When Baltimore lost its 40-year-old newspaper, former staffers scrambled to start a brand-new one—in print, no less.
On Wednesday morning, citizens of Maryland’s largest city awoke to true novelty: the first issue of brand-new alternative weekly newspaper—in print.
The Baltimore Beat is looking to replace the City Paper, which published its last issue on November 1, after a 40-year run. The hardly-missing-a-beat arrival of the Beat means that Baltimore experienced but two weeks without an alt-weekly of some kind, dating back to when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the Baltimore Colts were in the playoffs.
A bit of disclosure: Like many local journalists, I’ve got a history with the City Paper (staff writer, 1996 to 2004). And I was among dozens of past and present staffers and freelancers who gathered at a bar late last month for a boozy, back-slapping/shoulder-crying CP send-off. The morning-after headache hadn’t even cleared before news of the Beat’s phoenix-like emergence was made public.
Even those who applauded the move wondered about the business case. Who the heck launches a print alt-weekly in 2017? Didn’t the granddaddy Village Voice recently ditch its print edition? And aren’t lesser-market weeklies dropping like flies? And didn’t the alt-like digital news in the Gothamist/DNAinfo network just go dark after billionaire owner Joe Ricketts decided to pull the plug?
Are the Beat backers… uh, how do I say this …
“No, I’m not crazy,” Beat publisher Kevin Naff tells me over the phone. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think there was a solid business model. The dirty secret of publishing is that there's still money in print advertising.”
Naff is co-owner of BNP Omnimedia, which publishes the Washington Blade, a 48-year-old LGBT weekly (where Naff is editor), the Los Angeles Blade (launched just last March), and now the Baltimore Beat. At first blush, this arrangement might seem a strange tangle of titles, but Naff views it as a source of strength. The Beat will tap into the Blade’s existing back office—for things like design, production, and accounting—allowing a shoestring staff in Baltimore to handle editorial and ad sales. And the Baltimore Beat will have access to Blade reporting as well.
Naff helped launch the Baltimore Sun’s website back in the 1990s and has lived in Baltimore for 25 years, so you really can’t call him out-of-town owner (something folks here are leery of). He says they are starting small, with a circulation of but 20,000 (down from CP’s most recent 50,000—and an even smaller slice of the nigh-six-figure circulation of my era) and with a lot of work still to do on the digital side. Still, he thinks the strategy might work, and jumped at the opportunity to step into the market the CP shutdown was announced by its most recent owners, the newspaper conglomerate Tronc. (The former Tribune Publishing Company also owns the Baltimore Sun, CP’s longtime rival/punching bag; many observers thought this was a weird and doomed arrangement, and we were right.)
“This is an industry that is changing, like so many others that are being disrupted and changed,” says Naff. “You can sit on the sidelines and wait to go bankrupt, or you can get in the game and experiment with it.”
The Beat’s local staff is all, as of this writing, ex-City Paper people. But if one message has emerged from the media coverage of the paper’s arrival, it’s that this is not City Paper 2.0. Alt-weeklies suffer from an overwhelming “white-guy-ness,” is how City Paper-editor-turned-Beat-managing-editor (and white guy) Brandon Soderberg put it in Washingtonian. The Beat’s top editor is Lisa Snowden-McCray, an Annapolis native who cut her teeth as a freelancer for the Baltimore Afro-American. I reach her as she furiously proofed the first issue—which includes a cover interview with the organizer of the Baltimore Ceasefire, a piece on a group of reformed gang members giving away turkeys, and a heap of local music reviews—before sending it down to D.C. for layout.
Yes, she’s a bit daunted by the task ahead and says she assumed a leadership editorial position would come “later in my life.” She wrote for television news, websites, and trade publications before spending two years as a City Paper reporter and food editor; most recently, she joined the editorial board at the Baltimore Sun, a post she left to take the Beat gig. “I always talk about the lack of diversity in journalism and especially in Baltimore, which is a majority-black city,” she says. “So this is really like an opportunity to put my words into action. It was important for me to be a black woman in this position.”
That she hasn’t been in the print game for decades might even have some benefits. “I’ve never been in journalism when anyone had any money,” she says. “I don’t know anything different than having the bare minimum and making it work.”
While Beat aims to better cover black Baltimore, it’s worth noting that the Afro-American, a 125-year-old weekly, is still in the game. Such legacy black papers are also being battered in the marketplace; the combined circulation of the Afro’s Baltimore and Washington editions barley breaks 10,000. “I don’t see us in competition with them,” Snowden-McCray says. “I respect their work a lot and if there’s a way we can partner up or share information, I see no problem with it.”
The other side of the Beat coin is ad sales, headed up by associate publisher Jen Marsh. She spent 28 years at City Paper, ascending from intern, to sales rep, to head of advertising, to publisher. “I’m fully on board and believe in the alternative press—that’s why I’m here,” Marsh says.
But “here” is a different place now. Up through the early aughts, Marsh’s sales team “was doing crazy page counts and just taking orders from advertisers who wanted, like, five pages.” The good times ended with the 2008 recession. Nevertheless, working solo for the Beat—armed with a brimming Rolodex and deep email lists—she says ad sales where brisk for the debut issue, which boasted 48 pages.* Can the momentum last?
One bright spot, business-wise, is that Baltimore and Maryland are centers for medical research. For City Paper, that translated into a fat “Health and Wellness” ad section, where pharma companies and research institutions canvassed for clinical trial participants. Marsh says many of them are calling her anew. And there’s a new potential revenue source the Beat is looking to get in front of: legal cannabis. The paper will have a regular weed column just as the state’s first medical marijuana dispensaries are opening. “The cannabis industry is something we are trying to hit hard because I don't know where else they're going to advertise” says Marsh. “It’s going to be a billion-dollar industry in this state.”
A final piece in the Beat’s puzzle is its alliance with the Real News Network, an international nonprofit news organization producing mostly video content. Its Baltimore office opened in 2014 and they, too, will be partnering with Beat to produce editorial content, having recently hired City Paper’s editor-at-large, Baynard Woods. (Real News is also providing Beat staff with loaner office space.) “I really think that the news will have to be nonprofit in the future,” says Woods (who has also been a CityLab contributor), though hopeful that in the interim Baltimore Beat will appeal to some mom-and-pop advertisers who might be new to print.
Woods echoes the one thing everyone else told me: Don’t judge what the Beat can and will be by what hit the streets this week. It’s a work in progress—an experiment in collaborative journalism getting its sea legs in turbulent media waters. The plan was to have its first issue follow as closely behind City Paper’s final one as possible. Part of the urgency was born from discussions Woods had with the folks behind the Knoxville Mercury, a nonprofit alt-weekly that débuted some 6-months after the Scripps-owned Metro Pulse closed in 2014. Alas, the Mercury itself folded in July.
“They told me it was that gap between the papers that they could never really come back from,” Woods says. “We really had the strong belief that if we couldn’t do quickly, we just shouldn’t do it.”
In other words: Readers can quickly lose the habit of picking up a weekly paper, and coffeeshop owners will find other uses for their floorspace if the bundles of newsprint stop showing up every week. That won’t happen in Baltimore. Now it’s up to readers—and advertisers—to decide if it’s a habit is worth keeping.
*CORRECTION: This post previously stated that the issue had 47 pages.