Baltimore to Lose Two Progressive Media Outlets Just When It Needs Them Most
TRNN speaks to City Paper editors Brandon Soderberg, Rebekah Kirkman and Baynard Woods, as well as the Steiner Show’s Marc Steiner, about what Baltimore will lose when their outlets close
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the real Baltimore. I’m your host, Jaisal Noor.
If there’s a city that needs a strong media to cover policing, poverty, and government, it’s Baltimore. But two outlets for progressive voices in challenging power may be silenced forever. The Baltimore Sun Media Group, which also owns the Baltimore Sun, announced it would close the City Paper, a 40-year-old alt-weekly, siting declining ad revenue as the reason. But, that explanation has come under fire as critics have noted that paper staff had recently voted to join the newspaper guild. Meanwhile, radio host Marc Steiner, a veritable Baltimore institution will be going off the air at Morgan State’s WEAA this month.
I recently spoke to Marc.
Marc Steiner: It leaves a giant hole. I mean, you know, my show and the City Paper were the last challenge of the progressive media in town that spoke truth to power and didn’t cuddle up to politicians. We tried to get real people on the show. By real people, I mean community people and representatives of black community and of the revolutionary community and community organizers. Who’s going to do it now? That’s the problem. You saw was happened with Port Covington, so that the corporate interests of the city are having their day and the other voice is not being heard and it’s media like ours, like yours, that actually allows that to happen.
You look what happened in the struggle of freedom in America. There are times when there are setbacks, but it doesn’t mean it’s over. It means we’re still pushing, and new forms will arise, and we’ll arise in new form. Folks in the City Paper will arise as a new form. So, it’s not done.
Jaisal Noor: The question now is, how will the latest causalities of media atrophy effect the city? And, what does the future hold for the local media in an ever shifting digital landscape?
To help me answer these questions are three guests. Brandon Soderberg is the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper and a team member of Democracy in Crisis, a website reporting on the Trump in DC politics and sending its reporting out to 20 plus alt-weeklies every week.
Rebekah Kirkman came to Baltimore for art school in 2010. She’s currently the Visual Arts Editor at the City Paper.
Baynard Woods in the founder of Democracy in Crisis, a website, podcast, and column syndicated in more than 20 alt-weeklies. He’s the editor-at-large at the Baltimore City Paper.
Thank you all for joining us. Let’s start with you Baynard. A lot of people what to know what the connection is between the Sun Media Group saying they’re gonna shutter the City Paper, and the recent vote to unionize the paper itself. A Baltimore Sun reporter, Scott Dance, tweeted that the staff were notified at the same meeting that their union was going to be voluntarily recognized and that the closing of the City Paper was imminent.
Baynard Woods: Yeah, and to be clear, while I have title in Staff Editor-at-Large, I’m not a member of the full-time staff, so I wasn’t involved in those negotiations and I wasn’t at that meeting. Since other people are involved in negotiations, I’ve been trying not to talk to them about it so that I can speak freely on it. I do think that that’s deeply troubling. I think it’s deeply troubling for City Paper that you’re told, “Hey, we are going to recognize this union and yet we’re going to close you down.”
It’s troubling for the Sun. Trif is both the editor and the publisher, Trif Alatzas, of the Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore Sun Media Group, and their story about the closing of the Baltimore City Paper didn’t mention the union thing at all. Is there, I mean it shows exactly, this would be the kind of story for a City Paper because this is, if they weren’t directly involved because not one is covering this, and fortunately, Scott did tweet that out there. I’ve been trying to maintain some independence so I can try to dig into that a little bit, as well.
Jaisal Noor: Brandon, talk to us about the efforts, your efforts and others, to perhaps keep the City Paper alive, find a new owner, and I wanted to also ask you what you think will be lost if the City Paper does go under?
B. Soderberg: Sure. I’ll start with, basically we were made aware we were being closed by the end of the year as kind of the general timeline, probably a little before that. I wanted to kind of campaign for the paper, namely in trying to find someone that might want to buy us. I’ve been informed that the Sun would certainly consider buyers, I don’t know if they’re going to do that. I think they have a lot of reasons to shut us down, but I’m really trying to get someone to buy us or just start something new or something.
