Late last month, Timothy E. Ryan, president, publisher, and CEO of The Baltimore Sun Media Group (BSMG), dropped a bomblet by announcing that, beginning October 10, the company would sell “subscriptions” to its flagship newspaper’s website. Adopting a paywall model similar, if slightly less generous, to the one established by The New York Times Co. for use of its newspaper’s website earlier this year, baltimoresun.com readers now pay $2.50 per week or $50 for six months for unlimited access to what Ryan unblushingly — and, apparently, without irony — terms the site’s “unique, in-depth local news and information.” All of which prompted a Baltimore Fishbowl colleague to deadpan “lots of luck.”
“Unique”? Well, no. “In-depth”? Well, occasionally. The sustained viability of even a free online omnibus content provider such as baltimoresun.com seems somewhat dubious; one that charges viewers seems somewhat fanciful.
Meanwhile, over the past several years, a handful of local news-and-information websites have established distinct online presences and gained burgeoning individual viewerships by concentrating on discrete niches: business, culture, investigative reporting, neighborhood doings, and lowbrow lore. For free. Most have been founded by restive innovators who ascertained an online vacuum for the very “unique, in-depth local news and information” claimed by BSMG boss Ryan.
The following local media insurgents already have demonstrated their sites’ utility, worthiness, and, perhaps, indispensability.
Edwin Warfield (57), CEO and founder, Citybizlist (citybizlist.com)
Edwin Warfield understood early on – perhaps too early on – the advantages of dispensing local business news via the Internet. In 1994, the publisher of the venerable Baltimore-based weekday legal/business newspaper The Daily Record and slick monthly business features magazine Warfield’s sold those ventures, pulled up stakes in the city, and relocated to Fort Lauderdale, where he launched the Web-only ReviewNet.com. Re-branded the Local Business Network in 2000, the site never flourished to Warfield’s satisfaction, and, in 2002, he sold controlling interest in the company and hightailed it back to Baltimore.
Rebooting on familiar territory, in 2006 he launched citybizlist.com, offering local business news and financial information. This time: pay dirt. “The local part of the Internet has only started in the last five years,” Warfield contends. Published weekdays, “Citybizlist is distinguished by its SEC [Security and Exchange Commission] focus, real-time news operation, 18-hours-a-day news cycle, and user-generated content,” Warfield explains, pointing out that “71 percent of our readership is C-level executives [chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief operating officer, et al.], entrepreneurs, and professionals.”
To date, Citybizlist has enjoyed a handful of editorial coups, notably beating all other Baltimore media in breaking stories about the corporate marriages between Constellation Energy and Exelon, and M&T and Provident banks. Additionally, its success has spawned Citybizlist affiliates in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston, New York City, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Houston, South Florida, Charlotte/Raleigh, and Washington, D.C., with content delivered on local websites, mobile applications, and the usual social network suspects (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn).
Expanding its non-editorial scope, the Baltimore edition recently unveiled Citybizlist Rewards, a glammy analogue to Groupon and Social Living. “We are offering a limited number of advertisers the chance to put their business in front of our very high profile audience,” Warfield notes. “Our philosophy is ‘you’ve worked hard, you’ve earned it; now enjoy yourself.’”
Fern Shen (55), editor and publisher, Baltimore Brew (baltimorebrew.com)
The post-Watergate halo effect that accrued to daily newspaper journalism (embodied by the book/film All the President’s Men) had already begun to dim when Fern Shen joined the profession’s ranks in the early 1980s. A 1978 graduate of Harvard University, Shen worked as a staffer at major and minor dailies in Oregon and Connecticut, freelanced for The New York Times, and, after a stint at the now-defunct Evening Sun here in Baltimore, put in 17 years at The Washington Post, principally as a reporter on its Metro desk, a beat that included covering Maryland’s Statehouse. Over the course of 25-plus years, from inside the bubble, Shen witnessed daily newspapers close foreign bureaus, slash staffs, and wave bye-bye to readers and advertisers decamping to the Internet.
Eventually, she joined the exodus, and in 2009 launched the fiercely local, unself-consciously crusading, weekday-only Baltimore Brew. “Baltimore has a proud history and a great heart, but terrible problems,” she explains. “It deserves a smart, funny, inclusive, hard-hitting news website, and that’s what we’re trying hard to make here.”
For resources, Shen tapped into the burgeoning pool of writers who’d either fled or been shed by The Baltimore Sun to produce what she terms “solidly sourced, original reporting,” covering city politics (the site’s strength), education, development, neighborhood issues, and culture/arts. She is particularly proud of Brew staffer (and ex-Sun reporter) Mark Reutter’s on-the-cusp-of-the-primary-election expose concerning the more than $130,000 that developers and others conducting commerce with the city showered on Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s mayoral campaign.
Earnest and adamant without being dour, Shen says, “We absolutely need a Fourth Estate to hold government accountable and give people a way to share ideas on how to improve and enjoy the place where they live.”
Doug Donovan (40), regional editor, Patch (patch.com)
Media leviathan AOL foresaw the potential of Web-based locavore-ization when it inaugurated its Patch franchise in February 2009, and has since rolled out approximately 1,000 hyperlocal news-and-info sites nationwide: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Virginia, et al. Patch landed in the Baltimore area in August 2010, spawning PerryHallPatch and Lutherville-TimoniumPatch.
