Below the Fold

From the Baltimore Brew crew, a behind-the-scenes look at what we do…

Why we matter

So Brew readers, ready or not, you’re going to get a little peek into our world, via this new blog, “Below the Fold.”

We thought “Below the Fold” would be a good place to explain what we’re doing and who we are. We’re not salaried employees of a media chain, nor are we outsourced drones overseas, miserably toiling for long hours, at low pay.

We’re your neighbors here in Baltimore, we’re professional reporters and we’re quite cheerful most days – especially when we’ve had a run of good stories, as we have lately. But the part about the toiling and the long hours and the low pay – that’s true!

 The Brew's Fern Shen, wishing there was hot coffee in that mug instead of cold dregs.

The Brew's Fern Shen, wishing there was hot coffee in that mug instead of cold dregs.(Photo by Louie Krauss)

It’s why we hope you’ll support us via Kickstarter (we’re trying to raise $15,000 in 45 days) and join us on this blog for a conversation about what we do, how we do it, why we do it and where we oughtta take The Brew from here.

I’m hoping BTF will be an entertaining and nutritious blend of: crazy stuff we saw while reporting, interesting people we ran into and tooting our own horn because, well who else is going to do it? And it’s actually pretty interesting.

Take Mark Reutter’s story Tuesday on the rec center privatization saga.

Devil’s in the Details

You should care about these public recreation centers, whether your kids use them or not. The city, citing budget shortfalls, wants to consolidate them – closing some and handing others over to private operators.  For years, rec centers have been a bulwark against ‘the streets’ in communities across Baltimore, providing after-school homework help, a safe place for kids to hang out and play sports or participate in the arts, a lively haven for seniors.

Could shutting many of them down and focusing resources on a few large centers make life better for kids?

The Brew's Mark Reutter, on the job, back in the summer.

The Brew's Mark Reutter, on the job, conducting an interview. (Photo by Dawne Allette)

Not if the operators are questionable. Mark looked at the bid documents for three of the four operators (the fourth wasn’t available) and found shaky finances – and only one with experience running recs. Typos in the operators’ proposals did not inspire confidence either. And, whoa, one operator was proposing to convert part of the facility into a fee-based daycare center or adult treatment center.

Quick, is There a Reporter in the House?!

The public had no idea about any of this.

Mark and I knew we had to get this story out as fast as we could on Tuesday because the city was set to vote on the bids at the Wednesday Board of Estimates meeting. They were going to approve these things! That’s how this spending panel’s meetings go. With very little discussion – Kaching! – they’re over and a thick packet of expenditures are approved.

Not this time, though.

In a highly unusual move, Recreation and Parks pulled the rec center bids  off the Board of Estimates’ agenda “to allow for additional time for outreach with individual stakeholders.” This news came just hours after we published Mark’s story. Then came the news, confirmed by our sources, that one of the operator was completely withdrawing its bid.

Time for the Takeaway

I’m going to deliver this in bullet points (because it’s 10 p.m. and I’m really beat.)

  • IT’S SORT OF AN OBVIOUS THING a news organizations would want to do, look into the background of these operators proposed for a controversial program. But it’s safe to say that . . .
  • NOBODY ELSE WAS GOING TO DO THIS, review all these bid proposals and documents, I mean. The Sun is not covering the rec center story on this level and no other media are attempting to cover it in any but the most superficial way, perhaps because . . .
  • IT’S A TON OF WORK! Over at Baltimore City Paper, Edward Ericson Jr. very graciously wrote a piece Wednesday praising Mark’s rec center scoop (CP had a good rec story in May, btw) but I thought I’d expand on that line where Ed says Mark got the story after “doing a quick background check” on the operators. Nothing quick about the process!

“For this story, I spent about 10 hours, over three days, combing through the bid records at City Hall,” Mark wrote me in an email, when I asked him to add up his time. “This included going through 12 city contracts involving the Rec Centers. Each contract is about 70 pages. Or close to 1,000 pages in all.”

He also searched court records and corporate and tax records to find out about the potential operators, research I know he began weeks ago. He also went out to look at the rec centers, including those planned for privatization. What I’m saying is . . .

