As City Paper staff unionizes, Baltimore Sun announces plans to shutter them
40-year-old alt-weekly’s demise prompts concern about media consolidation and who’s going to be left to cover Baltimore
Above: If the Baltimore Sun’s owners follow through on plans to shut down City Paper, those yellow honor boxes are headed for the trash (or a museum). (Fern Shen)
Explaining why the Baltimore Sun Media Group plans to close City Paper – the cheeky, award-winning alternative weekly it acquired in 2014 – the company has made a point of saying that the decision was made last year.
“It became clear to us this past fall that we would cease publishing City Paper sometime in 2017,” BSMG director of marketing Renee Mutchnik said in a statement citing “declining revenue.”
But staffers believe the pivotal point came a lot more recently than that:
They say they were informed they were being shut down in a meeting a month ago – the same meeting where they were told the company would recognize their petition to join the Newspaper Guild.
“They killed us because we unionized,” said a staffer, one of several who declined to be named as they discussed the shut-down decision revealed to the public in a late Friday news dump.
“Look at the fucking timeline,” this person said.
“The message was, like, ‘We’ll let you join the union but it doesn’t matter because y’all are dead anyway,’” said editor-at-large Baynard Woods, who was not in attendance at the early June meeting. (BSMG, an entity of the Chicago-based media company, tronc, is the owner of the Baltimore Sun as well as City Paper.)
A Sun Guild leader’s Friday tweet about the June meeting set off some online speculation that the closure decision might be grounds for a retaliation claim.
It’s unclear whether the employees have a strong enough case.
“Let’s be Real”
Now, with an unspecified closure date hanging over their heads, the seven union-eligible employees (of 10 editorial staffers) are basically negotiating the terms of their departure as they continue to put out the paper.
The union bid wasn’t the only issue at play, staffers say, acknowledging that revenue was down, particularly for classified advertising.
“Industry-wide that’s certainly been a problem for alt-weeklies since 2008,” said Woods. But he said he believes the paper remained modestly profitable.
“It’s my sense they were making money, just less than they were in previous years,” he said.
Still, the awkward timing – the closure announcement following so closely on the union organizing – is emblematic of a relationship that staffers say never really gelled in journalistic or business terms.
“They bought us because of the strip club ads and the sex shop ads, let’s be real,” said Editor Brandon Soderberg. “They never really knew what to do with us.”
Thumb in the Eye
Across the city, news of the imminent demise of the 40-year old free tabloid prompted sadness, anger and concern about the latest step towards media consolidation.
“This is sad as hell. Love them or hate them, City Paper has been important. A vital voice in the media landscape of this city,” Nolen Strals wrote on Facebook.
“Bah humbug. Close the Sun, and keep the City Paper,” another commenter said. “It’s a rag, but it’s an honest rag with honest to goodness reporting rather than regurgitated press releases from the Machine and rough drafts for the scripts of the evening tv broadcasts.”
Founded by Russ Smith and Alan Hirsch in 1977, the paper has been a steady source for music, culture, restaurant reviews, local news and more.
Its once-a-week thumb-in-the-eye take on Baltimore is a media mix like no other in the city, employing long-form journalism, beat reporting, powerful photo essays, satirical music videos, whimsical cover art and the occasional f-bomb.
The current issue is a good example: There’s a long review of the Sondheim Award finalists that reflects on the possibility of “an arts practice based on resistance,” two sports stories that discuss players’ and teams’ roots in city neighborhoods and a funny, oddball essay subtitled, “An Andrew tours Baltimore’s food establishments named Andy.”
“Look, Trump’s the president, this city’s a goddamned mess, Pugh’s off to a terrible start,” Soderberg fumed in CP’s “live from the deck of the Titanic” piece announcing the shut-down.
After the Sun’s parent bought City Paper from Times-Shamrock Communications, many worried that the staid newspaper-of-record and the media conglomerate that owns it would neuter the feisty weekly.
