In 2009, the Baltimore Sun appeared to be on the brink of collapse. To brainstorm what might happen in that situation, I convened a series of meetings that brought together people from The Sun, entrepreneurs, and local media figures like Marc Steiner. We had a working group of about 12–15 people.
Over the course of a few meetings that year, and with subsequent discussions with people from the Abell Foundation and with people like Ted Venetoulis, I developed a sense of what might be required to create a sustainable and equitable media property in Baltimore.
Yesterday, the Baltimore Sun announced that it plans to shutter the Baltimore City Paper after 40 years of publication. Baltimore Sun Media Group acquired the City Paper in 2014, and over the last three years it has been resurgent, producing excellent reporting and delivering a distinct and much-needed local voice.
While it’s sad that City Paper will most likely cease to exist this year, this outcome was somewhat predictable. BSMG acquired multiple properties in 2014, including the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, and the Carroll County Times. The intention here would have had to have been to consolidate, and yes, monopolize the local print media landscape.
The calculus is not difficult: gain pricing control over the bulk of the local print media ad market and see which properties add to the bottom line. For as long as a property is profitable, keep it going. If a property becomes unprofitable, close it.
In the case of the City Paper, no tronc property so duplicates The Sun’s own footprint, so it would also be the most vulnerable to closure — even if it is mildly profitable. So, seeing it close is not at all surprising, and frankly, those hoping to save City Paper by luring a buyer are probably chasing a fantasy. The Sun does not want to cede the monopoly pricing control it strategically gained in 2014, as it will only erode their own revenues.
So it is with this set of facts and experiences in mind that I propose a rough business plan for a new journalistic entity in Baltimore, derived from first principles.
1. Make employees owners.
Every employee should have equity. But unlike modern technology startups, the goal of this enterprise is not to “get big and sell,” so equity allocation should be focused on decisionmaking, voting rights, and dividends. This ensures that the people who put in the hard work of building are rewarded accordingly, and have a say in decisionmaking. In the event the company is acquired, everyone will be properly rewarded.
2. Secure substantial funding.
The entity needs to be well-capitalized to ensure its success. It will be in the business of running experiments — and that will take time and require building brand awareness, which requires capital. There are ample sources of capital that would be willing to back such an entity. A good minimum threshold would be $10 million, but up to $20 million would be even better.
3. Poach talent.
There is great local talent available from City Paper, The Sun, and elsewhere. We all know who those people are. They, along with new up-and-coming talent, should be drawn into this new entity — as owners. This will render the legacy operators uncompetitive by pulling away their best people.
4. Create great original content.
With the best talent, the best content will follow, and readers will as well. Positioned properly, this content could be of national interest. Baltimore’s story is known around the world. But telling our story — our way, and on our terms — could attract national attention and membership support. Truly great content can also generate meaningful revenue, though that will be a lean stream.
5. Implement a membership model.
There are tens of thousands of people who would support a high-quality membership-based journalistic entity in the metro region. The model should explicitly be membership-based (allowing people to be members at multiple different levels), and not subscription-based. Members may have access to additional content (or services, or events), but management may make most content available for free at its discretion.
6. Bridge the print gap.
More and more people are relying on electronic information sources, and that will continue. Print, in the long run, will not compete, but it is today an important way to maximize reach and increase access, and may remain important for decades. A plan should be devised for bridging that gap, specifically with a targeted print strategy and print-on-demand options. There should also be a strategy for increasing access to electronic options.
7. Wait for competitors to fail.
The entities that survive this shift in journalism will need to build an airplane from scratch while flying it. The legacy entrants are saddled with unfunded liabilities, mismatched culture, and various corporate entanglements and distractions. A new entity suffers from no such baggage. In effect, a legacy entrant needs to try to fly while strapped to a giant stone. In such a match-up, the legacy entrant will lose.
8. Buy useful assets.
When legacy entrants fail, it may be reasonable to consider purchasing assets such as brands, mastheads, or archives. Those items, cherry-picked, will cost far less than if one tries to make a blanket asset purchase. And that would not be wise anyway — buying the company gets you the culture, and that’s a key component of what will have killed them.
9. Experiment constantly.
It will be necessary to try any ideas that might work to increase membership and revenue from content. This isn’t so much to make lots of profits, but to survive, and pay people the real wages they deserve; this isn’t about getting professionals to write for free. But there will be all sorts of opportunities to try things and engage the community. There must be an acknowledgement that the answers are never fully known, and that experimentation is the norm.
10. Share the model.
The goal here is to survive an inflection point in the business of producing journalism. A new enterprise fully and ethically dedicated to this goal must share everything it has learned, and ultimately even be prepared to spark competition and copycats — ideally in other markets, but even at home. Through dedication to excellence and having a head start, this entity should be well-positioned, and will never ever find itself in a situation where journalists are faced with an uncertain future because of changes in corporate ownership. This model puts content creators in control, and that must be the new norm.
I know there are aspects of this plan that people will want to tear apart, and I can predict the most frequent comments:
- Where exactly will you find $10–20 Million?
- Who will run it?
- There are ethical concerns with mixing journalism and capitalism.
- The Sun is more valuable than you think and will never die.
- City Paper is important and should be saved.
- This has been tried and it didn’t work.
- You are a capitalist pig.
- You are a communist pig.
- If you’re so smart why don’t you just do this.
- This could be done with far less money.
- This should be an ESOP, or non-profit, or…
I have reasonably smart responses to most of the above critiques (many of which I think are off-base or addressable, while some are just details) and I’ve at least considered the rest. I decided to put this out there now, as I have been sitting on it for eight years and the media landscape in Baltimore is only constricting further.
If anyone would like to discuss this plan or try to move it forward, I welcome your comments here, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for taking the time to consider this. Our civic future rests on figuring this out, so let’s get on with it. And please join us in the Baltimore City Voters group on Facebook, where we discuss these and other issues daily.