Choices in Charm City

What happens in a city when its newspaper dies? I've written about this question before, and it's a topic that more and more people are starting to discuss openly as big papers struggle. I continue to think the answer is something that would greatly surprise those who think newspapers are practically the only source of local news. There already are plenty of alternatives—and many more to come.

I spoke this week on a panel in Baltimore called "The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?" sponsored by the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It was a particularly timely panel in Baltimore: The Baltimore Sun is pretty emaciated these days after multiple layoffs and cutbacks, and unfortunately it's one of those papers that shows up near the top of newspaper-watchers' private lists of big-city papers that appear to be particularly endangered. Baltimore could very well be a test case for questions posed in the panel's title, perhaps sooner rather than later. 

The other participants were an impressive bunch: Baltimore Sun Editor Monty Cook, former Editor Tim Franklin, WBAL-TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller and Baltimore African-American Publisher Jake Oliver. The moderator was Merrill College Dean Kevin Klose, former head of NPR (and a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post.) For the most part, not surprisingly, this august crowd with deep local roots couldn't even imagine a Baltimore without its Sun, and as a result there was a bit too much of the usual printie breastbeating about how only large metro newspapers can provide real local coverage.

Hogwash. And when my turn came to speak, I set out to prove it. For my presentation, I played show and tell: I cued up a couple dozen Web sites that already are providing coverage of Baltimore, right under the Sun's nose, and took the panel and audience on a rapid-fire tour of Baltimore's media ecosystem, circa 2009. It was hardly a comprehensive list—I'm sure I missed dozens if not hundreds of other blogs, hyperlocal sites, verticals and others that are already–and that's a key point—replacing the Sun as key sources of local information. Back to the panel's title: "Who will fill the void?" It's already being filled.

I've gotten some requests for the list of sites I showed, so I'll go straight to the examples and, as I did on the panel, let them do the talking, along with a bit of commentary about why I picked them:

I started with the Sun's site. It's your basic one-size-fits all metro newspaper Web site. Then I talked about other traditional media that have always provided local competition to the Sun, in print and broadcast: Miller's WBAL-TV, Oliver's Afro-American, the alt-weekly City Paper and Baltimore's excellent business and legal paper, the Daily Record. All cover communities, beats and stories the Sun doesn't get to—and have done so for years. Of course, I didn't even mention the other local TV and radio sites, ethnic papers, community weeklies, college papers, etc. These are longstanding members of the local media ecosystem in Baltimore that belie the notion that the metro daily is the only news and info source in town.

But that doesn't even begin to get to the newer players. I started with a handful of local news sites and blogs: Baltimore Brew, Baltimore Crime, Investigative Voice, BmoreNews, BlogBaltimore, InsideCharmCity. All of these are providing a window into Baltimore life; many are doing the kind of deep-dive local reporting that traditionalists seem to think is the exclusive province of metro newspapers. 

Then I pointed out some local vertical sites whose coverage areas map to (or go beyond) sections of the newspaper and serve specific local interests: Baltimore Real Estate Investing, Baltimore Injury Lawyer (whose "What's an Ear Worth?" headline got a big laugh), Gannett's MomsLikeMe and KidBaltimore. Local entertainment, nightlife and city guide sites: 600 Block, What's to Eat Baltimore? and Yelp, of course (which I think is now quietly doing the same sort of fundamental damage to local newspapers' entertainment, calendar and review franchises that craigslist did to classifieds a few years ago). And a couple from the endless list of local sports sites: CamdenChat, one of at least a dozen local fan blogs that covers and opines about the Orioles; and Baltimore Ravens, which I picked because it's a news and information site run by the NFL team, without any sort of journalistic filters. That's another new kind of competition for reader eyeballs the Web has made possible: direct publishing by the sources of news themselves. 

I showed some sites that aggregate local info: Localist; Examiner.com's local site, which pulls together bloggers and "examiners" writing about subjects inside and outside Baltimore (one of 60 such sites Examiner has built around the country, with so-so results, but uniquely positioned to move in with established sites if newspapers start to fail); Twitter, to show people talking about everything Baltimore (Twitter coverage of the panel is here, btw); and Outside.In, compiling content from myriad local blogs.

