What happens to community, when community newspapers disappear? — By Susan C. Ingram
After leaving my full-time reporting job at a Baltimore-area weekly in July 2019 to help my mom after a cancer diagnosis, I figured I could get by working as her aide and freelancing. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, locking me out of caring for her and cutting me out of freelance work as local publications took a hit.
A monthly magazine I wrote for cut its freelance budget when its ad revenue dropped and page counts went from 100 to 50. Its sister pub, a 100-year-old Baltimore weekly, is suffering a similar fate with its freelance budget and page counts.
According to a July 10 poynter.org article, the pandemic has forced the closure of more than 50 local newspapers across the country.
But newspaper closures aren’t hot news anymore.
Thirteen years ago, a global economic fail triggered a recession leading to the newspaper industry reporting on its own collapse. Today, surviving local news outlets are reporting at a time when accurate news and information is critical, even a matter of life and death, underlining just how vital community news sources are.
Much explaining has been done in those 13 years since the Great Recession began. Newspaper ad revenues fell as businesses tightened their belts while throwing most, if not all, of their content online — for free. By the time they got savvy about monetizing news sites, it was too late. By 2017, Google and Facebook were controlling “more than 70% of the $73 billion spent each year on digital advertising,” David Chavern, president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance, wrote in “How Antitrust Undermines Press Freedom” (Wall Street Journal July 2017).
In its 2019 “State of the News Media” report, Pew Research Center found the number of reporters, editors, photographers, or film and video editors working in the newspaper industry in 2018 constituted a 47% drop from 2004. Not surprising when, since that year the number of newsroom closures has reached more than 1,800, many of them local weeklies, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
In 1990, when I moved into my Northwest Baltimore County neighborhood, there were at least six community newspapers covering the corridor’s black, white, Jewish and emerging Muslim, Latino and South Asian communities. Of the Community Times, Randallstown News, Owings Mills Times, Woodlawn Villager, Baltimore Jewish Times and Northwest Voice, only the Jewish Times and Northwest Voice survive.
In 1999, I started stringing for the Community Times, a Baltimore County weekly, moving up to full-time reporter and editor. I stayed for 13 years. When I started there the Baltimore area had dozens of community newspapers. When I left in 2012, the Baltimore area had lost, and has continued to lose, papers swallowed and shuttered by larger media consortiums.
The Community Times, founded in 1928, was sold by its parent company, Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., to the Baltimore Sun Media Group in 2014. Its last issue of Baltimore County news was published in February 2018.
“It became a point of pride that the community had a newspaper that spoke for them,” said retired Community Times editor Baxter Smith. “It said on the banner Community Times, or Randallstown News, and then when [they] were shuttered, for some people it was like a punch in the gut.”
Smith, a reporter and then editor at the weeklies for 22 years, started in journalism in 1967, stringing for a South-Central Los Angeles newspaper. He wrote for the Intercontinental Press in New York, where he learned “seat-of-the-pants journalism,” and for the Philadelphia Tribune, before settling in Baltimore and joining the Community Times and Randallstown News in 1988.
When a community loses its local newspapers, it loses its sense of self, Smith added, as well as its watchdogs. And for chronically underserved minority communities, the loss is felt even more keenly. We kept a close eye on the minority communities in our coverage area, writing about student achievement gaps, healthcare disparities and the dearth of economic development.
“What it means for communities is, you lose a big part of your identity,” he said. “And it means that you don’t have the eyes on the school board, you don’t have eyes on local government, county council or city council the way you used to.
“We followed issues on and on, whereas The Sun would move on to another issue. We followed desegregation issues and the hiring of black staff, black and minority representation on the school board,” he added. “And anytime we would show up, the elected officials would note that we were there, and they would know that we were going to write a story. That we’re looking at what they’re doing. It helped to keep them honest.”
Vicki Almond started as a community activist and worked her way up to being one of those politicians. From PTA to heading powerful community groups and eventually serving as chief of staff for a state senator, Almond ran for Baltimore County Council and won, serving for two terms (2010–2018), then took a shot at the county executive seat. She now consults and works with a nonprofit helping needy public-school students.
“It’s all about the internet and Facebook and Twitter,” Almond said over coffee at a local café. “I miss that written word, that community newspaper that wasn’t political, was unbiased. The facts were there, you made up your mind. All the [community meeting] minutes were in there and what the [community group] was doing. And the schools used to be the center of our communities.”
