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The Arts

Exhibit B

Two Media Companies Bet On Niche Papers as Print Journalism's Future

The City Paper Digi-Cam™

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 8/20/2008

This past spring, a few more thousand pages of newsprint showed up at Baltimore's train station, coffee shops, and free paper boxes. In spite of the uncertain economy and the more certain decline in newspaper readership, two new publications, the monthly Exhibit A and the weekday daily b launched in April.

These two papers and the other free local publications--from the glossy, little nightlife magazine SEN to the full-service free daily The Examiner--that have started in recent years are part of a larger shift from mass-market media outlets, like daily newspapers and broadcast television, to specialist outlets, like blogs and satellite radio. These upstarts argue that traditional media outlets, not the paper they print on, are the dinosaurs, and they are trying to demonstrate that there is a future in print media.

On the surface, Exhibit A, which is published by the long-running Daily Record, is the more unusual paper. Based on the Boston version of a monthly with the same name that launched in April 2007, Exhibit A is an unusual attempt by Dolan Media Co., which mostly owns business and legal publications, to attract a mass readership.

"From what we've learned in the first three months, people seem to have a huge thirst for legal news," Exhibit A publisher Suzanne Fischer-Huettner says from the Daily Record's downtown Baltimore offices. "The theory behind originally launching it was that people loved the Law and Orders and the CSIs and the crime shows and legal shows. If there's that fascination on TV, that the same fascination would come in print."

Although Exhibit A is not as lurid as the typical cop show, its content does deliver on making the law accessible to nonprofessionals. Its offerings include advice columns by lawyers, unusual news about the law, and reported short features about legal issues in Baltimore, such as a cover story in June on illegal gambling in the city.

"It's conceived for a younger audience, more of a blue-collar audience," says Tom Linthicum, the executive editor of The Daily Record and Exhibit A, contrasting it with the older, professional, and high-income readership of The Daily Record. "We try to pick topics and write that in such a way that would appeal to ordinary folks." As the masthead says, "`the law in plain English.'"

In June, Exhibit A, which prints 32,000 copies monthly, had the unexpected fortune to create controversy when freelance writer and former Sun reporter Melody Simmons wrote an article on the Zach Sowers beating last summer. In the article she included an interview with Margaret Burns, spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, who questioned the extent of Sowers' injuries. Simmons' scoop was quickly picked up by The Daily Record and spurred a new round of controversy.

In its first few months, Exhibit A has run several reported articles on issues such as illegal gambling and gangs, mixing news features with its lighter content. Fischer-Huettner estimates that 95 percent of Exhibit A's content comes from freelance writers, and the company hired an editor, Wayne Countryman, for the publication. Because Exhibit A is only on its fourth issue, Fischer-Huettner says the company has not yet conducted a thorough reader survey, which is used to attract advertisers.

Linthicum says the paper will continue to pursue hard news stories such as the Sowers pieces, but in general, Exhibit A is more focused on consumer-oriented news than investigative reporting. "It's more of a magazine, yes," he says. "If the right set of circumstances arose, and I saw the opportunity to do something like [the investigative series] The Washington Post is doing right now on Chandra Levy, we would absolutely go for that."

The diminutively named b looks like yet another free daily, like the Express in Washington, which is published by the Post, or Red Eye, a free daily in Chicago published by the Tribune Co. (Disclosure: This writer has freelanced for the New York and Baltimore Metromix web sites, which are also owned by Tribune.) But b doesn't aspire to replace the daily newspaper, like The Examiner, or supplement it, like free dailies in other cities. Rather, b intends to be a reader-generated daily publication for people who don't read newspapers.

"We're not a newspaper," says Brad Howard, the 31-year-old general manager of the publication who started working on the project last September. "It's tough to say what we are. It's quick and fun. It gives you your news, your gossip, your sports, but doesn't give you too much of it. We know young adults are going to find more information about something if they want it."

