Four Stories From 2014

I’m taking a page out of Jason Fagone’s book. Here are four articles of mine from 2014 that I liked the most. (And many thanks to the editors who protected me from myself, as well as to the fact-checkers who called me on bullshit.)

4. Welcome to the Uber Wars (Politico Magazine)

Over the summer, Maryland became the first state of these United States to rule that ridesharing company Uber is a transportation company, not a technology company. For opponents of ridesharing, this was a big deal. Maryland was saying, essentially, it didn’t care how “disruptive” a Silicon Valley technology company was: Uber would fall in line with Maryland state laws, or it could get out.

3. Rocket Men (Philadelphia City Paper)

When I was a kid, my dad often took me to Hibernia Park in Chester County, Pennsylvania, to launch model rockets. And while the last time I did that was probably when I was 8 years old (17 years ago now), I’ve had a fascination with model rockets ever since. So driving to a farm an hour north of Philly to watch a group of middle-aged men howl and shout as they launched 6-foot-tall rockets skyward was easily the most fun I’ve had reporting this year.

2. Remington Revival (Baltimore Sun)

For a few years now, new people and businesses have been moving into the blue-collar, working-class Baltimore neighborhood of Remington. So my assigning editor wondered whether Remington was going through a bona fide renaissance—and what people who had been living there for many, many years thought about it. The best part of this story was talking to about 20 people, all of whom are living or working in Remington.

1. The Business of Lacrosse (Baltimore Style Magazine)

Paul Rabil is the first million-dollar professional lacrosse player in the U.S., a feat he’s pulled off with huge endorsement deals, including one with Red Bull. (Not to mention he’s an imposing athlete—built like a linebacker, capable of flinging a lax ball into the net at 110 miles an hour.) This story is probably the first real profile I’ve written since leaving college, and it’s pretty special to me: It was my first magazine cover story.

To Baltimore

The 1700 block of Bolton Street, my home two of the three years I lived in Baltimore after graduating college in 2011.

On May 23, I spent my final night in Baltimore, a city I called home for seven years.* For several reasons I completed a move north the next day to Philadelphia, a city I lived outside of for the first 18 years of my life, and where I’m now seeking my next journalistic challenge with a foray into full-time freelance writing.

A few weeks have now passed, and I’ve had the chance to take stock of this change—one that’s filled me with a great deal of happiness and optimism, even as I’ve processed a profound feeling of sadness brought on by leaving a city I won’t ever stop loving. To the catharsis, then.

Two weeks before I came to Baltimore, my family moved south to Elkton, Maryland, and my home of 18 years—Coatesville, a small city about an hour to the west of Philadelphia—didn’t feel like home anymore.

My father, a native of Long Island, was compelled by a strong desire to be closer to water once again; his father, a former ad-copy man** at J. Walter Thompson, was a fisherman later in life, and he instilled in my dad a deep love for sailing. My mother, a native of Malvern, Pennsylvania, was also sold on the idea of moving to a house on the Elk River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

But the deciding factor motivating my parents to uproot themselves one year after my brother started college and 14 days before my first day at Loyola College in Maryland was the battle-cry of the Republican Party: taxes. For several years before 2007, the budget proposed by the Coatesville Area School District would have required raising property taxes on district residents by 24 percent. My parents spearheaded a movement against the tax increase. I was in junior high heading into high school at the time, far more worried about growing my hair long and playing drums in my band, but if memory serves, the campaign worked, to a degree—property taxes went up by only 10 percent.

(In some respects, I suppose, my parents were the unknowing harbingers of the 2010 national Tea Party movement. Somewhere in the ether there is news footage of my father strolling into a Coatesville City Council meeting wearing a fireman’s hat that had been adorned with hanging bags of Lipton tea; my mother, a fiery Italian woman capable of kicking your ass with her vocal cords, stood at the lectern at that particular meeting and called the city’s elected officials parasites sucking the life-blood out of the community. No doubt, dear reader, you’ve formed a fond or polemical impression of my parents depending on your political persuasion, but they are my people, and a pair I won’t apologize for having.)

