After City Paper, Baltimore Beat aims to build a more diverse news outlet

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

First, the dream was to keep Baltimore City Paper alive. That didn’t work. Now, the dream is to start something completely new—a weekly newspaper and website with leadership that represents the majority-black city it serves; smart, inclusive news and culture coverage; and a business structure that prioritizes collaboration over competition. The experiment goes public on November 15, when the first issue of Baltimore Beat hits the city.

The idea was born after City Paper Editor in Chief Brandon Soderberg posted a July story announcing that the 40-year-old alt-weekly was being closed by its owner, the Baltimore Sun Media Group, which is owned by Tronc. Staff learned the news a few weeks after it voted to unionize—in fact, owners said they would recognize the union at the same meeting where staffers were told the paper would shut down. But they would keep publishing into fall. It’s unusual for an owner to keep a news outlet going for several months after announcing its closure. This gave Soderberg an opportunity to campaign for its survival.

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In his July post, Soderberg appealed for a buyer to save City Paper. Among the many people who replied was Kevin Naff, a Baltimore resident and co-owner of the media company that publishes the Washington Blade, an LGBT weekly with a reputation for strong journalism. Naff, a former Sun staffer who helped launch its website in 1996, said that conversations about purchasing the alt-weekly didn’t pan out, and the Baltimore Sun Media Group rejected his offer of a licensing deal that would give him the right to use the name.

No matter. Market research led Naff to believe it was better to start fresh anyway. That’s what his company did in March when it launched the Los Angeles Blade, another LGBT publication. With the back-office services that owners Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. already had in place with its sister publication in Washington—accounting, billing, and so on—the Los Angeles Blade just needed editorial and sales staff to launch. It’s been a success, which Naff attributes to two things: LA’s hunger for real reporting on the LGBT community, rather than just fluff on bars and nightlife, and a post-election awakening to the critical role that journalists play in a democratic society.

This is more or less the plan to bring the Baltimore Beat to life on a swift timeline. Its first issue will be released just two weeks after City Paper published its last issue on November 1. But with the Washington Blade published just 40 miles away, it has the advantage of the company’s pre-existing deals for distribution and printing.

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And there was never a question about publishing a print issue. “As anybody in the industry knows, that’s still where most of the money is,” Naff says.

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It’s also about reader access and inclusion. Two staff members told me that about a quarter of the city’s population doesn’t have regular access to the internet. (While CJR couldn’t find a study that says exactly this, Baltimore’s digital divide was a major issue for its former mayor.) As Lisa Snowden-McCray, the Beat’s editor in chief, describes it, a physical paper is accessible to anyone who stumbles across it in a bar, or while waiting for the bus, or in a library, “so you’re hitting a lot of different people.” Soderberg, who will be the Beat’s managing editor and news editor, also said the paper plans to distribute further and deeper into Baltimore than City Paper, which was concentrated in the center of the city.

 

The Beat also stands out as a publication with an African-American woman as editor in chief. Snowden-McCray is a City Paper veteran who took a job on the editorial board at the Sun in August. She left at the end of October to lead the Beat.

“My stomach still really hurts,” Snowden-McCray says. “I was stressed about the decision. The people at the Sun are great, I had a stable job, I have kids—but I also knew this was an opportunity to do a lot of the things I’ve been talking about for years when it comes to journalism and the need for more voices in it.”

Growing up in Maryland, “I didn’t see what a black woman journalist looks like,” she adds. “Even now, I can’t see many black women in editorial positions, let alone as editor in chief. Occupying that space is important.”

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The need is especially acute in a city that is nearly 65-percent African-American. Snowden-McCray envisions the Beat as a publication for people whose perspectives haven’t always been heard—not just in hard news, but also in, for example, food coverage. “Writing about food can be a very white thing,” she said. Well-reviewed restaurants are sometimes the same places where she, her husband, and others are treated poorly because of their race, but that never gets talked about in the media.

 

The Beat has five full-time staff members, plus Naff as the publisher, and it hopes to grow more. It’s also relying on collaboration for its success. It’s partnering with The Real News Network, a 10-year-old nonprofit video news service. While RNN focuses on national and international news, it has a Baltimore bureau, a pilot project for local news coverage, and it has an ally in senior reporter Baynard Woods, another City Paper veteran (and one who wrote for CJR about its closure).

RNN houses the Beat in its downtown office on Holiday Street, and it will also license some of its local news coverage to the alt-weekly, giving it a boost in audio and video. The Beat and the Blade papers may also cross-publish stories; the Washington Blade already has a history of reporting on Baltimore’s LGBT community. And Woods envisions partnerships that would make the Beat a multi-lingual paper—stories translated into Spanish, perhaps, or maybe a column in Korean, both of which would extend the paper’s reach into Baltimore’s diverse communities.

I was stressed about the decision. The people at the Sun are great, I had a stable job, I have kids—but I also knew this was an opportunity to do a lot of the things I’ve been talking about for years when it comes to journalism and the need for more voices in it.

The news about the shuttering of City Paper coincided with the end of The Marc Steiner Show, a progressive talk show on the public radio station WEAA. That prompted Soderberg, Woods, and Steiner to create the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as a “guerilla newsroom”—donated funds would pay freelancers for local reporting projects that would then be freely given to news outlets. Modeled on the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and even sharing a logo (with permission), Woods says BINJ will soon start a second round of fundraising, including a Patreon page, to help it fund beats, especially a gun beat, where a reporter would focus on gun violence in the city. Some of the reporting BINJ supports will go to the Beat and the Real News Network, but it will also be distributed to “any small organization in town, really,” Woods says. “Anywhere not owned by Tronc or the alt-right.”

The Baltimore Beat, then, “is definitely not City Paper under a new name,” as Naff puts it.

Snowden-McCray agrees. “City Paper is dead and gone. There are similar things that unite all alt-weeklies. We create space to talk more about art, literature, and music, to do really deep-dive longread journalism. That will still be there. But I think what we really want is to make this a better reflection of the community.”

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Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. Her book, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, will be published in April 2018 by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.