Montgomery Sentinel newspaper folds, leaving a “news desert” in Montgomery County

By Emily London

Every Thursday morning for the past 165 years, the Montgomery County Sentinel newspaper has arrived on subscribers’ doorsteps across the county, reporting on the biggest local stories of the week. Over the years, it covered events from the Civil War to the more local Giles v. Maryland court case during the Civil Rights movement. For that case, the Sentinel’s strong reporting uncovered information later used to free an innocent man from jail.

Founded in 1855, the Sentinel is the oldest continuously published newspaper in the county. Some alumni from the paper — like Bob Woodward, one of the two Washington Post reporters who uncovered Watergate, and Brian Karem, a CNN journalist — have graduated to national news organizations. As a Montgomery County paper, it covers one of the largest counties in the U.S. with a population bigger than that of states like Delaware, Rhode Island and Alaska. The Sentinel has even won the Maryland Press Association’s News Organization of the Year award four of the last five years. 

None of this, however, could save the Sentinel. The Montgomery County Sentinel closed it’s print publication Jan. 30 after more than one and a half centuries in business.

Newspapers closing is nothing new for Montgomery County. Just 15 years ago, there were eight local print newspapers. But in 2005, the Montgomery County Journal shut down, the Washington Post’s local weekly Montgomery “Extra” section went under in 2009, and the Montgomery Gazette closed all five local editions in 2015.

These newspapers, along with over 2,000 others across the country, closed for many of the same reasons as the Sentinel. With the advent of the Internet, advertisers stopped buying ads in newspapers and switched to platforms like Facebook or free sites like Craigslist, causing a substantial amount of print newspaper funding to disappear, University of Minnesota journalism professor Matthew Weber said. 

To combat this, associate publisher Mark Kapiloff, the son of Montgomery County Sentinel owner Lynn Kapiloff, thinks moving the paper online could work for the Sentinel and is planning to revive the Sentinel online later this year. 

The Sentinel’s more significant issue, however, is not the loss of advertisers but a loss of readers. The Sentinel’s circulation — reaching over 200,000 in its heyday in the 1990s — was just 5,000 households for its final print edition.

“No one really wants a print newspaper anymore,” Lynn said. “Everywhere you go, people are just on their phones.”

Whitman students, like others across the county, don’t go out of their way to read local newspapers. An informal Black & White survey found that 29 out of 39 students read or watch national news regularly or semi-regularly. But only two students follow local news in the same way.

The Sentinel closing marked a new era for Montgomery County. Now, there are zero local print newspapers left, creating a “news desert” in the county. A “news desert” is a community without a locally based press outlet. These deserts have spread over the last 15 years as more than one in five newspapers nationally have closed. As of 2018, more than half of all counties in the nation have one or zero local newspapers.

A lack of local news coverage creates issues in a community, including significant decreases in public involvement in local politics. Without local news, there’s nothing to inform potential voters about current events or hold local politicians accountable, Weber said.

“You definitely see a decline in the amount of civic engagement in communities as soon as you lose that newspaper,” Weber said. “Right off the bat, people are less aware of what’s happening, and there’s a drop off in voting rates.”

Because there’s no newspaper to hold governments accountable, government spending also tends to be higher, Weber said. 

“The local paper serves as a lifeline for their communities in terms of keeping the government accountable,” he said. “You lose that critical watchdog function without it.”

In the past, papers like the Sentinel and the Montgomery County Gazette have filled that role. Former Gazette writer Kathy Gambrell remembers when her newspaper broke the story about the Board of Education’s misuse of credit cards in 2014. 

“It was a reporter who really held the county’s feet to the fire,” Gambrell said. “We were able to give readers a really good view of what was actually happening.”

Some newspapers are becoming solely digital to survive. The University of Maryland student newspaper, the Diamondback, announced in March that they will stop publishing print newspapers. 

Online newspapers, however, aren’t as good at informing communities, Duke University public policy professor Philip Napoli said. In his research comparing the production of news articles between different types of media outlets, print newspapers published 50% of the stories in the study despite only being 25% of the sources.

“Print newspapers are still overproducing relative to their amount when it comes to original, local news,” Napoli said. “Online news represents only a drop in the bucket.”

With the loss of the Sentinel, Montgomery County loses a newspaper with a reputation for honest journalism with integrity, Lynn said.

“It’s sad that the Sentinel is closing,” Lynn said. “But we’ve always given just the facts and always kept our standards. I’m very proud of that.”