Media veterans plan online news

December 11, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

A veteran newspaper reporter, a public-radio talk-show host and a Web consultant are joining forces to launch a pioneering online news site in Baltimore.

Fern Shen, formerly of The Washington Post, Marc Steiner of WYPR and Sean Carton, an executive with id5, a Baltimore interactive marketing consultancy, hope to launch the site in the spring.

Shen and Steiner have secured a grant of $5,000 from the Abell Foundation to help design a prototype for the site, with Carton's aid.

"People know how much our society is moving to the Internet," Shen wrote Friday in an e-mail. "For better or worse, that's where our kids will be getting their news. There's got to be some kind of entity that will actually be healthy and viable in the Internet age and yet serve the important role newspapers traditionally filled."

Steiner said that the as-yet-unnamed site will use audio, video and text to relay the news with daily updates. The site hopes to use news contributed by members of the community -- also known as citizen journalists -- as well as by professional reporters, photographers and graphic artists.

"People have stories to tell," said Steiner, host of an eponymous talk show. "People can get inspired by the media, and the media can get inspired by people. You let the community tell the story."

Steiner said he would keep his radio job but aims to become heavily involved with the online newspaper once it's up and running. Until it becomes self-sustaining or more grant money comes in, only two people are being paid -- Shen and Carton -- and then only nominally. Steiner said the rest are putting in "sweat equity."

About a dozen journalists have contributed stories to the prototype without remuneration, "because they like to see a good thing go a little further," Shen said in an interview. She said also that she and her partners "are talking to some pretty promising and substantial potential backers."

Shen, who left The Post in January after 17 years, said the current task is "to assemble a version of what this might look like," although she would not be specific because the concept is "not fully fleshed out." She and her cohorts have been scouring other Web sites for inspiration.

The site aims to embody "a strong dedication to citizen journalism, diversity and community involvement," according to a call for job applicants that Shen placed on the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida.

The most urgent need of this "next-generation news Web site," the ad said, is for someone with grant-writing skills who can help to obtain more foundation grants as well as sell ad space and develop "other revenue streams."

Shen said the idea of an online news site is timely.

"This city is really ready for it," said Shen, who has lived in Baltimore since the mid-1980s and also worked at The Evening Sun. She said people she has spoken with say they want "an alternative to The Sun."

Tim Thomas, vice president of marketing at The Sun, said any emergent news venture in town is a potential competitor.

"We don't want to fall into the trap of thinking our only competition is in print," he said. "There are new Web sites popping up all the time, and we just need to continue to focus on what we do best, which is provide news and information that's local, personally relevant and useful."

Doug Birch, a veteran reporter and foreign correspondent for The Sun, helped conceive the online news site before leaving Baltimore recently to accept a post as Moscow bureau chief for the Associated Press.

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