, each step improved the quality of the end product immeasurably. Reporting on a subject that you love is a hell of an opportunity; doing it with others who love the process as much as you is a professional privilege.
The implications of CP’s closure are ominous. Baltimore’s alt-weekly has joined a growing list of alt-weeklies nationwide that are being sold off, trimmed down and ultimately shuttered. But in Baltimore – a city where the alternative thrives perhaps more than anywhere else nearby – when you take out the alternative voice, you mute its audience.
Baltimore didn’t do this. Tronc and the Baltimore Sun Media Group did this. A recent Baltimore Sun story attributed the company’s move to shutter the paper to declining ad revenues. That’s undeniable in some form; everyone in news has struggled to produce ad revenue as the industry is forced to reinvent itself. Alt-weeklies, which once thrived on the classified section, have suffered particularly.
But it was the Baltimore Sun Media Group, owned by the infamous tronc, that opted to buy the paper in 2014, as though it were just another asset to go with nearly every single other local newspaper in the surrounding counties that the company has also decided to buy. It was the Baltimore Sun Media Group that opted to announce CP’s shuttering just as its staffers finally unionized.
We haven’t heard the last from the folks at City Paper. They’re dedicated storytellers who care deeply about this city, and they’re more than likely going to keep doing it until it’s no longer possible, for whatever reason.
But we have seen the last of the city’s alt-weekly after helping to sustain it, collectively, for 40 years in some way, shape or form. What’s next? We can start by appreciating the independent voices that remain, and by caring about this city as much as CP’s staffers did.