Metastasizing, Patch has now invaded 48 Maryland communities — Catonsville, North Baltimore, College Park, Westminster, Havre de Grace, and Glen Burnie, among others — reporting on community politics, sports, culture, events, meetings, and lifestyle. Each site employs one full-time editor/writer, augmented by freelancers. (Given this rabbit-like reproduction rate, can we eventually expect microlocal editions such as AlonzovillePatch, ultimately leading to extreme-local manifestations: YourBlockPatch, and, inevitably, YourHousePatch?)
Riding herd on this unwieldy flash mob: five regional editors, including, in the Baltimore area, career journalist Doug Donovan, who spent 2003 to 2008 as a staff writer at The Baltimore Sun. “I believe Patch’s model not only provides news and information — original and aggregated content about our towns — but also works hard to try to engage the people in our communities,” explains Donovan. “I wanted a model that would empower people to participate in coverage of their neighborhoods, so that we were fostering a conversation, spurring a dialogue or debate, and not simply engaging in a one-way traditional method of delivering news.”
Patch’s intensely locally focused editorial microscope has resulted in scoops about a Baltimore County Council candidate who failed to pay his federal and state taxes; a Bel Air town commissioner charged with theft of $5,000; and the dubious ties between a grassroots Facebook advocacy group favoring expansion of speed cameras in Baltimore County school zones and the company hired by the county to oversee its speed-camera initiative.
“We are so locally oriented,” notes Donovan, “that the news related to neighborhoods doesn’t get buried or lost in the crush of regional, state, and national content.”
Scott Huffines (48) and Tom Warner (54), founders and editors, Baltimore or Less
Scott Huffines and Tom Warner operate decidedly outside the mainstream media, cheekily celebrating the outré, the odd, the outlandish, and the odoriferous about their native city. While a handful of local feature-oriented websites labor predictably to establish some manner of misguided hipster cred, Baltimore or Less, launched in mid-2010, instead effortlessly plucks and then posts what Warner, a librarian in the Enoch Pratt Central Branch’s Sights and Sounds Department, terms “the unknown or unusual or serendipitous charms of Charm City.”
Recent original items include Warner’s waggish essay on the relentless misspelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s middle name as “Allen,” notably by the should-know-better MPT. The site also judiciously aggregates media stories — local and national, past and present — that probe Baltimore’s sometimes dogged, sometimes hangdog sensibility. “We pre-digest weird Baltimore-related news that most people aren’t interested in, and regurgitate it like mama birds feeding their young,” explains Huffines, a Web development specialist for the Johns Hopkins Hospital Department of Anesthesia.
Click on “Baltimorons” or “Pranks,” for instance, from the site’s extensive archives, and discover what Huffines calls “insane tidbits,” such as “Iggy Pop recorded a live album on Pulaski Highway; Babe Ruth got sick injecting a serum made from sheep’s testicles; and a stunt balloonist drank six beers, and then fell a half-mile to his death in Highlandtown.”
Not everything comes across as Baltimore Babylon, though. BMoL plays nice, too. One example: Jackie Nickel’s (Huffines late newspaperwoman mother) endearing story about Essex-based, crab-eating social group the Ancient and Honorable Nobles of the Hardshells.
Bonus: The site brims with pertinent videos and audio components, including a “Baltimore Soundtrack” that features jaunty, decades-old Natty Boh jingles and the long-gone Baltimore Clippers minor league hockey team’s rah-rah theme song.
“Scott and I are archivists of sorts,” says Warner, “and we’re interested in what makes Baltimore such a unique place, its balance between the profane and the mundane, the highbrow and lowbrow — particularly the lowbrow.”
Len Lazarick (63), editor and publisher, Maryland Reporter (MarylandReporter.com)
When his job as State House bureau chief for Baltimore Examiner disappeared in early 2009 with the demise of that relatively short-lived daily newspaper, Len Lazarick detected an acute disturbance in the journalistic force, as coverage of state government and politics, both in Maryland and nationwide, continued to erode. Five months later, he discovered a potential angel to help fill the gradually expanding void: the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which funds nonprofit websites that provide online news and information about the wonky world of state government. After securing a grant from the Franklin Center, Lazarick incorporated MarylandReporter.com as a nonprofit in September 2009, and then launched the site that November.
Led by Lazarick, who has covered Maryland’s state government since the 1980s (Patuxent Publishing, MPT), each weekday Maryland Reporter’s staff blankets Annapolis’ myriad commissions, agencies, and departments – plus the General Assembly and the governor’s office – to offer consistently thoughtful, incisive, and clearly written articles that probe an often murky realm. “Our experienced journalists produce original stories about how state government spends taxpayer dollars,” Lazarick explains. Additionally, Maryland Reporter “scours over 50 websites every day to give our readers a daily roundup of state government news from newspapers, broadcast stations, and bloggers.”
This past March, Associate Editor Megan Poinski’s story about state employees who rake in $100,000-plus salaries — she found 5,139 such anointed worker bees – created a minor tsunami, given the context of Maryland’s straitened financial circumstances. Also, Maryland Reporter broke the curious tale of Baltimore City Democratic Delegate Curt Anderson’s brief flirtation with the legislature’s Tea Party Caucus. More recently, the site has adroitly sifted through the impenetrable arcana of the Congressional redistricting process, including Lazarick’s hint-of-snark piece about the serpentine nature of the proposed new 3rd district.