What Happens Now?
A daily newspaper company buying the alt-weekly in its market is not unprecedented, though the results are varied
Published: February 26, 2014
The questions swirling around the Baltimore Sun Media Group’s (BSMG) purchase of City Paper are many and varied, from whether City Paper stories will get put behind the Sun paywall to whether the City Paper will continue to exist at all, and if it does, how will it be changed? Will there be layoffs?
Many of those questions remain unanswered just five days after the announcement. We do know we will exist. We do know there’ll be no paywall. We do know there will be layoffs—though not the entire staff, as has been reported. At press time, the numbers and details are still unknown. Most importantly, the reality of our editorial independence is still uncertain.
In announcing the purchase, Timothy E. Ryan, publisher, president, and CEO of BSMG, said in a statement, “We want the paper to remain a valued alternative, independent voice in Baltimore. That’s what made it attractive to us—it’s adding a unique population of readers to our overall audience.”
Scott Lynett, publisher of City Paper’s soon-to-be-former owner, Times-Shamrock Communications, in the same press release, expressed his confidence that the “Sun Media Group will maintain what we have worked so hard to establish—an independent source of news and opinions on local politics, communities, culture and arts in Baltimore.” He said he “couldn’t have found a better buyer.” Terms have not been disclosed.
One way to ensure City Paper’s “independence,” which seems to be a shared goal of both Ryan and Lynett, would be to write into the sale contract language that guarantees City Paper’s editorial independence, with enforceable sanctions for any violations. Something like this was tried when Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal in 2007. An independent board was created to police the matter. But the editor resigned rather than taking a complaint to the board, mooting the effort.
Jennifer Marsh, who worked at City Paper for more than 20 years and was publisher from 2011 to 2013 before being forced out last summer and joining The Sun as “Niche Products Director,” will be City Paper’s new general manager.
City Paper asked Marsh and Scott Lynett to disclose any contractual guarantees of editorial independence. “There is no written agreement,” Lynett says. He adds that The Sun would be foolish to harm the paper’s editorial look and feel, since CP is profitable.
Marsh says she is unaware of the exact terms of the sale. “I have been adamant that a distinct firewall has to go up,” she says. And she says she will hold the hiring and firing decisions after the changeover.
“The Sun has never done anything like that,” Marsh says.
These assurances aside, this deal troubles media watchers like The New York Times’ David Carr, who tweeted soon after the announcement: “Am having a sad about Sun buying Balto City paper. Such a good weekly for such a long time.” Carr edited the Washington City Paper back in the day; he knows us.
Or consider Gawker’s Tom Scocca, who worked here for years: “Obviously, on a basic-meanings-of-words basis, [any claimed editorial independence] is either a lie or wholesale delusion. Once the Sun owns City Paper, City Paper will not be independent; it will be owned by the Sun. It will not be an alternative; it will be a subsidiary of the dominant voice, such as it is, which is dominant only in market share.”
The general fear of media consolidation is a very old story, and the narrative is understood. Step 1 is the announcement that one company is buying out a rival but that independence will be maintained. Step 2 is consolidation of all back-office functions, starting with circulation, then to layout and design, then advertising sales and finally—sometimes after a decent interval—editorial. In plans and on paper, Step 3 is “profits.” In reality it’s been rinse and repeat.
That is the way it played out in Hartford, Conn., in the past decade. There, the Courant, a venerable daily owned by Times Mirror, bought out the local alt-weekly, Hartford Advocate, and a chain of three other similar papers in 1999. Independence was, of course, assured.
“We won’t let them change us—not now, not in the future,” a note published on the Advocate’s website by then-publisher Francis Zankowski and then-editor Janet Reynolds said. “We may be getting sold, but we’ll never sell out. We promise.”
Reynolds, who I had worked with at the Advocate from 1990 to 1995, rehired me in August 1999 to fill an open reporter spot.
Tribune bought Times Mirror in 2000. Soon, Zankowski was out and Reynolds filled his job. The paper struggled to keep up with corporate edicts.
None of this was fit for publication as news, of course. In March 2002, Reynolds shared with me an email from Tribune HQ, which I annotated and translated from corporate-speak.
