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Jan. 22, 2024, 1:15 p.m.
Business Models

After a bleak turn for The Baltimore Sun, independent outlets see a surge in subscribers and attention

“We’re taking the opportunity to remind people that we are an independent, trustworthy news source in the Baltimore region — and they are responding.”

The situation at The Baltimore Sun is looking, to borrow the language of one journalist after the newsroom met its new owner, bleak. In the wake of a worrying sale last week bringing the Sun under new ownership, other local outlets are stepping up and seeing support.

The news organization best positioned to take on the mantle is The Baltimore Banner, the bustling nonprofit digital newsroom described from launch as the Sun’s crosstown rival. (Philanthropist Stewart Bainum founded the Banner in 2022 after attempting, unsuccessfully, to buy the 187-year-old newspaper.) The Banner’s newsroom has grown to 70 journalists, including several prominent hires from the Sun, which has a 70-person newsroom now, too, after enduring years of cuts and layoffs.

Baltimore Banner editor-in-chief Kimi Yoshino confirmed “an enormous surge” in new subscribers after the Sun news broke. The Banner added an average of 500 new subscribers per day in the three days after the sale. Traffic to the Baltimore Banner’s website also doubled, Yoshino added, and there’s been “an uptick” in donations as well.

The Banner now has 89,000 subscribers with paid access, up from 70,000 just seven months ago. That figure, as we noted back in June, includes paid institutional and group subscriptions. The Banner currently has 34,000 individual subscribers, Yoshino said.

David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and a former Sun reporter, pledged his production company would donate $1 to the Banner for every new subscriber through Monday afternoon. The Banner reported 1,079 new subscribers during that period and Simon said he donated $1,080.

Readers can expect to see certain phrases featured more prominently in the Banner’s marketing assets.

“We’re taking the opportunity to remind people that we are an independent, trustworthy news source in the Baltimore region — and they are responding,” Yoshino said.

The newest individual subscribers to the Banner will have paid just a dollar under a promo rate of six months for $1. One thing that incoming CEO Bob Cohn is sure to watch? How well the Banner can hang on to subscribers as that introductory rate expires. A full-price subscription to the Baltimore Banner costs $20 every four weeks. The pricing closely matches the Sun, where digital access also costs $20 every four weeks after an introductory six-month period. For comparison, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and The Boston Globe, two well-established metro dailies that’ve found digital success, charge $19 and $27 every four weeks, respectively. And The New York Times all-access bundle — the only digital subscription to feature their news product — will run you $25 every four weeks.

At launch, The Baltimore Banner announced a goal of 100,000 subscribers by 2025. (Yoshino said this initial target was for individual subscribers, but emphasized sustainability as the ultimate goal. The Banner met both its subscriber and revenue targets for 2023, she said.) Founder and chairman Bainum, who backed the Banner with a pledge of $50 million, has said he will give the new nonprofit “four or five years” to pull its own weight. Retaining subscribers — including the hundreds of subscribers who signed up following the sale of the Sun — will be critical for meeting those marks.

“The Banner is uniquely positioned — and lucky — thanks to Stewart Bainum’s generosity, but we also know it’s not an open-ended blank check,” Yoshino said. “The entire organization has been mission driven from day one, but weeks like this are a reminder how important it is for us to do everything we can to succeed.”

 

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The Banner is not the only local news org to see a surge in attention. The Baltimore Beat has seen a spike in donations since the city heard the Sun would change hands, editor-in-chief Lisa Snowden said, as well as an increase in social media followers and online traffic. The Black-led newspaper and digital news site launched a fundraiser on Friday that was “absolutely” in response to the Baltimore Sun news, Snowden said.

“We knew we needed to step it up and that this sale makes the work we are doing even more important,” Snowden said.

The Beat had raised nearly $10,000 toward its goal of $100,000 over 30 days as of Monday morning. The nonprofit news org — which honors “the tradition of the Black press” as well as “the spirit of alt-weekly journalism” with its reporting — is funded primarily by donations and has a three-person staff, not including freelancers. The Beat also sells print advertising.

Unlike The Baltimore Banner or The Baltimore Sun, the Beat does not have a paywall. And The Beat stands out among its fellows in nonprofit news for putting out a free, biweekly print edition.

Baltimore has a stark digital divide. More than 40% of residents do not have internet at home, making “accessible print journalism a necessity,” as the Beat believes. Though that gap has closed slightly and millions have been promised by the city to address the problem, tens of thousands of households do not have access to wired internet.

