Dagger takes its own stab at journalism

The Baltimore Sun

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.

"It set the tone for us," Goodman says. "Everyone was mad at us, including us at each other. But I'm glad we did it. It established us. People in Aberdeen to this day mention it to me."

Cindy Mumby, 49, a former stockbroker, mother of two and PTA leader, is the non-journalist involved - and her role shatters any notion of an impartial journalist. She covers education, but for years has voiced strong opinions on the very issues she now writes about, from changes in grading policies to switching to an elected school board from an appointed one.

"It's given me a broader audience instead of just folks at my own PTA," Mumby says. "My heart skips a beat when I think there's a story that needs to be told."

Like volunteer firefighters, this new, growing breed of news writers, in many cases, has other day jobs. The trend doesn't get as much attention as other pressures on the newspaper industry, such as free classified advertising Web sites. But if thousands of doctors or lawyers suddenly hit the street and began offering their services for free - some trained, some not, some good, some bad - it'd have a mighty effect on medicine and the legal profession, too.

"They love to write and to be read and for some of these people, it's their only chance to ever do that," said Simmons, the ex-mayor. "It's an offshoot of why we don't have to pay cops [extra] if they like to carry their guns off-duty."

Simmons, who was known to raise some eyebrows as Aberdeen's "gun-toting" mayor himself, said even he was taken aback by a photo on the site a year ago of Goodman bearing a shoulder-to-shoulder tattoo of "The Dagger" logo. "God help him," he said, "if they ever change the name."

Goodman said he did get his arms tattooed with daggers, inspired by the Web site. But he said he photoshopped the image of the logo across his back and posted it as a joke.

"Sorry to disappoint," said Goodman, a self-described admirer of "gonzo journalist" Hunter Thompson, "but I'm not that crazy. Yet."

State Sen. Barry Glassman, who has commented on The Dagger's "message boards," said he thinks the site's reporting is fair and professional, although he acknowledged that its education reporter has been heavily involved in pushing for an elected school board even as she reports on the issue.

"If you're on the school board, I can see where you'd suddenly think The Dagger has got your number, but they're as balanced as anything, at least on the reporting," said Glassman.

Harford school board member Mark Wolkow said he considers most of The Dagger's content opinionated and hasn't looked at it for months.

"I don't think you have to go much further than the title of the [Web site] to figure out the intent," he said. "It speaks for itself."

Goodman doesn't know, or seem to care, where his Web creation will lead. But he got an inkling that it had arrived months ago when he was at a flea market wearing a Dagger sweatshirt he'd made.

"A lady pointed to her husband and yelled, 'The Dagger Web site, The Dagger Web site,' " Goodman recalled, still amazed at the moment. "I don't think any of us will quit our day jobs for it, but if we bring in some ads, it'd be nice to have some shirts I didn't make."

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