Thursday, January 29, 2009

R.I.P. Baltimore Examiner

Another paper bites the dust
as freebie not-quite-daily folds

The Baltimore Examiner announced its death today, effective with its edition of Sunday, Feb. 15, bringing an end to a local experiment in daily journalism: Give it away for free.

It was a money-losing proposition from the get-go, but owner Clarity Media Group said it had banked on revenue growth through eventual synergy with its sister Washington Examiner some 40 miles down the highway.

Didn’t happen. The company blamed the economy, which indisputably has cut deeply into advertising revenue through the newspaper industry. But when it’s hard enough to make money giving news away for free online, you have to question the model of giving it away for free in print.

To my view, the Baltimore Examiner was a noble experiment in that it brought a little competition to a monopoly news organization, The Baltimore Sun – my longtime employer. Unfortunately, the economy conspired there, too, so instead of improving the product, The Sun has gradually downsized itself.

The Examiner was launched in April 2006, a little more than a year before I retired – so I had a good view about how it was regarded by The Sun: Not highly. The new paper, a tabloid, initially seemed helter-skelter in its presentation of the news, and the stories were of necessity brief. A lot of little stories and, for awhile, swimming in ample space that served to scatter them.

At first determined not to be beaten/embarrassed by the Examiner on breaking news, the novelty soon wore off, and The Sun focused less on the little competitor and more on its strengths in news coverage and newspaper design. And for the most part, Sun readers wanted that paper – after all, they were paying for it.

The Examiner’s delivery brought annoyance from many who professed not to want it, but found it on their lawn on driveway or sidewalk each day. That’s a problem when, at first, you declare a daily circulation of a quarter-million and start throwing it around willy-nilly. Its target was upscale neighborhoods that advertisers would want to reach, but the audience had more sophistication than the Examiner’s overall content.

And some who wanted the newspaper found they could not count on its arrival. In my suburban neighborhood, the Examiner was there for a while, then vanished, then would show up sometimes, then disappear again. (In its delivery heyday locally, I could walk along a neighboring street late at night and find that morning’s Examiner lying untouched on half of the driveways.)

Recently, the Examiner opted to change its model to home delivery only on Thursdays and Sundays. But I never saw one on my lawn or driveway, or even in the gutter. On rare occasions I’d spot it on a driveway along a nearby street, usually having been left lying on the concrete for days in its thin plastic bag.

Always, there was the newspaper’s Web site – every bit as free as the print edition. And when the Examiner cut back home delivery (keeping a smaller daily in-town distribution through vending boxes), it promoted the daily Web edition as an alternative.

There were readers – or professed readers – who were outspoken in their belief that The Sun was a blatantly left-leaning newspaper, and favored the Examiner’s conservative voice. (The Examiner endorsed McCain/Palin in the presidential election, and its editorials and some opinion articles leaned well to the right of Maryland’s and Baltimore’s largely Democratic bent.)

To add local voice, the Examiner hired conservative black columnist Gregory Kane, who took a buyout in leaving The Sun for what, sadly, turned out not to be a long-term gig. It also brought aboard Michael Olesker, a liberal-leaning columnist who had written for Hearst’s long-gone Baltimore News American before putting in two decades at The Sun (his career there sadly ending amid complaints of plagiarism, which could just as well have been due to profound carelessness or laziness on his part).

They both were friends of mine at The Sun and, like me, are graduates of Baltimore City College (third-oldest public high school in the nation). Olesker and I were in the same 10th-grade homeroom. So I greatly grieved his exit from The Sun, and was glad to see him surface at the Examiner.

Another old Sun friend, Gary Gately, came aboard at the Examiner for a year as an assistant managing editor – until the newspaper decided it had too many assistant managing editors and bid him bye-bye. But during his tenure, for the few months I worked two blocks away editing at the weekly Baltimore Business Journal, I’d wander past the Pratt Street office tower housing his newspaper and usually find him on a cigarette break with colleagues. So I got to meet quite a few of the Examiner’s reporters and editors.

A casual conversation with Gately and sports editor Jon Gallo led to a freelance venture writing stories on new Baltimore Orioles baseball players, providing me with press credentials for spring training in Florida last year. I’d always wanted to write baseball stories, and the Examiner bought and published seven from me. I worked a little harder than one might imagine during a nearly two-week stint in Florida, but got to see plenty of baseball – and in the end managed to keep my expenses low enough so that they pretty much matched the income. (Tax bite: Zero.)

The Sun had three folks covering spring training, while the Examiner was relying on the Associated Press. It left an opening for my freelance opportunity – one that I wasn’t going to have anywhere else. For that, thanks, Examiner! (And if any other news organization around town is looking for some freelance coverage this year, I’m very available….)

It also provided a regular check for my friend Rafael Alvarez who, after taking his buyout from The Sun, tried his hand at television writing (The Wire series on HBO, and the first season of Life on NBC before being fired after the writers’ strike) and then expanded his newspaper freelancing.

So the Examiner has been good to some of my friends, and a place for news folks to hang a hat and ply their trade for the benefit of however many folks actually read the newspaper.

I hope a lot of folks were reading it, and that they’ll miss it.

Good or bad, depending on your view, it was a real newspaper. And its death further diminishes an ailing industry.

Locally, there’s still The Sun – although a much smaller newspaper than the one I worked at for 40 years. Its daily business and metro news sections have been incorporated into the main news section, its foreign bureaus are gone, its once-vaunted national reporting minimized. Sports and features sections are smaller.

Hardly a wonder people are looking elsewhere for news these days.

The Fourth Estate is simply a mess.

Today’s fortune cookie message

All your hard work will soon be paid off.

Daily number: 018


sungal said...

being a newspaper lover, i'm sad top see the examiner go. the really sad part is that the sun has turned into the examiner: filled with "a lot of little stories."

Anonymous said...

The Examiner delivery reminds me of something the Dallas Morning News is doing here: tossing a small paper of briefs, called Briefing, for free. I don't take the paper for the sole purpose that it's mostly briefs these days. I want stories to read, not briefs.

Kathleen said...

The Washington Post has gotten smaller these days, too. I subscribe to the Sunday edition, and it's a bit smaller than the weekday editions used to be (I can only assume they're smaller these days, too.) Now that the elections are over, I'm seriously considering cancelling that subscription. I miss good newspapers.

MitchHellman said...

At this rate, pretty soon there won't be enough newspaper left to line the bottom of a bird cage. I'll have to start printing out some of the daily sh*tload of spam I receive just so the bird has something to read.

Anonymous said...

For the last time: The Baltimore Examiner is not being closed because it is losing money. It makes money; today's advertising-(not duplicated with the DC edition)-packed edition is evidence. The paper simply does not make ENOUGH money to satisfy its publishers. What's killing newspapers today--and has been for the past 25 years--isn't that they aren't profitable. It's corporate management and shareholder GREED. A newspaper that breaks even or makes even a little money is a failure in their eyes and not worth the trouble. In most industries, that thinking is ridiculous. In the modern newspaper business, it's the status quo.