“We aim to serve all of Baltimore City, including those with limited internet access and those who are a part of underrepresented communities,” The Baltimore Beat’s mission statement reads, in part. “We believe news should be free and accessible to all and that to achieve this, journalism cannot solely be digital and should not be paywalled.”

Every other week, The Baltimore Beat distributes 20,000 newspapers to more than 200 locations, including its own reimagined newspaper boxes – called Beat Boxes — throughout the city. The Beat Boxes do double duty as community exchanges, offering items like toiletries, boxes of Hamburger Helper, books, and Narcan. A “community resources” guide — covering food distribution, rent assistance, legal and tax services, and more in Baltimore City — is featured on the homepage and appears in every print issue of the Beat.

Snowden has noted she’s looking for “slow, steady, sustainable growth” for the Beat and called out how news and information can mirror the segregated lines of the city. Many of those posting about donating to the Beat highlighted its “community-centered journalism” or resource guide, talking about “the people’s paper” and praising how the Beat goes beyond negative headlines to cover the city in its entirety.

“I think the overall mood in journalism right now, locally and nationally, is one of worry and this sale doesn’t seem to help that feeling,” Snowden said, when I asked her how the Sun news could affect the news landscape in Baltimore. “A lot of this city’s news is dominated by media that plays on a lot of harmful stereotypes and I don’t think this helps anything.”

Baltimore Brew editor and publisher Fern Shen echoed some of the worried sentiments. The veteran reporter said it’d been “a wrenching week for news readers and writers” in the city. The Brew saw “a significant traffic bump” on its website, as well as “modest” increases in pledged financial support and email newsletter subscribers, she noted.

Their tweet announcing “a seismic shift” in Baltimore journalism got 101,000 impressions — “a lot for us,” Shen said. Traffic on the Brew stayed up in the days after the sale, with 12,000 new users interacting with the site.

Shen said their five-person newsroom hasn’t done promotion around the Sun sale. “But what we did was what we’ve always tried to do — write good stories and break important news,” she said.

“We covered not only David Smith’s purchase of the newspaper and derisive remarks in his meeting with the staff, but a unique angle we’d been preparing for months — Smith’s support for and financing of a mayoral candidate, former mayor Sheila Dixon,” she said. “We described how Dixon was approached by Smith months ago and offered financial backing in return for agreeing to Smith’s checklist of conservative political positions.”

Another big story this week was the data-driven — and “pretty disgusting” — look at sewer overflows and basement sewage back-ups in Baltimore.

The Brew “specializes in aggressive accountability reporting,” including hard looks at “campaign cash, development deals, government spending, city services and more.” Most of the nonprofit newsroom’s revenue (roughly 80%) comes from foundation support with the rest coming from a growing number of supporters who contribute between $5 to $25 per month. (The Brew does not have a paywall or sell advertising.)

The newsroom has collected “a loyal and close following” since launching in 2010, Shen said, noting that the Brew has 45,000 Twitter followers compared to the much bigger and better-funded Banner, which has 28,000 followers.

“There’s a robust media ecosystem here, with hard-working reporters who compete with, challenge, and respect each other and all have impact — and that’s something to remember,” Shen said. “It’s a hardy, but stretched-thin group. We often find ourselves the sole reporters covering meetings, angles, or issues and our media colleagues at other news organizations have surely had the same experience.”

Baltimore is home to many local news outlets smaller than the Banner or Sun. Shen made a strong case for a robust, diverse, and multi-faceted independent news ecosystem for the city.

“In the wake of the Sun sale to an owner with such appalling past history and recent statements, there’s an understandable push to beef up the ambitious and already large Baltimore Banner newsroom in response,” Shen said. “But it’s important to recognize that the work of independents like The Brew — and of terrific journalists in a number of different news organizations — is vital. We appreciate stories like this one because in the days ahead, the conversation shouldn’t devolve into a binary where it’s Macy’s and Gimbels and nothing else.”

“Healthy competition from a wide range of voices is the only way we’re going to get through this and give the city the hard-hitting but nuanced reporting it deserves,” she added. “As Smith dismantles the Sun as we know it and drives talented and hard-working staffers away, there’s all the more reason for the public to support the town’s other media organizations, big and small.”

This piece has been updated to include additional subscription numbers from The Baltimore Banner. 

Photo of The Baltimore Sun newspaper by Fern Shen / Baltimore Brew.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Jan. 22, 2024, 1:15 p.m.
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