BALTIMORE, MARYLAND — After seventeen years as a staff writer and reporter at The Washington Post, Fern Shen opted to take a buyout amid significant downsizing at the paper. But she wanted to stay in the news business, and felt that Baltimore, the city she called home throughout her time at the Post, needed “more journalistic boots on the ground,” as well as “something more next-generation and web oriented that young people coming up could read and use.” Feeling that she had hit upon a way to fulfill this task, Shen launched the Baltimore Brew in the spring of 2009, switching from “complaining about the collapse of the industry… to ‘doing something about it’ mode.”
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Twenty years ago, Baltimore had three daily newspapers. The Sun is all that remains, and has continued to cut resources. The Brew hopes to pick up some of the slack by having a strong focus on politics, urban planning, and other hard news issues. It also covers the thorny topics of urban blight and revitalization.
The site puts a premium on keeping city hall honest. Former Baltimore Sun reporter Mark Reutter, the site’s top contributor in addition to Shen, has reported on ethically nebulous tax breaks sought by real estate developers, brought transparency to campaign contributions, and kept tabs on the city’s diminishing resources for the homeless. In the run-up to the primary elections of 2011, Shen and Reutter took a hard look at the sources of money for incumbent candidates, and often found contributions from the contractors and developers who were coming before these public officials in order to receive permits.
When a demolished building was left untended for weeks, posing a threat to public health and safety, the Brew was the only outlet in the city to run the story. Shen explains: “The contractor was well-connected [and] Mark laid all this out, everything from the personal impact on these people, to the hard numbers behind what sort of favors this company’s been getting.” Within days of running the story, the city went to work in removing the rubble from the demolition, after initial promises that that work on clean-up wouldn’t commence for “at least several weeks.”
In addition to practicing accountability journalism, the Brew also gives fair due to culture and human interest pieces. One such story profiled Baltimore’s very own Johnny Appleseed, a man known throughout the city for his prolific tree planting. The site regularly features epicurean tips from food writer Francine Halvorson, as well as regular contributions from an urban forager. The enterprising forager might “tell you median strips to go to to find plants to make a particular kind of tea, or a place to find fruit trees on the side of the road, or a college campus where you could make preserves out of what you could just pick for free from the trees.”
The site boasts all original content, with Shen updating the site several times a week with help from a “sort of patchwork of contributors,” as she puts it. The main contributors, who come from either writing or journalism backgrounds, contribute to the site once or twice a month and are compensated, though not extravagantly. “They know we’re still figuring out the business model and we’re short on funds,” Shen says. “Once we start getting ad dollars flowing in or other sources of income they’re the ones who will get it first.” When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the site, Shen notes, “we’re pretty much the classic shoestring operation.”
Reutter and Shen remain the only full time employees of the site, which operates as an LLC. The site has had some success selling advertising, but, Shen explains, “we’re pretty much writers, not business people.” The site recently brought on a business developer in hopes of expanding its ad sales and seeking out other sources of revenue. While they are in the process of discussing other potential compensation sources, for now the developer will be compensated based on commission. The site has also launched a Kickstarter project. Shen explains: “We have a lot of fans and some good traffic, so we’re hoping for people to toss money in the tip jar and give us a little boost.” (As of this posting, the site is $897 away from reaching its $15,000 goal, with eight days remaining.)
The site’s about page reads, in part: “Until the business model gets sorted out, we figured we’d make a place for Baltimore’s journalists, techies and news-starved readers to get together and do some good things. That’s the plan.”
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Name: Baltimore Brew