Van Smith, 48, is the senior staff writer at the Baltimore City Paper. He started freelancing for the scrappy alt-weekly in 1987, worked on staff from 1994 to 1998, bolted and returned in 2002. He’s been there ever since.
Soon he’ll be terminated from the employment of Times-Shamrock Communications, the Scranton, Pa.,-based outfit that is selling the paper to the Baltimore Sun Media Group. Then the Baltimore Sun people will decide whether he and other Baltimore City Paper staffers will find work under the Sun’s roof. “There are no guarantees and surely there are redundancies given the Sun’s a large newspaper company,” says Smith, who has sweated out the uncertainty ever since the paper’s owner announced last August that it was putting Baltimore City Paper on the block.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever done,” says Smith. “I have sources and a body of knowledge built over a period of time that doesn’t go anywhere else very easily. If I’m out of a job, I guess I’ll have to find another career.”
Perhaps he won’t have to study up for that real estate exam. A Sun rep, says Smith, has made “grandiose statements about how they love the City Paper and how they respect it.” That makes sense: Jennifer Marsh will serve as general manager of Baltimore City Paper-at-Baltimore Sun. She formerly worked at the Baltimore City Paper. Evan Serpick, the Baltimore City Paper’s editor, says the new owner has expressed “some sense of value of the independence and editorial perspective of City Paper. It’s something they wanted to maintain.”
That might well entail maintaining Smith’s obsession with the culture of drugs and prisons in and around Baltimore. Regional news junkies will doubtless remember the April 2013 indictment of 13 female corrections officers who all but handed over operations of a Baltimore jail to a national prison gang known as the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF).
The activities of the BGF, however, wouldn’t have come as a shock to those who had been reading Smith’s work. In 2009, he did a number of portraits of BGF members, and the lede of one piece unspooled this way:
It’s not clear whether 45-year-old Nelson Arthur Robinson recognizes his prosecutor, but he should. As Robinson is ushered into a federal courtroom in Baltimore on Apr. 15 by U.S. marshals, set to be arraigned on accusations that he’s part of the sprawling Black Guerilla Family prison-gang conspiracy, assistant U.S. attorney James Wallner is there at the prosecution table. A decade ago, in 1999, Wallner was the assistant Baltimore City state’s attorney who secured Robinson’s guilty plea on a pot-possession charge, for which Robinson got a one-year sentence, all but a day suspended. This time, Wallner’s stone-faced demeanor belies a grim determination to get a bigger piece of Robinson.
Obsessive crime-and-justice coverage has always been a thing for alt-weeklies. So has media coverage. The Village Voice, the Baltimore City Paper, the Washington City Paper (where the Erik Wemple Blog once worked) and many others have long regarded attacking the predominant daily newspaper as a matter of mission. Not quite as much anymore, at least at Baltimore City Paper, which discontinued its “Media Circus” column years ago. The last “Media Circus” columnist, Gadi Dechter, left the Baltimore City Paper in 2006 for the Baltimore Sun.
“We’ve been losing resources right and left,” says Baltimore City Paper Creative Director Joe MacLeod. “Our job is not to be the anti-Sun or even criticize the Sun. It’s not part of our [expletive] mission anymore to go after the Sun.” Says Smith on the same topic: “I have no animosity toward the Sun and never have. This pursuit in life has been in danger and the ranks of people practicing it has been shrinking.” The Sun, a property of the Tribune Co., has sustained repeated newsroom cuts in recent years.
Lee Gardner, who edited the Baltimore City Paper from 2002 to 2010, says, “The troubles of the news business and the contraction of the news business made me somewhat sympathetic to the Sun.”
Good thing David Simon has been around.
For context on an alt-weekly getting gobbled up by the local daily, consider the 2012 acquisition of the Chicago Reader by the owners of the Sun-Times and Sun-Times Media. Wrote the Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner: “If the concept of an alternative newspaper means anything at all four decades after the Reader was founded, it means that the employees of one define themselves by what they’re not — they’re not churning out stories for an old-line daily newspaper.”