For at least 12 years, a forest fire has been raging in the local news space. Business models have evaporated. Casual readers and paying customers alike have moved on. And journalists have wondered more than once why they even bother.
But it’s not all bad. Because as dramatic and destructive as exploding trees can be, what’s left afterwards is a nutrient-rich space with lots of sunlight where not so long ago there was thick canopy and almost zero chance of standing out.
Local media is dying. Long live media.
In my old hometown of Baltimore, this is about to play out. The City Paper — a 40-year-old alt-weekly — will shut down before this year is out, according to its most recent owner, tronc’s Baltimore Sun Media Group.
And that’s got Dave Troy thinking about what might flourish in the absence of The City Paper.
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 been to consolidate, and yes, monopolize the local print media landscape.
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.
Troy has been here before. In 2009, when The Baltimore Sun looked to be in danger of failing, he formed an ad-hoc working group to think about — and plan for — the disappearance of local media. He sees the imminent closure of a Baltimore institution as an opportunity to think differently about what it means to be a local media company, especially a new one without years of history and ongoing expectations of “how it’s done.” He writes:
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.
His 10 points — which you should read for yourself — are all well thought-out. As they should be — he’s been mulling this over for the past 8 years on and off. Especially apt is the discussion of revenue. Unless a free-spending and generous millionaire-benefactor shows up like the proverbial long-lost uncle and his Last Will and Testament, whatever takes root now will have to pay its own way, with a minimum of the weight carried by advertisers. That means creating a product people will not only pay for, but will WANT to pay for.
There’s a lot to unpack here and I wish him and others in Baltimore the best as they try to sort out what will grow as legacy media continues to contract.