A guide to Baltimore’s online news ecology
Published: August 3, 2011
In the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson was really into hating the press. (It hated him first.) As he put it, “Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.” Brutal.
That was in 1819, near the end of the great American newspaper boom. In the first decades of the 19th century, the number of newspapers in Maryland had exploded into the double digits, mimicking the rest of the country in the first years after the American revolution. The total number in the country rocketed from around a hundred just after the war to 1200 by 1835. Many if not most were also fiercely partisan: You read the news that conformed to your own views in, for example, the Republican; or Anti-Democrat, an actual newspaper that was most likely not widely read by Democrats.
The boom mirrors in a lot of ways the online boom of today: technology reaching saturation. (And you can be damn sure Belinda Conaway is hating the press right about now too; history repeats.) But instead of printing presses, it’s blogs and web sites. Right now, Baltimore has around eight steady sources of online news, far more than that depending on how you broaden the definition. Some are corporately fed, such as North Baltimore Patch, Charm City Current, Bmore Media, or Baltimore Examiner, and some are independent, such as the Baltimore Brew and Investigative Voice.
For six months, Baltimore was fortunate enough to have an organization here dedicated solely to analyzing the city’s journalistic output, NewsTrust Baltimore (the local pilot project of the larger NewsTrust organization). It was a bit like Yelp crossed with the Columbia Journalism Review. The project ceased operations on July 31 (it was always intended as a six-month pilot), leaving behind a collection of reports, one of which is a final comprehensive analysis of sorts. It eventually concludes, “The local news scene is in a state of flux with more than a little creative chaos. But patterns are emerging. As news startups and impassioned individuals become more rigorous and as traditional news organizations become more open and responsive to the public, there is a growing opportunity for collaboration across the local journalistic community.“
“Since the beginning, I’ve felt that Baltimore is a microcosm of what’s happening across larger media,” says Mary Hartney, the editor of NewsTrust Baltimore. (City Paper was a NewsTrust media partner.) “[It’s] probably ahead of the curve—other cities and other publications can look at Baltimore.” Which may seem like high praise for a city without an “ist” (Gothamist, DCist, etc.) site, but the city counters with sites such as the Baltimore Brew, which, if there was any justice, would be printed onto paper and distributed around the city in metal boxes.
“The Brew is a great example of what Baltimore has to offer as far as local online media,” Hartney says. “They seem to be filling some niche holes, and want to do more of that. They’ve amassed a big community, if you look at their comments. [The Brew is] one of my personal favorites, and I think what they’re doing is good journalism.”
The Brew makes up part of a wide spectrum. At one end, you’ll find things like corporately supported—however much a penny-a-pageview writer’s rate counts as support, in the Examiner’s case—community journalism (or “pro-am,” as it’s tagged sometimes) sites such as Charm City Current and the local Examiner cluster to the corporately supported and substantive Patch and Bmore Media to fierce, surging independents such as the Brew and Investigative Voice. The one-stop shopping of a single daily newspaper was never meant to last. “[The more] you broaden that spectrum,” Hartney adds, “the closer you’re going to get to having a [rounded] perspective. [We] encourage people to read widely and broadly.”
The problem from the beginning has been that no matter how necessary or vital an online outlet proves to be, no one but no one has figured out how to finance one. Money flows from AOL into the various area Patch sites (repped within city limits by North Baltimore Patch) for a full-time staffer and freelancers, but AOL doesn’t appear to have much of a money-making model in place for its chain of “hyperlocal” journalism sites. In other words, North Baltimore Patch and its kin could blink off the minute Arianna Huffington and company realize that they’re getting too deep into a dubious idea.
Patch is ultimately less of a question than sites like Investigative Voice and the Baltimore Brew, which exist without a corporate parent or perhaps even in spite of a corporate parent. (Both boast ex-Sun staffers in their ranks.) What does it take to survive? “Two things, money and readers,” Hartney, a former Sun staffer herself, answers. “The more readers you have, the more money you make. The next big step [for these sites] is finding ways to remain solvent online.
“[Baltimore] Fishbowl is experimenting with sponsored posts and columns,” she adds. “[The print-based] Urbanite does that too, I believe. That’s just one example. Revenue in the future is going to be about diversification. Keep writers paid, keep sites online. It’s going to be about experimentation with different revenue models over the next couple of years.”