  1. THIS STORY WAS PART OF MARK’S OVERALL STRATEGY and research on rec center privatization, going back months. This has involved going to community meetings, agency meetings — and interviewing about 35 people on the issue so far. We published the first detailed story on the rec privatization plan (back in August) and we’ve written 10 more articles on the subject — nearly all of them exclusives (on the rec center protest in Hampden, on City Council President Young coming out against closures, the city hall hearing, the community meetings, etc.) which The Sun and other media followed.
  2. IT’S JUST A FRACTION OF WHAT NEEDS DOING as you all know. Stories like this are hiding-in-plain-sight all around us and we can’t, with just our skeleton crew over here, do ‘em all.
  3. IT’S JUST A FRACTION OF WHAT WE DO AT THE BREW! This week we also “broke” the story of the bicycling Santa who gives you a pulled-pork sandwich as he delivers a Christmas tree (hey, to a lot of BBQ-loving people that qualifies as breaking “news!”), captured the denouement of Occupy Baltimore hours after the hammer came down (and the irony of he city handing them a “Free Speech Notice” as they show em the door) , analyzed and outlined (after more eye-straining research) the latest ways the city is spending your tax dollars and told you about the $12 bottle of wine that beat a $47 bottle in a blind tasting we conducted.

 

 

 

Whew.

We do a lot. And we do it like Ginger Rogers, backwards, in high heels. Well, um, not Mark. With all his pedaling back and forth to City Hall on his bike, he prefers Rockports or Adidas.

  (L to r) Ben Kutil, Mark Reutter, Fern Shen, City Paper's "Besty," Gerry Neily and Francine Halvorsen from our City paper Best Of award. (Meredith Mitchell and other Brewers will be showing up in subsequent posts...)

(L to r) Ben Kutil, Mark Reutter, Fern Shen, "Besty," Gerry Neily and Francine Halvorsen from our City Paper "Best Of" award. (Meredith Mitchell and other Brewers will be showing up in subsequent posts.)

Why we matter
  • Stan M

    “We’re not salaried employees of a media chain…”  Why was it necessary to introduce yourselves by making a negative comment about the people who write for Patch or the Examiner?

    • Anonymous

      I don’t think “salaried employees of a media chain” is negative. Just trying to say we don’t sit in a company office and get a paycheck. – Fern

      • Stan M

        As “Engine Charley” Wilson so astutely observed, “perception is reality.”  To say what you have said in reply — that you don’t sit in a company office and get a paycheck — seems to be an attempt to assert some sort of moral superiority.

        All I am trying to say here is that if you are professional journos (which I know at least some of you are), you should choose your words more carefully. I saw very little in the article that told me the benefits of reading, much less financially supporting, this publication. I will freely admit that’s because after I saw the sentence I first mentioned, I quit reading closely. So all I learned is who you are NOT, rather than who you are and why I should care.

        With people’s impatience and short attention spans, writers need to make the opening grafs of their articles as tight and perfect as possible. Far more so than before the days of electronic media.  I speak from three years’ experience writing for an automotive e-magazine (long defunct) and years more experience as a technical writer, freelancer and blogger.

        • Maggie

          Wow.  Your critique is somewhat astounding.  It is suprising that you’d take the time to write a comment when you “freely admit” that you didn’t read the post closely.  I like the Brew because it is run by professional journalists who write in-depth stories and covers topics that aren’t easily reduced to sound bites.  Impatient people with short attention spans . . . .hmmm.

    • Devil’s Advocate

      Your comment says much more about you than anything else.

  • http://twitter.com/robinbaker55 robin baker

    I guess the posters below did not read about who you ARE in the Kickstarter intro. If memory serves, and at my stage in life it may not, you are a former WaPo reporter. Considering that more and more media outlets are getting bought up by fewer and fewer big corporations, I think it’s worth stating that you are not being paid by said corporations. I have been impressed by the articles I have been reading on your site. That’s why I donated. Keep up the good work and good luck on the funding.

  • Sean Tully

    I think when you have to start telling people “why we matter,” you’ve probably already lost the game.  We (the readers) will decide if you matter. 

    • Gerald Neily

      Sean, if it’s a “game” that matters as you say, its the one played by Baltimore City. Has the city won or lost? We must all decide that.

      • Sean Tully

        Gerald, the “game” I am referring to is the business of news reporting. 

        Let me clarify the point I as trying to make.  I personally think the Brew does matter.  But to have them tell us why they matter seems presumptuous.  It is like an advertisement disguised as a review of their work.  Had they called their article “What We’ve Accomplished,” I probably would not have made any statement.

        And, as for the “professional reporters” bit (I am surprised they didn’t label themselves as “professional journalists” as is the want of many professional journalists), I think the Brew is hanging on to some old world ideas about their profession.  By “professional,” do they mean paid?  Or do they mean trained at the Columbia School of Journalism or some other university?  If they mean the former, then they have missed the boat on the Internet Age.  Anyone with a story (who, what, where, when, why, and many times how), and an Internet connection – digital camera and video camera are optional – can be a reporter in every sense of the word.  And, if they mean the latter, well, refer to my previous sentence. 
         
