Sara Michael is a Baltimore-based writer who spent two and a half years as a reporter for the Baltimore Examiner, most recently covering health and science. She has also covered technology for a national trade magazine, and earned her master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University. For more on Sara and her writing, visit www.saramichael.org.
For weeks, and perhaps months, after the Baltimore Examiner launched nearly three years ago, people said it would fail. Some gave us six months, or a year, before folding. They expected it. There’s no way a newspaper can launch from scratch and be delivered to roughly 250,000 homes for free, they said. There’s no way a major city newspaper can sustain itself on ad sales alone.
In the end, they were right. It did fail, but the Examiner was – and still is in Washington and San Francisco – an experiment in news delivery. As newspapers downsize staff, go online only and cut pages, the Examiner tried something different. And before the last edition hit doorsteps and newsstands last Sunday, we had managed to challenge the legacy paper in town and make a name for ourselves among readers and sources.
The premise for the Examiner was targeted delivery six days a week to a specific number of homes fitting a profile, such as living close to a shopping center, having kids and making good money. There were also bright red news boxes around the area. The stories were shorter – between 300 and 400 words with longer features once a week – and ledes were punchy and headlines sexy.
I started at the Examiner on Aug. 1, 2006 covering Howard County, a suburb about a half hour outside of Baltimore. I joined a staff of about 20 other reporters (an all-time high in staffing levels at the paper), all young and either just starting out in journalism or just a few years in. Already, just five months after the launch, about a dozen reporters had started and quit the Examiner, many fed up with the crushing hectic pace.
Two stories a day, at least – that’s what was expected of us. And these aren’t press release rewrites; we’re talking fully reported (three source minimum) news stories. I wasn’t sure it was possible, and struggled a bit in the beginning to come through, but after a couple months, I was cranking out at least that much each day. It’s amazing where you can find stories – though arguably, many of the stories I and others wrote didn’t deserve even 300 words. I found myself covering the minutia of a Planning Board decision, the details of each interim report, and countless angry neighborhood associations miffed by some planned development.
The pace was break-neck. The days flew by as we all scrambled to make calls, go to meetings and pressers and sum it all up in 350 words by 6 p.m. (That’s right, add to the unreasonable story counts equally unreasonable deadlines.)
Looking back, it’s hard to say what kept me or any of the other reporters there. Many days – ok, most days, especially in the first several months – I would come home drained, emotionally and physically exhausted. Some mornings, I would arrive to the office only to see egregious errors in my story in the paper. I once wrote a story about a group of parents who wanted a stop sign at an intersection frequented by young kids and speeding drivers. They didn’t want to see a child hit by a car, which had happened elsewhere in the county. The subhead? “Child hit by car at same intersection.” I spent the morning fielding angry calls from county officials and neighbors.
It’s a start up, they kept saying. We’re still working out the kinks with the copy desk. And some of it did smooth out.
We were motivated by what I imagine motivates most newspaper reporters. There are stories that need to be told, deals that should be investigated, information that readers need. As we continued to ask tough questions and write complete, balanced stories, our reputation grew. Fewer people called to complain about the paper being dropped off each morning on their doorstep. Instead, they started to pick it up and liked what they read: interesting, well reported news stories, many that were overlooked by the Baltimore Sun, which had been the only paper in town for more than 20 years and was struggling with its own newsroom cuts.
We all believed in being newspaper reporters in a town that needed that second voice.
Ryan McKibben, the CEO of Clarity Media, the Examiner’s parent company, blamed the closing on poor ad revenues, something about “synergies” with the DC paper that never materialized. He called it a “perfect storm” brought on by the collapsing economy. But did they have to throw in the towel before even hitting the three-year mark? I understand they were losing money hand over fist, but I am not convinced the powers that be tried everything they could to keep the paper alive, and perhaps that’s because they weren’t in the newsroom with us or even in the town affected by our presence. The paper in DC stays afloat because it gives the conservative owner Philip Anschutz a voice in Washington. But in Baltimore, we didn’t have that security.
Some readers suggested they would be willing to pay for the paper, but that’s not the answer. Several months ago, we cut down home delivery to twice a week and upped the number of papers in the boxes. Why not go all online with a print edition once a week on Sundays or limit distribution just to the boxes? Regardless, I am sure we can all agree that starting up a print newspaper these days is an unreasonable venture, and in retrospect seems a little ridiculous. People barely read the print papers that have been around for 200 years, and most people get their news from aggregator sites or the online editions of major papers. As much as some of us like sitting down with the paper in the morning or taking it on the bus with us, those days are ending. Instead of tweaking the old model of news delivery, we need an entirely new model of news delivery.
As a young journalist, my time at the Examiner taught me how to scrounge for stories and meet seemingly unreasonable deadlines. It also gave me an inside glimpse of what it’s like to struggle to keep a paper going every day, but mostly I just hunkered down and worked hard, as did all the reporters and editors there. At least we can say we tried something different and even thrived at it for a time. And something more radical that launching a free daily newspaper has to be done to revive the public service that is news delivery.
Each morning for the final two weeks of the paper, my editor sent out an email to the editorial staff aimed at motivating us to keep up the good work in the final days. In one, he seemed to sum up what the paper was to us, to Baltimore, and perhaps to the entire newspaper landscape. In his call for good stories, my editor wrote that we should keep putting out the news, “ensuring that when some media historian stumbles across an innovative newspaper named The Baltimore Examiner, that historian shall read our names and say, holy shit, this was a real newspaper.”