Stephen Janis, a former Examiner (print version) reporter and City Paper contributing writer who went on to found Investigative Voice, recently took a position as the investigative producer for WBFF-TV, aka Fox45. He shares concerns about creating a sustainable future for the online news ecosystem. “The problem is that you have a very small amount of editorial resources so you’re only bringing in a very specialized audience,” he says. “You don’t have the mix of coverage of even like the City Paper. You end up with a specialized audience that’s very passionate—like ours was—but is very small. How are you supposed to monetize that? I can’t speak for Baltimore Brew, but being relevant as a business—like City Paper or Fox45—we’re a ways from that.”
Business is still business, and journalistic value does not always translate to business value. “I think when you’re free to sort of work on what you want,” Janis continues, “watchdog reporting or episodic investigative work can be really effective online. That’s the thing that’s funny about it. We’ve done stuff [on Investigative Voice] that’s prompted Inspector General investigations—it’s really worked. Because you can focus, and you’re so focused. You can pick and choose what you cover. It works, and that’s what’s ironic.” It’s arguably a revolutionary new model for journalism but, well, so far advertisers support the old one.
Mary Hartney points to another problem and, while it’s not totally unique to Baltimore, it is the most important thing: access. The internet is not free. The Baltimore Brew can do the work of saints, but it doesn’t matter a whit if much of its potential audience doesn’t have a computer to read it on. And Baltimore has a very real problem with access to computers and the internet. The city is torn up by poverty, and rent comes before information, food comes before information.
In mapping out local news on the web, it made sense to exclude sites created/directly supported by print media, including the Sun, Urbanite, and City Paper, each of which to some degree feature online-only content generated by its print-side staff. In coming up with an aggregation index we looked at the most recent 10 stories each site sent to its RSS feed on various dates between June 20 and 24. Aggregated stories are defined as having no original reporting and nothing added to the original story being referenced. Statistics from Alexa and Quantcast are always estimates, but are provided to give some idea as to relative traffic to each site. Unfortunately, as Patch and the Baltimore Examiner are both subdomains of their national parents, they aren’t tracked individually.
They say: Fern Shen, the Brew’s editor, explains in a phone conversation, “[Readers will] find veteran journalists reporting with depth and heart about city politics, development, neighborhoods, transportation. [They will] find accountability, journalism, [or even] ‘injured hawk on University Parkway.’ We try to have a reliable alternative to mainstream reporting on city institutions. [We ask], ‘What’s missing?’ When everyone wants to write a hagiography of [former governor William Donald] Schaefer, we took a step back. When the Hon controversy erupted, we had a black writer write about what ‘hon’ feels like [to African-Americans in the city.] It’s a news web site, but with old gumshoe journalism.”
We say: Shen is ex-Washington Post and has relied on ex-Baltimore Sun writers for content. And it’s content that sticks to the ribs: development, politics, transportation, and education, and done properly with on-the-street beat reporting, not waiting in line in the internet’s game of telephone. It’s currently the gold standard for local online journalism—not blogging or reposting, but actual journalism.
Traffic: Ranked 1,009,318 on the web by Alexa; 10,000-16,000 monthly visitors, according to Quantcast
Full-time staff members: two
Aggregation index: 1 Of the 10 recent stories sampled on Baltimore Brew, only one was aggregated from another site, and it wasn’t bylined. Six stories were original, reported stories, and the remainder were other or uncertain (e.g., reported from a press release).
Notable contributors: Fern Shen, Mark Reutter, Deborah Rudacille
They say: “Examiners provide useful, relevant information to readers who share similar passions in their local communities,” Justin Jimenez, senior director for marketing, PR, and social media for the Examiner sites, writes in an e-mail. “The combination of a compelling topic with a local angle is the most important aspect of any Examiners’ contributions. We like to call our Examiners ‘pro-am’ contributors, a mix between professional and amateur. We have everything from award-winning writers to very passionate mothers who are experts in a particular subject. Examiners come from all backgrounds and have a common desire to share their knowledge and experience to help and inform others. A sampling of Examiners includes active and retired journalists; meteorologists; pro and amateur athletes; fashion models; published authors; photographers; government workers; professors; PhDs; stay-at-home moms; musicians; real estate agents; business owners and entrepreneurs.”