I also wanted to show the Baltimore audience that there's other interesting local work being done elsewhere: the terrific VoiceofSanDiego, which is doing the kind of local watchdog reporting that many journalists—including some on the Baltimore panel—somehow think can only come from newspapers, and its big-city counterparts around the country, like MinnPost, ChiTown Daily News. and the New Haven Independent. To show local community coverage on a smaller scale,  I trotted out Baristanet and WestportNow, two of the longest-running examples of the hundreds of hyperlocal sites now providing news and information for small towns. For a glimpse of what happens when technology is brought to bear on local information, I showed Everyblock and Fwix, with their unique ways of mapping voluminous local data and news.

As I said, this whirlwhind tour just scratched the surface—it literally took me only about 15 minutes on
Google and Outside.in to find my local Baltimore examples, and I know that I missed many, many others (apologies to proprietors of those sites for the omission; hell, the list of blogs started by ex-Sun staffers is a whole category unto itself!). And there are plenty more examples to come—after the panel I spoke to an experienced local entrepreneur who's planning an ambitious Baltimore online news effort, and I'm sure he's hardly unique.

The point is that the question of who covers local news and information in a newspaper-less city is a moot point. The replacements already are serving the audience the paper used to have to itself, and there are more in the wings. Are there business models to support all of this new media? Not yet, but there's no doubt in my mind that new business models will emerge to support local news and information. And besides—and this really befuddles traditionalists—some of the people who run these upstarts sites aren't even in it for the money. They're providing coverage of their city and specific topics because they love the place where they live and the specific subjects they cover, not because they're motivated by profit. That's a very interesting turn of events, and especially tough for big-iron, expensive legacy media to compete with.  

Baltimore is hardly unique—the demonstration I did can be done effectively in any city. I strongly suggest that traditional media executives—and anybody who doubts that newspapers be replaced—spend some time trying to find and understand this new competition. It's out there, no question. There's more to come. The big-city daily newspaper, already on its heels, is hardly the only game in town. If and when it disappears, there will be plenty of replacements.

PS: Writing on Nieman Journalism Lab, Tim Windsor makes a clever point that the Baltimore symposium proved that events get covered even when newspapers don't cover them.

23 thoughts on “Choices in Charm City

  1. It’s hard to say, but there were some oohs and ahs, lots of Twittering of the list, and several people who asked me afterward to share the list so they could check out the sites themselves. And more than one panelist thanked me for pointing out the alternatives. That was quite interesting!

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  2. We had a similar panel in Chicago, and a bunch of traditional journos in the room kept insisting that libel insurance costs $2M a year, which would preclude start-ups from doing any kind of investigative work.
    Libel insurance costs $3k for a site like ours. But few people at our event were willing to believe that.
    The level of denial in the journalism community is awe-inspiring these days.

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  3. there are many sources of “information” — but NOT local “news.”
    what local sources are going to, say, sit through tedious city council meetings and then go to the trouble to follow up and dig through obscure public records to uncover local corruption, payoffs and graft? UNTRAINED and UNPAID bloggers? twitterers? i don’t think so.
    it is thoroughly ludicrous to suggest that unpaid, inexperienced local news “sources” can adequately replace the credibility and professionalism of the old, traditional media.

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  4. JTFloore — Many of the sites listed in the post do employ experienced, professional journalists to sit through tedious city council meetings. And tedious school board meetings. And tedious civil service commission meetings and so on and so on.

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  5. You suggest, “Tim Windsor makes a clever point that the Baltimore symposium proved that events get covered even when newspapers don’t cover them.”
    But self-referential coverage of a symposium about themselves really isn’t a great example for proving the quotidian affairs of community are going to be covered, Mark. Maybe it’s clever, but it isn’t telling.
    The rest of your ecosystem? Well, I didn’t do a comprehensive survey, but the story I read on the promisingly named “investigative voice” was essentially a one-source press release type story in which a councilman says he’s a good guy who will keep the pool open.
    \-\/\/

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  6. Interesting point of view. However, your comment that “there’s no doubt in my mind that new business models will emerge to support local news and information” begs the question. Those of us who lived through the dot-com boom of the 1990s saw that same logic founder when confronted with the cold, hard reality of meeting a payroll. the Web graveyard is filled with good ideas that were commercial duds. I suspect many of these local blogs will meet a similar fate. And love for a neighborhood isn’t going to pay the rent.

