Josh Kurtz: Don’t Mourn, Organize!

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The outpouring of outrage, grief and angst since The Washington Post announced Friday that it was immediately shuttering The Gazette, the venerable community newspapers that covered Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, has been something to behold.

Between formal statements from elected officials, a steady stream of anguish on social media, and personal conversations, it’s clear how important the papers were in the communities they served and how badly they will be missed. It’s also abundantly clear, as if there was any doubt, how much they meant to the staffers who put in the sweat and toil every week, which made The Gazette so vital to readers.

I spent seven years at the paper, from 1995 to 2002, writing a weekly column and covering the State House and local politics. It was my first exposure to the delicious world of Maryland politics, so I am going through my own stages of outrage and grief – and am flooded with waves of nostalgia for those days, for the pols I covered and the people I worked most closely with, some of whom, sadly, are no longer with us. The Gazette was a hell of a training ground for a lot of people, and they did a lot of excellent work. I was especially fortunate to be there during a period of unprecedented growth.

But I am not here to dwell on the past, and I’m hoping readers won’t, either – though I sure am hoping that some member of The Gazette diaspora puts together a big happy hour soon, preferably at Hank Dietl’s, the Rockville Pike beer joint that is so unlike anyplace else in Montgomery County, a place where we wound up near closing time on so many election nights.

Instead, I’d like readers – journalists and elected officials, community activists and business leaders, educators and agitators and everybody else – to start a dialogue on how we can begin to fill the void that The Gazette is leaving in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and, if you go back to its heyday, in statewide political coverage as well. How can we shine a light on our communities, hold our leaders accountable, and inform the voting public, at a time of dramatic change in the media business, at a time when the powerhouses like The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun are abdicating their responsibilities, retrenching and scaling back their state and local news coverage?

Every time a newspaper or magazine closes in the U.S., some industry expert inevitably says, “The traditional media are vanishing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find quality journalism out there.”

To that, I say, “Bullshit.”

Yes, you can find quality journalism out there – in countless more vehicles than you could 20, 10, or even five years ago. But how many of these new-fangled media outlets are making the investments necessary to provide consistent high quality and valued coverage? And how many, not to put too fine a point on it, are paying their journalists a living wage?

In Maryland, we now have websites like this one and Maryland Reporter, which provide valuable news aggregation and other features, along with limited original content. But these are not full-service news outlets – nor do they pretend to be – and no journalist is making much of a living off of them.

Political junkies can find all kinds of gossip and other useful information on any number of blogs. Other blogs, like Just Up the Pike, in Montgomery County, shine some light on a limited number of activities in a limited number of communities. I salute all the people involved in these endeavors. I also salute the good folks at Baltimore Brew, a few professional journalists who are publishing an informative and improving website on a shoestring budget – though I don’t know how they’re feeding their families.

But running a consistently high-quality news operation requires a considerable amount of money. Who is willing to make such investments in this day and age?

Long before Friday’s news about The Gazette, I began studying some political news websites in other states, wondering if their successes could be duplicated here. I’ve talked to some of the people who have gotten them started and have managed to sustain them. I’ve talked to some of the people who have gotten them started and have managed to sustain them. I’ve talked to people at the Institute for Nonprofit News, a nonprofit group that helps fund and advise news outlets, and I’ve talked to people at journalism foundations.

These state websites have succeeded in two ways – either as nonprofits, akin to NPR stations, that rely on big and small donors and are constantly shaking the tin cup, or with subscription models, where they are providing enough interested readers with enough premium content to command fairly high annual subscription rates (another form of shaking the cup).

A lot of people hold up the Texas Tribune as a model. And indeed, it is an excellent online publication. But you know what? It started with a philanthropist who was willing to kick in $1 million of his own money for starters, and quickly raised another $2 million from his friends. While the Tribune now has hundreds of donors and numerous revenue sources, the philanthropist continues to write a million-dollar check every year.

Is there sufficient interest to fund such a venture in Maryland – and the capital to make it happen?

You’d like to think so, with all of the incredibly important ongoing news stories in Maryland: a new Republican administration in a Democratic state; the fallout from the Freddie Gray case; the political jockeying prompted by Barbara Mikulski’s retirement; Martin O’Malley’s presidential bid; the push for the Purple Line in the D.C. suburbs and the Red Line in Baltimore; Rushern Baker’s lonely quest to get more funding for Prince George’s County schools; the desire of the University of Maryland to remake its image – and its surrounding area – and the challenges that emerge from the growing number of casinos in Maryland, among many other storylines.

But if we are really interested in thoughtful, substantive and lively coverage of all these issues, you, dear readers, may have to dig a little deeper, and help new and serious media ventures get off the ground and stay afloat.

So when you think about the demise of The Gazette, recall the words of the old labor leader Joe Hill: Don’t mourn, organize! And please keep me part of the conversation.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.