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Media Circus

Broad Fast News

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 6/21/2006

In the three months since its launch, at least five staff reporters have already resigned from the new Baltimore Examiner, underscoring one of the major challenges in the free daily newspaper’s editorial business model, which expects each of about 20 staff writers to produce three concise news stories a day, plus several shorter items.

Among the resignations were business reporter Chet Dembeck, Carroll County reporter Craig Meister, and Ari Natter, who covered Howard County for only a few weeks before returning to his previous employer, the daily Carroll County Times.

“It was probably the most challenging workload I’ve ever had,” says Dembeck, 57, for whom journalism was a second career, and who has previously quit after relatively short stints at the Daily Record and the Columbia Flier. “I couldn’t do the kind of journalism I wanted within their constraints.”

Dembeck says a typical nine- to 10-hour workday at The Examiner had him filing two stories of 300-450 words, plus a shorter 150-word story, plus two or three news briefs of 40-75 words. “I think the fallacy that a lot of people view is that you don’t have to put as much time in a 300-word story as an 800-word story,” he says. “But I like to have at least three sources in a story, minimum, and that’s very difficult. . . . So the dilemma I found myself in is I just didn’t have enough time to really do the work to my satisfaction. Others, that might be more talented than me, or faster workers than me, maybe they can.”

Dembeck’s former workload is typical of their daily routine, say current Examiner reporters. By contrast, a typical Sun metro beat reporter files about three stories a week, according to a cursory Nexis analysis of bylines. “About three stories sounds right,” says Sun city editor Howard Libit. “We don’t have any quotas, but most reporters in metro tend to average that.” The lengths of Sun stories vary widely, but standard news articles tend to run between 700 and 1,000 words.

Managing editor Tim Maier says turnover is not unusual in the early stages of a startup company. He declined to elaborate on personnel matters but cautioned against assuming that the intense workload was the common denominator in the resignations. In discussions with several current and former Examiner staffers, however, the blistering pace of production expected at the paper was a recurring theme of concern—though all people contacted acknowledge that the newspaper’s editors were up-front about The Examiner being, in the words of one current reporter, “a newspaper on speed.”

The Baltimore Examiner is the third in a chain of major metro free dailies founded on the belief that readers prefer their printed news in easily digestible chunks. Most of the paper’s 250,000 copies are home-delivered six days a week to affluent suburban households. The entire newspaper, which typically ranges from 48 to 72 pages, is designed to be read in less than 20 minutes.

“The hardest thing is being spread so thin, not just the number of stories,” says Annapolis-based reporter Len Lazarick, who is a one-man statehouse bureau responsible for covering the governor and legislature, as well as all statewide races in this campaign year. Despite the extreme pace, the 57-year-old Lazarick says for him the benefits at The Examiner so far outweigh the hardships.

“There were days, and probably will be days, when I think, Why the hell am I doing this?” he says. “But I’ve never filed on a daily basis before, and it was an opportunity to be a major player in a new startup newspaper.”

A former Patuxent Publishing editor and part-time copy editor on the national desk of The Washington Post, Lazarick emphasizes that he has received “almost uniformly positive reaction” to the bite-sized editorial model practiced at The Examiner. “I really buy into the idea that people like the shorter stories, though it’s very difficult to do in a way that’s even halfway complete,” he says. “The Sun does Jane Austen, and we do CliffsNotes. And what you find is that some people like the CliffsNotes. People like the idea that they can pick up the newspaper and breeze through it in 20 minutes. They feel like, ‘I read the newspaper and I know what’s going on today.’”

Both Lazarick and Dembeck are considerably older than most Examiner reporters, some of whom were hired directly out of journalism school, or whose previous experience was confined to community and alternative weeklies. The opportunity to work high-profile beats at a big-city daily early in their careers is a major draw, say current staffers.

The Examiner probably isn’t the most nurturing newspaper out there,” writes cops and courts reporter Luke Broadwater in an e-mail. “You’re expected to hit the ground running, sources intact, and begin producing immediately. . . . Some of the drawbacks of writing five stories a day is that none of them can be truly in depth, the way you’d like it to be. They can be good scoops of high quality, but there’s no way they all can be masterpieces. The good thing is, if you push yourself, you can be surprised at what you can do in a single day.”

Broadwater, 26, who previously worked at the weekly Howard County Times and was a sports freelancer for The Sun, acknowledges he was “highly skeptical” of the newspaper when he first heard about it. “I thought, Are people really going to read something just thrown on their lawn? But apparently they have been. Some days I’ve been inundated with calls and e-mails in response to stories. My stuff has been on the Drudge Report, the AP wire, local TV and radio, and followed by The Sun. So, somebody out there’s reading.”

Former Sun managing editor Tony Barbieri, now on the faculty of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, expresses mixed feelings about the desirability of launching a journalism career at a paper like The Examiner. “A workload like that can be both a blessing and a curse,” he writes in an e-mail reply to questions from Media Circus. “Of course a young reporter is going to learn to be fast and be accurate and not to waste a lot of time. In that sense there is nothing at all wrong with having days every now and then when you write a lot, when you grind it out. We used to call it feeding the goat. But as an everyday routine, I think a workload like that is excessive, bad for both for the paper and the reporter.”

The particular danger for young reporters laboring under constant, extraordinary deadline pressure, says Barbieri, is the formation of bad habits such as taking people’s statements at their word, spending too much time on the phone rather than in the field, and relying on too few sources.

“I would tell young reporters looking to go to work at a place with that kind of pace to be very sure they will be working with editors they can trust,” Barbieri says. “This means editors who will be honest and attentive and who won’t put bad work in the paper simply to fill space. I would tell a young reporter starting out that unless they have the kind of editors who will help them learn and grow, they might be better off passing. But then again,” he adds, “Rule 1 for a young reporter starting out is: Get a job.”

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