All this, however, is merely backdrop. It’s the setting required to understand why I was now living in a new house only a couple weeks before I began freshman year of college—and why, for every summer following every successive year at college, save for one summer spent abroad in Cape Town, I stayed on campus.

I chose Baltimore because of the money, mainly. My choice at the end of high school was between the College of William and Mary and Loyola (since “re-designated” to Loyola University Maryland, a decision equal parts risible and misguided, if the opinion of the former editor of The Greyhound newspaper means anything anymore). Jon Stewart’s alma mater wasn’t offering any scholarship money; Loyola was. Excitement at William and Mary, I surmised, amounted to colonial Williamsburg and screaming on the Busch Gardens’ roller coasters; excitement in Baltimore, I hoped, was whatever a city could offer.

Baltimore quickly became my new home. I spent that first summer on campus bumming beer from juniors and seniors who were over 21 and heading to Camden Yards by Light Rail and taking the number 11 bus back. I walked to campus from Swallow at the Hollow with my summer roommate after being denied entry. (We were told that the bar wasn’t checking identification that night, which turned out to be false.) In mid-summer I spent several days updating a series of scavenger hunts through four different sections of the city for my job at Loyola’s community service center. I vividly remember walking through West Baltimore, around the Lexington Market area, with a good friend of mine, a black man to whom I quoted—after he asked how it felt to be surrounded by people who didn’t look like me—the Everclear song about being a scared white boy in a black neighborhood.

Over the years, I developed a fondness for Baltimore much in the same way I’ve grown to like country music.*** Which is to say, essentially, that once you realize the majority of people you will meet are friends of utility of the sort Aristotle explains in his Nicomachean Ethics, and that most other people and places and events are mere pit stops on a long journey, you begin to appreciate anything that is overwhelmingly earnest and honest. You want, even for a moment, an emotional connection so strong you can’t help but be nostalgic about it forever. I once had Alec Ross—the former senior adviser for innovation for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—tell me that Baltimore is “a real city with real people.” At the time, I thought his sentiment was boilerplate. Surely people in other cities, which are undoubtedly not inauthentic, are real, yes? Naturally a D.C. official who lives in Baltimore is going to extol his hometown during an on-the-record interview for a magazine based in Baltimore.

But Baltimore, its salient characteristic an endearing chip on a broad shoulder, a city that both loves and loathes The Wire, is real. You hate it, and you love it. You poke endless fun at the benches that read “The Greatest City in America,” and then you find an excuse to head to Fells Point on a Friday night at 11, not to be a drink-sodden belligerent, but to sit at the benches near Bond Street Wharf and let a summer breeze hit you. I think the happiest nights I had in Baltimore were those when I would walk, just walk, from my apartment in Bolton Hill to the Inner Harbor.

You discover things, like Tommy Joy, a bona fide jazz crooner, playing piano at the 13th Floor. You hear Pete Kanaras pick a guitar at Cat’s Eye. You thank Ron Scott for keeping open a joint like the Caton Castle.

You go back to Lexington Market, not because you want a hometown poverty tour, or because you’d like to lord your privilege-laden “knowledge” of a supposedly obscure neighborhood to fellow white friends, but because you just want the damn shrimp cheese steak.

You can’t go into a neighborhood like Remington spewing the word renaissance without experiencing a gut-check from old-time Baltimoreans, and, thankfully, it makes you feel a little less like a thoughtless 20-something.

And you meet people who do more for Baltimore—who push for housing policy reform, who rehab vacant properties, who teach kids just looking for a chance to be somebody—than you ever could, and it gives you hope.

I know I’m missing many, many elements in what is, admittedly, a woeful summary of a city that can’t possibly be translated into words.

From what I’ve seen so far in Philadelphia, I can tell I’m bound to love it. I won’t say, right now, that I do love it; I fear that would sound too cocksure and more than a tad disingenuous.

But I can say I love Baltimore. I always will.