Sources say some cover illustrations in recent years did prompt rebuke or censorship from the weekly’s direct supervisor – a senior vice president in charge of advertising.
A teddy bear with a strap-on and a spewing diarrhea image were removed. The latest “Weed” issue prompted a stern warning.
Editors were made to hold off on an image they wanted to use for the “Best of Baltimore” issue immediately following the 2015 Uprising because it might seem triumphalist and “be too controversial to advertisers.” (It ran subsequently.)
Otherwise, the CP staffers, say, they were largely left alone up there on the third floor at 501 North Calvert Street.
Progressive and Black Voices
City Paper’s likely demise comes as Baltimore’s already depopulated media ecosystem is losing progressive journalists (longtime community broadcast icon Marc Steiner is leaving WEAA) and award-winning black reporters (the Sun’s Erica Green and Justin George were hired away earlier this year.)
The dearth of African-American journalists in Baltimore struck City Paper assistant editor Lisa Snowden-McCray hard when she was covering the trials of police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
“It made me mad. . . There weren’t that many people that looked like me,” she remembered thinking. “It’s different for someone like me who literally can have a family member who can literally turn into a Freddie Gray.”
McCray said City Paper has done a better job in recent years of reflecting the fact that it is in a majority black city and that “black stories need to be told.”
“It used to be, I would turn to it for [relationship and sex columnist] Dan Savage and that’s it,” she said. “Otherwise it was the horoscope and some punk band.”
The paper covered the Uprising with tenacity and depth, broadened its arts coverage and has promoted the work of such writers as Tariq Touré and D. Watkins, who responded to the news about City Paper with alarm.
“Whose Responible?” *
Staffers say budget cutbacks in the past year-and-a-half signaled trouble for the alt-weekly, as did the staff vacancies BSMG never opted to fill.
Several noted the dwindling size of the advertising sales staff, which they said has been tasked increasingly with selling ads for the Sun, as well City Paper.
The decision to have the Sun run its own “2017 Best of Baltimore” package – typically the ad and snark-heavy province of City Paper – was seen as another ominous sign.
One staffer sees a parallel in the case of the Chicago Reader, owned by Chicago Sun-Times parent Wrapports LLC – another alt-weekly they say was similarly hobbled by cuts, no raises and assaults on the sales staff. (In May, tronc announced it was in talks to acquire Wrapports, which would mean the company would gobble up the main competitor for its flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune.)
Before the news broke Friday, City Paper staffers were quietly trying to find a buyer for the paper. Afterwards, Soderberg was hawking his wares online, urging, “Buy us!” He told The Brew he’s been having promising conversations with several people who expressed interest.
On social media, readers posted their suggested dream buyers, among them David Simon, Kevin Plank, Jeff Bezos and “some rich liberal guy!”
Others floated ideas for re-invigorating the weekly or noted the potential for marijuana industry ad revenue as the Maryland legalization movement evolves. (Soderberg points to the many cannabis ads in the award-winning Oregon alt-weekly Willamette Week.)
Tech entrepreneur Dave Troy, meanwhile, posted his proposal for starting from scratch with an employee-owned model and a $10 million to $20 million investment.
White knight rescue dreams aside, some say the Sun would never allow a sale, essentially enabling a potential competitor. City Paper founder Russ Smith said he thinks the paper is not profitable enough to attract a purchaser.
“I don’t think there’s even a one percent chance they’ll find a buyer,” he said. “Even for vanity buyers, print is an awful investment.”
Still the civic value of a printed newspaper in a struggling city where vast swaths of the population lack Internet access and computers was not lost on staffers and readers.
“It’s relevant to a wide population,” Strals said. “If you think only white hipsters and Cantonites read it, you obviously don’t ride the bus.”
“A lot of black people,” McCray said, “have said they were just starting to look at it.”
* “Whose Responible” was a recurring CP spot that featured photos of misspellings, usage boo-boos and malapropisms in city signage.