Five Years Ago, I Almost Bought The City Paper
Imagine a world where Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods worked for me.....
Imagine a world where Baltimore’s favorite left-wing alternative newspaper was purchased by Baltimore’s least favorite conservative writer.
We came sorta close to that world back in 2017.
A Brief, Brief, Brief History of the City Paper
Some background. Baltimore’s City Paper was created in 1976 as an “alternative” newspaper operating out of the Johns Hopkins University student newspaper offices. It was published as an independent paper for over ten years before being sold to a Pennsylvania newspaper chain in 1987. It was sold to the Baltimore Sun Media Group (BSMG) in 2013.
Yes, there was a time when the City Paper and Red Maryland were both published under the same umbrella.
The City Paper’s main beat, of course, was out-of-the-mainstream content. They would write in-depth stories that the Baltimore Sun never could and often never would. They also focused extensively on “alternative” content, focusing heavily on LGBTG material, drugs, and other things that made the business not exactly easy to pigeonhole. The paper also relied on an advertising-focused model, where advertising kept the paper available for free.
During college, we called the paper the Shitty Paper because it was free and really offered nothing of any redeeming value to society other than music reviews.
This advertising model was on its way out. As classifieds waned and advertising moved online, the City Paper just couldn’t make it any longer without significant change. At that point, BSMG threw in the towel and announced the paper would be shut down.
The shutdown was announced in July 2017. The same day the shutdown was announced, I reached out to BSMG leadership to try to determine if they were interested in selling the operation. They were. I was not the only person who wanted to talk about buying it. We talked. There were phone calls. I signed a non-disclosure agreement. We talked some more.
Ultimately, the juice was not worth the squeeze. There was just not enough value in making a major offer for the City Paper. There was no financially viable path forward if I offered a lot of money for the paper. I made a token offer of $1 to buy the entire enterprise, which of course was not accepted.
The most valuable thing that I could have purchased given the financial outlook of the paper would have been to monetize the email list. But even that was not worth the baggage that would have accompanied making a full purchase.
An Alternative Alternative Paper
One of the laments from City Paper staff and aficionados was that “Baltimore was losing a progressive voice.”
What they didn’t realize is that this is exactly what their problem was. The City Paper editorial stance was no different than that of the Baltimore Sun. The only difference between the two was that the City Paper got to use cruder language and talk more about drugs and sex.
It was the fact that it was a “progressive voice” that was holding it back. That’s why those that have tried to fill their shoes have gotten no traction whatsoever. The Real News is viewed as a joke. The Baltimore Beat failed spectacularly after four months only to re-emerge this year as a non-profit funded by a big-money grant. But both are similar to the City Paper insofar as they are reporting their view of the news from a radical, left-wing perspective. Their political slant makes the City Paper look it was printed by Jerry Falwell.
But a Brian Griffiths-owned City Paper would have looked a lot different. Ther was a plan in place for the first six-months of operation. It would have looked something like this:
No Change to the Editorial or Writing Staff for Six Months: What there was not was a plan to fire everybody immediately. The writers and journalists would have had time to show value to the paper before any permanent decisions were made.
End the Syndicated Columns: In the year 2017, anybody can find a syndicated column if they want to. Why would anybody keep paying for this when the finances were tight.
Say Hello to the New Opinion Page: I would have written a weekly column. My Red Maryland compadres were also going to be given an opportunity to write weekly or semi-weekly as well. But other credible writers of any political persuasion would be given an opportunity to submit op-eds. As long as they were well-written and not crazy, we planned to run them.
A Shift in Advertisers: The seedy advertising content would be phased out and replaced with more normal advertising content, for obvious reasons.
The 8 O’Clock News: The boldest idea of all. The City Paper would launch an 8 PM news broadcast, streamed on YouTube or Facebook, as a 10-15 minute alternative news broadcast to the major news stations that would allow viewers to watch it on demand any time. This was a few years before the TV stations themselves made watching a news broadcast accessible anytime and viewable on your phone.
The new City Paper would be a bit of a break from the past and would position the paper to reach a new audience in an effort to actually become profitable again.
The Great Unknown
Would the new City Paper have worked? We’ll never know. We can’t gauge the potential future success of the new City Paper against the failures of The Real News or The Baltimore Beat since they are so similar in viewpoint to the original City Paper.
But at the same time, I think that it very well might have been a smashing success. The physical, hard copy circulation of the City Paper was about 50,000 people. That’s not too much larger that the number of people who subscribe to The Duckpin and receive our emails every week. Comparatively, The Duckpin and the City Paper are roughly on par when it comes to circulation. But we have no money behind us, no advertising budget, no massive social media presence, no corporate structure, and no major newspaper operation behind me.
So do I think that the new version would have been a success? Yes, yes I do. But it was just never meant to be. The product was not worth the asking price, nor was assuming the debt. But the fact that I built something similar online in a little over two years says a lot about what could have been….