We say: What can we say? The Examiner would appear to have as much oversight as a 4chan message board. One post is a bible verse interpretation; another is a pro-DREAM Act repeal post by a woman coordinating a DREAM Act repeal petition; and then there’s some stuff from the “Rockville Party Planning Examiner” and more political reporting from local activist/gadfly Adam Meister, recently in the spotlight for exposing on his Examiner blog that Baltimore City Councilmember Belinda Conaway had claimed a personal residence outside of her council district in public records. It’s a zoo, which appears to be more or less Examiner’s strategy: not even throwing darts by the handful, but throwing them totally blind.
Traffic: The domain examiner.com—which encompasses the entirety of the Examiner chain—is ranked 784, according to Alexa; 15 million monthly visitors, nationally, according to Quantcast. That’s divided by 244 submarkets, each with upwards of 100 bloggers, or at least blogging subjects (the site’s layout makes it hard to discern). Crude math says that monthly visits to each blog/blogger are likely somewhere in the hundreds. Baltimore is only a subdomain of the larger examiner.com, meaning that solid page-view figures for it aren’t publicly available.
Full-time staff members: zero locally
Ownership: Examiner.com, itself owned by the Clarity Media Group, itself owned/invested in by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Regal Cinemas and a variety of other media companies. The Examiner is a kinda/sorta descendant of the defunct print newspaper Baltimore Examiner, also owned by Clarity.
Aggregation index: 2 Of 10 recent stories sampled, three were reported, but were cooking-/restaurant-related (not even restaurants in Baltimore, or even Maryland). Two were aggregated, and the rest were a mix of self-promotion, slightly nutty religious spiel, and some straight-up political propaganda. Aggregated content is the least of anyone’s concerns here.
Notable contributors: Adam Meister
They say: Neal Shaffer, Bmore Media’s managing editor (and a former City Paper contributor), writes in an e-mail: “Bmore Media is a weekly e-magazine which publishes original features (usually two per week) and news items (usually eight per week) along with staff-curated links (our ‘buzz’ section). We’re unique in that we’re the only local publication with a specific dedication and focus on reporting from Baltimore’s new economy beat. We cover what’s ‘next’ in the city and region in entrepreneurship, arts, culture, and city life.”
We say: Bmore Media got off to a rough start in 2010, winning City Paper’s Best of Baltimore award for “Best Flack.” Meaning, it looked an awful lot like a City Hall PR arm: all good news and good cheer. At one point, Bmore Media even (unsuccessfully) asked for funding support from City Hall. It’s still mostly good news—centered around development and business, with ventures into local arts happenings—but it isn’t trying to be otherwise. This is not your first destination for scandal. Instead find light, though almost always reported, news bits with some longer features at less regular intervals. Every Bmore Media news piece comes with a list of sources at the end, an unusual but welcome footnote.
Full-time staff members: zero
Traffic: Ranked 961,840 by Alexa; site not quantified by Quantcast.
Ownership: Issue Media Group, a Detroit-based company that operates 17 different similar sites in different cities.
Aggregation index: 0 Bmore Media might feel a bit airy sometimes, but it’s almost always via original staff reporting, not content aggregation.
Notable writers: Neal Shaffer, Sam Hopkins (Bmore Media’s publisher and a City Paper contributor)
They say: “Bmore News attempts to cover primarily business and politics, public education, black business, ex-offender services (44 percent of prison population is black males), affordable housing, [and] universal access to health care,” says Bmore News Publisher Doni Glover. “There are a litany of issues facing black America. Bmore News can only do so much for the little guys, but if we focus on those issues we can make a dent.”
We say: Glover is a very busy man. In addition to Bmore News, he hosts shows on WOLB-AM and WEAA-FM, and maintains a blog at the Sun’s Charm City Current community blog platform. On Bmore News, you’ll find a raft of editorials from Glover and guest editorials from community members under the banner of the “Glover Report,” as well as frequent video bits that range from “on the scene” segments to interviews. Frankly, it can be a bit of a mess and advertising can get into the editorial mix in a rather uncomfortable way, but the site yields some good insight for those willing to look a bit.
Traffic: Bmore News is ranked 2,217,521 on the internet by Alexa; it’s not tracked by Quantcast.
