SEABROOK – Following the announcement that the Prince George’s Sentinel will cease its print publication following the Jan. 30 edition, public figures throughout the county spoke on how the outlet’s closure leaves a void in local coverage.
Both the Prince George’s and Montgomery County Sentinel will be closing after CEO/Publisher Lynn Kapiloff confirmed reports in a letter to readers on Jan. 16. The Prince George’s Sentinel was entering its 88th year of service as the county’s flagship publication. It became the primary source specifically geared to county news since The Gazette closed in 2015.
County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said she “was very sorry” to hear of the Prince George’s Sentinel’s closure, calling it the continuation of a “decline in local coverage.” As the county continues to press forward, Alsobrooks said she is open to having more publications come out to cover all parts of Prince George’s and add variety to fill the void the Sentinel will leave.
“We really appreciate local publications like The Sentinel,” Alsobrooks said. “Those publications understand the issues in the county very well, and we will miss the unique voice of the Sentinel, and it allowed us to tell our unique story.”
County Council Chair Todd Turner (D-4) said that the county was “losing another voice” with the newspaper shutting its doors and creates a hole for residents who used The Sentinel as its primary source for county news. Following the departure of the Gazette, Turner said The Sentinel picked up the void and provided researched content that is, at times, forgotten in the age of blogs and quick posts on social media.
“Knowledge is power,” Turner said. “That was one thing that we had with our local newspapers was that we had professionals covering our communities, giving us insight as to the corners of our residents but also, keeps us, government officials and the county on our toes and making sure we respond to the issues that are out there.”
In recent years, the publication worked on covering the county council, the county executive’s office, board of education, legislative changes, crime incidents, entertainment, and high school athletics.
The Sentinel Newspapers came together for an investigative story on Metro station safety in 2017. Afterward, the Prince George’s office branched off to investigate the cancellation of Bladensburg High School’s varsity football season in 2018.
The Sentinel’s closure comes at a time when smaller news organizations are closing more during the social media and digital age. According to research by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, in the past 15 years, more than one in five newspapers in the United States has shuttered, and the number of journalists working for papers has been cut in half.
The ever-changing atmosphere in the journalism world is already impacting those who are looking to get into the industry. Starting in March, The Diamondback, the University of Maryland’s independent student newspaper, also announced its decision to end its print operations starting in March to focus on its digital product.
Lucy A. Dalglish, Dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, acknowledges The Sentinel’s help in giving the school’s young journalists a chance to gain experience before graduating. The Sentinel provided opportunities to reach their news clip requirements, offered internships, and presented freelancing or job opportunities.
Now, with its closure, students will need to be creative during their job searches and prepare to explore options outside the Metropolitan region to work in the industry, Dalglish said.
Some areas of the county, like Greenbelt and Bowie, are covered by hyperlocal publications that, together with television news outlets, can fill some of the void left by The Sentinel.
However, Councilmember Deni Taveras (D-2) said country-specific events that are generally ignored by the media but covered by The Sentinel would go back into obscurity.
“They will not necessarily fill that void like we would like to fill that void,” Taveras said. “To be at all these important, small meetings that happen within our county and I feel like…we hardly have anything in our community, and this is a huge hole.”
Currently, county council meetings are streamed off their website, and each county official can connect with residents via social media. The Prince George’s County Board of Education meetings are open to the public and also streamed on YouTube. Lastly, both police and fire/EMS public information officers are providing up-to-date information on Twitter.
However, news organizations bring a level of transparency to local governments by asking hard questions and requesting documents for more information. Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski quoted former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Louis Brandeis on the publication’s end, stating, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
“With the closing of the Sentinel, the public in Prince George’s County suffers the loss of both a local and prominent avenue to transparency,” Stawinski said. “The Sentinel will be absent, but we will keep the watch.”
Capital News Service, a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland, has been providing more local content for Prince George’s residents as a wire service for area publications.
However, the university’s semester schedule leaves gaps for coverage. At the same time, its small staff, usually of 10 students, does not lend itself to cover both Prince George’s and Montgomery counties adequately, Dalglish said. While smaller, online community sites “meet some needs,” investment is needed to ensure residents are receiving top-line news in Prince George’s County.
“It is going to be impossible to replace those two publications unless someone is willing to make an investment,” Dalglish said. “This is an incredibly large metro area not to have quality community coverage.”