The Baltimore Banner is tooting its own horn.
This nascent digital newspaper, which began publishing in June with a promise “to be an indispensable resource that will uplift, unite and strengthen” the community it serves, claims to have done just that in a year-end story titled “The Baltimore Banner’s Best 2022: Accountability stories.”
Appearing under the stealthy byline “Baltimore Banner staff,” the story lists eight articles that, in the writers’ judgment, are among the “most impactful accountability stories” the paper has published during its seven-month existence.
I have a different take on The Banner’s infancy.
Good journalism “is storytelling with a purpose,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book, “The Elements of Journalism.” And it is on this basis that what The Banner has done since its launch must be judged.
The Baltimore Banner is in the front ranks of a new journalism. I’m not talking about the literary nonfiction journalism of people such as Tom Wolfe, Gail Sheehy and James Baldwin. That brand of journalism has been plowed into the journalism mainstream by The Atlantic, The New Yorker, ProPublica, The New York Times and others.
I’m talking about the new journalism that is being pioneered by nonprofit, online news organizations like The Banner – that are not tethered to advertisers, corporate ownership and greedy stockholders, as is the case with much of what remains of the so-called legacy press.
Freed of these constraints and the pressure they can generate, I think, The Banner has done a commendable job of publishing stories that other news organizations might shy away from – or quickly tire of reporting.
One story that comes mind is Justin Fenton’s coverage of ABC Capital, the Philadelphia-based company that’s accused of ripping off those who invest in some of Baltimore’s most distressed housing and the poor people who end up living in those hovels. This is the kind of story that legacy media news organizations too often treat as a drive-by story if they cover it at all.
Another is The Banner’s coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, a story that might cause a start-up newspaper that is dependent largely on advertising income to tamp down its reporting. But without such an over-reliance on that income stream, The Banner punched above its weight in its reporting on this scandal.
And then there is The Banner’s assignment of an immigration reporter to cover the region’s growing – but still relatively small – population of recent arrivals to this country who have not yet been absorbed into the American melting pot. The stories cover a broad range of issues beyond the fixation of many national journalists and politicians on how they crossed into this country.
These kinds of life-affirming stories are the heart of the new journalism – a journalism that can only be produced with any consistency by news organizations that manage to escape the clutches of the ownership model that has forced the closure of thousands of daily newspapers and reduced many that survive to a shell of what they once were.
In just seven months, The Banner has shown real promise of becoming an “indispensable” part of the Baltimore community. Yes, it has stumbled on occasion. And some of its coverage remains stuck in a less-enlightened period of American journalism.
For example, a weekly feature on Baltimore-area homes for sale seems to be tone deaf to the housing needs of The Banner’s target audience. The average price of homes in this feature is routinely two-to-three times that of the median sale price of homes in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Given how The Banner is seeking to position itself, I think its readers would be better served by a real estate feature that offers realistic solutions to the area’s shortage of affordable housing.
And then there is this: The Banner’s coverage of Johns Hopkins University’s state-approved plan to create an armed police force to patrol its three Baltimore campuses was, I believe, misleading when It reported in a November 20, article that the university “still intends to hire 100 officers to patrol its city properties, even though the surge in campus crime that prompted the original plan has receded, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Banner.”
I think it is a non sequitur to suggest that a drop in the crime rate justifies sacking the Hopkins plan to create a campus police force. Also, The Banner gave no clear explanation of its methodology to my satisfaction, and I think the findings of its “analysis” were an awkward contrast to crime data collected by the U.S. Department of Education in 2020. That data shows Johns Hopkins had significantly more serious crimes in its geographical area than any of its three neighboring higher education institutions that year.
These missteps, I believe, are the growing pains of a new publication in an era when the news industry is undergoing tumultuous change.
Up to now in its young life, there is clear evidence that the more positive aspects of the “new journalism” – which may well be the salvation of America’s embattled media – is taking hold in The Baltimore Banner’s newsroom.
DeWayne Wickham is the public editor for The Baltimore Banner.