Bob Cohn, a journalist-turned-media-executive who was president of The Atlantic and now leads The Economist, has been named The Baltimore Banner’s new chief executive officer.

Chosen by the nonprofit’s board after a five-month national search, Cohn, a longtime Montgomery County resident, played a vital role in the digital transformation of The Atlantic and has driven increases in revenue at both news magazines.

Cohn is “a leader passionate about delivering great journalism, and who recognizes its potential to lift up a community,” said Stewart Bainum Jr., founder and chair of the Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism, the nonprofit that operates The Banner. “He not only shares our vision of creating a sustainable business model, but has a proven record of doing so.”

Bainum announced Cohn’s appointment to staff members at a town hall meeting Tuesday morning. Cohn, 60, will start his job at The Banner on Feb. 19 after leaving his role as president of The Economist a few weeks earlier.

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“Clearly there’s a crisis in local journalism in this country,” Cohn said in an interview. “I think The Banner is responding to this crisis incredibly well by covering Baltimore … with compelling journalism that really fills a critical and urgent need.”

Cohn said he wants to “strengthen and expand that journalism and then use that as the backbone of a business model that proves to ourselves, and then perhaps others, that local news can be self-sustaining. And that’s exciting.”

6/8/22—Exterior of The Baltimore Banner office sign with the hanging banners.
Exterior of The Baltimore Banner office sign with hanging banners. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

He replaces Imtiaz Patel, who left in July to join the senior leadership at Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain.

For the past five months, former Boston Globe editor and Venetoulis board member Brian McGrory has helped lead The Banner. McGrory, chair of the journalism department at Boston University, also served on the search committee for the CEO. The role, he said, attracted an impressive slate of senior leaders at national media companies, many of whom were very compelling.

McGrory said he first met with Cohn to discuss the job in a Washington, D.C., restaurant over breakfast. Soon, lunch was being served. “We talked about how a news organization can connect in bold and provocative ways with the community it covers, how it can best take advantage of the immediacy of the web, and how a brand new news organization like The Banner isn’t shackled in the way some legacy organizations might be,” McGrory said.

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“He really understands how good journalism is really good business like no other time in our industry before,” McGrory said.

For decades, print advertising drove revenue for newspapers, but digital upheaval has forced news organizations to turn to readers and subscribers to support the enterprise — with mixed results. Between 2008 and 2020, the country lost half its newspaper journalists as media companies cut staff to balance their budgets. Two thousand journalists will be laid off this year.

The Baltimore Banner launched 18 months ago as a nonprofit which depends on subscriptions, advertising, philanthropy and events to bring in enough revenue to support the work of the newsroom. It has become the largest news operation in Baltimore and one of the largest in the state, with about 100 staffers, including 76 journalists. The newsroom is expected to continue growing in 2024.

Bainum has pledged $50 million over five years to create a turbocharged nonprofit news startup that could become a model for the rest of the country. Cohn’s challenge will be to build on that investment and break even within a short time. “If you’re going to rely on readers to give you money to pay for the journalism, you kind of have to go out fast and create something of value pretty quickly,” Cohn said. He believes that subscriptions and revenue will grow, based on the quality of the journalism.

“He understands to his core that this is perhaps the most interesting journalism initiative in the country right now,” McGrory said. Bainum hopes the startup will become a model that can be reproduced in other midsize and large cities.

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Although Cohn has broad experience in both small and large news organizations, McGrory noted, “The transition for him is going to be going from national and global organizations to something that is really local.” Cohn covered the U.S. Supreme Court and the White House for Newsweek in the 1980s and 1990s. He was the executive editor of Stanford Magazine, The Industry Standard and Wired.

Cohn arrived at The Atlantic in 2009 from Wired and helped build the website into the economic engine for the magazine. In 2014, he moved into a business role as president, overseeing editorial, advertising, marketing and subscriptions. “In Bob’s tenure as president, we’ve grown from 180 staff to 440, from 15 million readers to 30-plus million, from halting revenue growth to 60% growth over five years,” David G. Bradley, The Atlantic’s media chairman, wrote in a letter to staff announcing Cohn’s departure in 2019. He described Cohn as “the central animating figure” in revolutionizing the publication.

Hayley Romer, who worked with Cohn at The Atlantic as publisher and chief revenue officer, said Cohn was expert at weaving the disparate viewpoints and interests of staff at a news organization into one. “He has a huge growth mindset — this is something very special and standout about him,” she said, describing him as intelligent and good at managing people.

Cohn will continue to live in Montgomery County, where he has resided for the past 15 years.

Cohn said he sees his new job as the natural next challenge in a career that has kept him in the forefront of industry trends. “I have found over the years that some of the most interesting and gratifying roles have given me the opportunity to build new products and businesses, taking small things and growing them to be bigger, stronger, more resilient. I think that’s a key opportunity at The Banner, part of what attracts me to the role,” he said.