Small monthly newspaper keeps its 20-year tradition of being a forum for community debate

April 24, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Its politics are progressive, its readers blue collar, its margin of profit marginal. Anyone who picks up the Baltimore Chronicle knows that this monthly community newspaper has a healthy disregard for the conventions of journalism.

For 20 years, the Baltimore Chronicle has been tilting at windmills local and global. From their converted rowhouse on W. 25th Street, editors Alice Cherbonnier and Larry Krause take on the Star Wars missile defense, right-wing regimes in Central America, domestic violence, Operation Desert Storm, illiteracy, health care, public apathy and, on stressful deadline days, each other. No topic is too overwhelming for this ma-and-pa monthly with a readership of 33,000.

"Our dander is always in the up position," says Ms. Cherbonnier. She characterizes the newspaper as a "Judeo-Quaker" publication reflective of the married couple's joint spiritual beliefs.

But the Chronicle, as loyal readers know, is more than a forum for political rabble-rousing. On a page devoted to Hampden community news, for example, a woman who worked at the Ye Eat Shoppe for 48 years is eulogized.

A Chronicle editorial concerning Oriole Park at Camden Yards speaks of baseball's origins in ancient Native American ball courts. One month, the food page extols "Great Recipes from Burma," and a contributor evaluates the local underground poetry scene.

And there is "everywoman" Louella, whose exploits Ms. Cherbonnier has followed in a hair-raising serial based on true-life events that is now close to 7 years old. Once in a restaurant, a waitress who recognized Ms. Cherbonnier from her credit card got down on her knees and thanked the editor for Louella, who last time we saw her was involved in a nasty car crash with her gay boyfriend. Whether he will live or die will be determined in the next issue.

How does the Chronicle play in Hampden and other blue collar neighborhoods where the monthly is distributed?

"We both find that when we distribute the paper [readers] have been waiting for it. They're glad to see it. In contrast, when I distribute in areas like Charles Village or Mount Vernon, we do not get the same emotional feedback," Ms. Cherbonnier says.

The paper imparts to readers the idea that " 'I must be important.' we're not talking down to them even though they may not fully understand, or disagree with, the ideas represented," Ms Cherbonnier says.

The Chronicle is free and is distributed to about 1,200 outlets in Baltimore, including banks, libraries, food stores and other businesses. Subscriptions cost $5. Ads account for about 45 percent of the paper, Ms. Cherbonnier says, and in the past, the couple has "cut ads to make sure a story fits," she says.

When Mr. Krause founded the Chronicle, he had visions of wealth and fame. "I was as materialistic as anybody," he says. But after three years and a meager $13,000 net profit, he decided to swim against the mainstream. "I could afford to be more political," he says. "When you renounce the typical American lifestyle . . . if you have less of a financial stake, it makes it easier to be a political conscience."

Today, the combined income from the Chronicle, a related graphic arts business and Mr. Krause's mineral specimen business yields about as much as a teacher's salary, the couple says. Their modest income has become a testament to the Quaker obligation to "live simply so that others may simply live."

For those active in improving Baltimore's quality of life, the Chronicle is a breath of fresh air. "I think it's a terrific paper and that they do a really good job of covering the community effort for change," says Hathaway Ferebee, director of the Citizens Planning & Housing Association of Baltimore. In its coverage of hard-won achievements, such as the city's recycling program, the Chronicle understands "how much citizen action affects policy . . . I think that's really valuable," Ms. Ferebee says.

As for enemies, "We don't skewer people. We skewer philosophies," Ms. Cherbonnier says. "We try to be fair-minded. I remember we did an editorial called 'No Fire in Schmoke,' but we are also encouraging of him." The Chronicle's most vociferous critic recently was a reader who called "about 20 times" to decry their decision to run a first-person account by a woman with "pro-life" convictions, who participated in an Operation Rescue protest, Ms. Cherbonnier says.

In 1989, Mr. Krause and several colleagues founded the non-profit Baltimore News Network, (BNN) "out of a concern that the mainstream media offer a narrow perspective of the news." The group publishes the Sentinel, which appears within the Chronicle.

Even more than its parent publication, the Sentinel defies categorization. Its pages are a meeting ground for radical, libertarian and conservative views, and unfettered political debates rage from issue to issue. When not in jail on charges of civil disobedience, Baltimore activist Max Obuszewski is a frequent contributor to the Sentinel.

In its own quirky way, the Baltimore Chronicle and the Sentinel are as user-friendly and as incendiary as a pre-revolutionary broadsheet, published to bind the community and to preserve the fragility of easily forgotten principles. "We challenge people to think, to feel, to develop their own hearts and souls and minds. At stake is the lessening of our humanity, the uniqueness of people and ultimately our own democracy," he says.

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