Essays

The Rise and Fall of the Baltimore Examiner

By posted at 11:16 am on February 19, 2009 14

Sara Michael is a Baltimore-based writer who spent two and a half years as a reporter for the Baltimore Examiner, most recently covering health and science. She has also covered technology for a national trade magazine, and earned her master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University. For more on Sara and her writing, visit www.saramichael.org.

For weeks, and perhaps months, after the Baltimore Examiner launched nearly three years ago, people said it would fail. Some gave us six months, or a year, before folding. They expected it. There’s no way a newspaper can launch from scratch and be delivered to roughly 250,000 homes for free, they said. There’s no way a major city newspaper can sustain itself on ad sales alone.

In the end, they were right. It did fail, but the Examiner was – and still is in Washington and San Francisco – an experiment in news delivery. As newspapers downsize staff, go online only and cut pages, the Examiner tried something different. And before the last edition hit doorsteps and newsstands last Sunday, we had managed to challenge the legacy paper in town and make a name for ourselves among readers and sources.

The premise for the Examiner was targeted delivery six days a week to a specific number of homes fitting a profile, such as living close to a shopping center, having kids and making good money. There were also bright red news boxes around the area. The stories were shorter – between 300 and 400 words with longer features once a week – and ledes were punchy and headlines sexy.

I started at the Examiner on Aug. 1, 2006 covering Howard County, a suburb about a half hour outside of Baltimore. I joined a staff of about 20 other reporters (an all-time high in staffing levels at the paper), all young and either just starting out in journalism or just a few years in. Already, just five months after the launch, about a dozen reporters had started and quit the Examiner, many fed up with the crushing hectic pace.

Two stories a day, at least – that’s what was expected of us. And these aren’t press release rewrites; we’re talking fully reported (three source minimum) news stories. I wasn’t sure it was possible, and struggled a bit in the beginning to come through, but after a couple months, I was cranking out at least that much each day. It’s amazing where you can find stories – though arguably, many of the stories I and others wrote didn’t deserve even 300 words. I found myself covering the minutia of a Planning Board decision, the details of each interim report, and countless angry neighborhood associations miffed by some planned development.

The pace was break-neck. The days flew by as we all scrambled to make calls, go to meetings and pressers and sum it all up in 350 words by 6 p.m. (That’s right, add to the unreasonable story counts equally unreasonable deadlines.)

Looking back, it’s hard to say what kept me or any of the other reporters there. Many days – ok, most days, especially in the first several months – I would come home drained, emotionally and physically exhausted. Some mornings, I would arrive to the office only to see egregious errors in my story in the paper. I once wrote a story about a group of parents who wanted a stop sign at an intersection frequented by young kids and speeding drivers. They didn’t want to see a child hit by a car, which had happened elsewhere in the county. The subhead? “Child hit by car at same intersection.” I spent the morning fielding angry calls from county officials and neighbors.

It’s a start up, they kept saying. We’re still working out the kinks with the copy desk. And some of it did smooth out.

We were motivated by what I imagine motivates most newspaper reporters. There are stories that need to be told, deals that should be investigated, information that readers need. As we continued to ask tough questions and write complete, balanced stories, our reputation grew. Fewer people called to complain about the paper being dropped off each morning on their doorstep. Instead, they started to pick it up and liked what they read: interesting, well reported news stories, many that were overlooked by the Baltimore Sun, which had been the only paper in town for more than 20 years and was struggling with its own newsroom cuts.

We all believed in being newspaper reporters in a town that needed that second voice.

Ryan McKibben, the CEO of Clarity Media, the Examiner’s parent company, blamed the closing on poor ad revenues, something about “synergies” with the DC paper that never materialized. He called it a “perfect storm” brought on by the collapsing economy. But did they have to throw in the towel before even hitting the three-year mark? I understand they were losing money hand over fist, but I am not convinced the powers that be tried everything they could to keep the paper alive, and perhaps that’s because they weren’t in the newsroom with us or even in the town affected by our presence. The paper in DC stays afloat because it gives the conservative owner Philip Anschutz a voice in Washington. But in Baltimore, we didn’t have that security.