I think there’s no better way to bring this modest atoning to a close than quoting, with slight modification, the ending to the short story “The Swimmers.” It was written in 1929 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man who spent five ill-fated years in Baltimore, a city whose politics and policies manage to rankle its most ardent supporters. Although Fitzgerald’s time in Baltimore was shaped by melancholy, he found in Baltimore something he lacked in his many travels: a home.

And so: New York City is a place. Washington, D.C., is a people. But Baltimore—well, Baltimore is a willingness of the heart.

*I’m certain to travel back and forth between Philadelphia and Baltimore, as the distance between them isn’t overly disagreeable, and there are still articles set in or about Baltimore that I’m still completing.

**The lore passed to me by my father is that his father, during his time at J. Walter Thompson, was responsible for writing some body of election copy for Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. The story, supposedly, is that my grandfather abruptly quit after a superior changed his copy from reading “why Dewey will win” to “why Dewey can win.” I don’t know if that’s true. What is true, however, is that Dewey didn’t win.

***Insert requisite groaning and admonition here.

Martin O’Malley 2016: The City That Breeds Dissents … Disrespectfully [Q&A]

Evan Siple and Dennis McIver are two of the better-known social media personalities of Baltimore city: Siple is the founder of The City That Breeds blog, an enterprise that takes a snark-filled approach to Baltimore culture and politics, and McIver is Twitter’s DennisTheCynic, a stalwart in the relentless fight to make a delivery mechanism for 140-character messages less like an idiot’s playground.

Since March 2013 the duo has pumped out a weekly City That Breeds podcast. Think about having an erudite discussion about education reform when someone abruptly lets out a loud, long fart, and you have an idea of the general tenor of these City That Breeds podcasts.

Dennis McIver, left, and Evan Siple.

In my role as lead reporter for Baltimore, I interviewed Siple and McIver about the podcast and a host of matters specific to Baltimore. But during our nearly hour-long chat in July, we stumbled upon the subject of whether current Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley will make a run for the U.S. presidency in 2016. Below is what followed.

AZ: What do you guys think about Martin O’Malley potentially running for president in 2016?

Evan: I really hope he does because that will give us the most content in the history of the world. I will un-endingly shit all over his campaign. I can only hope that he runs, and I don’t know. It looks like maybe.

AZ: I don’t know. I think if Hillary Clinton jumps in he’d be wise to stay out.

Dennis: Yeah.

Evan: I think he would do a test run. Test the waters in the primary. If the numbers look right, he’ll run again in another four years.

Dennis: The question for O’Malley is, his term ends in 2014, and so 2016 will really be the best shot he’ll have. Because after that, how do you keep your presence when you don’t necessarily have a podium from which to say your views? I could see him running if Hillary doesn’t. On one hand, he seems to have been angling for this since the early 2000s, you know, since he became mayor of Baltimore.

AZ: So this is why he got into politics in the first place, to your mind?

Dennis: I think he’s been preparing for it. So much of it is dependent on what happens nationally. If Clinton’s not there, he will be. Whether or not he has the ability to win with his platform and his history: I don’t know. He hasn’t polled well, but it’s only 2013.

Evan: What’s so bizarre: I hate him as governor. I stopped liking him as mayor once it was obvious that he was going to be out the door mentally and physically with the gubernatorial thing. But I think as a president, I’d hate him less, because on the national scale, I think the only thing he would do is try as hard as he could to raise taxes on the rich. And whereas you can do that in Maryland and rich people will vacate the state, people can’t move out of the United States, can they? I mean they could, but they won’t.

Dennis: Another aspect of that is the fact that his experience has been in relatively unchallenged waters. When he was mayor he got a completely Democratic city council, so they’re going to support his agenda for the most part. When he became governor he had the House of Delegates and the Senate, both of which were run by democrats and were largely directed by him. When you get to a federal level, if you’re trying to major overhaul just based on the level of strength that they have nationally, I think he’s going to have significant challenges making that transition.

