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Fit to Print

One Of Baltimore's Latest Independent Culture Magazines Looks To The Web To Succeed Where Print Publications Have Failed

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Posted 7/11/2007

Every few months in Baltimore, a magazine is born. Its creators might be disgruntled art students, confident that they can create a better version of their favorite art magazine. Or perhaps they are scenesters, frustrated that the life they lead isn't represented in magazine form and sure that they are the ones to make it happen. Or, in a city of lone eagles, an individual might just be hellbent on seeing a magazine dedicated to the topics he or she cares about.

These magazines usually die a quiet death. After an issue or two, perhaps accompanied with some press coverage that gives justice to the magazine's mission, the founder, publisher, and editor--often the same person--notices his or her bank account is down to single digits and realizes that the reason there aren't better magazines is that few people can afford to print them.

Do a quick search through the City Paper archives and you'll find a dozen stories about magazine hopefuls that subsequent Google searches reveal to be two- or three-issue wonders. But Joseph M. Giordano, a local photographer ("The Dignity of Labor," Arts & Entertainment, Dec. 13, 2006), is trying to make Gutter, a fashion, arts, and lifestyle magazine that started earlier this year under his tutelage, exempt from the forces that felled many idealistic publications.

First, Giordano thinks of Gutter's audience as a specific demographic--people in their 20s and 30s who can't afford and don't want the rooftop deck and crab cake-munching lifestyle sold by the likes of Baltimore magazine and Style--not a group of like-minded friends. Second, Gutter places an emphasis on photography, something he feels that other local publications slight. Third, you won't find Gutter in free boxes around town, or for sale at independent bookshops--the magazine is online only (www.guttermagazine.com).

"If we were a print publication, we'd just be another stack of magazines at Brewer's Art falling on the floor" says Giordano, whose earnest personality and working-class attire is offset by the occasional flip remark at a Charles Village coffee shop. "It'd be a waste of money. All of our readers come from MySpace, Facebook, Flicker. We don't get a lot of Federal Hillites, Fells Pointites, Cantonites. The name alone turns them off. [They think] it's some kind of bizarre fetish porn magazine."

Giordano started working on Gutter in spring 2006, when he and Tom Doxanas, a web designer and owner of two businesses, began discussing the logistics of publishing a magazine online. Although Giordano had thought about starting a local magazine for some time, it wasn't until he hit on the right mixture for it--covering fashion, art, and culture, all with a photographer's eye--that he started gathering a group of people to work on it. Ida Slaughter, owner of the 9th Life boutique in Hampden and the magazine's fashion editor, shared the sentiments of many of those asked about their role in the online magazine.

"It's his baby, and I just change the diapers on the models," she jokes while standing behind the counter of her Hampden boutique. "I contact several boutiques, and I have the fun job of picking out the clothes and picking out the models. It's like shopping but not spending money and helping out my pal."

Since its inaugural issue at the beginning of this year, Gutter has published four issues, with a sixth due shortly, already outpacing many startups with similar ambitions. Although the navigation system and layout of the issues have changed over time, the web site has stuck to a magazine-like format, with a static published issue remaining on the web site for the entire month, and visitors to the site must flip pages to read through each section.

In its first five issues, Gutter has developed not so much a niche as a style. Like other fashion and art magazines, Gutter places greater emphasis on photography and design than the written word. Arts editor Cara Ober, who's written for a number of local and national arts publications (including City Paper), says the photography in Gutter is what drew her to write for the magazine.

"I love the photography that Joe does of the artists," Ober says while seated at a different Charles Village coffeehouse, her 1-year-old Pomeranian underfoot. "I think he's an amazing photographer. For each of the art reviews, he goes to the artist's studio, [and] he shoots them and the art together."

As is the case for many startup magazines, many of the artists featured happen to be friends or associates of Giordano and the other editors. For example, music editor Andrew Shankman's June feature is on J-Roddy Walston and the Business, a band managed by Gutter co-founder Doxanas, and the fashion coverage includes boutiques owned by associates of the magazine. At the same time, Ober says she has mostly had the freedom to choose her subjects.

"The people involved are into really different things," she says. "It's nice that Joe lets people do their own thing. I think it's important that he's not telling us what to say or what to do."

At the same time, it's difficult to assess how independent the magazine will be from its coverage long-term, as Giordano has conceived, written, and photographed much of the content featured in the first five issues. Giordano, who in the mid-1990s interned at Baltimore, says he does not see other magazines, local and otherwise, as inspiration and competition for Gutter.

"I've come up with most of the ideas for every issue so far," Giordano says. "We just started with editors last month. I really want this to be a different publication. I don't want this to be `Top Docs,'" a reference to a staple feature of city magazines.

Online magazines sound about as revolutionary as electronic mail, but in fact many publications took a long time to migrate over to the digital world, and those that are online-only have had difficulty staying in business. Although Salon and Slate can count more than a decade of being online, their widely documented financial struggles scared off many magazines from even going online, and even today they don't have much substantial competition.

And while blogs, social networks, and media-sharing sites perform some of the same functions as magazines, online magazines continue to have a modicum of novelty. In November of 2006, the British company Dennis Publishing, best known for its men's magazines such as Maxim, Blender, and Stuff, launched Monkey, an online equivalent of those print titles, in the U.K. Visitors to the magazine's web site flip pages and click on content and ads to read more, making it closer to a magazine than YouTube. In March of this year, FHM, another men's magazine, announced that it was discontinuing its print version in the U.S., and now the magazine is only available online.

Although local supermarkets and coffee shops are still overrun with print publications, the online magazine has solid prospects in Baltimore as well. Artist Jack Livingston was the editor and publisher of PEEK Review, an online arts journal, and Radar, a small arts-focused print journal, both of which are on hiatus. Livingston said Radar, which published its first issue in 2002, grew very quickly, getting up to a circulation of 10,000 in its first year. He said that the magazine made money, but the expense and labor involved led him to discontinue publishing the magazine in 2005.

"About two years ago, I put it on hiatus," Livingston says when reached by phone. "We wanted it to go to another level, and my belief was that print was not the way to do that, but the web is the way. I believe our television will be our computers in two years, and we need to start working on that now."

Livingston has yet to set a launch date for online-only Radar Redux, as he calls it, but he expects to have the site up by the end of the year. And while Gutter is still in the process of integrating video and audio into its content, Livingston says he plans for Radar to operate as an online TV and radio station as well as a newspaper, modeled after community radio stations like Pacifica.

Although Livingston plans for Radar Redux to stray away from a strict arts focus, he says that he admires the many print and online arts publications that have emerged in recent years, including Gutter. "For the most part, these are like online zines," he says. "I don't mean that to be demeaning at all. They're a bit hermetic. It tends to be people writing about their friends. Gutter is interesting to me because they have a really good design, I like the people that are doing it, [and] their intentions are good."

Although publishing online may not fulfill the same primal need to see one's words on paper, it offers freedom from the many expenses that come with publishing. Giordano says that publishing online ensures that the magazine's content will stay online, even if he is unable to keep it going. "The cool thing about being online is that the success and failure of our magazine is based on our pure laziness," he says. H

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