“And reporters, we could call you and say, ‘Can you look into this?’ We felt like we had a say,” she added. “Not in what you wrote, but the issues. If they were important to the community, they were important to you. And that piece I really miss. Most people know you can’t trust the internet or Facebook. But we could trust our local papers. Trust was a big deal. And we don’t have it anymore.”
As a former teacher, principal and now Baltimore County Board of Ed member, Cheryl Pasteur witnesses firsthand what that lack of trust, fed by a lack of information, can lead to. When a community loses its grassroots sources of information, information not found in its metro daily, Pasteur said that lack of knowledge can breed fear and the kind of divisiveness that seems rampant today.
“So, without those local papers, there’s no information constantly flowing. And when that doesn’t happen, people are uninformed,” she said. “When you don’t have that vehicle for sharing information with folks and being able to go to a little store and pick it up and know that you can get some information, then you’re at a loss. And it becomes a matter, often, of misinformation.”
Lack of information is also a breeding ground for corruption, said longtime journalist and editor Marc Shapiro. After reporting for the daily Carroll County Times, then reporting and editing for the all-online niche news site Patch.com, Shapiro returned to print journalism as a reporter and then editor of the weekly Baltimore Jewish Times. He is now an editor at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“I think community newspapers were insanely important. If you’re writing about the right things, and you’re covering development and local government, there’s always an audience for it,” he added. “I was doing some serious watchdog journalism. Corruption can just run amok when that stuff goes unchecked, and without people writing about the financial ties of developers, the politicians and the closed-door practices of local governments, the citizens end up getting screwed. They’re the ones who suffer.”
Growing up in Baltimore, Kenny Brown got started in the newspaper business early, delivering two once-thriving city newspapers: The News American and The Afro-American. After graduating from college with a political science degree in hand, Brown had intended to head to law school, but a summer job at the News American derailed those plans.
One of few black salespeople in the advertising department, Brown found he had a talent for selling and thrived in his new career. And even though he said some of the managers there were resistant, Brown moved up in the ranks to ad manager. He worked at the paper from 1975 until one morning in 1986 when Hearst Company owners arrived in limousines.
“They called us all upstairs into the meeting hall and told us that they will cease publication that day,” Brown recalled. “We were supposed to go back to our desks, clean out our personal belongings and once we were escorted out by security we would not be allowed back into the building. That’s how it happened. The day after Memorial Day holiday.”
But Brown rebounded, starting an ad agency with a colleague and eventually expanding into publishing, launching the monthly Northwest Voice in 1999, covering seven communities. Although he had to suspend publication during the recession because of poor ad sales and internet competition, he revived it with prompting from a reporter. He points to his advertising background as how he kept the newspaper, in print and digital editions, afloat.
“I struggled with some people always wanting to pigeonhole me and said that I was a black newspaper. We have to make sure we’re touching as many of these demographics as we possibly can. So, when people pick it up, they can see themselves in it,” he said. “Everybody says newspapers don’t matter anymore. And whenever I talk to an advertiser that says that newspapers are the horse and buggy of the media world, I tell them one simple thing: if newspapers have any value at all it’s going to be in community newspapers. Because everybody in the community wants to know what’s going on in their backyard. And major media is not going to drill down that deep.”
Those major media conglomerates might have had an option to shutting down papers, said Baltimore political columnist Barry Rascovar, whose pieces once appeared in the Community Times.
“Selling community papers to local owners should have been pursued. But brain-dead media CEOs and executive boards instead shut down these operations, creating red ink on the balance sheet and foregoing revenue from a potential sale to a local owner,” he said. “Often local owners buy newspapers more for the prestige than the bottom line. That is a formula for success.”
As local newspapers lose ad dollars from businesses affected by the COVID-19 shutdown, a Baltimore group operating under the moniker Save Our Sun is trying to do just that, purchase the 183-year-old Baltimore Sun — from a hedge fund known for decimating newsrooms — and run it as a nonprofit. The group includes two Baltimore foundations (one established by the founders of The Sun), two newspaper labor unions, a former county exec and others.
In a news release announcing the group’s formation, union leader and Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie said the effort was launched “to ensure we have the resources we need to keep doing our jobs, preserve newspapering in Baltimore and prepare a national model for local communities to buy their newspaper back.”