This is our 40th year. We just celebrated, our literal 40th birthday is May 27th, or something right around there. I’m sorry I can’t remember the exact date we exactly turned 40. First issue of the paper was called the City Squeeze in 1977. Came out in late May ’77. So what’s lost is this clear alternative voice and we’re already in some ways in one newspaper town because the Sun is the paper of record. But, it’s really the only paper of that size and if you lose us, you become even more of a one newspaper town. You have less people questioning what’s going on. You have less stories.
The big thing I think with us is we start the stories and it’s kind of a shabby nobility, but we start the story and then someone else picks it up. Maybe, hopefully we’ll get some credit for it, or we usually don’t. That’s cool. But, basically we start covering stuff earlier than other people. We’re there.
Also, we try our best and I think we haven’t done the greatest job in the world at this. Still primarily a white, kind of white, middle class hipster paper. But, it’s really been a concerted effort by all three of us and a lot of other people at the paper in the past few years, to turn this paper into something that feels like it’s more of a City Paper. If we wanted to start a new version of it, or start something new, I think we’d want it to be even more of a kind of City Paper. We have our yellow boxes. Our yellow boxes hit a wall once they move to east and west Baltimore. That’s a problem. And all my efforts within the Sun to kind of move those boxes have been kind of like, it’s not really worth their money or energy.
I think a new paper needs to continue the mission of the paper, which is to be a City Paper. Maybe we need to like walk the walk even more.
Jaisal Noor: So, Rebekah, you’re the Visual Arts Editor of the City Paper. Talk about the work you do, and what will be lost if the City Paper does go under.
R. Kirkman: Yeah, so I’ve been covering visual arts in the city since I was an intern at the paper in 2013 and trying to sort of look at not just like art in the context of the gallery that it’s in, but art, like what does it mean for that gallery and that neighborhood, and how does it relate to the city as a whole. Or, also there’s a good ton of artists in Baltimore who, their work doesn’t fall into that kind of trap of studio to gallery to collectors’ homes. A lot of Baltimore artists don’t really do that. There’s a lot of work that is outside of, it doesn’t really fit into those boundaries at all. I’ve been really interested in art that tries to be more experiential and more engaged with community in a real way.
And so I think that’s something that we’ve done really well. Also, I have a background in art. I came to Baltimore for art school, so I have a lot of peers and connections in the arts community already. So I already have my foot in the door in a sense in that way. And since there’s so much going on in Baltimore in the art scene itself, just in the art scene, I can’t cover everything. I already know we’re not going to have the most comprehensive coverage of the art scene, but we do have a very thoughtful coverage of the art scene. Losing the City Paper is losing a very important, I think, thoughtful critical take on-
Jaisal Noor: And often highlighting voices and artists that wouldn’t be featured in the Sun or some of the other outputs.
R. Kirkman: Right, right. And also, something that we’ve been trying to dig into for a long time is how the city actually uses art as a tool for development. That’s a really big conversation in Baltimore with like, Under Armor and all the arts districts and things like that. We’ve never been the type to regurgitate a press release and we do not want to do that. If we don’t, if we’re not the people pushing against that trend then I don’t know who does it.
Jaisal Noor: For example, the closing of the Bell Foundry. Can you talk a little bit about that?
R. Kirkman: Yeah, so that was a space that I’ve spent time there. I’ve hung out there when I was an art student and stuff. That space has gone through a lot of stuff in the last, I want to say like the last year or so of its life. Its existence was a much more like a safer space for queer and people of color. We were able, Maura Callahan and I were able to report on what was going on there. We knew people directly. We could text them and ask them to talk to us and tell us what it meant for them to lose their home and their community.
Baynard Woods: To jump off of that, the East Bay Express won a Pulitzer last year for their coverage the Ghost Ship fire which sort of-
Jaisal Noor: In Oakland.
Baynard Woods: Yeah, in Oakland. That was because they’d been on the ground covering that place and the people who lived there for a long time, whereas everyone else rushes in once something happens and expects to cover it. But, like City Paper, they were always covering these communities that are sort of at the margins of the city.
