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Dec. 2, 2019, 10:25 a.m.
Audience & Social

Baltimore Beat is rebuilding its community ties as an alt-weekly after corporate cut-downs

“Baltimore is a majority black city. When we first started out in 2017, I wanted it to have that point of view, to have a newspaper that serves a black population.”

After a day of teaching high school students about journalism and simulating a “Three campers are missing! How do you report on it?” experience for them, a question one student asked left Baltimore journalist Lisa Snowden-McCray a little flabbergasted.

“We sort out what information is important. We put together a rough story. We relearn how the sausage gets made,” Snowden-McCray said, explaining how the simulation worked. “At the end, we sit down and say you can ask us whatever you want. [And one time] this girl looked up with this innocent face and said: ‘Do you ever feel like you’re stealing people’s stories and using them for your own benefit?’

“I said, holy crap. It is something I talk about all the time, the ethics of journalism. It was crazy this teenager was thinking about this. The same kind of stuff that plagues the city.”

Snowden-McCray and her colleague Brandon Soderberg run the trainings as part of the Writers in Baltimore Schools program, a 10-year-old nonprofit supporting writing classes for students. And the question that student articulated is one Snowden-McCray and Soderberg have been trying to tackle in Baltimore’s alt-weekly space for years — a city where the population is 63 percent black but the media is still mostly white.

The Baltimore City Paper had been the metropolis’s main alt-weekly for 40 years, until the Tribune-owned parent organization shut it down in July 2017. (The closure was announced at the same meeting in which management told staff they would recognize their new union.) Snowden-McCray had joined the City Paper a year and a half before it closed, and was part of a revival of the alt-weekly’s spirit in a new publication called Baltimore Beat — before its first iteration closed four months in. Now they’re nearly 10 months into Baltimore Beat Round Two, with plans for community engagement and making the outlet a better representation of who’s actually there to read it.

The first Baltimore Beat shuttered because the publisher deemed it not financially sustainable based on declining ad revenue. “This is not a story about the death of print or of journalism or of the alternative press,” Kevin Naff told the Baltimore Sun last year. “Small businesses in Baltimore are suffering due to the crime — and perception of crime — especially as it’s portrayed on local TV news. We heard from many businesses — restaurants, bars, theaters, and more — that they cut their marketing budgets due to declining revenue, which many attribute to the crime problem and dwindling visits from suburbanites.”

So Snowden-McCray and Soderberg took the outlet into their own hands this time, creating a Patreon-backed Baltimore Beat. In their words to supporters: “We want to use the Beat so people can have their say and that begins by asking for your support because that tells us how much work you want us to do and how many of you believe it is important.” Soderberg procured the archives and the domain and came on part-time while managing the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism; Snowden-McCray returned as editor-in-chief. The Beat now has 324 supporters paying $5 per month, and is seeking grant funding through a fiscal sponsorship and relationship with its “cousin,” Soderberg’s BINJ. And it’s also planning events around its community, not just its coverage, to help fundraise even more.

“City Paper was a great institution, but it was still very white-run and [felt] white, identity-wise. I’m not white, I can’t pretend to have that [identity],” Snowden-McCray said. “Baltimore is a majority black city. When we first started out [with Baltimore Beat] in 2017, I wanted it to have that point of view, to have a newspaper that serves a black population.”

Here’s a sample of the Beat’s first four months of coverage, as mentioned in its Patreon:

Devin Allen shot our first cover story.

Jermaine Bell designed the cover for our gift guide.

Daily dispatches from The Gun Trace Task Force trial resulted in its writers, Baynard Woods and Brandon getting a book deal with St. Martin’s Press. Baynard received a Best Of Baltimore award from Baltimore Magazine for his story on the death of Baltimore Police detective Sean Suiter. Lisa sat down with Ben Jealous and interrogated his policy and approach long before he became the Democratic nominee for governor. Rebekah Kirkman continued the coverage of sexual assault and the arts scene she began with former Beat Managing Editor Maura Callahan at Baltimore City Paper.

Through a collaboration with The Real News Network, we ran community-facing stories from Eze Jackson, Dharna Noor, and Jaisal Noor, on Mothers Of Murdered Son & Daughters, sex workers, city schools, people experiencing homelessness, the Fight For $15, safer drug consumption, and more.

We reviewed a lot of weed.

We made some dumb jokes.

We asked the whole city for New Year’s resolutions.

We mourned the city’s homicide victims.

After the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in Baltimore police custody in 2015, Snowden-McCray said the feeling in the city’s media changed. The City Paper had found its approach in making fun of current events in the city to draw attention to them, but Baltimore Beat focused on the impact of the political decisions of those lampooned. “It might be kind of fun to make fun of the mayor, but let’s have a serious discussion about the policies the mayor is endorsing and what that means for the marginalized people in the city,” she said.

The Beat is still getting its footing to pitch itself to funders — “we’re kind of building the car as we drive the car” — as are other alt-weekly spirits, the aiming-for-nonprofit Chicago Reader and the co-op-in-process Akron Devil Strip. But the 1.5-person team (Soderberg is part-time and there’s a host of freelancers) has held karaoke fundraisers to remind people of the whole mission of the Baltimore Beat: to be an alternative source for marginalized people to be heard (even if it’s karaoke singing).

“Everyone knew they wanted to come to the City Paper’s Best of Baltimore party. As they were bought out by the Sun, it became more corporate, and the intent was not having a good time but making as much money as we can, it became this thing that wasn’t as much fun,” Snowden-McCray said. “There was a space that needed to have that piece and not always be mad about racism. And sometimes it’s good to have fun.”

POSTED     Dec. 2, 2019, 10:25 a.m.
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