The article below originally appeared in the Baltimore Business Journal on November 9, 2021. The full article can be found here.
The Baltimore Banner is on the hunt for office space in the central business district as the local news startup funded by the Chairman of Choice Hotels International, Stewart Bainum Jr., looks to launch by June.
The organization, fueled by $50 million in seed money from Bainum, is searching for 15,000 square feet of space, preferably in an “iconic building,” with the option for 10,000 square feet as the business grows, said Imtiaz Patel, CEO of The Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism, the nonprofit organization behind the news startup. The move to more permanent digs will eventually bring about 100 new jobs downtown and will also plant the online-only Banner firmly on the city’s radar, Patel said during a wide-ranging interview with the Baltimore Business Journal.
The mission to start a news organization from scratch is a tall order born out of Bainum’s losing bid to acquire The Sun. The launch of the Banner comes at a time when local news in Baltimore and nationally has been shredded by layoffs, closures and drastic cost- cutting measures — including at the Banner’s soon-to-be rival publication, the hometown newspaper The Baltimore Sun.
Patel and Bainum are forming a growing team to create a new kind of journalism business model. Joining them next month will be Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Kimi Yoshino, who was hired to run the newsroom as well as four executives who will focus on marketing, technology, product strategy and workplace culture. Together, they will help dictate how to sell and price advertising and subscription rates, build the new platform for news delivery along with other nontraditional storytelling methods, hire up to 50 journalists in the first year, and seek advice and alliances with other nonprofit foundations. The budget for the first year will be $15 million.
It’s no small task, Patel said, and the overarching mission will be to move the model statewide in about five years.
“In the end, it’s all about the readers,” he said. “Our initial goal is to cover Baltimore and its surrounding counties. Of course, we will cover the statehouse and the Maryland delegation in Washington, D.C., because that will have an impact on the Baltimore region. The challenge now is building out the team.”
Patel, 54, detailed the early work to set up The Baltimore Banner from the conference room at Spark, the coworking space at Power Plant Live, where the startup is currently housed. In his words, it is part hard-knuckle strategy mixed with an esoteric moving target and almost new-age approach to journalism. Below are some of his thoughts about forming a model nonprofit local news operation in a town that once had three big-league and legacy newspapers, haunted still by the ghost of H.L. Mencken.
“We have some general model figured out. The way we think about it is 50%-60% of the money will come from subscriptions, 20-ish percent from advertising and some from contributions as a nonprofit and we think of that as revenue dollars. The balance will be from other ways to monetize our product. We’re modeling all of this stuff now and we will test everything and figure out what works. The reality is what will the reader pay. The number we have in mind is gaining about 100,000 subscriptions within four years, and the actual price of those subscriptions is something we really haven’t worked out.”
On how quickly The Banner will ramp up its news coverage:
“It’s a digital site, and there will be content going up as it’s written. We’re trying to work out if it is 24/7 or whatever. The timeline right now we’re going to launch somewhere around Q2 and that’s predicated on two things: one is Kimi starting and building out a newsroom. We really want to make sure that when we do go to market with a product, it’s a really great product. It’s going to be deep and the second is building out the technology. We’ve got to design and build the technology and look at different content management systems and have to sign an implementation partner and that will take a few months as well.”
On the publication’s approach to local news coverage:
“We are going to be a local news source, which means we won’t necessarily cover national or international news, unless it pertains to our coverage of Baltimore. Our initial goal is to cover Baltimore and surrounding counties and the eventual goal is to be statewide, we will cover statehouse and Maryland delegation in D.C. because that will have an impact on the Baltimore region. Our initial plan is to have roughly 50 in the newsroom but the specific number will be defined by coverage areas and the number of people in each area. The goal is to grow the newsroom to somewhere north of 100 people and it will probably take some time to get there; as we grow our coverage and subscriptions, we’ll add people.”
On the role content plays in driving the venture:
“We have a hypothesis about what we’re doing and how it will work. We’ve done research about what do consumers want in this specific marketplace, what are they willing to pay for and what are they lacking from other sources? Then we’re pulling in people from the industry and getting their input as well, and then when you think about a framework, what is the content that supports our mission in having accountability journalism and an impact? That stuff is really important, but how do you balance that with content that will drive traffic so we can monetize that traffic, and will it also drive subscriptions? You’ve got to think about it from all those different things. No one area of content serves every need. There’s some things we have to do: we’ve got to cover City Hall, have to cover sports and got to cover the State House, education, criminal
justice, and a food column that I want to write, but I have to have time for it. We’re creating our own local platform on a scale that no one is trying to do. It’s a little bit let’s build it, see what happens, and be willing to change a little bit depending on what our readers want. At the end of the day, it’s about our readers.”
On building an online-only local news source:
“What you’ve got is a bit of give and take. We don’t have to worry about the legacy issues like printing a product and the issues associated with that. We can really think about what is it that the newsroom of the future needs to be. The future means, how do we build content that resonates with people? That could be Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and next year something new and we have to figure out how we leverage all these channels. There are so many different ways to get your news and if we’re really going after our audience we have to think about how to serve them in different ways; we can’t lock ourselves into one thing. The website is great right now, but maybe five to 10 years from now, people won’t go to a desktop at all. It will go the ways of print. We have to be agile.”
On what makes Baltimore the right place for this nonprofit local news opportunity:
“There’s a lot of different communities in the city, all with their stories and lots happening. It’s a great microcosm of an urban city and the issues facing cities. In a way, it’s Smalltimore, in a way it’s a very national thing. So I really believe there are stories here we can tell that the nation will care about.”
On interest from potential employees as the newsroom looks to hire 50 journalists:
“People want jobs.”
This article was originally published in the Baltimore Business Journal by Melody Simmons. Find the full Baltimore Business Journal article here.