Some readers suggested they would be willing to pay for the paper, but that’s not the answer. Several months ago, we cut down home delivery to twice a week and upped the number of papers in the boxes. Why not go all online with a print edition once a week on Sundays or limit distribution just to the boxes? Regardless, I am sure we can all agree that starting up a print newspaper these days is an unreasonable venture, and in retrospect seems a little ridiculous. People barely read the print papers that have been around for 200 years, and most people get their news from aggregator sites or the online editions of major papers. As much as some of us like sitting down with the paper in the morning or taking it on the bus with us, those days are ending. Instead of tweaking the old model of news delivery, we need an entirely new model of news delivery.

As a young journalist, my time at the Examiner taught me how to scrounge for stories and meet seemingly unreasonable deadlines. It also gave me an inside glimpse of what it’s like to struggle to keep a paper going every day, but mostly I just hunkered down and worked hard, as did all the reporters and editors there. At least we can say we tried something different and even thrived at it for a time. And something more radical that launching a free daily newspaper has to be done to revive the public service that is news delivery.

Each morning for the final two weeks of the paper, my editor sent out an email to the editorial staff aimed at motivating us to keep up the good work in the final days. In one, he seemed to sum up what the paper was to us, to Baltimore, and perhaps to the entire newspaper landscape. In his call for good stories, my editor wrote that we should keep putting out the news, “ensuring that when some media historian stumbles across an innovative newspaper named The Baltimore Examiner, that historian shall read our names and say, holy shit, this was a real newspaper.”





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14 Responses to “The Rise and Fall of the Baltimore Examiner”

  1. Dave Keating
    at 4:00 pm on February 19, 2009

    Great post Sara. Keep me updated on how the job seach is going, I'm in the same boat over here across the Atlantic!

  2. Anonymous
    at 4:10 pm on February 19, 2009

    I don't know why young journalists seem to think two stories a day is break-neck speed. I was a reporter at a small-town daily in the mid-1980s and routinely cranked out 2 or 3 stories a day from meetings, interviews, and breaking news. And this was all without fax machines, the internet, cell phones, laptops…I covered 10 cities within our large county and yes, it was busy, but I also did some of the best work of my life.

  3. Doubtful
    at 8:51 pm on February 19, 2009

    You were so proud of your work back then you decided to post anonymously?

  4. Matthew
    at 10:43 pm on February 19, 2009

    As another Ex-aminer, I can say that Sara has captured our struggle beautifully. I started with the Examiner from the ground up, interning at the DC paper when it was just a few months old and then joining the staff that started the Baltimore Examiner, and I was taken with the goofy romance of being on the ground floor of something strange, new and exciting.

    I also believe they pulled the plug too soon, or didn't explore other options like absorbing more of Baltimore's operations into DC and expanding that paper's Maryland edition. Sure, giving the product away for free and relying on ad sales was a tough model to stick to in tough times, but every paper with a Web site is currently looking for ways to deal with the same concept. It's a shame that Clarity Media didn't have more crazy ideas to follow up on the original model.

    I left because of other circumstances in my life and would probably have gone down with the ship otherwise. I only hope that I can carry on the same enthusiasm and drive I felt when I first walked into that office above the Harbor.

  5. Mike
    at 7:20 am on February 20, 2009

    As a Baltimorean plagued by the sporadic home delivery of the Examiner, I have to admit to being glad the "sexy" NYPost-like headlines are disappearing from my doorstep. Once when I complained to a staff writer about a story that referred to "José Luis Borges," he said that's alright, his editors didn't even know who Borges was.

    While I feel bad that so many writers are now out of work, I won't miss the paper.

  6. Laura
    at 7:42 am on February 20, 2009

    I'm also a former Examiner reporter who started a month before the paper opened and made it exactly one year and three days.

    I'm worried for Baltimore now because there were so many stories the Examiner picked up that the Sun wouldn't touch. The upside of the Examiner's story quotas was that if you had a decent news tip, you could count on seeing it in the paper the very next day.

    The Examiner had some of the feistiest reporters out there. I hope they all land on two feet and don't go to the dark side!

