Dagger takes its own stab at journalism


March 24, 2009|By ANDREW RATNER

The Dagger, a local news Web site, doesn't do newspaper writing and reporting (or you could say newspapering) the way it is taught in journalism school. But it may be a glimpse into the way news will be covered in the future.

The site, at daggerpress.com, is produced by four or five former journalists who worked for community newspapers in Harford County, plus a PTA activist ("advocate," she prefers) who covers education issues. They write for free, mostly for the thrill of having a voice and influence that some of them lost when they'd left reporting for other jobs.

Their site generated $100 in advertising last year. After paying to reserve the Web site address and backup computer storage, $12 was left over.

"It's like an itch," explained Brian Goodman, the 30-year-old co-founder. "You can't get the ink out of our blood."

News Web sites with original content have sprouted in various places. Some, in cities like Minneapolis and San Diego, are considered good enough to be considered for their own category of Pulitzer Prize next month. Two sites were launched recently in Baltimore by accomplished ex-print journalists - the heavy-on-attitude baltimorebrew.com, and investigativevoice.com.

The Dagger, which started as a blog Sept. 11, 2007, is older than most of them. It's designed better than most, too, in terms of taking advantage of the interplay of the Internet. It's truly "wiki-journalism," in which the community contributes a chunk of the content.

With a skeleton staff producing two or three stories a day, The Dagger has already made a bit of a reputation for itself in Harford. The fearsome title was originally meant for Goodman's garage band, but since the rock group never gelled, it got used for the news site instead.

It has broken some stories and offered a newfangled approach on others.

After The Baltimore Sun and others reported that Harford was the lone metro-area county not to report high school performance on Advanced Placement tests, The Dagger pressured the school system to release school-by-school figures.

And when it reported on the death of former state Del. Joanne S. Parrott this month, its editor didn't offer a traditional news obituary, but more like the stub of one, then added his own personal recollection that helped trigger a stream of comments about her from various former colleagues and constituents.

Sometimes, the readers become the story: The Dagger's report on an arrest last fall in a two-year-old rape case in Fallston morphed into a digital town gallows, unleashing hundreds of comments allegedly from people who knew the accused, condemning or defending him. A story last week about a dispute over a site for a new elementary school triggered an online debate that drew in past and present county officials.

"It's like a monster. It's not what we thought it was going to be," said Matt Ward, 28, a former reporter for the biweekly Aegis newspaper in Bel Air who started the site with Goodman. "We don't come out and say this is like the Columbia School of Journalism. There are certain ethical questions about it. Geez, we don't even use our last names.

"The name itself is irresponsible, but that's part of what it is," he said. "Does a politician really want to take a phone call from a guy from The Dagger?"

The site, which anyone can access for free, has about 3,500 unique users a month. The Aegis, which is owned by the parent company of The Baltimore Sun and is the largest paper based in the county, also has a Web site with 800 paid subscribers. Baltimoresun.com, which has about 3.3 million unique users per month, plans to launch a separate Harford County news site in the near future.

The Dagger's following may be deep, but it's not wide, according to quantcast.com, which measures Web traffic: About 3 percent of its readers produce half of all visits to the site, which means the same people are visiting over and over.

"Some of their junkies are in the police department and the school system and the council," said S. Fred Simmons, an Aberdeen insurance salesman. "They also have people embedded in those places, and some of them write under other names."

Simmons lost his bid for re-election as mayor of Aberdeen in a campaign 18 months ago that helped The Dagger take flight. Goodman, a journalism graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, covered Harford government for seven years as a reporter for The Aegis and as an editor for The Record, a weekly in Havre de Grace. He moved to a better-paying technical writing job at Aberdeen Proving Ground, but missed the theater of local politics and began blogging about it.

During that 2007 campaign in Aberdeen, a development group pushing an annexation plan and unhappy with the local press offered to buy a $250 ad in The Record to publicize The Dagger's existence. The Dagger editors said fine - and then posted a story revealing the back story of the ad and the purchaser, who felt double-crossed.

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