The Columbia Flier newspaper died June 29 at the age of 54. It succumbed to a slow euthanasia by the owners of the Baltimore Sun who acquired the paper and its 12 weekly siblings two decades ago.
For those of us who had worked there in its fat, profitable decades from the 1970s through the mid-‘90s, it was a slow, painful wasting away that accelerated over the last few years. In 1976, I had written the cover story for its first 100-page issue — a story headlined “Banned Books,” about efforts to keep certain books out of public schools (interesting the life cycle on this political movement). The Flier would remain more than 100 pages, sometimes as thick as 140 pages, until the internet finally kicked in. Its final issue, like always, delivered free on Thursdays to most neighborhoods in Columbia, was a thin 24 pages, only eight of them with locally-produced copy.
You can read the history of its rise and fall in my 2017 book “Columbia at 50”, with the media chapter reprinted in MarylandReporter.com on the day the Flier died.
In the 400 years that newspapers were the principal medium of news and advertising, newspapers have come and gone. Now they are mostly gone.
The advertising model is broken. The principal sources of revenue for newspapers like the Flier — ads for cars, real estate, jobs — have all shifted to the internet.
The internet has caused many other businesses to restructure, particularly retailing. Big box stores replaced small shop owners, and now online shopping has undermined the business models of big box retailers. The ability to work at home is reshaping the commercial real estate market. The extra bedroom and the kitchen table have replaced the office cubicle.
What has replaced newspapers?
On the national level, there is no lack of coverage. The Wall Street Journal pioneered digital subscriptions in the 1990s. Almost all print publications now have digital versions, but only the largest publications have seen it become really profitable, such The New York Times and The Washington Post. In addition, there has been a mass proliferation of digital-only publications covering national news, among them Politico, Axios, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Daily Caller.
At the same time as national news outlets have grown, there has been a steady loss of regional coverage of federal and state news as the print publications that supported it have contracted or collapsed. The Washington bureaus of many publications — often just one or two reporters — have disappeared, much as The Sun’s did decades ago.
What’s happened at The Washington Post illustrates the trend. After it was acquired by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the national and foreign staffs of the Post have doubled in size to over 1,000, while its local reporting staff has stayed about the same. Soon after Bezos acquired the Post, it shuttered the local Gazette newspapers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Maryland’s two largest counties suddenly lost their main source of local news.
The contraction and shuttering of local news outlets are the most harmful to community life. While these newspapers often had young reporters who might only stay a couple of years, there were generally editors and senior staffers who lived in the community and worked there for the long haul. When those people got laid off or took buyouts, there was a tremendous loss of institutional knowledge.
Editors and reporters who have been covering Howard or Anne Arundel counties for years know how things got the way they are. They can also recognize when something is different, off kilter, not quite right. They can recognize news that you’ll never see in a press release from the county government, the school system, the community college, the hospital, a major employer.
As those news reports shrivel over time, the major institutions beef up their public relations and communications staff to produce their own versions of news online and in print. Where once they advertised in the Columbia Flier and used it to publicize their programs, they do it now directly. They may not have always been happy with their coverage, especially if parts of the community were upset and generated negative stories, but the Flier’s dominance in Columbia as the news source everyone relied on made it a necessary vehicle.
Ultimately there is no substitute for independent journalism, even if that journalism is too often a lap dog instead of a watchdog. Volunteer bloggers provide a valuable service, as do citizen journalists and activists on social media. But they cannot match the coverage of people who are paid to do it week in, week out.
Retrieving what is lost
How do we get back what we lost?
Around the country, many people concerned about the loss of local journalism have turned to the nonprofit model. There are now over 400 members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, and many were founded in areas where newspapers have died or are struggling. Many nonprofit news websites, like Maryland Reporter and Maryland Matters, which cover state government and politics, focus on niche areas.
Last year, wealthy business owner and philanthropist Stewart Bainum financed the launch of the Baltimore Banner daily news site, taking many top reporters from the Sun. It now has one of the largest newsrooms in Maryland. Unlike other nonprofits, which rely on donors and foundations, the Banner has embraced the subscription model, but a year out, it reported 26,000 individual subscribers, with another 50,000 group subscriptions from institutions like Johns Hopkins. Its focus has been on Baltimore City and County, already served by TV, radio stations, the Sun and a couple of news websites. Coverage of Howard County has been skimpy at best, despite its potential base of well-educated, high-income readers.
Others in the news business are looking for other revenue models, particularly from the government. There has been a long history of government subsidies for journalism. There still are discounted postal rates and speedy delivery guarantees that have existed since the time of Benjamin Franklin. Newspapers are also fighting to preserve the public notices and legal ads that are required to be published in newspapers of general circulation.
Much as I still like to start my day with coffee and hard copies of the Post and the overpriced Sun, most younger people never acquired the habit. Technology, advertising alternatives and the logistics of printing and delivering the news on ground up trees have made the old newspaper business difficult. But there is no less need for the local, community news this business model once supported.