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The Nose

Prodigal Founder

John Ellsberry
The once and future Russ from Baltimore

Posted 1/15/2003

City Paper co-founder Russ Smith made somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million when he sold New York Press, the iconoclastic Manhattan alternative weekly he founded in 1988, to a pair of little-known publishers in December. He now tells the Nose that he plans to return to Baltimore this summer and become a full-time writer. During the Smith era, the Press--and Smith, in his Mugger column--made regular passing digs at (and occasional lengthy diatribes about) Baltimore, blows that were usually softened with sappy nostalgia for old Mobtown haunts. So why return? "The appeal is largely family-related," Smith explains in an e-mail. "Although I'll miss the high-octane of NYC, I'd like my boys to have a real backyard and house, Melissa [his wife] to have a garden, all that stuff. Also, I'm 47 now, and it's not like I go out to clubs at midnight anymore, so that's not a factor. In addition, it was a compromise: Melissa preferred Boston, but that's too cold for me; I liked Miami or New Orleans, but that's too hot for her. So we settled on Baltimore, where I also like the cost of living."

So the prodigal founder plans his return, his wallet fattened by another sale of another newspaper he started. We immediately presumed he would start another business and asked if his City Paper partner, Alan Hirsch (of Donna's fame), or Press contributor and longtime Baltimore political gadfly Frank DeFilippo figured in his plans. "Alan and Frank do not figure in any of this, except to hang out with," he remarks, emphasizing that all he plans to do is write, write, write. "I'll be continuing Mugger for NYPress but will seek other venues as well."

Before he even gets back to town, though, Baltimore will get a dose of Smith: Johns Hopkins Magazine is preparing a profile of the politically conservative publisher. It's "due to come out in February," the JHU alum says. "The writer did interview me in New York a few times, and I had to endure a long photo session, so I doubt it'll be just a blurb."

The Press' longtime editor, Baltimorean John Strausbaugh, is not faring as well in the transition. He was canned while attempting to vacation over the winter holidays and was replaced by his colleague, managing editor Lisa Kearns. The Nose was unable to track down Strausbaugh, but Kearns writes in an e-mail that she misses him a lot during these "odd times" at the Press.

Over the years, the Nose has noticed that many Baltimore ex-pats who revile life here (often for all the right reasons) tend to turn up back in town later in life with a different attitude. Perhaps Smith is one of them. And maybe Strausbaugh, who penned a particularly venomous feature about Baltimore in the Press a few years ago, will join him. One of the many things the Nose likes about this town is that, like a good drinking buddy, it can take all manner of abuse and still have open arms, a few aspirin, and a little hair-of-the-dog when the fighting's all over.

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