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  7. Thank you for this! I am a recently laid-off reporter and I have started compiling and describing “DIY” community news sites to debunk claims about “no local news” in the wake of layoffs.
    As commenter Geoff Dougherty said above: “The level of denial in the journalism community is awe-inspiring these days.” He is right. The complaints coming from traditional media are not only shrill, but also inaccurate.
    I have found so far, as you have, Mark, that indeed former legacy media workers and citizen journos are picking up the news and information slack from traditional media outlets and are often doing it better.
    Some of the stuff out of California is excellent, especially the political writing.
    The list is at http://dreamjournojob.wordpress.com/ I just started it this week. (I may change the name when I secure a different domain. I opened the blog account months ago with different intentions, hence the current moniker.)
    The site is a little rough around the edges, but you’ll get the idea when you see it. I will be adding the Baltimore area sites you mention. I’ve been finding sites so far by doing Google searches.
    If anybody who reads this knows of some community news Web start-ups, please send me links and info. The original focus is what laid off or bought out reporters and editors (and photogs) are doing on the web for the community, but I will include non-legacy/corporate media sites that provide another source for news in communities.
    E-mail me: jessdrkn@gmail.com
    Here’s me: http://hainna.typepad.com/about.html
    Jessica Durkin
    Scranton, PA

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  8. We’re one of those sites, Baltimore Brew, and grateful for the mention, Mark, especially since we’re SO new. We hope people will make neither too much nor too little of sites like ours but cheer us on as we try to figure it out. We are proceeding with, I guess you could say, irrational exuberance. Already, Brew correspondent Gerald Neily saved the city $2.6 million by pointing out that they were about to undertake a Lombard St. facelift in a place where another planned project would have meant ripping up the made-over street two years later. Mark Reutter gave Brew readers eye-opening context on the history of government’s and academia’s complicity in Beth Steel pollution. Doug Donovan interviewed legal experts and explained how a prosecutor’s miscalculation about colonial-era common law lead to major corruption charges against the Mayor being thrown out. Jennifer Bishop opened readers’ eyes about what having a profoundly disabled child does to your world view. And Jada Fletcher told cash-strapped Baltimore shoppers where to find extremely cheap, extremely cool jeans.
    Thanks, and please keep checking in on the Brew…..
    Fern Shen

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  9. I have no doubt that internet reporters can be just as capable, and more so, as print reporters. Too often, however, this conversation ignores the question of audience. Local journalism exists, in my mind, to cohere a community of citizens through a comprehensive source of information. And a paper of record, I believe, is essential to a strong body politic. Like everything else, digitized journalism fragments a community of citizens into like-minded niches. Let’s say a Web reporter finally uncovers Mayor Daley’s smoking gun. That site’s readers, and their associates, will benefit. What about everyone else?
    True, exceptional high-traffic sites can sometimes approximate the ripple effects. I have nothing but praise for Voice of San Diego, and the impact it’s had on local government. And I’m heartened with every new online venture that aims to independently vet and disseminate information. Go!
    But — and here you’ll think I’m crazy — my fantasy is that Voice of San Diego succeeds so fabulously that it introduces a print product to complement the digital product. Not because I’m some sentimental technophobe. But because essential local journalism is for the entire locale, not just the visitors of a particular Web site.
    Consider that a digital divide will likely persist. Not everyone has easy access to the internet. And I’d venture to say that those with the most barriers to information need it the most. We need to keep this in mind when we use phrases like “democratizing the media.” What’s the point, for example, of excellent reporting on public housing if public housing residents don’t have immediate access to it? That’s not to say all public housing residents don’t have computers, or are not resourceful enough to find it in their local libraries. My point is this: a printed product that blankets ever corner of a city and is cheap to acquire — an information source that is easily visible and accessible to every citizen — has enduring value that is not matched by a Web site.
    Please do not misinterpret me. I’m not one of these print partisans, and I grow weary of browbeating on both sides of this debate. I want local journalism to survive, and I believe the potential exists for digital reporting to surpass the capacity of traditional print to reach an entire city — imagine a Kindle that is 100 times cheaper and mass produced.
    And I fully agree that “the question of who covers local news and information in a newspaper-less city is a moot point.” But this statement itself is also moot. The potential void caused by the death of newspapers is not about who is reporting. It’s about who is reading.