Howard and editor Anne Tallent often land on the word "magazine" when trying to describe b. Like many magazines, b presents much of its content in digest format, offering no more than a few paragraphs about any one item. But increasingly the few longer pieces in the publication are columns written by b bloggers or readers. Although the publication has an editorial staff of 10, it uses content from other Tribune media outlets, including The Sun and Metromix, as well as wire services, local blogs, and the Towson University radio station WTMD-FM.

Just a decade ago, big-city daily newspapers had the resources to cover national and international news, as well as local stories, because subscribers relied on the papers for most of their information. Unlike a daily newspaper, b, which was launched just months before Tribune announced it was reducing the newsroom staff of The Sun by a fifth, is dependent on other media outlets for much of its content, and is printed with the assumption that its readers will go elsewhere for more information about the news it covers. While b, like Exhibit A, makes use of freelancers for much of its content, the publication intends to rely on reader-generated content in the future, Howard says.

"The goal is to get about a third of our publication to be user generated," he says. "We're getting there. We've increased steadily."

Tallent, who previously worked for The Sun and other newspapers, says this approach was a novel one for newspapers. "One thing that's interesting about our idea of the daily conversation and user-generated content is that it's a real advance from where print media had been, especially in the past," she says. Traditionally, newspapers had the attitude of "we're going to give you the news and you're going to digest it, and if you have a response, then write a letter to the editor," Tallent continues. "This is much more a continual feedback loop, which is indicative of the age of technology that we're in, and the feedback style people are used to in the online world."

In effect, b uses the design and writing style of magazines but opens up much of its content, both in print and online, to readers. When the Baltimore club music DJ K-Swift died on a Monday morning in July, b put her on the cover of Tuesday's edition, dedicating several pages to reader-written tributes to her. Other cover stories have highlighted everything from flip-flops to the opening of a Target store at Mondawmin Mall.

Although b was conceived as a Baltimore paper, with everything from page layout to news items reflecting the interests of readers living in and around the city, the publication includes very little original local news reporting. Instead, b's original content is either freelance- or staff-written feature articles and editorial columns, and reader "rants" on everything from bad drivers to relationship problems. When asked whether b's reader-generated approach to the news has resulted in any controversies, Tallent cannot name a single substantive story that has divided its readers. She does cite the publication's weekly "bgood" page, which highlights environmental and other social issues, as an example of the paper's public service, but b hasn't attempted to scoop its competitors on breaking news or published investigative pieces, distinguishing it from The Sun as well as most of the city's other publications.

When asked about the effect of b on other publications in Baltimore, especially the troubled Sun, Howard says that the new audience b attracts might help Tribune as a whole. "We are putting a new product out there that should give us more shelf space," he says. "It's trying to reach a new audience. It's trying to create business and create readership in a market that we haven't touched. That's really the exciting part, to see the Baltimore Sun media group investing in that. This is what we need to do to evolve as a company. I don't think newspapers will go anywhere, but I think you'll see them change, and flourish, because people will still want to have that [a hard copy] in their hands."

Although Dolan Media appears to be less troubled at the moment, its entry into the mass market is riskier. Specialist publications like The Daily Record have fared better in the internet age, as they are able to continue to charge high rates both for subscriptions and for access to their articles online. But launching a mass-market publication requires a different approach today than in the past, Linthicum says.

"The landscape has changed in such a way that there are a lot more niche publications now than there were a decade or two ago," he says. "People are intrigued by these. [Exhibit A] is obviously a very distinct publication, a free publication. The reader, and the marketplace, is more open to something like this today, and more willing to try it than they would have been two decades ago."

"People today seem to want to get news the way they want it, and on topics they want to hear about," Fischer-Huettner says. "We can focus on one thing and serve our audience really well."

Howard said that b, while serving a narrow demographic--according to a recent b in-house survey, the average reader is 30 years old--intends to be a one-stop newsprint source for young adults looking to keep up with the news without investing too much time. "The bottom line with b is we're a quick read," he says. "You can pick it up in 10 minutes or less and at least walk to the water cooler and know what you're talking about."

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