I believe in journalism. At its best, journalism celebrates the good we have in common, shines light on the wrongs and points the way toward making things better.

Call it my philosophy, if you want. I call it my life’s work.

So, I listened with interest last week as the University of Maryland, the Knight Foundation and The Baltimore Banner rolled out and discussed the findings of the university’s study on the state of local journalism in Maryland.

No surprise, what researchers found ain’t great. But they also discovered reason to hope.

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The Maryland Local News Ecosystem Study, a first-of-its-kind assessment, identified 156 news organizations in Maryland. Most were tiny, with five journalists or fewer. Most struggle both financially and to fulfill their basic purpose — serving as watchdogs and chroniclers of their communities.

Almost half of the news outlets identified by the university are in Maryland’s biggest counties: Baltimore, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s.

“This will give you an idea why there are news deserts in Maryland,” said Tom Rosenstiel, a veteran journalist and professor at the Philip Merrill College who designed the study and wrote up the results.

This landscape was shaped as The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and other newspapers around the state retreated in the face of changing economics and news consumer habits. Small entrepreneurs and nonprofits jumped in to fill the gap.

It’s why The Banner exists — a nonprofit with financial support, a robust newsroom of journalists and a mission to reinvent local news on a scale that will have impact.

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“We need to expect that local news will look different, and that’s a good thing,” said Amy L. Kovac-Ashley, executive director of the Tiny News Collective.

During a Friday seminar on the study in College Park, Rosenstiel cited the example of Naptown Scoop. Publisher Ryan Sneddon’s daily newsletter includes links to stories about Annapolis from other outlets, community events, government news releases and social media photos.

I’ve long urged Sneddon to do more original journalism. But while the 146-year-old newspaper in Annapolis where I spent most of my career, the Capital, has shrunk, Naptown Scoop with its journalism-lite is growing.

“It’s pretty good,” Rosenstiel said. “I don’t know much about Annapolis, but I have a sense of place now.”

Researchers found that 39% of news organization leaders in Maryland are skeptical they will survive without more revenue.

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That might describe Delonte Harrod. He’s the all-in-one staff of The Intersection, a website covering Southern Prince George’s County, and the guy I sat next to at Friday’s conference.

Harrod writes long pieces about complex subjects such as community views on the war in Gaza or the aftermath of a police shooting. He serves a community ignored by traditional news sources in the past.

Keeping it going isn’t making Harrod rich — or even supporting him. “I drive DoorDash,” he said.

The weakest parts of this changing mediaverse may be in rural Maryland. Somerset County has one news organization, part of a regional chain based in Delaware that provides just one reporter for most of its publications. Its leaders have looked down every avenue for cost savings.

That starvation diet means some Maryland journalists are little more than stenographers.

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Of the more than 1,450 stories that Rosenstiel and his student researchers examined, 69% were breaking news — event-driven coverage. That sounds good, newsy.

It’s not. Often it’s details of an arrest directly from police, obituaries written by funeral homes and announcements submitted by civic groups.

Crime was the most frequently covered topic — 18%, according to the study — even though crime is down.

“Did we see a trend story? You know about how to … reduce crime?” Rosenstiel asked.

“Most of what I saw was ‘man arrested,’” said Khushboo Rathore, a University of Maryland senior I met last summer who worked on the project. “Mug shots.”

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Enterprise journalism — journalists using their initiative to figure out what’s happening and a lot of what we do at The Banner — made up only 21% of stories. Most of that was on feature topics — stories on food, arts and entertainment, culture and business.

Just 1% covered wrongdoing by government — and most of that came from government releases.

My initial reaction to this was anger.

Where has the University of Maryland been for the last decade? I spent too many days cutting budgets, closing offices and laying off journalists while trying to maintain smart journalism.

Local journalism is a victim of market forces, but also of its own bad decisions and arrogance. I’m mad help from academics and think-tanks didn’t come sooner, but I appreciate the attention now.

So, applause for Rostenstiel, Merrill College Dean Rafael Lorente, his predecessor Lucy Dalglish, Local News Network Director Jerry Zremski and others who made this happen. Knowing the landscape is the first step to improving it.

“Our job is to move past the damage that’s already been done,” Zremski said.

Agreed. How?

Thursday night in Baltimore, Banner CEO Bob Cohn and Editor-in-Chief Kimi Yoshino joined experts from around the country to explore what might work.

Maryland lawmakers tried for years to free governments from publishing public notices in print newspapers. It’s now a vital source of income for legacy news organizations, and good for transparency.

What if instead of cutting, the state required half of all state and local government advertising to go to local news organizations regardless of platform?

Other states are ahead of Maryland in trying to help. California created fellowships to make journalism jobs pay enough to support living in the communities journalists serve. New York just passed a budget with employer tax credits for news media.

“You can still do independent news and have public policy as part of the solution,” said Dale R. Anglin, director of the Press Forward initiative created to reinvigorate local news.

Two state delegates attended Friday’s conference, so some in government are paying attention.

Kit Slack, editor of the Streetcar Suburbs News in Hyattsville, talks with Delonte Harrod of The Intersection talk about news in Prince George's County.
Kit Slack, editor of the Streetcar Suburbs News in Hyattsville, talks with Delonte Harrod of The Intersection Magazine, which covers Prince George’s county. (Rick Hutzell)

The most interesting developments today are in nonprofit journalism. It’s not just The Banner, either. Streetcar Suburbs News delivers hyperlocal newspapers by mail in Prince George’s County. The Spy websites serve Talbot and Kent counties.

It’s all part of efforts to figure out a business model that works, a path to sustain journalism financially.

“Sustainability to me means that you’re aiming for journalism that is without fear or favor,” said Duc Luu, director of the Knight Foundation journalism program.

I came to The Banner because I wanted to be part of this experiment. I wanted to find a way to practice my philosophy because it contributes to making this a better world.

Survival is a never-ending process of change, so I don’t expect to see the end results. It’s easy to forget that the era of journalism we’ve left behind was just a moment in time with its own faults, not some lost Golden Age.

So despite the gloomy assessment, reinvention and the opportunity for change are healthy for local journalism, and not just for journalists. It matters to all of us.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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