Last month’s victory for staff at Baltimore City Paper, a decision to form a union that was voluntarily recognized by parent company Baltimore Sun Media Group (BSMG), looks to be short-lived, as BSMG announced that it will be ending the 40-year-old publication’s run sometime this year.
The reason, according to a statement delivered by BSMG’s director of marketing, Renee Mutchnik, was “declining ad revenue,” explaining, “Like many alternative weeklies across the country, declining ad revenue at City Paper continues to be a challenge. It became clear to us this past fall that we would cease publishing City Paper sometime in 2017. Details about the closing date are still being discussed. This is a difficult decision and we are mindful of how it affects our employees, the readers and advertisers.”
According to City Paper editor Brandon Soderberg, who issued his own statement “live from the deck of the Titanic,” staff was informed last month. “We were trying to hold off announcing it because, well, it’s very sad, but also because I’m not sure about how this is all going to play out and I’m half-convinced this won’t be the end of the paper and someone will swoop in and buy us,” he wrote.
Soderberg also made the case for the alternative weekly as providing coverage unavailable elsewhere. “A city without a paper like City Paper is a lesser city. I’m not sure where the stories we write and where the people you meet in those stories show up if we’re not around. Without us, you will have one less voice—one that’s skeptical and analytical and out there actually.”
You don’t need to do much legwork to witness the City Paper’s four-decade legacy for yourself; the publication has been posting “flashbacks” to various articles throughout its history to commemorate its 40th anniversary.
BSMG, then part of Tribune, now part of Tronc, purchased the paper in 2014 from Times-Shamrock Communications, which had owned the publication since 1987, when it purchased the publication from founders Russ Smith and Alan Hirsch for about $4 million.
The fate of Baltimore City Paper is just one example of the struggle that alternative weeklies have faced in the digital age and the familiar refrain of print ad losses combined with insufficient digital ad gains and declining circulation.
But City Paper’s story represents other trends as well, including becoming one small part of a larger portfolio as media conglomerates buy up titles, only to later close them. A 2014 Pew fact sheet numbered the decline in the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s membership roles from a high of 135 publications in 2009 to 117 in 2014, the result of closures and mergers. Three years later, membership is now at 108.