In July, in a corner of the Baltimore Sun building, one floor above the Sun newsroom, about a dozen staffers of the smaller, scrappier Baltimore City Paper gathered for an editorial meeting. Like the City Paper itself, the talk moved quickly and casually from one subject to another. Light and serious subjects were thrown together: There were some new barbecue joints to write up; the cover about sexual assaults in the local art scene needed to be run by legal; was there something to say about academics who are noise musicians?
The wisdom of the crowd converged when Brandon Soderberg puzzled over the mysterious provenance of Gray Haven, the latest strain of marijuana to cross his palate. Soderberg is both the paper’s editor and one of its pot critics. He knows his weed, but he hadn’t been able to uncover the first thing about this particular variety. Perhaps the name held a clue? He read off some loopy texts from a helpful stoner friend, a Tolkien fan who said there is a place called Grey Havens in Middle-earth. The messages were pipe dreams billowing with head-spinning arcana. “I’ve read ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ ” said art director Athena Towery, dryly. “I don’t think that’s in there.” The room erupted with laughter, then settled on another Tolkien work — “The Silmarillion” — as the source. Photo editor J.M. “Joe” Giordano added that the bud shares its name with a neighborhood in Dundalk, Md.
Earlier in the meeting, Soderberg had offered a mea culpa: He’d gotten out of the office by 5 p.m. the previous Friday, but only because he’d been slack. Routine errors made it all the way from his keyboard through copy editing, fact-checking and proofreading to the printed page. His diagnosis, though tongue-in-cheek, was swift: “It’s almost as if we’re closing soon and our attention is not totally directed on the paper the way it used to be!”
And there it is. After 40 years, the date of the last issue of the Baltimore City Paper is Nov. 1. The owner, Baltimore Sun Media Group, a subsidiary of Tronc — the media company formerly known as Tribune Publishing — says the City Paper doesn’t make enough money.
The CP, as it’s known in Baltimore, is hardly alone. The fall in print advertising and paid classifieds that has decimated mainstream newspapers has also been ruinous for many alternative newsweeklies. The Village Voice and the San Francisco Bay Guardian are now Web-only; several years ago, the Boston Phoenix shut down completely. With each closing or online migration, the alt-weekly as a subgenre of journalism comes closer to flatlining.
At first blush, it may not seem that much is being lost as these papers decline: The irreverence and outrage alt-weeklies once exclusively supplied can now be found at sites like Deadspin and Jezebel, or in the latest meme storm on Twitter. In Baltimore, few residents are likely to suffer in the absence of the City Paper’s annual “Best of” issue. And the city still has no shortage of other outlets — the Sun, the Post-Examiner, the Business Journal as well as local television news stations.
Yet there is also something unique about the righteous, jaded and relentlessly local journalism that papers like the CP offered. You could see it in their dogged coverage of drug policy, civil unrest, police brutality, corruption and the persecution of disenfranchised communities, from trans sex workers to evicted artists to street rappers.
David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of “The Wire,” described the value of the paper this way: “The CP was throughout its history a remarkable civic asset, ever more essential as mainstream papers retreated.” The closing of the paper, he told me, “is grievous and unfair to Baltimore.” (He added that “out-of-town ownership of the Baltimore print media has been an appalling tragedy overall.”)
As for Soderberg, it turned out he was not quite ready to let the paper’s voice die out. When I started spending time with him in July, he had already embarked on a seemingly quixotic rescue mission. After he first received the news, he immediately launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign — which was just as quickly quashed by his bosses. He also issued an open plea for someone to buy the paper. But that wasn’t in the cards either: “We have had discussions with multiple entities who expressed an initial interest in purchasing City Paper,” Baltimore Sun Media Group spokeswoman Renee Mutchnik explains. “After a review of the business, none of those discussions resulted in a formal purchase offer, and there are no other active discussions.” Yet another idea entertained by Soderberg was to start a “guerrilla nonprofit” that would place City Paper-style stories — “journalistic IEDs,” he called them — in other publications. When I asked how he would make a living doing that, he said, “I’ll figure it out later. I can f---ing freelance.”
With the end of the CP looming, the staff tried not to coast. The first weekend of August, they headed out for an all-hands-on-deck effort to cover the Baltimore Ceasefire, a grass-roots initiative whose slogan is "Nobody Kill Anybody." Just for 72 hours. That such a humble wish is worth speaking aloud points up the city's record high murder rate. By the end of the summer, it would still be nearly one a day.
On Friday, the first night of the Ceasefire, I tagged along as Soderberg met up with Giordano to start reporting. A police scanner app ran through the stereo of the photographer’s Toyota Matrix; as the car juddered across the broken pavements of the city, trebly dispatches prickled in the air.
Soderberg is 33. His haircut looks like a good one gone to seed. He has a couple of stick-and-poke tattoos. On his left biceps is a Kanye line: I LOVE IT THOUGH. On his right, a line from the first Rambo movie: THEY DREW FIRST BLOOD, NOT ME. He’s only been the editor of City Paper since April. He started freelancing for the paper in 2007, joined the staff in 2014 as music and film editor and fact-checker, and went on to serve as managing editor, arts editor and deputy editor.
