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Zine Pool

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Eye on Baltimore: E-zinesters Dawn Mercurio and Benn Ray chronicle the local scene.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 2/7/2001

Whatever it is that you do at your desk while avoiding work, it's probably not reading paper zines. But one of the great things about a desk job is that almost anything you do on your computer looks like work, including reading some sweet Baltimore "gossup" on or finding out what's going on around town in the e-mail newsletter Mobtown Shank.

These two e-zines offer more than just a distraction--they're fun, informative, and Charm City-centric. Twenty-four-year-old graphic designer Dawn Mercurio started about a year ago to practice her Web-design skills, but her love of writing and quirky sense of humor led her to create the site's most popular feature: the "gossup" page, which she updates every two weeks. Sheer silliness and numerous in-jokes make the gossip page addictive, especially if you know any of the many Baltimore scenesters Mercurio dishes.

Benn Ray's Mobtown Shank is a weekly e-mail newsletter that details upcoming concerts and other cultural events. The Shank also offers a question of the week, a Magic 8-Ball horoscope, and heated discussions among subscribers. It's part zine, part carefully administrated ongoing conversation.

Ray, 32, a former City Paper film critic who now works for a local video-game company, started the Shank a year and a half ago out of frustration. "I got tired of my friends e-mailing me asking me what's going on this weekend, so just to get them off my back . . . I compiled a list of possibilities of what I would be interested in doing." He stopped after a couple of weeks, but his friends were already addicted and asked him to make it a regular event. E-mail was the easiest format, Ray says, because other media would raise thorny issues of finance and design. "If I tried to do this as a regular print publication, there's no way it would come out every week," he says.

Mercurio also enjoys the ease of existing only in virtual form. "It really appeals to me because you get the information, you update it--you don't find a printer, you don't have to deal with anything but yourself," she says. "It's a one-person publishing thing."

Both zines exploit the interactive nature of their medium. Mercurio does surveys, asking questions such as "Who is the scene 'it' girl?" and "Who would you elect president of Baltimore?"

"You just see polls everywhere right now on the Internet," she says. "And it's so neat, for me, to be able to see that--Oh wow, this poll has my name in it." The polls have become so popular, and visitors to her site are becoming so competitive, that some folks are voting for themselves. But she envisions even more interactivity: "Ideally I'd like to have it more technical, where people could drop in a message or a chat. Then it would just go crazy with full-on gossip."

The Shank's interactivity takes the form of self-sustaining discussion and opinionating. What began as a mailer for Ray's friends has blossomed into an e-zine with features, editorials, and a community of about 300 subscribers. "The response shocked me," Ray says. "I can honestly say now that I don't really know personally . . . the majority of the people who subscribe to it." Nevertheless, thanks to almost constant response Ray says he has a pretty good sense of who his readers are.

"I think everybody who reads it gets that feeling of it being a community, which is one of the goals that I was trying to develop," Ray says. Of course, online communities have a tendency to be a bit insular, and new readers can easily get lost, but Ray isn't worried. "That's the nature of any community," he says. "If you walk into a bar and you don't know anybody, you're going to be a little confused. If you want to be a part of something, it's up to the person to stick it through."

Both Mercurio and Ray say they struggle to keep things nice. "At first I was getting a lot of anonymous tip-offs, which I would never publish because they were so horrifying," Mercurio says. Her goal is not to humiliate people but to share a laugh, which explains why she gets more complaints from people left out than from those being gossiped about. Some regular visitors criticize Mercurio's decision to leave herself out of the action, but she defends the policy: "I'm really conscious that there is an audience, and if I'm writing about myself then it's almost just a diary."

At the Shank, Ray struggles to keep the debates among readers--which run the gamut from the serious to the ridiculous--from becoming full-scale flame wars. "Anybody can say whatever they want to say. [But] if I think that it's unnecessarily hurtful or meanspirited and that's it, then I probably won't include it," he says. Not that he's against a little healthy debate: "[If] they have a point, even if they are mean about it, that's fine." When an interviewer likens his role to that of the ringleader at a circus, Ray laughs. "I'm just the guy that puts up the tent," he says. "Everything else just happens." What goes on inside the tent is what keeps the Shank interesting, and what motivates Ray to spend three to four hours a week putting it together. "When the responses stop," he says, "that's when I stop doing it."

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