Since Jan. 13, when City Paper mistakenly reported that the City of Baltimore awarded a $10,000, one-year contract to the online publication Bmore, new information has come to light about the deal, which was pulled from the Jan. 13 Board of Estimates agenda at the last minute. First Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank, answering questions as to how the proposal got on the board's agenda in the first place, explains that Bmore publisher Tracy Gosson pitched the idea. Gosson says that seeking public financing is part of Bmore's business model.
"I was approached by Bmore to consider financial support," Frank writes in a series of e-mails, explaining that the approach came in the form of a phone call from Gosson. "I don't remember the details of the pitch," he adds, but "[Gosson] didn't hound me or over-pitch." As a result, he continues, "I asked the [city] agencies to consider the request" and the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) responded.
Once the deal between DHCD and Bmore neared fruition late last year, Frank recalls conferring with city budget officials and concluding that "given our budget situation, the expenditure was not an appropriate use of general funds. Nor, in retrospect, did we think it was appropriate to support a media outlet. We withdrew this permanently in December, but it was resubmitted mistakenly" and ended up on the Jan. 13 agenda until just prior to the board's meeting.
"I take responsibility for suggesting the $10,000 grant to BMore," Frank concludes, "and I am responsible for withdrawing it. In the words of John Kerry, 'I was for it before I was against it.'"
Mayor Sheila Dixon's spokesman, Scott Peterson, echoes Frank when responding to City Paper's inquiries about the contract, saying it was removed from the Board of Estimates agenda because, in addition to budget constraints, "it's inappropriate for us to be funding a media outlet." DHCD spokeswoman Cheron Porter uses almost exactly the same words as Frank and Peterson in another e-mail to City Paper about the yanked proposal.
Gosson confirms that she pitched obtaining city funding to Frank and says that partnering with government—or any other organization that wants to help fund Bmore—is her media outlet's business model. "Government, a lot of the time, are partners of ours," Gosson explains in a Jan. 18 phone conversation, referring to Detroit-based Issue Media Group (IMG), which Bmore is part of, "because there is a lot of good news out there that we want to report, and government wants to support that. We don't hide what kind of publication we are, so if someone finds that our lens is skewed by this, then maybe they won't read us."
Experts on journalistic ethics, however, say asking for taxpayer funding presents a bit of a quandary for independent media outlets like Bmore. Stephen J. A. Ward, founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says Bmore's public-financing request "is a problem if Bmore is pretending to do journalism. That's a problem for a media outlet, if your boss is asking for money from people you're covering. And it's a problem for the writers—they have to ask themselves 'How independent can we be?'"
On the other hand, Kelly McBride, the Poynter Institute's Ethics Group Leader, says it isn't always a problem—it depends on how the process of obtaining public funding is executed.
"There are journalism sites and newsrooms around the country that are getting some form of government money," McBride points out. "The question is, how do you maintain your independence? How you ask and what you ask for are very, very important. You have to be certain of your values, and be sure the funders understand those values. That's usually accomplished in an application process. But simply going to a government official and saying, 'Hey, we need money,' that creates a quid pro quo. Who knows what the unspoken expectations are? The process on this one sounds like it was incredibly flawed."
Gosson, though, sticks to her guns. "It's a model that has worked," she says of IMG's seeking government funds, "and we are just as objective as other media outlets. All the partners are on the same page—you don't buy any coverage whatsoever, and no partners see articles before they are published. It's just a different approach to information, something that doesn't play to the constant negativity that the media usually provides. We've been talking with the city about partnering for about a year and half, and they just really liked the kind of stuff we're writing and they wanted to support it."
Ultimately, though, given City Hall's explanation for why the Bmore proposal was withdrawn—that it was "inappropriate"—skepticism prevailed.