I’d grown up on alt-weeklies, buying the Village Voice from the B. Dalton books in the mall in the Bible Belt to learn about all the weirdos out there beyond the borders of my town. Then, with each new city I moved to, I’d use the alt-weekly—the Alibi in Albuquerque, Pittsburgh City Paper, and Washington City Paper—to learn about what was really going on in the city.
When I first moved to Baltimore, my wife and I would walk up Park Avenue and I would point at the brownstone that hosted the old City Paper offices. “I’m going to work there,” I would say. When I finally did, I felt like I had been Babe Ruth calling my home run.
Of course it was only a very small slice of what was really happening in any of those cities. But whatever the limits of that voice, it was far more vital than what I found in the daily.
It took about a year after I moved here before I started getting assignments from City Paper. The first cover story I did was on an anarchist cash-for-gold guy. The next, now-washed-up internet porn pioneers. After that people who did bondage rope play in public. It took another year or so after these stories before I joined the staff.
When I did get a job, even though I was only a temporary hire at first, I came to identify almost entirely with the paper. If you haven’t guessed, you have to be kind of a fucked up person to work at a paper like this and I wanted to entirely dissolve myself into the life of the city. So much of our malaise comes from excessive interiority, and the more I delved into the lives of others, the less I was stuck in the stupid conversations going on in my own head. There were, I learned, an infinite number of people more interesting than me. And during my time at City Paper, I realized, I could find an excuse to try to meet them all.
One of the first things we did when I joined the staff was to create a weekly column that profiled the lives of ordinary Baltimoreans. The column was motivated by the idea that everyone’s story was worth telling—a theory we tested in a cover package called “100 Years of City Folk,” where we profiled ten people based on nothing more than their ages—a 10-year-old, a 20-year-old and on, up to 100.
These profiles were a great way to learn how to write—and to teach interns or freelancers. The literary possibilities were also endless. There was nothing to promote, no pegs, no hooks. Just people and prose.
But at that time, the entire editorial staff of the paper was white. We could get out of our heads and listen to the people around us—but our view was still limited, penned in by our own perspective. I think now of all the City Folk stories a more diverse staff could have written.
Leaving the City Paper as a full-timer in 2015 is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done—or at least I thought so for a long time. I feel a little better about it now and I made the decision, in part, because I couldn’t imagine a future in which it made sense for the Sun to keep publishing it.
But my departure got me out from behind the desk—I felt like I was spending too much time editing, and not enough time in the street reporting, which is to say I spent too much time making decisions and judgments and not enough being open and listening—and made room for other people there.
The paper got better after I left. Rebekah Kirkman and Maura Callahan’s recent story on sexual assault and harassment is among the most important stories (and the longest) the paper has published and when I read it, I knew I did the right thing when I left (I remained editor-at-large but didn’t have a daily role in the paper).
Now that the City Paper itself is going away, I have a similar feeling. It is, on one level, an almost immeasurable personal loss. It’s hard to imagine waking up next Wednesday and not having a City Paper to look forward to. It’s hard to imagine the loss of all of those voices which not only report on the city, but openly love and sometimes hate it. There is nothing else that captures the feeling of the city like an important investigative story crammed into the cheap newsprint next to an off-kilter art review and a voicey takedown of some pompous asshole or another.
But losing that legacy—much of which has been snarky white dudes—might also make way for something else. It has been widely reported that City Paper was still a profitable business and by changing the model a little and responding to communities overlooked by so much other media in the city, I think a new venture could be even more profitable.
I recently founded the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) with former CP editor Brandon Soderberg and I work at Real News Network, which is also a nonprofit, and I’m increasingly convinced that the future of news will be nonprofit. But for now there is still profit to be made in print—especially if there is more collaboration, more community, and more listening.
Instead of relying on the White L for advertising, a paper could reach out to the hundreds of super-small businesses that wouldn’t necessarily advertise anywhere else. And then, instead of being tempted to skip over the ad pages, the reader could revel in their bustling diversity in a way that would feel like walking down Eastern Avenue or through the Lexington Market—small businesses clamoring for our attention in a fascinating melange.
But on the editorial end, such a paper would have to speak to the people those business owners might want to reach. And that would be journalistically far more exciting, too, than the view from the Calvert Street Sun offices where the paper has been housed since 2014. Or even the old Park Avenue office I looked at longingly.