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  10. Good work. I only hope some of this information drips into the consciousness of the big newspaper owners before they drink their own kool-aid and stuff their reporters’ efforts behind a pay wall.
    As you’ve shown, should they do that, it’ll be like spraying themselves with invisible paint as far as the Internet is concerned.

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  11. You said, “I cued up a couple dozen Web sites that already are providing coverage of Baltimore, right under the Sun’s nose, and took the panel and audience on a rapid-fire tour of Baltimore’s media ecosystem, circa 2009. It was hardly a comprehensive list—I’m sure I missed dozens if not hundreds of other blogs, hyperlocal sites, verticals and others that are already…”
    So who wants to wade through this hodgepodge of trash to look for morsels of truth?

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  12. Commenter Bryon Wooten has a point: “So who wants to wade through this hodgepodge of trash to look for morsels of truth?”
    While there are start-ups happening with each legacy media downsizing, replacing news sources means clicking to multiple sites.
    That’s something that needs to be rectified in some way for “replacement” media to take off.
    Maybe RSS feeds? There needs to be some way of organizing all the info, and I don’t mean wading through Google search returns.
    I don’t have a solution or answer to this.
    I posted a comment here earlier. I’m the one trying to compile these and describe briefly what they are about.
    Jessica Durkin

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  13. Jess: As I’ve written repeatedly, there are real opportunities for sites to act as a sort of local Drudge, aggregating content from multiple local sites into a single package. I believe this is exactly what newspaper sites should be pursuing aggressively, and the still-developing ChicagoNow.com (which I wrote about last week) is a big step in that direction.

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  14. Exactly — I think what’s missing from Bryon’s comment (and Ben’s to a certain extent, though he’s talking about online vs. offline audiences) is the point that those morsels of truth will get passed around as links by other sites, aggregated as Mark notes, shared by people via email, Facebook, etc. and thus reach lots of people, while the “trash” won’t.

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  15. I totally agree with Bob Roseth’s comment. Content has to support itself or it won’t continue for long, or at least most of it won’t. Who’s going to pay for solid, day-after-day reporting? Who’s going to pay for savvy, careful, responsible editors? Who’s going to pay for enterprising photographers to illustrate stories, day after day after day? Who’s going to attend licensing hearings, follow up on fatal crashes, stay long into the night at school board meetings, investigate special education programs, interview interesting personages, day after day after day? I think it’s very much in Baltimore’s interest to hope that the Sun figures out a way to earn more money from its unique and ultimately irreplaceable content.

