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'Baltimore' magazine gets change of ownership


The tumultuous reign of Susan Souders Obrecht as president of Baltimore magazine ended yesterday as Stephen A. Geppi, the comic book king from Little Italy, bought the publication for an undisclosed sum.

The sale to Mr. Geppi, who founded Diamond Comic Distributors in Timonium and built it into the largest company in the business, lTC followed negotiations that have been continuing for at least four months, said Ms. Souders Obrecht, chief executive of ESS Ventures Inc.

Mr. Geppi said yesterday that he would move to beef up the editorial content of the 87-year-old city magazine, which has shrunk since a staff cutback in the summer of 1993. ESS says the current circulation is 50,000.

The new owner said he will be making changes in the editorial direction of Baltimore, his first venture into publishing outside the comic book business.

"I have a very distinctive idea. I don't want to disclose it yet. I want to leave a little surprise element," the 44-year-old executive said in an interview yesterday afternoon.

"Baltimore magazine can and should be a celebration of Baltimore," said Mr. Geppi, a Little Italy native who has lived in the Baltimore area all his life.

Ms. Souders Obrecht said yesterday that she and her partners in ESS Ventures had been able to turn around the company's fortunes since they acquired the magazine in 1992 from Capital Gazette Communications Inc. of Annapolis.

Disputing earlier printed reports that her group had paid $4 million for the magazine, Ms. Souders Obrecht put the 1992 price at $1 million to $3 million. She said ESS was able to recover its full purchase price in the sale to Mr. Geppi.

"It is profitable. We have margins north of 12 percent." said Ms. Souders Obrecht, who will remain as a consultant to the magazine. She added that the company had "basically zero debt" at the time of the sale.

The sale ends a colorful but wrenching chapter in the magazine's history. Ms. Souders Obrecht sacked much of the staff when ESS acquired Baltimore.

"When she first got here it was terrifying. It was clear that she was going to fire mostly everybody," said former senior editor Mark Cohen, now with Philadelphia magazine. "Then it was fun for a while. She brought in some good people. . . . She pumped more money into it until the money ran out."

Recent turmoil at the magazine has included the suspension of editor Ramsey Flynn. Mr. Flynn confirmed that he had been told to remain at home, with pay, for the past month, after Ms. Souders Obrecht objected to his being quoted in a Sun article on the possible sale.

Mr. Flynn's exile will apparently end with the change of ownership. "He will be back to work," Mr. Geppi said.

Mr. Geppi's acquisition of the magazine could pose questions of editorial independence because of his considerable business interests here, notably his minority interest in the Orioles.

The new owner said yesterday that he saw no conflict of interest. Asked whether Baltimore would be able to report on stories about the Orioles front office, Mr. Geppi replied, "I don't rule anything out of what we can do in the magazine."

Mr. Geppi said he plans no repeat of the purge that took place after ESS bought the publication. He said that when Diamond has acquired other comic book companies he has often left the present staff in place.

He said the magazine will be owned by a new company in which he is the only partner -- Rosebud Entertainment L.L.C., named after the dying publisher Charles Foster Kane's last word in "Citizen Kane."

In a separate announcement, Ms. Souders Obrecht announced the formation of a new venture, based in New York, to offer consulting services and to acquire media properties in the nation's top 10 markets. She said her current partners in ESS would be involved in the new venture. They include Baltimore venture capitalist Frank Bonsal, advertising executive Herb Fried and T. Rowe Price Associates, she said.

"We're all staying in. . . . This is exactly what we've been planning to do all along," she said.

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