Jaisal Noor: We’re at an interesting time nationally and locally. Nationally, obviously we have Trump who’s made, who’s declared a war on fake news and taken on, really attacked critical reporting. At the same time, locally we have a mayor who sort of billed herself as a progressive but has been taking all these stances that don’t exactly even match her campaign pledges. Talking about between the minimum wage, or now backing this bill that would institute a mandatory minimum, which is something that most places are taking away or trying to undo the amount of people in prison. In that context as well, it’s more important than ever to have a diverse set of local media, and national media as well, that’s really willing to challenge these policies. We talked a little bit about what the City Paper does in terms of unapologetically taking on power in this city.
B. Soderberg: Yeah, so yeah, fuck mandatory minimums, like fuck ’em completely. Yeah, that’s one of Pugh’s many bad ideas. Maybe the worst ones in terms of pure “we all know that doesn’t work.” What the paper’s tried to do is say stuff like that, fuck mandatory minimums. But, we’ve never really had access. In kind of piggybacking on something Baynard’s been saying a lot, we’ve been talking about Trump as well, the whole media is now confirmed with that fact that the people in power don’t feel like they need them anymore. And we’ve always felt like that. We’ve never had access. The police rarely answer our calls or our emails. They think we’re a pain. The mayor, I don’t think is a big fan of us. The previous mayor certainly wasn’t. So, we’ve always seen that as our job to hold these people accountable and call bullshit on this stuff. If you don’t have that, what the Real News does, with the Baltimore Brew here, and the City does is good. But, it’s also, we’re in a perfect position. We’re not huge and we’re not smaller. We’re right in the middle. It’s a weird place to be. We never quite fit, but that’s good, especially if you want to question people in power. And that’s gone. We can’t do that.
There’s even small things like, right when the last mayor was going out, she banned an NPR reporter. An NPR reporter. That’s the kind of stuff that we can also kind of talk about that maybe that reporter couldn’t. We can be media critics as well. We can critique the administration and the media and how it’s covered at the same time.
Jaisal Noor: And, Baynard you did that for a long time in Baltimore. You’re still doing that, and you’re doing it nationally with Democracy in Crisis, which sort of has its home with the City Paper and also the Steiner Show, which is also in its last month. Talk about some of the work you’ve been doing, and you just obtained body camera footage from the arrests after the inauguration in DC.
Baynard Woods: Yes, we’ve been trying to cover that really hard, and we were there as it happened. Democracy in Crisis was a project set up with 20 alternative weeklies, a little bit more than 20 now, but initially to get going, we needed 20 that would subscribe to a column and a podcast every week. It comes out of here in Baltimore and out of DC where I’m reporting.
What Brandon was saying, it’s astounding that everyone now is like, “They lied to us at press conferences?” because that’s the thing that we’ve always assumed. That’s been the assumption that we’ve had. I’m still outraged. I go to the White House press briefings some and everyone’s outraged that Jim Acosta with CNN doesn’t get called on at a press conference, and they’re not outraged at the reporters who are being charged with the alleged crimes of people that they’re covering during a demonstration and are facing 70 years in prison. They’re not talking about Aaron Cantu. They’re talking about Jim Acosta because he’s a TV star in the same way that Donald Trump is.
This is the same kind, we’ve always been for transparency at alt-weeklies, rather than balance. This false balance is what brought us Trump and what brings us Pugh and what allows these horrible ideas to get off the ground in the first place. We’ll have one person address this idea from one side and another person from the other and they’re both stupid opinions and aren’t based in any reporting. We will do the reporting, but we’ll also be human beings who are out in the world and acknowledge our own foibles and flaws and that sort of stuff.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah, and it’s not to say there aren’t good reporters at these other institutions, but their underlying goal isn’t necessarily to challenge the narrative, it’s to maintain their access at the end of the day.