        What I believe the Brew is attempting to say is that they are university trained journalists.  That is not a bad thing, of course, although it is not a requirement by any means anymore (see above).  But, the thing about many  university trained journalists that I’ve met over the years is that they are very intelligent.  I used to work at the Baltimore Sun (advertising side).  I met a lot of journalists in my daily chores and through the union (we were all in the same Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild).  In fact, Joan Jacobson was an elected union official while I was at the Sun.  The union helped me win a complaint against the company (well, a 50-50 split, which was pretty much a win since the union was slowly losing its power to the company), and I am pretty sure Joan was involved in that.  What I learned is that people like Joan could probably have entered any profession they choose and been successful.  Many journalists were certainly smart enough to have become doctors, lawyers, etc. 

        But they choose journalism because it was considered a profession and had real value in our society.  Well, they are still smart and professional journalism still is valuable in our society, but the rules have changed on who they are competing with, if they are competing with anyone at all.  The fact is that, as I said, a story is a story no matter who covers it.  Sure, someone getting paid may have more time to do in depth reporting on a topic, but that isn’t necessarily so either.  And, to top it all off, even a thoroughly researched and sourced story of great importance doesn’t really mean much if it falls on deaf ears, and, unfortunately, in these dumbed down times, there are a lot of deaf ears.        

  • Sean Tully

    Tom, I am not comparing the Brew to the Patch, Examiner, or even the Sun.  I am simply pointing out a reality in a free market, i.e., the customers will decide if a company (organization, etc.) and their product matter.  I think the Brew does a fine job reporting, so I have no complaints there.  I personally don’t visit the site often, but that’s me. 

  • Anonymous

    The Brew is asking for financial support from its readers.  Hence it is emphasizing its uniqueness.  It may be tooting its own horn but not without the substance to back that tooting.  It is telling its readers and visitors to its site, “Here’s who we are.  This is difference we are making.  Here’s how we are different from other purveyors of Baltimore news.”  Whether or not readers buy their sales pitch is up to the readers.  I think most people on this site seem to agree that The Brew is doing excellent work.  The Brew’s writers want to give themselves a pat.  So be it.  That is neither unbecoming nor unusual.  The writing here is delightful, insightful and humorous.  The pictures are absolutely bedazzling.  The Brew’s photography team is top notch.  The Brew’s investigative reportage is important to a city like Baltimore where venality thrives when citizens are sleeping.  This is hard work to do for a pittance.  It is indeed a labor of love.  Like it is extremely hard for a medical practitioner not to throw in the towel and work for corporate Medicine it is extremely difficult for journalists to be independent today.  I believe in the twenty first century, the biggest search will be for those independents–the mavericks of medicine, science, technology, journalism and politics, those who are risking a comfortable living to follow their hearts, those who live precariously from day to day to adhere to their ideals.  The best music, the best art, the best writing, through the centuries have come from such folks.  The Brew may be bought out one day by some big corporation.  Until then I say, “Raise your glasses to the Brew.  Pray that it remains small, far from the rapacious eyes of the mall merchandisers of journalism.”    

    • Anonymous

      From B Brew: Thanks, Usha, for YOUR pats on the back. Your analogy to Big Med is very apt. Don’t worry, we aim to stay small and non-corporate. The Kickstarter is part of our bootstraps campaign to develop a business model to sustain local journalism that we think matters. And we raise our Brewish glasses to all mavericks in all professions. –MR

    • Sean Tully

      I think you made my point when you said, “Whether or not readers buy their sales pitch is up to the readers”.  It is a “sales pitch” and the readers will decide if they matter.   Isn’t this where I started? 
       
      And to my larger point, I would say the biggest story coming out of the “press” during the last city election cycle was the Belinda Conaway flap over her residency and what tax credits her family was receiving.  That story didn’t come from the Brew, the Sun, or the City Paper (not to mention Jayne Miller, or Fox 45 News at Ten).  It came from Adam Meister, who write it on Examiner.com and who earns a penny per page view (talk about a “labor of love”).  The story and the resulting law suit filed by Conaway against Meister, lead to her defeat.  Now that is journalism.  But what did the Brew (and Sun, et. al.) refer to Meister as?  “A blooger.”  What does a guy have to do to become a reporter in this business?