  7. Sara
    at 7:50 am on February 20, 2009

    I'd just like to say one thing about the two and three story a day quota (which was just one factor in the "break-neck pace" I referred to).

    When reporters are scrambling to report and write that many stories, it takes away from more in-depth investigative reporting critical for news gathering. Little time is left to really dig deep for the real story, which is ultimately a disservice to readers.

    Of course writing that much copy can be done. We did it well (and enjoyed it) and others still do. But does that mean it should be done? At what cost?

  8. Aaron
    at 8:47 am on February 20, 2009

    Thanks for this, Sara. As a former Examinee who went down with the ship, I'd like to think that we'll be remembered as a tough little paper. We weren't always perfect but we pushed our competition and pushed those we covered, and that's not too bad.

    One note about the pace issue: the anonymous poster above says that those stories were done from "meetings, interviews, and breaking news." That's all low-hanging fruit–important, sure, but very doable.

    I worked in the business section, where almost every day we had to self-generate story ideas, including TONS of economic trend pieces as the recession deepened. Getting two of those done from scratch by 5 p.m. could be brutal. Good experience, though.

    To the poster who said he won't miss the paper: you have legitimate complaints. But hey, you were looking at it, weren't you?

  9. Kevin
    at 9:46 am on February 20, 2009

    Why don't all the former Examinees check in? Sara, I loved this.

    While I understand reporters frequently write two stories a day, the circumstances at the Examiner were more complicated than just having to write two stories a day". Many times it was a bare minimum two while other times editors squeezed 3-5 out of a reporter. Combine this with the requirements of sourcing each piece and it makes the day hectic.

    As a sports writer there for a year and a half (from the launch) the reason I left was my schedule. During the winter, it looked a lot like this: Wake up at 7 get ready for work, fight traffic downtown – get into work around 9 – finish my stories before my 2 PM deadline (yes, I said 2 PM) – maybe eat lunch – go out to a high school prep game – take notes, score the game, conduct post game interviews – go to college game (Loyola or Maryland) – Score game, take notes etc, post game interviews – get home around 11 – stay up till 1 or 2 AM transcribing quotes etc so I am ready to get my stories filed by 2 PM the following day. Repeat 4 days a week from November-February. Then mix in working 4-6 hours the other three days of the week and and putting out a special page on Scholar High School athletes. It beat the journalism out of me. Oh, and did I mention I had to do this while not getting overtime most of the time?

    So Mr. Anonymous, we are glad you wrote two stories a day. You have contributed to the fine American tradition of journalism. But until you work for the Alamo of newspapers, you just would not understand.

  10. Mike
    at 10:29 am on February 20, 2009

    Aaron wrote:

    "To the poster who said he won't miss the paper: you have legitimate complaints. But hey, you were looking at it, weren't you?"
    ______________________
    True. Sometimes it went straight to the recycle bin and sometimes I'd flip through it. Usually the sort of copyediting gaffs that Sara mentions would have me tossing it in frustration, but, to be fair, occasionally I'd find a nugget of worthy info inside.

  11. Anonymous
    at 11:38 am on February 20, 2009

    "Gaffs" is, itself, a gaffe, no?

  12. Mike
    at 5:26 pm on February 20, 2009

    Some scoundrel made off with my 'e.'

  13. Scott G.
    at 7:00 am on February 21, 2009

    Nice post Sara. It captures the plight of reporters and newspapers. I often feel burned out by deadlines and story quotas. I love being a truth finder, but I wonder how long I want to continue the gind during this painful age of newspaper transformation. I'm tempted to drop out of newspapering for five or ten years and come back when, hopefully, the industry has a handle on how to make money while making good journalism.

  14. Anonymous
    at 10:18 pm on February 26, 2009

    Very interesting, Sara — of course I came in during the very end of the first year when things were less hectic. I think the pace was part of the thrill. Yes, the paper sucked at first. Yes, I was embarrassed to work there when I started. Now I can say with pride that we did it. Through no fault of our own were we closed. I told a prospective intern once that she would KNOW at the end of her internship whether or not journalism was what she wanted. Funnily enough she didn't end up taking the internship — the rest of us are the ones that know. Don't give up!

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