Baynard Woods: And I mean, of course there are great reporters at the Sun. The Sun is … I expect we’ll be bashing them some more as this goes on. But there are individual reporters there who are doing great work. I don’t think their editors are supporting them well or their business structure’s supporting them well, and I think that goes across the board. But it is a weird time for us now that everyone’s “Send a pizza to CNN!” or whatever kind of thing, and defend journalism, when part of why we were founded was to do media criticism and to critique the mainstream media, which now the right-wing has sort of gotten almost a monopoly on. The irony is that the Sun says right in November is when they were thinking about starting to shut down the City Paper, right when they introduced their “Journalism matters today more than ever” campaign. It’s just a slap in the face.
Jaisal Noor: And Rebecca, I wanted to ask: I talked to you about the City Paper as a way to develop local writers and to give local writers an outlet and a place to make their home. You started off as an intern there. Talk about what you learned and continue to learn in your work there.
R. Kirkman: Yeah, so I started as an intern in 2013 and I had always enjoyed writing but had never written for a publication before and I learned a lot, especially from Baynard. Line by line we would edit my work and I was writing mostly art reviews and some artist profiles. Finding this balance between criticism and telling the reader what’s going on here but also finding a way for creativity and personal, you know, if you want to bring in a personal essay kind of approach to it too. I’m just really about breaking down genres and boundaries, I guess. But finding a new way into writing about something and experiencing art and why it’s important to experiment with that. I would not have ever written for the paper if I hadn’t gone through the internship program and been a freelancer here and there afterwards. Then when I was hired in 2014, I was thrown into the fire as the internship coordinator and suddenly was managing a bunch of people who are not much younger than me. That has developed and changed over the years and I’ve gotten more responsibilities also over the years and eventually became the arts editor.
We’ve had a lot of interns come through the program every few months. A lot of them have done really great work, both behind the scenes doing fact checking, learning how a story’s constructed just by having to look at every sentence and determine what needs to be verified and how do we verify this and how do we make sure that this is the right way and this is the right phrasing? I learned a lot that way also as an intern. I think that our past interns have learned something from that. They’ve gotten to write whatever. They take initiative. If they take enough initiative, they can write however many pieces they want to write for the paper while they’re an intern and learn from editors line by line, hopefully, and get something out of it and then go on to other things.
Again, it goes back. I think to have the City Paper’s voice is really important. It’s not just your straightforward, whatever, like the pyramid structure of a story. You gotta know stuff like that. But it’s moreso how do you maintain and develop your own voice as a writer while also being informative and critical?
Baynard Woods: So it’s not just us. I think tha t long form as a hash tag and a word now and then comes out of alts. No one gets there first big story for Esquire or the Atlantic. But Ta-Nehisi Coates started as an intern at the Washington City Paper when David Carr was the editor there, and he says that the case for reparations was argument through reported narrative that he learned there at the Washington City Paper. I think we wouldn’t have great magazine writing and long form magazine writing if it wasn’t for alts. We are the incubator of that.
Jaisal Noor: And I understand that the freelance budget at the City Paper, it’s been cut. Also, since the Sun took it over, as you’ve had people leave, positions haven’t necessarily been filled. Some have said that resources have been starved from the City Paper over the past few years.
B. Soderberg: Yeah, I mean that’s true. That’s also probably true of the Sun to some extent, to a lesser extent. But yeah, I mean, I think that cutting is the way that these newspaper businesses save money or even allegedly earn money is by cutting. It all looks good on a chart or graph or whatever, and that’s what they’re worried about. But more recently, if it goes down to the freelance budget or a position, I’m going to make sure I’d rather lose the freelance budget, unfortunately. The biggest thing we lose in that, especially in the past few months, especially now which we don’t have one anymore–which again, makes sense, they’re not going to spend a lot of money for us right now, we’re dead to them–but what you lose in that is you lose all these other voices.
I started the paper in 2007 as a freelancer. I was just a dude with a blog and I got a chance to talk to one of the editors there and he gave me an assignment. I built it from there. My career as a writer, which is now where I am–I was gonna say it peaked, I hope it doesn’t peak here, but–as the editor of the paper. In 2007 I started writing for the paper freelance. I did music reviews and stuff and then I learned all of that through that. Bret McCabe was the first person that edited me and was like “Don’t do this, do this.” “Your second graph’s actually your first graph.” That kind of stuff. Learning through that. I started to do the first reported piece I did was for the paper. That was another experience. It was Lee and the music editor at the time, Michael Burn and Bret all kind of telling me what I did wrong.
