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Media Circus

Urbanite: a City Mag in Disguise

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 9/24/2008

When Clay Felker died earlier this year, New York magazine, which he founded in 1968, dedicated an entire issue to him.

City magazines had been around since the turn of the century, but Felker turned the dying genre around by covering New York as if it were an amusement park. Out with dull profiles of business leaders and pictures of stuffy society parties, in with articles on scandal, crime, conflict--the things that made the city tick.

Baltimore has two city magazines, Baltimore and Style, but it's Urbanite, a free monthly publication that resumed publishing under new ownership four years ago, that has pushed the boundaries of what Baltimore's city magazines might become in the next 30 years.

Under its new editor, David Dudley, a former City Paper staffer who took the editorial helm in August 2007 from former editor Elizabeth Evitts, the magazine has started what he calls a "rolling redesign." Urbanite, which has long approached urban living as a real-world experiment, has added restaurant reviews, events coverage, and other features that move it a step closer to the traditional city-magazine format. Dudley says that when he arrived at the magazine, after five years of being an associate editor at the Cornell University alumni magazine in Ithaca, N.Y., he standardized some of the magazine's content, developing columns and features that appear monthly, and expanded its coverage to include lifestyle stories that are the bread and butter of city magazines.

"I don't think what we're doing now is radically different," he says. "People really loved the way it was. . . . The magazine was known for doing a lot of architecture stories, sustainability and green-design stories, which we still do. I did consciously say, Alright, let's expand the footprint and cover other issues, and cover them differently.'"

To that end, Dudley has added a wine column, restaurant reviews, and cultural coverage, with the aim of making Urbanite "an intelligent filter of what's happening in the city." While the magazine still features reader-produced content, and places a premium on ideas for Baltimore's future, it also covers pressing issues of the day. For example, in April the magazine ran an article on DNA profiling of criminals, something that became timely when the Baltimore Police Department disclosed in August that its own employees contaminated DNA samples taken from crime scenes.

Publisher Tracy Ward Durkin bought Urbanite in 2003, when it was a bimonthly neighborhood paper that hadn't published in a year and a half. With financial assistance from her longtime boyfriend, developer Bill Struever of Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse (whose ads feature prominently in the magazine's pages), Durkin relaunched Urbanite as a glossy magazine in January 2004. Durkin says she wanted the magazine to encourage dialogue on issues in the city. In an interview with Media Circus in 2005, she and former editor Evitts said they wanted the publication to adopt a more optimistic view of Baltimore than other media outlets in the city ("Developing Sensibilities," Media Circus, June 29, 2005).

"We tend to live in our silos," Durkin says. "I thought it would be interesting to provide a magazine that could talk about in-depth issues Baltimore was confronted with, anything from education to transportation to violence."

The magazine remains true to its founding philosophy and format--each issue of the monthly magazine since its inception has focused on a single topic, such as animals or energy--but Durkin says changes in its editorial approach were prompted by a readership study that found, among other things, 67 percent of the magazine's readers were between 25 and 49, a demographic not well-reached by other publications. She says the demographics encouraged Urbanite to readjust how it addressed its subjects.

"When I began the magazine I focused on the issue side of it, featuring content that was thematic," she says. "When David got here we had a lot more information about our audience. We were really able to sift through that data, and were able to draw a fairly complete picture of who our reader was. Once we were able to identify who the reader was, David was able to build content for that reader."

One interesting thing about Urbanite readers is that many of them, like many of the readers of the area's other city magazines, don't live in Baltimore. In fact, Durkin says, 42 percent of Urbanite's audience hails from the counties, and a special issue on suburban life in January of 2006 attracted keen interest from readers.

"I originally thought the magazine would mostly be read by city-livers, city-dwellers, and I thought they would be people that would be civically engaged," Durkin says. "What I didn't understand is how many people outside the city would want to read it."

Dudley says he thinks of Urbanite as a regional publication, and its coverage reflects that.

"Regionalism is a controversial but core part of most progressive urban thinking," he says. "The city and the suburbs are inextricably linked."

Dudley says the magazine, which was started with the expectation that it may one day be franchised for publication in other cities, is a model for a new kind of city magazine.

"It gives you the glossiness, the tactile pleasure. It's shorter," he says. "[Cities] are hubs for the creative class. They want some of that lifestyle stuff, but there's more on their mind. [They want] substantial stories explaining the world they live in and the cities they have chosen to live in. Cities are places you choose, they're lifestyle accessories."

As Urbanite repositions itself to take advantage of a changed media environment, shaped by the declining fortunes of The Baltimore Sun, it is also looking to redesigning its web site to include new content. Dudley says the site's current offerings, which include video and Q&As with people featured in each issue, will expand in the coming year. While other city magazines--particularly those that depend on the blessings of the business community to stay in business--serve only to sell the benefits of city life, Dudley says Urbanite sees its role as a publication that examines things more deeply. It approaches its content in the context of problems to be solved, rather than in terms of things to simply be celebrated.

"As much as there is a boosterism here, it is that the stories tend to be engineered with a solution in mind, rather than muckraking for the pure joy of muckraking," Dudley says. "When we do investigative pieces, they're not pure investigations. They're more like, `Let's investigate a problem and see what solution is suggested, and analyze it from a high level.' Stories tend to be more gray, which is what you want, something a little more nuanced."

Managing Editor Scramble

Bob Blau, managing editor of The Baltimore Sun, resigned last week after nearly four years at the paper. He has not been immediately replaced, and for now deputy managing editors Marcia Myers and Paul Moore will report directly to editor Tim Franklin.

In related Tribune Co. news, Brad Howard, general manager of the free daily b, has left his position at that publication. He was replaced by Eric Thornton, who previously was the head of Patuxent Publishing Co., Tribune's Columbia-based local community newspaper division.

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