Examiner closing

Poor ad revenue, proximity to its D.C. paper to blame

January 30, 2009|By Tricia Bishop and Liz F. Kay | Tricia Bishop and Liz F. Kay and,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com and liz.kay@baltsun.com

Less than three years after its debut, the Baltimore Examiner free newspaper will cease publication next month, a victim of the worst advertising climate in decades. The last issue will be on Feb. 15.

The decision comes after months of unsuccessful attempts to find a buyer for the paper and failed efforts to package ads with a sister publication in Washington, Denver-based owner Clarity Media Group said yesterday.

"This is very disappointing for all of us. Obviously, this is not what we envisioned when we launched the newspaper," Clarity Chief Executive Officer Ryan McKibben said in a letter sent to Examiner staff yesterday morning. The company said it will now concentrate resources on an Internet venture already in multiple markets, including Baltimore, and its papers in San Francisco and Washington, where it plans to add space, new columnists and Web editors.

But that doesn't do much for Baltimore, city leaders lamented yesterday. The Examiner's closure means fewer people to tell Maryland's tales, keep tabs on its public officials and provide alternate analysis of the day's events, they said.

"The checks and balances of different perspectives [are] healthy," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "The more media out there in the long run, the better."

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon called it a "great loss." Dixon has verbally sparred with Examiner reporters in the past, but yesterday she praised the paper as helping provide news balance to the city. The Examiner was often described as a conservative counter to The Baltimore Sun's more liberal editorial page.

"It is the press that tells the story of this city, and it [is] sad to lose such a resource," Dixon said in a statement. "But more importantly, the city is losing a valuable part of our business community and a source of quality jobs for our residents."

The newspaper employed about 90 people in its downtown Baltimore offices. Most learned they were out of work at a staff meeting yesterday morning. "Everyone is really sad," City Hall reporter Stephen Janis said. "It is a place where everyone put what they had into the paper."

When the Examiner was launched in April 2006, it brought the reputation of sister papers in Washington and San Francisco, leading Baltimore to expect a fast read - 20 minutes or less - and a heavy workload for its reporters.

"We were stretched so thin as it is," said staff writer Luke Broadwater, whose Examiner work earned an award from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. He once ran "between Baltimore City federal court and Baltimore County court all in one day trying to cover three hearings all at the same time," he said. But, he added: "We were hustling, and when you hustle, you get good stories."

When it launched in 2006, the company, owned by Philip F. Anschutz, targeted six-day-a-week home delivery in affluent Baltimore neighborhoods where incomes are about $73,000 or more. It, like the other Examiners, was based on a free and locally focused model of publication.

"The Examiners are a kind of interesting experiment," said Rem Rieder, editor and publisher of the American Journalism Review magazine. "You've got kind of an untested approach at a time when newspapers are in decline because of the Internet. It makes survival quite a challenge."

Sun Publisher Timothy E. Ryan said in a statement that the paper has seen competitors come and go in its 172 years. But The Sun's "commitment remains unchanged: to provide our community, readers and advertisers with the best local media that will continue to meet their evolving needs."

The media industry has been hit hard by the poor economy, which has forced people to cut back on discretionary expenditures and businesses to cut back on advertising, which newspapers and other print publications rely on for revenue.

Christopher Corbett, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, pointed out that many outlets couldn't even afford to send reporters to ride along in presidential election campaign buses last year. And this month, Baltimore's free Urbanite magazine added a "donation" section to its Web site where readers can pledge amounts ranging from $25 to $5,000. We're going through "the worst advertising recession since World War II and maybe the Great Depression," said John Morton, an independent newspaper analyst in Silver Spring. It's hard to tell how much of the Examiner's failure is because of that or its business model. As a privately held company, it doesn't have to release information or statistics, Morton said.

In a statement, McKibben stressed that the Examiner business model "has achieved success." But, he said, the proximity to its other paper in Washington wasn't tenable. "It is not possible to maintain two major daily newspapers within a 50-mile distance and do justice to both publications," he said.

The company initially thought the nearby location would be a boon because it could package ads for publication in both papers, providing additional revenue. But sales "didn't materialize to the level that was in our projections," Clarity spokesman Jim Monaghan said in an interview.

In an effort to cut costs last year, the paper reduced home delivery to two days in Baltimore City and Howard, Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and scaled back printing by 80 percent, distributing 335,000 Sunday papers and 256,000 Thursday papers but only 50,000 on the remaining days.

But it wasn't enough to keep the paper afloat. Examiner reporters struggled to absorb that idea yesterday, then push it to the periphery. There are still two weeks of publication left and events to cover. Said Janis: "We have to go put a paper out."

Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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