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City Paper to publish final issue after four-decade run

Four decades after a handful of students launched an alternative publication to their college paper, the City Paper will hit the streets in bright yellow boxes for the last time Wednesday.

The free weekly that grew out of that 1977 experiment at the Johns Hopkins University became known for first-person and investigative journalism, provocative covers, lengthy calendar listings and an irreverent take on Baltimore culture and politics.

But this week City Paper joins the growing ranks of publications folding in the face of declining advertising revenue and online competition for everything from listings and personals to readers. The Baltimore Sun Media Group, which acquired the weekly in 2014, decided that City Paper could no longer sustain itself and announced the shutdown in July.

Its loss will be felt by many Baltimoreans.

“The City Paper to me was a much-needed alternative voice that covered the things I was interested in doing in Baltimore,” said filmmaker John Waters, who has written for the paper, which he relied on for film news and reviews. “It had a voice, and it caused trouble. … They really were investigative and covered unpopular subjects. I didn’t always agree, but I liked that they were there to cause trouble and to question.”

The Sun Media Group discussed selling the paper with “multiple entities,” said Renee Mutchnik, a company spokeswoman.

But “after a review of the business, none of those discussions resulted in a formal purchase offer, and there are no other active discussions,” she said.

The company does plan to start distributing a free weekly version of the Wknd entertainment section that’s published each Friday in The Sun, Mutchnik said. The free version will be available on the street each Thursday and include local entertainment news, weekend events, movie and dining reviews and puzzles.

Alternative weeklies face their own challenges beyond the broader industry woes, experts said.

Many struggled to retain edginess and attract young readers who have their pick of alternative cultural and political media choices online, said Linda Steiner, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

“A lot of newspapers in this kind of genre … aren’t really as alternative as they once were,” Steiner said. “Some of these began as edgy, even kind of radical newspapers that were presenting content that really couldn’t be accessed in more mainstream newspapers that were more conservative, stylistically and culturally. …

“It’s hard for these alt weeklies to find a real audience that is going to really meet them in the same way they were needed before we had the internet,” she said.

Even the venerable Village Voice in New York stopped printing its weekly publication in September and converted to an online-only operation.

Circulation is falling for those that remain, according to June figures from Pew Research Center that show the average circulation for the top 20 U.S. alt-weeklies fell 6 percent in 2016 to just more than 61,000.

City Paper launched in May 1977 as City Squeeze, created by then-Hopkins student Russ Smith and other student journalists at the campus paper, the News-Letter.

In February 1978, Smith and Alan Hirsch, a Hopkins English major and former News-Letter editor, published the first issue of City Paper. Hirsch, who learned to run the business on the job, went on to co-own the popular Donna’s restaurant chain.

Phyllis Orrick, then a recent college graduate who’d grown up in Ruxton, began writing for City Paper that year, starting by covering a meeting about air pollution regulation.

“I went to the meeting, and it turned out to be a bunch of gentleman in a smoke-filled room,” Orrick said.

Her story ran with a cover photo of a child on a tricycle wearing a gas mask. Orrick, who served as editor briefly in the mid-1980s and drove around the city to help deliver papers, recalled stories about the city’s last kosher slaughterhouse and a ride-along with the Utz potato chip delivery man as among her most memorable.

“What I liked doing is getting into people’s everyday lives and writing about it in a way that people would say, ‘How did you know all that?’ ” said Orrick, who now lives in Berkeley, Calif.

Smith and Hirsch, who also started the Washington City Paper, sold (Baltimore) City Paper to the Scranton (Pa.) Times in 1987, reportedly for $3.5 million. In 2013, Times-Shamrock decided to sell off its stable of five alt-papers, saying it wanted to diversify and calling them “a very profitable and viable business.”

When the Sun Media Group bought City Paper for an undisclosed price in 2014, the weekly circulated 50,000 papers and drew 200,000 unique monthly visitors online. At the time, The Sun was on a buying binge, subsequently acquiring the (Annapolis) Capital and Carroll County Times.

But the internet and social media continued to inexorably erode advertising and readers.

Alternative newspapers on the East Coast have been especially hard hit, with shutdowns in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and now Baltimore, said Jason Zaragoza, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Such cities have more news competition, greater digital adoption among readers and a more transient, and potentially less loyal, population, he said.

"They had been doing some really important reporting, so I think [regarding] the stories they had been covering, it’s going to be a huge loss for Baltimore and for the community,” Zaragoza said.

Other publications appear to be thriving and pulling in advertisers, he said, especially those in small-to-medium markets with strong community ties.

The circumstances for those that closed varied, Zaragoza said. Some folded after their daily newspaper or corporate parent owners found their publications increasingly competing for the same advertisers, especially those with established entertainment sections.

Sometimes, “for the corporate parent, it’s hard to justify the existence of a separate publication,” he said.

The Sun did not disclose how many people are losing their jobs as a result of the closing. City Paper employs fewer than 10 people full-time.

Joseph M. Giordano, a former staff photographer at the Urbanite who became City Paper’s photo editor in 2013 when it was owned by Times-Shamrock, said he appreciated the autonomy The Sun gave the City Paper’s staff, allowing them to continue to pursue longer, in-depth stories.

“It’s just a blow to local journalism; losing another outlet is a big blow to communities that look to our paper for our specific kind of content,” said Giordano, who worked on long-term photo essays and other assignments chronicling slices of the city including protests, shootings, gangs, drugs and the homeless.

News of the closure came as a surprise to him, he said, but not a complete shock, given the volatile market for alternative papers.

“Everyone was sticking it out until the end and putting out a quality product until the end,” he said. “The paper is an institution, and you’re the last curator of it, so the mood is pretty maudlin.”

He said he plans to return to freelance photography work.

“Closing after 40 years of publishing, it’s a sad day for the Baltimore City Paper and its readers,” said Cet Parks, executive director of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which represented some City Paper staffers and negotiated severance benefits for them. “The community was better off with a publication like the Baltimore City Paper.”

Hirsch, one of the co-founders, said he sees parallels between the advances that made it possible to start City Paper and the technology contributing to its demise.

As a startup, the City Paper saved money because of advances in offset printing and by purchasing Kaypro portable computers, an early precursor to laptops, to lend to its staff. But today, he said, people are consuming news and information in a radically different way.

“Technology brought it into the world, and technology is taking it out,” Hirsch said. “The story of the City Paper is the story of the newspaper business. … Everything will be published electronically eventually, and the people who survive are the people who figure out how to make enough money from it.”

The restaurateur said it’s been sobering to reflect on the legacy of a publication that thrived as an alternative voice, even 30 years after he stepped away.

“We wanted to create something that would be permanent, and we did,” he said. “Forty years is a really good run.”

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lmirabella

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