I just learned that way, trial by fire. Again, that’s not an opportunity that you can really get anywhere, especially in Baltimore right now, where you can really learn to write. I’m gonna go hang out with a writer right after this for about an hour and work on a really great cover story that he’s been working on. We were able to at least pay him before all these budget cuts went through. But that’s exciting to me, to be like “Actually your ending is here. We’re gonna do this.” All that stuff’s really exciting, to learn how to do that and then be able to share that with other people.
So without a freelance budget, the main thing is, though, is we just lose those voices. Without a paper, we lose those voices completely. There’s no room for someone like D. Watkins, who’s a friend of the paper, a friend of ours. He was already established. He started writing for the paper and he said, which I really appreciate, that he learned a lot from us. My friend Lawrence Burney wrote for the paper and now he works for Vice. We could name a lot of people like that. It’s a good training ground for people to go do bigger and better things, hopefully. That’s the idea, kind of. You either go somewhere else or you lock in on this alt style. But either way, you take a lot with you when you go somewhere else.
Jaisal Noor: The City Paper in Baltimore isn’t the only paper that’s sort of in crisis right now. Many are shutting down around the country. But last week the Chicago Sun-Times was bought by a group of unions and former politicians that sort of all pitched in enough to buy it instead of it going to a media conglomerate, which also owns the Baltimore Sun Media Group. Have you looked at options like that? Talk a little bit more about what you’re looking at as far as keeping the paper going.
B. Soderberg: Again, to be clear, I’m campaigning for a paper that I have no control over other than I edit the content in it. But that’s certainly encouraging. The two things that are amazing about that is the dude who was in charge of it said it was going to be a paper for the working class. Holy shit, that’s awesome. The other thing that’s crazy is the kind of guy in charge of financial restructuring in that press statement basically admitted look, these papers don’t make a lot of money. It’s really kind of a service. We need to start understanding that. Whether that moves into a nonprofit or if another conglomerative bunch of cool lefties want to buy us or start something new, those are these kind of pie in the sky ideas.
I don’t know the exact numbers, but I feel like the profit margins in a successful year for an alternative weekly are about five to ten percent. I think five percent is a good year. This is not how these papers work. When you start looking at all this stuff as hard numbers, if we’re spending X to make X and you’re within sort of a larger structure, that just looks terrible when the one thing is here and the one thing is here, they gotta find a way to fix that, make it look like they’re making more money, basically.
Jaisal Noor: The Sun Media Group cited declining ad revenue, but that doesn’t mean you’re in the red right now.
B. Soderberg: Right, it means we’re still, from what I understand, we’re still profitable. But we’re not very profitable. But I could say that if we weren’t maybe part of this larger corporate structure that the amount of money we’re making, if I got that money at the end of the year, I’d be really happy. I understand why a larger company, especially ones publicly traded has to answer to stock holders and stuff like that, it doesn’t look so good for them.
In terms of what we want to think about, there’s really interesting groups doing some nonprofit work, that kind of thing. There’s a thing in Boston by Chris Faraone. He’s editor-in-chief now of DigBoston, which is the alt in Boston. Chris Faraone’s a fucking amazing writer and he started this thing called BINJ, the Boston Institute of Nonprofit Journalism. He’s kind of funding journalism for Dig, but also a lot of other places, through a nonprofit. That’s an interesting model that I think I’m considering, Bayn and I have been talking about.
Related to that, I would say someone buy us or someone help us out, but the City Paper is just a symptom of this larger thing, which is this journalistic sickness that’s happening everywhere in terms of economic and revenue health. It’s happening here a lot. In a way, I really appreciate and love everyone’s support of us. It’s great. But we’re just a part of a larger problem that we all have to figure out how to solve. I think it’s kind of up to the editors and the news side of things to find a way to figure out these massive revenue problems. I don’t know how we do that, but we have to figure it out.
