Russ Smith was only a senior in college when he started the Baltimore City Paper with his good friend Alan Hirsch, tapping out the early weekly editions at the Johns Hopkins News-Letter offices after hours. Smith had been inspired by earlier papers, like the Village Voice and the Chicago Reader, and after graduating he turned the Baltimore City Paper into a free daily that within a decade was a model for alternative journalism across the country. Smith subsequently sold the Baltimore City Paper, as well as the D.C. City Paper (started in the early ’80s), and started the New York Press, now the main rival to the Village Voice. Smith’s new project is the online magazine Splice Today. Founded a little over a year ago, Splice Today is a news and pop culture website aimed at the 18-30 crowd. I talked with Smith about his career in alternative journalism, Splice Today, and the decline of the newspaper industry.
Young Money: You started the Baltimore City Paper in the late 70s, during your last year at Johns Hopkins, is that right? How did you get started and what kind of model was there for alternative journalism in those days? Of course the Village Voice had been around since the mid-’50s. Was that an influence for you?
Russ Smith: Yes, I started, along with my friend Alan Hirsch, [the Baltimore] City Paper (at first called City Squeeze, in a nod to the fading hippie culture) in May of ’77. We got started with almost no money, and produced our first 10 issues, sub-rosa, at the News-Letter offices, usually after midnight when no one was around. Sure, the Voice was very influential—I started reading the Voice as a 10-year-old growing up on Long Island—but also Boston’s Real Paper and the Chicago Reader were models.
YM: How long did it take before the Baltimore City Paper started to turn a profit?
RS: City Paper began as a free paper, with an ill-fated detour from ’79-’81 where we went paid, at a quarter a copy in an effort to convince advertisers it was a more serious paper. That flopped and we almost went belly-up. All the revenue came from advertising (save a modest amount of circulation revenue during the paid period). Our start-up costs, once we incorporated in ’78, were $10,000; Alan and I each scraped together $5000 from relatives. Even in ’78 dollars that was a very modest amount. We first turned a profit in ’84 and then it zoomed after that, which led to a lucrative sale of the paper in ’87.
YM: Obviously the landscape of American journalism has changed drastically in the last 30 years. What do you make of the changes that are happening—the closures, the switch to online-only publications, the New York Times spending almost twice what they’re taking in every year and running ads on the front page?
RS: First, I like ads on the front page. It’s an example of American provincialism and self-importance that it took so long for ads to be on the front page, where great European papers were decades ahead of them on that score. I can’t add anything to print journalism’s quick decline this decade—it’s well-documented that the arrogance of newspaper companies, which were accustomed to double-digit profit margins, scoffed at the digital revolution, which was apparent in the 90s, and were far too slow to adapt. Now, it’s too late. I don’t especially like the disappearance of print newspapers and magazines, but, you get used to it, just like when CDs replaced albums in the ‘80s.
YM: When you started the New York Press in 1988, what had you learned about management and publication since the Baltimore City Paper days? What did you want to do differently?
RS: When I started New York Press in ’88 I was fortunate to have more capital at my disposal. The biggest lesson I learned from the early and lean days of City Paper was how not to waste money. For example, when New York Press began, we didn’t advertise anywhere—that would be ephemeral and a waste of money on a start-up newspaper that had to evolve. Our one relatively big investment was the purchase of 300 street boxes, which served two functions: one, obviously, as a means of distributing the paper; two, it was de facto advertising, in that our logo was on the boxes. What I wanted to do differently from CP was to experiment more: obviously New York was a much harder environment for media—it was saturated with publications of all kinds, most of them really crummy—and so, with the first issue I started a column called “MUGGER,” which was economically and politically conservative, which in Manhattan was the equivalent of porn. It was a provocative column that combined politics, along with media criticism, tales of drunken nights at dive bars, memories from childhood, and, often just what popped into my head. In a sense, it was a blog.
YM: How about starting the online magazine Splice Today ? How has it been getting into the online market? And is this a concession on your part that old print journalism is dead?
RS: Yes, old print journalism is dead, but an online start-up is just as difficult as any other new business, because of the competition, the still-developing internet market, the vagaries of how to quantify readers, and the difficulty of attracting advertisers. It’s a completely different model. With weekly newspapers in one specific city, it was all fairly clear: a retailer or restaurant or health club, for example, would buy space in the paper and if it brought people into their doors they’d continue to advertise. If not, they wouldn’t. It was all local and easy to track.
YM: What advice can you offer to anyone who’s studying to be a journalist now? What kind of skills should they be learning to stay competitive and what kind of job market can they realistically expect over the next five years?
RS: The job market for aspiring journalists has never been worse, at least in my career. While there are opportunities online, the pay stinks, unless you have an established reputation. One of the great things about weekly newspapers in the past was that a 21-year-old, who didn’t have the experience to get hired at a “legitimate” publication, unless he or she were well-connected, could write like crazy and produce a body of eclectic work that would lead to better-paying jobs at dailies and magazines, although the work and atmosphere probably wasn’t as much fun.
I can’t offer any advice to young people starting out in journalism because I’m a relative dinosaur who can’t exactly decipher what the next great wave of journalism will be. It won’t disappear, and the present glut of blogs and small websites probably won’t survive the next New Journalism. But I’m betting, as I tap this out, that smart young entrepreneurs are figuring all this out, and they’ll be the ones who set the pace, not all the bitter graybeards who are pontificating about whether daily newspaper web content should be free or paid or go non-profit. All of that isn’t really germane to the future; it’ll be a new communications world and the people who are making predictions now will almost all be wrong.
Zach Kaufmann is a freelance writer and music critic at Splice Today, an alternative online publication.