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The State of News in Greenbelt, Prince George’s County and Maryland

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UMD’s Conference on the “Local News Crisis”

I recently attended a fascinating conference at the U.Maryland Merrill School of Journalism, along with Greenbelt News Review managing editor Anna Bedford-Dillow and dozens of other journalists from around the DMV. There was at least one Pulitzer winner in the audience of DMV-based journalists but I especially liked talking with the ones here in Prince George’s County. I learned a bit about Anna, who’s doing such a great job at the News Reviews.

One attendee introduced himself as a contributor to the terrific DCist, which sadly went out of business three months ago. But he told us that he and others are creating a site similar to DCist but “based on a needs survey.” Hmmm, I wonder how that’ll make it different.

The Local News Ecosystem Study

The primary focus of the conference was reporting the results of the Merrill School’s Local News Ecosystem Study, the first of its kind for Maryland. The survey team started by identifying all outlets that offer news and information in the state – original content only – then performed a content analysis of each one and surveyed them about their needs, challenges, staffing and finances. I was contacted on behalf of Greenbelt Online and participated in the survey. The survey results are summarized in this press release.

Some Statewide Findings

The survey found 176 organizations offering news and info in MD, of which 156 produce original content. (Others aggregate news.) The survey report includes thumbnails of all 176, though. Unfortunately, no broadcast television stations responded to the survey.

Survey results showed that crime and official government announcements dominate local news and that 13 of the government announcements found were published verbatim, with no further reporting.

The best traffic and engagement enjoyed by the news outlets is content about food, restaurants and the outdoors, subjects we were told are “underreported.”

There’s been little increase in purely ideological or propaganda outlets in Maryland, thankfully – “fewer than five” outlets were found that are more advocacy than journalism.

Some DC Area Findings

Prince George’s County was found to have 14 such qualifying outlets, and Montgomery County 17, but the numbers themselves can be deceptive. These large counties have hyper-local sites and blogs, but there’s no local newspaper that exclusively covers either county – unlike some smaller counties, like Somerset. So nothing is filling the void caused by the reduction in local reporting by the Washington Post and local TV stations – which the report calls “striking.”

(Speaking of the Washington Post, one of the survey leaders told me that the reduction in local staff followed the paper’s conclusion that national and international news make more money than local. I concurred with my own beef about the huge drop in relevant gardening reporting by the paper since its locally-based garden writer retired and was replaced by freelancers from regions that may or may not be appropriate here. Here’s my rant about a Thursday “Prince George’s Edition” with a garden of desert plants on the cover, promoting a story written by someone in Denver!)

The researchers found four outlets that focus on Montgomery County in general: MoCo360 (the most “robust”), Montgomery County Media, the Montgomery County Sentinel and The MoCo Show.

The news landscape in Prince George’s County is described as “even more spotty than in its neighbor to the north.” In fact, while we have several very-local outlets, there’s not one news organization providing “daily coverage of news events and government activity in this county of about 955,000 people.” Coverage by the Prince George’s Sentinel is described as a “hit-or-miss mixture of county news that is by no means comprehensive” and the Prince George’s Post frequently runs government press releases verbatim, with no original reporting. While Prince George’s Community Television offers a weeknight news broadcast, it hasn’t published a story to its newsite in almost two years.

Our county does have several hyperlocal sites, though. One example is the nonprofit Streetcar Suburbs News, which publishes print newspapers monthly in Hyattsville, College Park and Laurel. And with the help of volunteer reporters and UMD students, they’re able to provide timely news reports on their websites. Then there’s The Bowie Sun, founded in 2021 and funded in part by the Google News Initiative. Weekly publication by Greenbelt News Review is mentioned, with the notation that it’s “seeking development support for an update to its website.”

The bottom line? Prince George’s County is a “a patchy news desert. Its hyperlocal sites can be seen as oases — but the county as a whole lacks consistent, comprehensive news coverage.”

“Thumbnail” Summaries of All Outlets in Prince George’s

FYI, as I’m sometimes asked “Whatever happened to the Greenbelt Patch?” here’s an update: Patch is listed as a “regional or out-of-state” outlet:

Some Quick Notes about Maryland Outlets

  • Sadly, even tragically, the 187-year-old Baltimore Sun was sold to the chairman of the right-wing Sinclair broadcasting chain, but there’s a “vibrant ecosystem of new and old outlets, including some feisty start-ups and strong, if challenged, outlets carrying on the tradition of the Black press.” Of special note is the Baltimore Banner “a great start-up” that even hosts a lively Tiktok channel. While some of its videos are getting a million views, a representative told us it’s unclear whether they can actually help the organization financially.
  • We learned that other good online reporting is being done by the Bowie Sun, Radio Free Hub City (which started by covering entertainment and has expanded its coverage) and the Spy sites on the Eastern Shore – for Chestertown, Talbot and Cambridge – all started by someone who tried unsuccessfully to buy the Baltimore Sun.
  • The Chestertown Spy conducts and reports on weekly 30-minute zoom calls with the local sheriff.
  • Almost all outlets report lacking a “meaningful presence” on social media.
  • Thirty-nine percent of the outlets say they’re worried about their chances of two-year survival without revenue growth.
  • An attendee from Streetcar Suburbs told us it’s difficult to increase diversity at the outlet due to the fact that it doesn’t pay its contributors.
  • People called “documentors” are being trained in cities as local journalists.

How the Merrill School Helps

In addition to these survey results, conference attendees learned of the many ways that the Merrill School is helping local news organizations, especially through its Capital News Service, which broadcasts on Comcast and also its website. All of its reporting – about 140 stories per semester – is done by Merrill School students, with professional editors.

Another source of help is Merrill’s Digital Engagement Lab, though honestly, I don’t understand from that link what it does.

At Eleanor Roosevelt HS

There’s a Greenbelt publication that wasn’t included in the survey but is worthy of a shout-out. It’s the Eleanor Roosevelt High School Raider Review, a student-run news site. There are currently 17 students producing professional-level news, opinion and features for the site, under the direction of Heather Seyler, the journalism teacher and UMD graduate. Her students also produce videos and podcasts!

Ms. Seyler invited me and five other local journalists (including the News Review’s Anna Bedford-Dillow) to appear on a zoom panel with her class, where we talked about our careers and offered tips for getting started in journalism or more generally, writing. The students seemed engaged and I sure was because the panelists were so impressive! I particularly enjoyed comments by Alicia Montgomery, whose long career includes senior roles at NPR and her current job at Slate.com, where she reports and also manages its podcasts, of which I’m a longtime fan.

And the happy follow-up to our panel is learning that Ms. Seyler will be assigning her students two stories each – one for print in the News Review and one for online, right here. I’m sure looking forward to working with them to create their accounts on this site, where they’ll write and illustrate stories using WordPress, a good platform to include on their resumes.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog weekly at GardenRant.com.

4 Responses

  1. Kevin W Parker
    | Reply

    Where do you get that the Baltimore Sun folded? I just went to their website and found current news as well as a page with various subscription options, both print and digital.

  2. Katherine Jarva
    | Reply

    Great work for Greenbelt, Susan. Thank you.

  3. Ellen Ternes
    | Reply

    Good story, thanks for attending the conference and writing about it.

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