Baynard Woods: Journalism, I think, is stronger than it’s ever been. When people say there’s a crisis in journalism, we all can read more stories, from more sources, every day, at any minute, than anyone has ever been able to do in the history of the world. It’s just that there’s an advertising or a funding problem that we don’t know how to do that. Before print ads came along for something like Harpers, that’s been around before the Civil War and was an abolitionist paper and stuff, before there were advertisement, there are possible ways that we can find to go beyond that. But, that people like us are the people trying to figure out these business problems, that’s a deeply scary thing when you have the miscreant editors in the back of the room trying to think through the business, because the business people aren’t. They’re dropping the ball. They don’t have the ideas.
Jaisal Noor: And you know, when this country was founded, and there’s plenty to say about the founding fathers and all the horrible things they did, but they subsidized newspapers. They gave them free mailings and that kept them going. Now they’re sort of subsidizing corporations with the airwaves being bought off by corporations now.
Baynard Woods: We are a nation entirely created by newspapers. Every one of them was known as a writer before anything else. The ideas that created it were spread through newspapers. Our greatest writers, Mark Twain, come from newspapers. We are very much the nation of newspapers, and now we’re not only under this vast economic attack, but political attack by … When we first got bought, I gave a talk about editorial independence, and it was like oh, well, we have these economic problems, but we’re not under political assault like other places. Now, we’re under political assault as well. It’s the time that our journalism is most crucial, and yet the bottom is falling out of many of the economic models that have sustained it.
B. Soderberg: Yeah, and then locally, it’s the same thing. We’re two years out from the uprising, and in some ways it feels like it didn’t happen to me. It feels like no one in power learned anything. In a way, when you lose our paper, you lose some reminders to those people in power about this stuff. It just goes away. That’s really scary to me. We need to figure this out. I’m hoping something will come either replace us; if it has to die, it has to die. But there needs to be something else that’s to come along. We can’t be a true one-newspaper town. It can’t happen.
Jaisal Noor: And specifically, one of the things, you could argue that the city hasn’t learned its lessons. It is the mandatory minimum for gun possession that we were talking about earlier, because the over-incarceration of this city, of black people in the city, is what got us here, and now we want to further exacerbate that issue.
B. Soderberg: Yeah, and Pugh and the Commissioner Davis have decided that they can do this mandatory minimums thing and that can make their law and order pieces of shit in the city care, and then they can just pass the buck. Then when there’s another uprising, there’s another massive uptick in violence in five or ten years, they can say “Well, we didn’t, we weren’t responsible…” They’ll pull an O’Malley again. That’s what’ll happen. That’s exactly what’ll happen. The commissioner’s talking about this mandatory minimums thing, and he has this whole thing, he’s like, “This isn’t about mass incarcerations.” They’ve learned all of the language of being sort of half woke or whatever, but all the policies are the fucking same.
Jaisal Noor: Davis considers himself the most progressive police chief in Maryland.
B. Soderberg: He’s a “straight up liberal Democrat,” fuck that. That’s the kind of stuff that we as a paper can cover, because the Sun can’t. It’s not even like it’s a dig at the Sun. The Sun just doesn’t have the editorial or whatever infrastructure for someone like any of us to sit there and really be like look at the rhetorical strategies of the commissioner. We’re gonna report on it. We were there. But also, here’s all the bullshit that happened also. There’s not a structure for that outside of the paper right now for really a newspaper, at least of our size, with a 50,000 distribution right and about two to three million people read it online, there’s not something in Baltimore that can do that on that level. I can yell about it on Twitter and get excited that ten people retweeted it or whatever. But that’s not the paper, you know?
Jaisal Noor: Alright, well I want to thank you all for joining us. Brandon Soderberg, he’s the editor-in-chief of the City Paper, Rebekah Kirkman, visual arts editor at the City Paper, and Baynard Woods from Democracy in Crisis, editor-at-large of the City Paper. Thank you all for joining us.
Thank you for joining us on the Real Baltimore.