Mar 19, 2024 - Business

Exclusive: The Baltimore Banner plans expansion to broader Maryland

Illustration of a newspaper-covered location icon casting a dollar sign shadow

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit digital news publication that launched in 2022, is planning to expand its editorial coverage beyond Maryland's biggest city into the surrounding regions and beyond, its new CEO Bob Cohn told Axios.

Why it matters: Cohn sees a geographical expansion and more editorial investments in niche subject areas, like business, culture and tech, as key drivers for adding more digital subscribers.

  • He previously led subscription expansions as president of both The Economist and The Atlantic.

Driving the news: Helping to spearhead the outlet's editorial expansion will be two new hires, announced by The Banner's editor-in-chief Kimi Yoshino in a staff memo Tuesday.

  • Herman Wong, from the Washington Post, will soon join as deputy managing editor for news.
  • Julie Bykowicz, most recently with the Wall Street Journal, will join as business and enterprise editor.

By the numbers: Today, 125 people work at The Banner, Cohn said. Roughly 80 work in the newsroom, up from around 45 at launch.

  • The Banner currently has 44,000 paid subscribers, Cohn said, roughly double from last June. (The company used to count subscribers differently, which is why a report from last year suggested it had 70,000 paid subscribers, Cohn said.)
  • Subscription revenue will represent almost half of the outlet's total revenue this year, he added.
  • The rest of the outlet's money comes mostly from philanthropy and advertising, and a little bit from events.

Zoom out: The first part of the outlet's expansion will include broadening coverage from the city into Baltimore County and from there, broader regions including Anne Arundel County and Howard County, Cohn said.

  • In addition to geographical growth, the new editors will help lead the publication's expansion into more niche topics, such as business, technology, education, food and culture.
  • To date, the outlet has focused most of its core coverage on hyper-local news, like criminal justice, weather and local sports. Stronger coverage of individual topics could help bolster subscriptions, Cohn said.

Catch up quick: The Banner was established by the Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism, a nonprofit backed by Maryland billionaire Stewart Bainum Jr.

  • Bainum has pledged to invest $50 million in the outlet over the first four years. He launched the effort following a failed attempt to buy the Baltimore Sun, which has long been the largest newspaper in the state.

Between the lines: Cohn said that while Bainum has provided a "generous runway," his goal is to use that money to break even and continue as a self-sustaining business.

  • He projects The Banner will break even in 2026.

The big picture: The Banner is one of several nonprofit news ventures looking to fill the void for the decline of local news in major cities.

  • The Baltimore Sun was recently sold to David Smith, the executive chairman of the local TV company Sinclair, prompting concerns about its editorial independence. (Sinclair has in the past mandated that its stations run segments with conservative commentary.)
  • That deal put the Sun back in the hands of a local owner after nearly four decades. Under its previous owner, Alden Global Capital, the outlet closed its printing press and moved printing operations to Delaware, eliminating 100 jobs.
  • "Our job is to go ahead and produce compelling journalism and serve Baltimore without regard to what the Sun does," Cohn said. "We wish them well because more excellent journalism is good for everybody."

What's next: The outlet is currently exploring an obituaries platform that could include editorial coverage as well as an opportunity for readers to place paid obituaries. It hopes to launch that product later this year.

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