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Media Circus

Mourning Paper

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 2/21/2001

The Baltimore Alternative, one of Baltimore's two biweekly newspapers serving gay, lesbian, and what-have-you readers, suspended publication last October, signing off with a terse but impassioned editorial statement from publisher Charles Mueller. "After fourteen years of publishing . . . it's time for a break," Mueller wrote. Citing printing costs, understaffing, and "mounting accounts receivable (you know who you are)," he promised that the paper would "regroup, redesign, and become an even better product by February."

With February now three-fourths gone, prospects for a resurrected Alternative seem faint but remain open to speculation. Mueller alone knows the paper's true status, and he has adamantly declined to talk. And not just to nosy media columnists: Among the former Alternative contributing writers, editors, and artists I contacted, none have heard from Mueller since the last issue. The only outward signs of life are the paper's still-up Web site--which displays updated wire-service copy, the contents of the Oct. 17 issue, and the above-quoted editorial--and the office voice-mail system, offering to take messages for staffers who left months ago.

The current silence, if unbroken, would be a sad end to a publication that was defined by outspokenness. Founded in 1986, the paper took its name from its mission: to serve as an alternative to the Baltimore Gay Paper (now known as BGP & Mid-Atlantic Gay Life). Its hallmark was independence from advertisers and from gay-community institutions, in contrast to BGP, which is published by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) and leans heavily on big ads from gay bars and clubs.

Alternative founder Bill Urban, a former BGP ad salesperson, broke with his employer over two issues in particular: AIDS coverage and the harassment of gay men by Baltimore City police. According to Alternative old-timers, the BGP of the early '80s played down the growing AIDS epidemic, allegedly to placate advertisers who benefited from the freewheeling sexual scene of that era. The police-harassment issue was sensitive for other reasons: The gay establishment felt uneasy about defending the park-cruising men who were the target of the worst law-enforcement abuses. When Urban died of AIDS in 1992, his partner, Mueller, took over as publisher and the late Garey Lambert succeeded as editor. Lambert carried on Urban's crusades until he died in 1994, having already passed the editorial baton to Rawley Grau. Grau, now a syndicated columnist, cites expansion of the paper's arts coverage as his own proudest legacy; he left the paper early in 1999 to pursue his writing career.

Grau says that at least through 1998 the paper was a stable business, supported by a broad advertiser base and a readership extending well beyond the bounds of the urban gay and lesbian population, thanks to solid AIDS journalism and in-depth coverage of the arts. But the Alternative's last two years were rocky ones, characterized by cash-flow problems and staff turnover. Some Alternative vets say--very guardedly--that the problem was Mueller's lack of business judgment, exacerbated by a tendency to take the paper's difficulties personally. One fateful move was Mueller's decision in 1999 to switch from a monthly to biweekly publication schedule, which squeezed the paper's tiny, overworked staff that much harder.

Even Mueller's critics hasten to praise his faithfulness to the editorial standards established by Urban, and point to external forces that worked against the paper's survival, including the deaths of its first two editors. It's an open question whether the Baltimore market was ever big enough to support both BGP and the Alternative, a problem that fed what one Alt veteran, writer/illustrator Jon Eikenberg, calls an "evil rivalry." (Since October, Eikenberg has been drawing and writing for BGP.)

With the rivalry apparently over, BGP is reaping the benefits of survival. While allowing that the Alternative's disappearance is "a loss to our community," editor Mike Chase says his paper has picked up a few new advertisers as a result and is looking to forge relationships with former Alternative contributors. "Their strength was probably their arts section," Chase says. "We've tried, since they ceased publishing, to expand [music, art, and theater coverage] in our paper."

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