Aggregation index: N/A Bmore News probably fares decently in this respect, but it’s impossible to give a fair assessment given the site’s comparatively labyrinthine structure. At the time of our sample, one post consisted of uncited md.gov content.
Notable writers: Doni Glover
Charm City Current
They say: “Charm City Current is a web site featuring a variety of Baltimore-area bloggers,” says Renee Mutchnik, the Baltimore Sun Media Group’s director of marketing (the only person able to talk to the media about the site). “It’s intended to give local bloggers more exposure, and, in turn, provide our audience with a platform highlighting community perspectives. We also have a separate local blog network”—at baltimoresun.com/localblogs—“that aggregates recent posts from over 109 area blogs.”
We say: This is the Sun’s community blogging platform and, not surprisingly, the content is reminiscent of the Examiner, minus much of the crazy and just plain bad. Nine out of 10 sample posts, mostly sequential, involved some degree of self-promotion. Via about 20 individual blogs, CCC covers stuff ranging from sports to science to the Baltimore Grand Prix to photography, with an emphasis more on writer personality than news or information. A good number of the blogs aren’t updated too frequently it seems, so its RSS feed, at least on a recent week, was a bit clogged with backyard parties and cooking.
Traffic: Ranked 1,709,564 on the web by Alexa; site not quantified by Quantcast.
Full time staff members: Excluding staffers with primary duties at the Sun, CCC has zero.
Ownership: The Baltimore Sun, itself owned by the Tribune Co.
Aggregation index: 3 Three stories were clearly aggregated, four were original (backyard party reporting counts), and the rest were “other.”
Notable writers: Marc Steiner, Baltimore Museum of Art Director Doreen Bolger, Adam Meister, bmorenews.com’s Doni Glover.
They say: “We’ve been an investigative news site primarily covering Baltimore city politics and crime, [as well as] police coverage, and neighborhoods and communities,” says Alan Forman, the site’s managing editor.
We say: Founded by Stephen Janis, a former reporter for the Baltimore Examiner (and a former City Paper contributor), Investigative Voice has always seemed to be the news site that doesn’t want to play “the game.” There’s no page-hit chasing here or presumptions of being a one-stop news source. Instead, find investigative reporting focused, primarily, on crime and local government. Stephen Janis left last month for a full-time position with WBFF-TV (Fox45), so the site’s been somewhat quiet as of late.
“We’ve always worked with Channel 45 in the past, and we had a partner arrangement where we shared information,” Forman explains. “I’m hoping we’re going to [continue to] be able to do that. It depends on what Channel 45 has to say about that. My intention is to continue the site as best we can. We’ve always been short-staffed. We have a loyal readership, [and] I intend to not let them down.”
Traffic: Ranked 749,914 on the web by Alexa; Investigative Voice isn’t tracked by Quantcast.
Aggregation index: 3 Of a selection of recent stories (sampled in June), only three were aggregated. And, like the Baltimore Brew and Bmore Media, those pieces weren’t bylined.
Notable writers: Stephen Janis, former Examiner Assistant Managing Editor Regina Holmes.
North Baltimore Patch
They say: Former Sun reporter Doug Donovan, Patch’s regional editor, explains in a phone interview, “North Baltimore Patch, like all of our Patch sites, is intended to be hyperlocal neighborhood journalism. Community members can have their own blog, Huffington Post style. And we have one full-time local editor that lives in the community who has a team of freelancers. We try to reflect the neighborhood, to be intensely local. With our calendar and our coverage people can see what’s going on in their backyard. “
We say: When Patch, the nationwide network, was unveiled by AOL last year, it was easy to be cynical. Here was a massive media corporation in poor repute attempting a large-scale top-down implementation of a nationwide network of hyperlocal news sites. The result is a bit better than can be imagined. A full-time staffer makes a great deal of difference, and Adam Bednar, North Baltimore Patch’s editor, is doing actual reporting: city government, neighborhood happenings, schools. Judging by writing volume, you might even say Bednar’s overworked.
Full-time staff members: one
Traffic: Patch, the national chain, ranks 1,095 according to Alexa. AOL operates 827 Patch sites.
Aggregation index: 3
Notable writers: Besides Bednar, none in particular.
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