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Annapolis holds online symposium discussing the future and importance of local journalism

Local newspapers are suffering. Across the country, publications are furloughing staff, cutting back print editions — suffering under the economic impacts of the coronavirus, and unsustainable business models held in place by corporate ownership.

Annapolis is no exception.

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As the second commemoration of the mass shooting at The Capital approaches on Sunday, the City of Annapolis held an online symposium to discuss the importance of local journalism and what the future looks like for the industry.

Over the last decade, the U.S. has lost half its newspaper journalists, mostly from state and regional newspapers. At least 2,100 newspapers have closed since 2004, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.

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Four staff members who worked for The Capital during the June 28 shooting two years ago have since taken buyouts offered as cost savings measures from the paper’s parent company, Tribune Publishing. To staunch the impacts of the coronavirus, the company also implemented salary cuts and furloughs at The Capital and elsewhere.

The Capital also has strengths. Tribune Publishing invested in a new website technology for the paper last year, the smallest newspapers in the company to have its own site. It also has developed partnerships with nonprofit groups such as ProPublica and Report For America.

A former New York Times and Wall Street Journal executive, Abernathy described the news industry in the United States as a pyramid, with roughly 5,500 weekly and small daily papers on the bottom, about 150 state and regional newspapers in the middle, and national outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal on top.

“Think about what a strong base that is and how numerous a number is down at the bottom, so it feeds through to the top. The New York Times ultimately depends on what the Capital Gazette writes, in many ways to determine the agenda at the national level,” Abernathy said.

Capital journalist Selene San Felice memorialized her slain colleagues and pleaded with the audience to find a way to save The Capital.

“Fight with us to keep our paper — your paper — alive. Powerful people dedicate memorials to us and our friends who were killed. But those memorials might soon be all that’s left if people in power don’t invest in papers like The Capital,” San Felice said.

Marty Kaiser, managing director of the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service, noted the problems facing newspapers today are “painfully familiar.” Kaiser previously worked for a paper that was locally owned and thus responsible to its community but has seen local newspapers struggle to adapt since the ’90s.

Tribune Publishing owns The Capital Gazette, as a part of Baltimore Sun Media, as well as 10 other regional newspapers across the country. In November, a hedge fund known for buying newspapers, Alden Global Capital, purchased 33% of shares in Tribune, gaining two seats on an eight-person board.

Capital editor Rick Hutzell said the paper has downsized further since 2009, when it laid off half its employees and closed offices in Glen Burnie and Bowie.

Panelists discussed a campaign by NewsGuild, the union representing the Baltimore Sun and The Capital Gazette, to attract offers from local investors to buy the papers from Tribune and run them under a nonprofit business model.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman detailed the ways his administration relies on The Capital to get critical information, particularly about public health measures amid the pandemic and suggested that if The Capital were not able to survive it would be necessary to consider getting a group of people to consider some public support.

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Convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders Carl Snowden warned against too closely linking the government with media, noting the importance of a truly free press.

“I think there’s a reason why the founding fathers are very clear, very clear that we want a free press,” Snowden said. “Thomas Jefferson said if you have a choice between a free government or free press, you take the latter, every time.”

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