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  16. I don’t think the venues that you claim cover local news can do the job The Sun does now, even as a shadow of its former self.
    Let’s look at the local news sources you offer as comparison to The Sun.
    Baltimore Brew: This is apparently the ex-Sun reporters’ outlet. Good reporting, but not very high volume.
    Baltimore Crime: pretty much every story has a link to a regular news source, with guess where, the Baltimore Sun predominating. I do think this is a good example of how news content is properly used in a blog, with enough comment and value added to make the blog worth visiting on its own. But if the Baltimore Sun went away, where would this blog get its information?
    Bmore News: who got elected to the board of what charity or got promoted to senior vice-president or was seen at a gala event. (Is this what’s left of the free rag Wally Orlinsky was involved in?)
    Investigative Voice: Tabloid journalism online; this is the ex-Examiner reporters’ outlet, I believe. The hot topics they list in order are: Government Corruption; Corporate Greed; Policing and Politics; Gangs, Drugs, and Crime; Sex and Money. No topic named “Democrap,” yet, but give it time. Also not very high volume, just a couple of stories a day. And the white-on-black small type is eye-watering. On the plus side, one thing they do right is paying attention to reader feedback in the comments on their stories. The Baltimore Sun “talk forums” are untainted by Baltimore Sun personnel (or common courtesy for that matter).
    Blog Baltimore: A post every two or three days about random stuff. A story on the smell from the harbor is entitled, “Close Your Legs Canton.” Provincialism *and* sexism, yay!
    Insider Charm City: Maybe a post a day, some reporting based on government news releases, some links to other news sources. Seems more like someone doing manual news aggregation.
    You write, “All of these are providing a window into Baltimore life; many are doing the kind of deep-dive local reporting that traditionalists seem to think is the exclusive province of metro newspapers.”
    The window part, yes. Deep-dive local reporting? Two might qualify, and they’re populated by ex-reporters from The Sun and the late Baltimore Examiner. Professionals who have already done real reporting in a real news organization.
    I agree with sammy above. I hope The Sun finds a way to support producing its “unique and ultimately irreplaceable content.” That may be only online, it may continue in print.
    I’m no technophobe. I want The Sun to learn from these other sources. I don’t want the content to die for lack of financial support and internet savvy.

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  17. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and site-by-site assessment, oldfeminist. There’s no question that the current alternatives to the Sun are still developing and not yet mature; I certainly didn’t mean to imply that they were. But my point was that local journalism alternatives do exist, continue to appear, and will continue to improve.
    Unfortunately, the Sun’s continuing existence is far from assured, and the point of this week’s panel was to discuss what would happen to local journalism if the Sun, or a paper like it in another city, failed. I was trying to demonstrate that, unlike some suggestions, there would hardly be a news and information vacuum. The alternatives already are appearing. And if the Sun were to suddenly go out tomorrow, or in four months, or in a year, the community would have to be served by sites like these.

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  18. Thanks, Mark.
    We both agree there’s not enough out there right now to supplant The Sun.
    You may be right, the community might *have* to be served by sites like these, but I have no expectation that it would be nearly as well-served for some time to come.
    There would be a competition between well-meaning underfunded sites and the big slicks like Fox, with astroturf pseudo-independents confounding the issue.
    This isn’t an unprecedented change. Look at nursing and education today. The quality of work from people in these vocations is lower on average than it was in the 50s or 60s. Why? The people who used to have to choose between nursing, teaching and staying at home — women — now have more choices. You can make more money and gain more respect, with less screaming and bodily fluids, in a dozen other professions.
    We still have a lot of smart motivated teachers and nurses, sure. But many of the smart women who used to set their sights there don’t go into those fields any more. They can choose not to. Had I been born ten years earlier than I was, there’s little doubt I would have gotten a degree in Nursing or Education instead of Physics, where I perceived the money and the respect to be.
    A similar kind of thing is happening with journalism, from the opposite direction. Instead of a paucity of the best applicants, it has a paucity of funds. The result is the same, though. Fewer people enter journalism because there are no jobs there, no future. And fewer people treat it with respect. We’re losing talented older journalists because they cost too much.
    Until enough value is placed on all these vocations, what you get will depend in large part on how wealthy you are and how much time you have to spend poking through a mixed pile.
    Which brings me to another point. Not everyone has an internet connection and a computer — the working poor who don’t have time or energy to visit the library during its abbreviated hours will not always be able to take advantage of these websites you listed. Newspapers are low-tech but highly available.
    Unfortunately most people don’t miss the water until the well runs dry. At that point, a lot of priming will have to take place, much of it by people who’ve never pumped a bucket in their lives.
    I have no doubt that, in the long run, someone will figure out a new and better pump. But I don’t want to live through a drought while that happens. And I hope that new pump pumps for the rich and the poor as well.

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  19. Mark —
    Great post.
    I wish that Peggy Noonan would have seen this before she stated on Morning Joe that online bloggers will never be able to replace print journalists.
    Thx,
    Josh

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