The story has become humdrum, so routine that newspapers barely stir themselves to report on all the deaths in their family. The civic commemorations are brief, too, if they happen at all. The numbers are dry: More than 1 in 5 newspapers, mostly weeklies like the Sentinel, have dropped dead over the past 15 years.
Like all those papers, the Sentinel covered the local stuff, news of the community, just over the border from the nation’s capital. It wrote about county government (“Bike registration, stipends and zoning dominate meeting,” read last week’s headline), and once staffed all the other meaty beats: schools, politics, cops, courts.
The politicians and bureaucrats knew someone was watching — accountability journalism. Does Facebook do anything like that?
It wrote about people — the teachers, doctors, librarians and artists who lived down the street. When those people died, the obituaries helped everyone remember. Does Instagram do obits?
When someone’s kid scored the winning basket, the Sentinels in Montgomery and Prince George’s had a big write-up, with a picture that mom and dad could clip and savor forever. When the school water fountains had lead in them, or the buses had safety issues, the papers wrote that up, too. And when a boy from Damascus or Cheverly or Upper Marlboro died serving his country, his sacrifice was memorialized in the paper.
The Sentinels starved to death for all the usual reasons, said their publisher, Lynn Kapiloff. Once-bounteous display ads from local merchants — the kind from pizza joints and car dealers — began drifting away to the Google-Facebook duopoly a decade or so ago. Help-wanted ads were vaporized by Craigslist and others offering an unbeatable price (free!). The only thing left was legal ads, and those didn’t cover the cost of the staff and all the stringers.
Readers wandered, too. The Montgomery and Prince George’s papers had a circulation of around 200,000 in the 1990s. The last edition will be distributed to about 5,000 readers in each county, said Kapiloff, whose family has owned the papers for 57 years.
“I don’t know how to carry on at this point,” she said. “I don’t know where the advertising would come from.” Kapiloff, who is 81, knows it takes money, energy and vision to keep a paper alive in a minute-to-minute news cycle. (A son, Mark, is considering reviving the title online.)
“The whole thing makes me so sad,” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”
The Sentinels’ path to the graveyard is well-trod. The Montgomery Journal went under in 2005. The Washington Post closed its weekly Montgomery and Prince George’s “Extra” sections in 2009. The Montgomery and Prince George’s Gazette newspapers disappeared in 2015 after Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos failed to find a buyer for them.
A question hovers: If Montgomery and Prince George’s counties can’t sustain their own local papers, what county can?
Montgomery, with just over a million people, is one of the most affluent and well-educated jurisdictions in the country. It’s home to the National Institutes of Health, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a symphonic concert venue and a collection of biotech firms. Prince George’s is the state’s second-largest county (pop. 921,000), and also prosperous.
Two counties, nearly 2 million people. And nowadays, just a handful of full-time reporters to cover them.
“It’s a sad day,” said Brian Karem, who was the Sentinels’ editor for eight years, until 2018. “People want community news, they need it, but I don’t think we’ve got a handle on how to make it profitable.”
Karem, who made headlines last year when his press credentials were yanked by the White House, is among a number of well-known journalists who’ve worked at the Sentinels. The list includes the late Robert Pear, of the New York Times; Tom Shales, The Post’s former TV critic, and Knight Kiplinger, who oversaw a financial news company. Another alum: Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person to be elected to Virginia’s legislature.
The Montgomery Sentinel’s most famous reporter is Bob Woodward, who may be the most famous reporter in America, period. Woodward tried to get a job at The Washington Post when he got out of the Navy in 1970, but the paper rejected him after a two-week tryout. Fortunately for him, an editor, Harry Rosenfeld, saw something in Woodward and recommended him to Roger Farquhar, then the Sentinel’s editor.
Woodward spent a year in the Sentinel’s Rockville newsroom (co-located with the late owner Bernard Kapiloff’s dental office) learning how to be an investigative reporter. He turned out to be pretty good at it. Among his first pieces was a bombshell about the state’s attorney general, Francis Burch, who was directing state business (and lots of fees) to his private law firm.
Burch didn’t like the story one bit, and drove from Baltimore to the Sentinel’s office to chew out Farquhar.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is the end of journalism for me,’ ” recalled Woodward the other day. But after Burch stormed out of the office, Farquhar sidled over to Woodward’s desk. “He said, ‘The attorney general’s upset,’ ” Woodward recalled. “And then he smiled.”
The Post took Woodward back in 1971. The next year, he and another Metro reporter, Carl Bernstein, began covering a break-in at the Watergate complex.
Woodward’s brief tenure at the Sentinel tells another story. Little papers were once part of the farm system for larger papers; greenhorns learned how to read a police blotter before stepping up to the next rung on the media ladder. Almost every accomplished journalist has a when-I-was-starting-out story that begins at a small paper like the Sentinel.
With the ecosystem so damaged and disrupted, where does the next Woodward come from?
Restaurants and shoe stores come and go, churned in capitalism’s tide. But the tide moves only in one direction for newspapers. They disappear, taking their words and photos and moldering memories with them.
When they die, a bit of a community does, too.