EDITORIAL: RIP Maryland Independent (1874-2020)

When I wrote TLR‘s first-ever editorial two weeks ago, I ended with this:

‌Charles County needs to care about whether, and for how long, the Maryland Independent will be able to continue putting out a damn paper tomorrow.

Turns out it wasn’t very long.

At the top of last Friday’s edition of the Maryland Independent, readers saw a letter by Jim Normandin, President and Publisher of APG Media of Chesapeake announcing that, effective this coming Friday, the Indy would be consolidated with her sister papers — the Calvert Recorder and the (St. Mary’s) Enterprise — into a single weekly paper supplemented by a four-times-a-week e-newsletter.

Another way to put that: as of last Friday, residents of the three Southern Maryland counties went from six print newspaper editions a week to just one.

Also, in the letter Mr. Normandin singles out for praise “our reporters, multimedia account executives, circulation department, production staff, and business professionals who are working fervently during these changing times.”

If you’re a long-time newspaper reader, you might have noticed that there’s one very important title missing from that list: editors.

That’s not an oversight. Earlier in the same day that staff found out about the consolidation of the three papers, APG Media of Chesapeake fired Southern Maryland News’ three remaining editors.

They were the editors of the Calvert Recorder and the Enterprise, and the three papers’ regional sports editor. They likely would have fired the editor of the Indy too, but he had already quit.

Newspaper closures and consolidations are increasingly common across the United States as print advertising revenue, the lifeblood of most small papers, continues to decline. According to data from the Pew Research Center on Journalism & Media, advertising revenue fell 62 percent from 2008 to 2018, from $37.8 billion to $14.3 billion, while the share of newspaper advertising revenue generated by digital advertising has slowly but steadily increased.

But a decline in ad revenue doesn’t appear to be the primary driver for the consolidation. According to Dun & Bradstreet, Adams Publishing Group — of which APG Media of Chesapeake is one of 14 subsidiaries and 46 branches — generates $251.18 million in sales per year and has 1,100 employees. That works out to a little over $228,345 in revenue per employee.

When I joined the Indy, the starting annual salary was $30,000 — no raises (though they were repeatedly promised) and no bonuses during my time there. That’s actually below the United Way’s threshold for a single person to be able to afford the basic cost of living in Charles County. And with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many staff had their hours — and thus their pay — reduced.

So why not apply for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to help keep staff working full-time during the pandemic? The APG companies can’t — Adams Publishing Group is a private equity firm, which has been deemed ineligible for Small Business Association loans.

Private equity firms operate by purchasing ownership or a controlling interest in companies and then make their investors’ money back by either offering shares to the public, through mergers and acquisitions with other companies, or by recapitalizing the acquired company and distributing the resulting cash to shareholders.

Private equity firms aren’t interested in local news for its own sake. They view newspapers as comparatively inexpensive media properties that, in the aggregate, can generate a stream of revenue for a minimum of reinvestment. Until they don’t anymore. Then they get consolidated, sold off, or shut down entirely.

For a Poynter Institute story on Alden Global Capital, one of the predominant private equity firms operating in the newspaper space, Neil Chase, a former newspaper executive editor who now works with the nonprofit digital newsroom CalMatters, had this to say about private equity firms like Alden and Adams Publishing Group:

“They aren’t destroying journalism. They just don’t care about journalism … And they don’t have an end game — they want to come out with more money than before. Buy or sell, they are good either way.”

Neil Chase

In a story on the impact of corporate ownership on local newspapers in a September 2019 article in The Atlantic, staff writer James Fallows interviewed Ed Miller, a newspaper entrepreneur and former editor, who had this to say:

“The fact is, they couldn’t care less what you write. Their only interest is how much profit you can squeeze out of the operation, so the way they actually undermine the reporting of news is simply by laying off staff. The cuts make the job so overwhelmingly difficult to do that there’s just no possibility that you will get into serious news coverage, or investigating the stories that need to be dug out.”

Ed Miller

Hasan Minhaj of the Netflix series “Patriot Act” takes a hard look at the impact of private equity and hedge fund ownership of local newspapers that is worth 20 minutes of your time (note: definitely NSFW):

The role of a local newspaper is much more than “celebrating” community and stories, as Mr. Normandin said in his letter to readers. Aggressive local news coverage provides essential checks and balances on elected officials and government agencies. According to this recent article by the Poynter Institute, communities without local newspapers have seen declining voter turnout, fewer citizens choosing to run for public office, increased government borrowing costs, and less scrutiny of local public officials.

In his letter, Mr. Normandin asked readers to “[p]rovide us with feedback and hold us accountable.” Here’s a starter list of accountability questions to which Charles County’s residents and elected officials ought to consider insisting on answers:

  • What were the reasons APG Media of Chesapeake decided to consolidate the three papers and go to one weekly print edition?
  • What topics, issues, and subjects will the new paper focus on, and how will its remaining reporting staff be allocated to achieve that coverage?
  • Why were the remaining senior editors fired?
  • What is your profitability goal for the rebranded Southern Maryland News?
  • What is your timeline for assessing whether that goal can be reached?
  • If that goal cannot ultimately be reached, what is APG Media of Chesapeake’s plan for the survival of the newspaper?

TLR will be sending these questions to Mr. Normandin at APG Media of Chesapeake and will report back on any responses received.

illustration: Library of Congress (left); APG Media of Chesapeake (right)