Best alternative is journalism A guiding light: Taking over as editor at City Paper, Andy Markowitz plans to stretch the weekly newspaper's coverage beyond its 20-year traditions.

February 26, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Andy Markowitz was poised to leave journalism and enter film school when he was tapped as the City Paper's new editor earlier this month.

His sudden U-turn had everything to do with the City Paper and nothing to do with second thoughts about quitting newspapers, Mr. Markowitz says in his airy Mount Vernon office.

"It was not a matter of getting back to journalism. It was a matter of this job and this place."

He had worked at Baltimore's free alternative weekly as a part-time copy editor less than a year when he decided to get out. While his fertile mind and editing skills made him a popular staff addition, Mr. Markowitz had become disillusioned with journalism in general.

He watched too many reporter friends at other publications become mired in the cutthroat culture of contemporary journalism. Mr. Markowitz, himself, burned out cranking copy as a reporter for the Prince George's Journal.

Later, as city editor there, he drooped in a climate where a punch-the-clock mentality prevailed and making employees unhappy was considered "a proper management style."

Rather than live with his own soured outlook, Mr. Markowitz quit the Prince George's Journal. He subsisted on free-lance assignments and temporary editing jobs while reconfiguring his future.

In January 1995, he also landed the part-time position at the City Paper, where he easily expanded his editorial role to include assisting reporters with ideas and story structure.

His efforts were welcomed by CP managers, says Mr. Markowitz, who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1986 with a journalism degree.

In November, editor Sono Motoyama announced her resignation after nearly two years at the helm. City Paper publisher Don Farley launched an exhaustive national search to find a new editor.

Mr. Markowitz applied for the post, even though he had enrolled in graduate school at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He got the job.

And Mr. Markowitz returned to journalism before he ever really left.

"It's not something I expected six months ago," he says with a trace of amazement.

"Andy just excelled," says Mr. Farley of Mr. Markowitz's credentials. He clinched the job when Mr. Farley read the copy editor's prospectus for the City Paper -- which turns 20 next year -- that jibed philosophically with his and Ms. Motoyama's shared vision, the publisher says.

Mr. Markowitz, 31, takes his new charge with a calm intensity that will perhaps become his editorial trademark.

He is wiry, fastidious, with penetrating eyes, a head of bristly, cropped hair. He wears a cool corduroy shirt, jeans and a tiny gold hoop in his ear. Behind Mr. Markowitz's orderly desk stands "the big board," a portable chalkboard covered with lists of future story and column assignments.

Reporters who have worked with Mr. Markowitz in the past praise his abilities.

"He was a really good editor," says John Mecurio, a former Prince George's Journal reporter who now covers the Maryland General Assembly for the Washington Times. "He had a lot of demands put on him, dealing with a lot of young reporters looking to him for guidance and inspiration. While I think it was terribly tiring and overwhelming at times, he really pulled it off."

Unlike his predecessor, who entered this office after editor Michael Yockel was abruptly fired two years ago, Mr. Markowitz's transition has been smooth.

"No one got fired, there wasn't all this uncertainty, and there was not a feeling that the paper needed a real change," he says.

Ms. Motoyama's greater emphasis on investigative journalism and arts coverage has already moved the City Paper, which has a circulation of 89,000, toward the goals she had established, Mr. Markowitz says.

His charge is to realize her vision as well as to set his own sights for the paper.

The paper's in-depth news coverage will be strengthened further, Mr. Markowitz says.

A recent cover story about the Baltimore City Police force's violent crimes task force represents the "kind of investment of time and [cultivation of] sources built up over long periods of time" that distinguishes the CP staff, he says.

Last autumn's cover story on Baltimore jazz history is an example of the kind of expanded arts coverage Mr. Markowitz plans to install as a way of drawing readership beyond the rock-and-roll hordes.

Mr. Markowitz is short on specifics regarding staff changes as well as planned editorial innovations.

He elegizes, however, about Baltimore's textures and tableaux and stresses the City Paper's obligation to recognize the city's unique neighborhoods and legacies.

Institutional memory is important to Mr. Markowitz, who grew up outside of Washington and in Columbia.

He now lives in Charles Village with his girlfriend, Barbara Frye, a reporter for the Howard County Times, and Tiny, their tabby cat. He is banking on his staff's knowledge of Baltimore to enrich the quality of the paper.

Under Mr. Markowitz's guidance, the self-indulgent side of alternative journalism will be kept to a minimum.

"White guys in their 30s" who "feel they are far more interesting than anything they could write about" are a big-time turnoff, he says.

As for maintaining an "alternative" identity when the Washington Post runs a Page 1 story about New Orleans' "gutter punks," and the New York Times Magazine tackles post-adolescent fashion models and Mohawk hairdo maintenance, Mr. Markowitz is unfazed.

Such inroads into youth culture by the big dailies show "they're paying attention to what papers like the City Paper are doing," Mr. Markowitz says.

And, just because "they're doing what we're doing," doesn't mean "we should make a 90-degree turn."

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