Baltimore Is One Step Closer to Being a Zero-Newspaper TownS

It's not even possible to get mad at the Baltimore Sun now. The Baltimore Sun is a nursing home where newspapering goes to die, or to sink into terminal urine-soaked frailty and confusion. Yesterday it announced it had received the commitment papers for City Paper, the city's alternative weekly, b. 1977 – d. TK But Soon.

Why is the Sun buying City Paper? It has no idea. "This acquisition will allow us to build upon the existing success of the City Paper," the CEO of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, Tim Ryan, wrote in a press release. "We want the paper to remain a valued alternative, independent voice in Baltimore."

Obviously, on a basic-meanings-of-words basis, this 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 biggest ruin in a ghost city.

When City Paper began it was an alternative not only to The Sun—no "Baltimore" in the name, then; that was an out-of-town owner's later innovation—but to the editorially independent Evening Sun and the wholly separate News-American, owned by Hearst. Then, in 1986, the Sunpapers were bought by Times-Mirror and Hearst gave up on the News-American. Nine years later, the Evening Sun was folded into the morning paper, and Baltimore was a one-daily town.

But not a one-paper town. It was possible to believe, then, in City Paper's big brick rowhouse at 812 Park Avenue, that the Sun—thick with ads still, but cheapened and demoralized by out-of-town ownership—was beatable. It was old media, stodgy media, dumb media. I was in the rowhouse because, a few years before, I had sent a letter to the Walters Art Gallery to apply for some sort of post-college white-collar job there, and the woman who'd read the letter phoned me up to tell me I was obviously unemployable at the Walters but that I should talk to her friend, who was then City Paper's editor.

Her friend, in turn, gave me a few assignments at 10 cents a word, and after he left, the editor who succeeded him agreed to install me in a tiny marble-walled office, a bathroom converted to a fact-checking library, as an editorial assistant. A series of promotions and larger bathroom-offices followed. I got a media column, mostly devoted to the large and slow target that was the Sun.

(Fascinating. Please tell us lots more about yourself, old man.)

I left City Paper to go write for the Boston Phoenix for a couple of years. You may have heard of the Phoenix through its own obituaries last year. Mourn the Phoenix, sure. Certain things about the Phoenix were great, but it was a place where a writer had the freedom to write a fascinating and deeply reported feature story, and then to watch the powers in charge put Pearl Jam on the cover instead. Also a place where management counted heads of who showed up in the newsroom during the April Fool's blizzard of 1997. When City Paper called to ask me to write again, I jumped back.

All of which is to say that the now-threatened species known as "alternative weeklies" contained some rather different lineages. Some papers were founded on a mercenary Boomer grooviness, some were earnest and political. City Paper was a Russ Smith paper—the original Russ Smith paper, before he started another City Paper in Washington and then hired Jack Shafer to run it, before he appalled and confounded New York with the New York Press. That rock-throwing ancestry defined it, even after ownership had passed into the hands of the Times-Shamrock group of Scranton, Pennsylvania, a family-run foursquare community-newspaper concern that knew nothing about its decadent big-city property except that, left to its own devices, it made money.

Money! The first myth or illusion that the free alternatives existed to puncture was that newspapering was a matter of selling articles to readers. The reputable dailies, with their coin-boxes and subscription offices, were designed to make it look as if that were the transaction. But the money lay in selling readers to advertisers. The cover price was a fiction, useful inasmuch as it helped guarantee that the people who read the ads weren't broke, and that they had some emotional investment in reading the paper.

City Paper briefly tried charging for its product, at one point, but mostly it gave it away. If the ads were cheap and less constrained by standards of propriety, and the writing ditto, you could get a product that would engage readers anyway, and sell them things, and carve out a lucrative market segment. And you could enjoy the work, at least until the day that the disruption was itself disrupted, when the classified-ad business and the sex-ad business and the business of letting uncredentialed writers express themselves all floated clear of the entire tree-pulp business model.

It is the crotchetiest of complaints from the survivors and non-survivors of pre-internet newspapering, but here it is: What hasn't lifted so easily into the weightless aether has been all the reporting that went into the pages, the facts and incidents and observations that someone might pay you 10 cents a word, or even a salary, to gather. What made the weekly business so exciting, right before the business model crumpled, was that there was so much to write about—a whole city's worth of material, even as the ostensible local newspaper of record was shrinking and hollowing out and becoming an ever-more-revenue-optimized subordinate unit of a national chain. It was all just lying around waiting for someone to go out and see it.

So it was that one summer Van Smith got interested in where dead animals got to, and he and the photographer Michelle Gienow got themselves allowed to enter the Valley Proteins rendering plant, all over the place, till they came back reeking of the burnt death-grease, with stray tufts of fur floating out of the camera bag.

And while he was at the plant, Van asked if dead cats and dogs ended up in the cat and dog feed, and the factory folks told him they didn't, and then he went and saw where the dead pets went into one end of the line and where the pet-food raw materials came out the other end. So he wrote what he'd observed. And when the beef industry sued Oprah Winfrey, in the middle of the mad-cow scare, for having defamed hamburgers by saying that cows were being fed dead cows, Van flew down to Texas and testified. Oprah won. The courtroom sketch ended up on the wall in the grand stairwell at 812 Park Avenue.

The paper is skinny now, but it still makes money. It will probably keep on making money for the Sun, for a while, like an old vending machine. But there's more than three decades worth of evidence of what happens when the Sun absorbs other newspapers. For a while, the remains of the Evening Sun kept the Sun fat with columns, extra features, page after page of comics. Then those things went away like the redundancies they'd become. The Aegis, in Harford County, where I had my first paid reporting job, is an attenuated wisp of a local paper.

As the Sun itself, far down what's now the Chicago Tribune chain, is attenuated. Consolidation is the enemy of abundance. Being a chain newspaper means being the minimum newspaper the owners can get away with publishing. I was in Beijing to witness the Sun's last China correspondent packing up the bureau to close it. The Sun could use the Tribune's coverage. I was still in Beijing when the Tribune correspondent shut down that bureau, too.

When the Sun says it's going to maintain and build on the value of City Paper, it's babbling. It's not simply that it's buying out its most dedicated adversary. The Sun doesn't do things like building value, and it hasn't had the power to do those things for years. The paper has been on the sales block itself for months now, as Tribune tries to unload its doomed newspaper business onto somebody else.

City Paper, as City Paper, is finished. The newspaper rendering line will do what it was built to do. The operations will be moved out of 812 Park and into the Sunpapers building on Calvert Street. On March 5, before Times-Shamrock officially hands over the paper, employees were told, it will terminate the entire staff. Only a portion of them will actually be re-hired.

It was the Baltimore Business Journal that first reported that those layoffs are coming. The Sun left that news out of its initial reports on the deal, only adding it after it had been reported elsewhere. Its new independent acquisition still hasn't mentioned it. The employees have been told not to comment to the press.

[Image by Jim Cooke]