That print is struggling to survive in the digital age is hardly front-page news (and not just because of the dwindling number of front pages!). Stories of once mighty media outlets downsizing and refashioning themselves for the new paradigm have been cropping up for years. The for-sale signs that have appeared on such stalwart local publications as the Baltimore Sun and the City Paper are the latest evidence of Baltimore’s shifting media landscape.
What does the future hold for local outlets? Is it a net-gain or loss for Baltimoreans?
Speculation about new owners at the Sun waxes and wanes — rumors have circulated for years that Abell Foundation head Bob Embry and media exec Ted Venetoulis have designs to broker a deal for local investors to buy The Sun — but one thing is clear: there is no billionaire white knight like Amazon founder and new Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos waiting in the wings to save the day. (On the flip side, it also appears that the controversial Koch brothers are no longer interested in the property, either.)
“There’s no rainbow with a pot of gold over the horizon. It’s going to be slow death for the (print) media industry,” says Andrew Buerger, former publisher and editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, and a casualty of the changing media landscape. After being handcuffed by untenable printing costs in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression and the biggest media shift since the invention of the printing press, Buerger sold his 93-year-old, family-operated company. Now he plies his business skills in the organic food industry — he founded B’more Organic which makes bottled Icelandic-style yogurt smoothies — a welcome alternative to struggling to keep a newspaper afloat.
“I was tired of cutting costs, laying off people, and downsizing,” he said. “There were a lot smarter people than I trying to find solutions to the readership and advertising challenges, and to date, no one has solved it… I didn’t want be part of that anymore.”
While his view of Baltimore media’s future is bleak, it’s hard not to see where he’s coming from. Over the last three decades, Baltimore has seen its print publications dwindle, whether they downsize or disappear completely, like the News-American, the Examiner, the Evening Sun, and, most recently, Urbanite, to name a few.
In the case of Urbanite, Baltimore’s popular free monthly magazine that shuttered last year, it was the result of a perfect storm that began years earlier. When the economic meltdown in 2008 coincided with the magazine losing its top investor and top advertiser, editor and publisher Tracy Ward took immediate steps to get lean.
“We had to reduce the number of feature stories from three to one, we had to eliminate our ‘guest editor’ program, which was unique, and we downsized the publication,” Ward told BFB. “We renegotiated our contracts for cost savings, we took pay cuts, and we got creative.” But ultimately, austerity alone wasn’t enough to sustain the magazine. “After five years, employees want raises, creditors want to be paid.” And Ward lacked capital just when she might have used it “to leverage our brand into a greater and ever more profitable online presence.”
“Adapt or Be Killed”
“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Baltimore magazine editor Max Weiss says of the shift to the current paradigm. “The Internet is how a lot of people are getting the lion’s share of their news and entertainment these days. So it’s definitely adapt or be killed.”
While Baltimore continues to hit the stands each month as a hard copy glossy mag, the publication maintains a website that Weiss considers just as important as the print issue. Mastering the new paradigm, according to Weiss, meant Baltimore “had to stop thinking like a monthly magazine and start thinking like a daily producer of content.”
But a website doesn’t simply demand that content be frequently updated; it privileges certain kinds. In Weiss’s words, “Web content has its own rules, which means more videos, blogs, slide shows, interactive features, and things that can be digested on the go.”
In this way, the rise of digital has had something of a flattening effect on media. Whatever the online presence will face similar pressure to be frequently updated with timely, easily “digested” pieces. The more digital we go, the more our daily newspapers, lifestyle magazines, and other publications will come to resemble each other.
“What’s Not to Like?”
While the outlook may be problematic for Baltimore’s existing print publications, the ground is fertile for new, Internet-only media sources catering to local audiences. Baltimore Brew, for example, delivers original reporting and opinion pieces from a handful reporters on a mission to pick up the slack that the Baltimore Sun left when it “ditched…scores of experienced, professional journalists.” No doubt, maintaining a relatively small, relatively low-overhead operation allows more freedom to righteously zig when the behemoth zags.
What Weekly, a local arts site and events calendar is particularly tailored to the new paradigm, though it highlights the inherent economic quandary. Founders Brooke Hall and Justin Allen initially tried out “a traditional advertising model” for What Weekly, but soon decided that it would be difficult to make the outlet self-sustaining that way. Instead, they keep overhead low, and also run the design and digital agency What Works Studio, which generates revenue for the not-yet-profitable culture site.
The site was started with “little or no money” and much of the content is published for free, or rather “in exchange for providing [the content maker] with this platform for expression” as their submission agreement reads. This model of soliciting free content veers towards offensive when offered by national journalistic outlets like The Atlantic, but it makes good sense here, as much of the content is created by local artists who would be producing the work anyway.
As heartening as these labor-of-love sites are, the future of local digital media is also uncertain. Consider AOL’s ambitious Patch.com, a network of local news websites that generate content in a more conventional way, which is struggling. (Here at the Baltimore Fishbowl, we’re currently covering our costs. Not profitable yet, though. “It feels a lot better than losing money, that’s for sure” says editor and publisher Susan Dunn.)
So what’s the story? What does the future of media, and Baltimore media in particular, look like?
Buerger, for one, is very pessimistic, stating categorically, that “there is no economic model for supporting proper news gathering, writing, and editing. The on-line advertising rate is too low.”
Weiss isn’t so sure, “I think quality journalism will always be in demand. There will always be room for good writing and reporting and innovative approaches to subject matter.” She advises readers “to be smart and maybe a little skeptical” when it comes to digital news. “A retweet by your old high school drinking buddy does not a verified news story make.”
But, for Weiss, the plenitude of voices that the Internet gives access to more than compensates for the increased risk of being misinformed. “I love the fact that we have food bloggers and crime bloggers and mommy bloggers, too. I love the fact that you can follow Adam Jones’s Twitter feed or catch the podcast of your favorite DJ or read David Simon’s blog. There’s a boatload of information and entertainment out there and so many great new ways to get it. Seriously, what’s not to like?”
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