The Great 21784 Newspaper War
For quite a few years, after the Baltimore Sun scaled down then eliminated its Carroll County edition, Sykesville’s only newspaper coverage came sporadically from Westminster-based Carroll County Times, whose main focus has always been Westminster and county-wide news.
Then, a few years back, when the economy was booming, a very strange thing happened. South Carroll found itself in the midst of a veritable newspaper war as nearly a half-dozen papers – most of them free – began competing for the South Carroll market and piling up in residential driveways.
And Sykesville was often the beneficiary. “For a long time, we’d have one or two or even no reporters show up at our town council meetings,” says former mayor and long-time Sykesville resident Jonathan Herman. “Then all of a sudden it seemed like we’d have a half-dozen reporters there.”
This was, of course, back when media companies were riding high and competing aggressively by expanding into new markets and encroaching on each other’s territory with nary an inkling that in just a few years they’d have the economic rug pulled out from under them by a number of forces, including sharply declining advertising revenue and competition from free online news sources.
During this long-gone era, newspaper chains still had the optimism and hubris to actually formulate 10-year plans for expansion, as opposed to six-month plans for survival. This was when newspaper chains still had the revenues to support Chinese-checker-like circulation wars with each other.
How We Became Ground Zero
Patuxent Publishing Company, a subsidiary of the Baltimore Sun and the hapless Chicago-based Tribune Corp. (now in chapter 11 bankruptcy), was one of the first to take a hard look at South Carroll as a potentially lucrative new market.
Executives at Patuxent, which publishes the Towson Times, Owings Mills Times, Catonsville Times, Howard County Times, Columbia Flyer and a number of other community newspapers in Howard, Baltimore and Prince Georges counties, noticed that more and more former residents of Baltimore and Howard County, who were already familiar with Patuxent’s papers, were relocating to South Carroll’s 21784 zip code, which by the 1990s had become one of Central Maryland’s fastest growing sectors.
Meanwhile, the Gazette newspaper chain, a subsidiary of the Washington Post Company, also had eyes on South Carroll. Gazette executives repeatedly sought the advice of Eldersburg publisher and businessman Dave Greenwalt about the efficacy of launching a South Carroll edition of the Gazette.
After months went by and Gazette failed to move, Greenwalt started his own paper, the Eldersburg Eagle. That finally stirred the Gazette people out of procrastination; they responded by launching the Sykesville Gazette to go toe-to-toe with their former advisor, Greenwalt.
By then Patuxent executives had also been hanging fire for months, but the Gazette’s incursion into Carroll got their attention. They realized the Gazette chain’s circulation area now surrounded Patuxent’s prime territory – Howard County – on three sides. Worse yet, in a few places like North Laurel and Glenelg, the Gazette papers were even beginning to invade Patuxent’s home turf, Howard County.
That eventually spurred Patuxent, after months of its own foot-dragging, to purchase the Eldersburg Eagle from Greenwalt and dramatically improve its quality to compete with the Gazette.
Part of Patuxent’s delayed reaction was due to the indecision of its parent companies, The Baltimore Sun and the Tribune Corp. But when these powers that were finally gave Patuxent the green light to buy the Eagle, they added a condition: Patuxent also would have to launch a sister paper to serve the northern half of Carroll County, hence the Westminster Eagle. This was despite Patuxent’s concern that starting a Westminster paper would incur the wrath and retaliation of Landmark Community Newspapers, parent company to the Carroll County Times.
And it did: Landmark retaliated by rolling out a weekly freebie called The Advocate, which was soon scrapping for the same advertising revenues that the weekly Eldersburg and Westminster Eagles were after.
With three chains at war for the same readership, a slew of free newspapers were suddenly littering nearly every South Carroll driveway and front yard, and the situation got worse when a new Baltimore daily, the Baltimore Examiner, arrived to further clutter the sidewalks with papers.
But ultimately these new papers – which many residents considered a nuisance — wouldn’t last long enough for locals to actually differentiate one from the next.
And Then It Ended
Once the plummeting economy, the drastic reduction in classified advertising due to online sources, such as Craig’s list, coupled with other forms of online competition and the aging and shrinking of the paper-reading population put the news industry in a tailspin from which it may never recover, this flood tide of freebie papers receded, then vanished altogether.
First the Baltimore Examiner went kaput. The Gazette pulled back from South Carroll, and The Advocate was scaled down to a shopper’s weekly with one page of actual “news.”
The final cut came earlier this year. Patuxent, whose parent company The Tribune Corp. was and is drowning in red ink and hamstrung by mismanagement, was compelled to fold the print editions of its Eagle newspapers while maintaining a limited presence on the Web.
Bringing us to the point where there’s barely any real news coverage of the area, and thus the glaring need for new, independent, non-traditional, and technologically advanced sources of information, such as Sykesville Online. Though small and underfunded, Sykesville Online has the advantage of low overhead, independence, and hopefully an eager advertising and reading public.
Perhaps the newspaper industry will recover. Perhaps the Carroll County Times will devote more ink to the area again, or one of the big chains will see the need and the market and return for another shot. But more than likely the newspaper industry as we knew it is dead, and we’ll have to develop, support, and nurture our own sources of information. Sykesville Online is a step in that direction.
– Bob Allen