As the night unfolded, he detailed to me his love for the city, for its characters and its lore, as well as his anger over its many evils. He spoke approvingly of the centuries-long tradition of riotous protest that earned Baltimore the nickname “Mobtown.” He mapped out the inadequate public transportation and marveled at the dirt-bike kids, who loft their non-street-legal motorcycles into near-vertical wheelies for the length of a city block. He outlined the history of racial segregation.
After interviewing supporters of the Ceasefire at a kickoff event, he and Giordano headed to a barbecue and community resource fair. There Soderberg spoke with Duane “Shorty” Davis, a barbecue ribs maestro he called “the Yoda of protesting in Baltimore,” and PFK Boom, a member of the community-activist collective 300 Gangstas. Boom’s profane, baroque freestyle jeremiad against white oppression and virtually all media except City Paper stretched more than half an hour and was truly a thing of wonder.
Soderberg had hoped for a police ride-along this weekend for one of his reporters, but he was turned down; no reason given. He doesn’t get it: “I can just think of nothing more profound for understanding and empathizing with police officers than seeing s--- like this.”
Less than 24 hours later, on Saturday evening, the Ceasefire is broken — and again five hours after that. Two more names are added to the weekly roster of “Murder Ink,” a long-running City Paper column that attempts to give the homicide blotter a human face.
“Dispatches From Baltimore Ceasefire,” the CP’s Aug. 9 cover story, is a collage of episodes and images from five writers and three photographers: police battering in the door of a vacant building where shots were fired, residents angrily crossing under crime scene tape, bloody clothing and evidence markers. But one measure of the paper’s success is the way it accounts for the weekend’s less dramatic moments — a sermon, a prayer circle, a reading of the names of the year’s dead — weaving them into the fabric of the city, giving form to residents’ hopes for the future.
Writing about the first shooting — that of 24-year-old Lamontrey Tynes — Soderberg countered the naysayers who marked this killing as the failure of the effort. The residents of Baltimore, who gathered on corners and in parks and vacant lots, who held signs and chanted slogans and marched in the street, who spoke up and said their city is worth saving — they succeeded, he explained, because “it made a shooting really matter.”
A few weeks later, Soderberg drops cryptic hints that something is afoot. Then in early October, he reports that he has helped cobble together a successor of sorts: a new tabloid-style weekly called the Baltimore Beat. Washington Blade publisher Brown Naff Pitts Omnimedia will publish, print and distribute the paper, which will have a circulation of 30,000 to 35,000, compared with City Paper's 50,000 to 55,000. The paper will have strong community ties and will feature regular LGBTQ coverage. It will have a shoestring editorial staff of three, including Soderberg, who will be the managing editor and news editor. But it will also have a significant freelance budget "so that we can have a lot of voices."
Some of those voices will come via the Real News Network, a nonprofit, viewer-supported video news and documentary outlet based in Baltimore and Toronto, and via Soderberg’s “guerrilla” journalism outfit, the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (modeled after the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism). Soderberg’s group has raised a little more than $10,000. It doesn’t have official 501(c)(3) status yet, but is able to get going thanks to an agreement with the Center for Emerging Media, another nonprofit, run by former WEAA-FM (88.9) host Marc Steiner. If the arrangement sounds complicated, it just proves that keeping locally focused journalism afloat these days requires resourcefulness. (For its part, the Sun recently announced that on Nov. 16 it will launch WKND on the Street, a free weekly spinoff of its weekend section, with entertainment news, listings and “expert advice for casino-goers.”)
Whether the Beat succeeds in filling the void left by City Paper remains to be seen. The Beat will be similar in one key regard: Local alt-weeklies, by choice and by necessity, have historically been cast in the underdog role, which means they have a different relation to governments and institutions than the dominant media do. “We should be on the vanguard of how you deal with people in power,” Soderberg says. “Alts have [always] been treated poorly by people in power the way Trump now treats everybody in the media.” In other words, alts are used to being rebuffed and diminished by those in authority, and they still know how to function. In a city like Baltimore, where much of the populace has an adversarial relationship to the powerful, it arguably makes sense to have an alternative media voice that feels the same way.
Soderberg hasn’t planned any big farewell for City Paper. But he says the Sun folks have decided that the last issue will be a grand look back. He admits it’s a nice gesture. He has his office till the Friday after the last issue drops, but he’s already working on the load-out. There are papers, books and a toilet plastered with fake money hulking atop the rear corner of the desk — an agitprop sculpture by Shorty, the barbecue ribs maestro. Above some bookcases is a prized photo by street photographer Carde Cornish of a dirt-biker, standing nonchalantly on the seat, front wheel canted in the air, zooming toward the edge of the frame.
When the last box is packed, Soderberg will ride the elevator down and glance one last time at the framed poster inside that reads: “JOURNALISM MATTERS.”
Glenn Dixon is a writer in Silver Spring, Md. He is a former arts editor of Washington City Paper and wrote for the paper for a decade.
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