When the Advocate declined to publish it, I sent it to Harper’s, which did. After that, my performance reviews became very dark, and soon Reynolds—then a friend and colleague for a decade—fired me. The Advocate’s editorial staff—housed then blocks from the Courant building—turned over regularly. News stories became fewer and more fluffy. Gone were the days of getting the city manager fired or the high sheriff convicted of fraud—and the county sheriff system abolished.
In December of last year, the Advocate was folded into CTNow.com, the Courant’s online calendar and listings vehicle. There is no listing for it on the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies website, the alt-weeklies’ central clearinghouse. AAN Executive Director Tiffany Shackelford says communication with the former Advocate people got spotty starting in the fall of 2013. At first she says they didn’t pay their dues, but checking, she finds the company did, “but we did not know how to list them under their new name.”
AAN’s bylaws and its website are not set up to handle the morphing of an independent newspaper into a weekly section of a daily paper and a sliver of its online presence.
Shackelford says the CTNow story is not the way she hopes City Paper goes. “I hope you guys are more like Chicago,” she says, where venerable alt-weekly the Chicago Reader was bought in 2012 by the Chicago Sun-Times—the Chicago Tribune’s rival.
Chicago is a big city and there are many voices, including a smaller, independent alt-weekly called Newcity. The Reader’s editor, Mara Shalhoup, did not return City Paper’s calls and emails right away, but she has been mostly positive about the new owners, according to Shackelford.
It is possible that the Reader dodged a bullet. On the day of the sale, the Reader published a story, quoting one of the money guys behind the deal, Brad Bulkley: “It also helped that Bulkley told me other suitors wanted to buy the Reader to kill it.”
Those other suitors were not named. Bulkley did not return a call seeking comment.
“I get awfully tired of the—‘Oh my god, they are dying. . . .’” Shackelford says. “In a lot of markets, we’re optimistic, doing fairly well.”
Another not-so-cautionary tale comes from Knoxville, Tenn. In 2007 Coury Turczyn was working for a Scripps company—HGTV.com—when that company took over the alternative weekly he had previously helmed until 2000, Knoxville’s Metro Pulse. He said he would not have gone back to edit his old paper except that the company, which owns 15 newspapers in eight states and D.C., had relevant expertise. “On the plus side, it was at least someone with some media knowledge,” he says, “instead of, say, a local developer who had pretensions of literary greatness.”
The Scripps deal came before the economic collapse, and Turczyn says his paper—which now has two staff writers, an associate editor, and an entertainment editor in addition to him—had spent quite a bit more than the industry-standard 10 percent of the budget on editorial. “At one point in the 1990s, I believe we were spending a bigger percentage of our budget on editorial than any other AAN paper,” he says.
Scripps has reduced staff since purchasing it, with the first round of reductions being “more fatty.” Turczyn reports to the publisher of the Knoxville News Sentinel, who he says does not try to influence editorial content at Metro Pulse, which is housed away from the Sentinel’s building.
“To their credit, they left us in place,” he says, although they did consider moving it into the daily paper’s headquarters, as is the plan for City Paper.
While it may make sense economically, Turczyn says, culturally and as a public-relations matter, it’s not so simple. “The outside world might start thinking you are part of the daily, which could make being an ‘alternative voice’ more difficult,” he says, adding that mingling staffs may affect the content of the paper itself. “Can we still be competitors for stories if we’re working side by side in the same office?”
As it stands, much of the shift in Knoxville involves adjusting to the bureaucracy of reporting to a much larger organization, Turczyn says.
Ironically, alt-weeklies, with their small, underpaid staffs, low overhead, and fierce, mission-centered orientation, tend to make money even while dailies bleed. The problem, then, for consolidation is that, once tethered to the local giant, their belt-tightening becomes our belt-tightening.
City Paper is coming from a long period of belt-tightening under Times-Shamrock, so, for now, that’s not going to happen: Rumor has it City Paper is getting new computers and software, both much-needed. But The Sun, like all Tribune newspapers, has long been for sale itself, and its past decade has been more layoff-wracked than ours. The City Paper staff will learn in the coming days and years, along with our readers, which scenario plays out in Baltimore.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.