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Developing Sensibilities

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WOMAN ON TOP: Tracy Ward Durkin has transformed the Urbanite from a bimonthly community handout to a sophisticated monthly urban magazine.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 6/29/2005

“You don’t really want to get into personal problems, do you?” says Tracy Ward Durkin, publisher of Baltimore’s Urbanite magazine. “Because I’m not that kind of person.”

Standing in the unfinished expanse of her airy new office space in Woodberry, Durkin would rather talk about how she recently transformed a two-color, bimonthly community handout with a 3,000-copy print run into a four-color, 48-page free metropolitan monthly with an audited circulation of 38,000.

But accusations of inexperience and uneven leadership by a former staffer have Durkin on the defensive.

Jeff Stintz, Urbanite’s recently replaced head of advertising, says the new monthly publication—which has garnered positive reviews from many readers and advertisers contacted by City Paper—is in danger of faltering. “I just think they need to step out of their own way,” Stintz says. “Because they hamstring themselves. If you know absolutely nothing about sales, then hire somebody who does.” (Stintz has also sold advertising for City Paper and Baltimore magazine.)

When she hears what Stintz has been saying about her, Durkin appears momentarily stunned. But with 15 years experience in Baltimore’s often contentious community-development arena, the former Fannie Mae executive is not shy of confrontation. She sets down her purse on a dusty window ledge in the former mill building and shrugs. “OK, we’re gonna have to get into it, I guess.”

Stintz is just a disgruntled employee, Durkin says, who was given a year to attract sufficient advertisers, and failed. Worse, he undercut the magazine’s value by offering steep discounts. (Stintz acknowledges selling some Urbanite ads at as low as half their published rates of around $2,500 per full page, but he insists that is a standard and essential practice with an untested product.)

“We’re cleaning up all that mess now,” Durkin says, pointing out the window to the Meadow Mill office complex where Urbanite currently rents space. “You go in there and have a conversation with [our new sales staff] about what our rates are, and it’s going to be the same for you and SBER and Joe Blow jewelry shop.”

SBER is Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, the Baltimore real estate development firm that, with five full-page ads in the June issue, is by far Urbanite’s most enthusiastic client. CEO C. William Struever is also Urbanite’s main financial backer, its future landlord, and Durkin’s boyfriend of five years.

As long as she’s getting into it, Durkin doesn’t mind discussing her professional relationship with Struever, either.

With Struever’s backing, Durkin bought the neighborhood paper in 2004. The Bolton Hill native says she saw in publishing an opportunity to combat what she has long perceived as Baltimore’s inferiority complex—a condition fueled, she says, by local news coverage that tends to emphasize problems rather than solutions.

It was a vision that resonated with Struever. “I’ve been incredibly frustrated with The Sun in particular for a long time,” he says. “And it’s something I’ve talked about over the years. Generally, The Sun just spends a lot of time talking about what’s wrong with stuff.”

Urbanite, on the other hand, tries to take an optimistic spin on issues facing the city, says editor Elizabeth Evitts, who sees the publication occupying a middle ground between suburban lifestyle glossies, such as Baltimore magazine and Style, and alternative newsweeklies. “I think it’s a new genre,” says Evitts, comparing Urbanite to The Rake, a free monthly in Minneapolis started in 2002 by the founder of the City Pages alt-weekly.

Former Urbanite editorial assistant (and sometime City Paper freelancer) Robert Whelan describes the magazine as “alt-booster.”

Durkin is quick to dispute any suggestion that the magazine—which employs an editorial focus on urban redevelopment, lifestyle, and design that often complements the developer’s business vision—is a Struever Bros.’ mouthpiece.

“This magazine is my vision and it reflects who I am and my values,” Durkin says. “Sure, we make a great couple, Bill and I, but you can see why, because I’m passionate about the same things he’s passionate about. But this was my idea. I concepted it.”

Durkin says she and Struever committed from the beginning to creating a “fire wall” between Struever Bros. and Urbanite’s editorial coverage. “We take great pains to avoid talking about their projects [in print],” Durkin says. “That’s hard in this town. But we are so sensitive to this perception problem that we haven’t written about Clipper Mill.” She gestures to the raw industrial space around her, which is part of the first phase of the Struever Bros. development by that name. “This is a project I’d love to write about, but I can’t.”

As for the magazine’s financial viability, Durkin has replaced Jeff Stintz with three new sales staffers—bringing her total full-time staff to 11—and says her business plan projects self-sustaining ad revenue three years from launch. Though she declines to share specific numbers, a year and a half into her first publishing foray, Durkin says with a smile, “I’m hitting all my targets.”

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