AZ: Yeah, and let’s just assume he were to win in 2016. It’s not like he has a Mike Miller figure in Congress, I don’t think, who would really work with him. Who’d be amenable to working with him?

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. Photo credit: Andrew Zaleski.

Dennis: Yeah, [Maryland Senate president] Miller  is your standard conservative-style Southern Democrat. He wanted to get the gas tax passed for years and finally he and O’Malley came together and said we’re going to make this work. He was opposed to repealing the death penalty but finally sort of flipped on it.

AZ: And then, of course, O’Malley is rather pedestrian when it comes to national-level speaking engagements.

Evan: He’s awful.

Dennis: He flopped massively in 2004.

AZ: At the DNC last year, it was uninspired.

Dennis: Yeah, exactly.

Evan: His attempts at charisma are just cringeworthy.

Dennis: There’s also been this degree of hollowing from when he was mayor to when he became governor. Evan made this point to me a long time ago — when he was mayor, he was more dynamic, he was much more engaged. If he was mad about something, he let you know he was mad.

Evan: He even said himself, when he became governor, it was much easier to be the mayor because everything was immediate and local. You can engage people, whereas if he’s sitting in Annapolis and someone out in Garrett County is talking shit about him, he can’t drive out there and talk to the guy.

AZ: Have either of you ever tweeted at him?

E: The only time I ever tweeted at him he was talking about all these Orioles in the All-Star game and he was like, go O’s. I just said, ‘Don’t ever tweet about sports ever again.’

Series A Crunch? Can’t We Call It The Seed-Investment Glut?

Let’s start with what the Series A crunch is.*

For that, turn to how CB Insights defines it in its Seed Investing Report from December: “[The] Series A crunch is nothing more than excessive demand for a limited supply of Series A financings.”

Precisely. Lest we’re confused from the get-go, it’s important to know that the Series A crunch does not refer to any sort of contraction in the overall number of Series A investors doling out stacks of Benjy Franklins to cash-hungry startups.

Rather, the “crunch” represents what will happen as hordes of startups—those that have received seed rounds of financing from angel investors—find themselves chasing too few Series A dollars. Again, turn to CB Insights’ Seed Investing Report: 1,000 startups will be “orphaned” as they’re unable to raise successive rounds of investment capital following their initial seed raises.

Admittedly, this point about what “Series A crunch” means was muddled in the piece I wrote for Technically Baltimore, especially where I scoffed openly at even calling this phenomenon a Series A crunch:

“Series A crunch? Meh. What appears to be happening, rather, is that startups are starting to feel the effects of an excessive amount of poorly executed seed deals undertaken by inexperienced angel investors.”

I promise you I’m not operating under a misapprehension of what the tech world means when it says Series A crunch.

I am, however, being a curmudgeonly fuck. Let me explain.

In financial terms, a crunch is a shortage of cash or credit. We’ve already established that “Series A crunch” is a phrase that does not represent any shrinking in the overall capacity of Series A dollars. It’s not as if Thurston Howell Barnaby the Deuces is dropping dead, and therefore his $50 million in what could have been Series A funding is suddenly gone (with the appropriate amount extracted by the federal government in the form of estate taxes).

So why are we calling this phenomenon the Series A crunch instead of the Seed-Investment Glut? Or, you know, the Angel-Seed Glut? (Don’t laugh.) Or: “EXPLOSION!”

Forgive me for engaging in nothing more than a game of semantics, but I majored in English literature in college. Dissecting words, their meanings, and why certain diction is used in describing specific situations is more appealing to me than a jungle juice-soaked weekend in Vegas.

What I tried doing in my piece for Technically Baltimore was reframe the conversation. If a crunch is a shortage, then I don’t want to call this a Series A crunch. (Insert refutations by reporters/tech big-wigs—with far more experience/talent than a 24-year-old—asserting that all I’m doing is whining.)

Let’s call this something that focuses on the problem, namely: the deleterious effect had on startups when too many angel investors engage in seed deals, inflating companies’ relative worth, and, perhaps, founders’ dreams and aspirations.

Over the last four years or so, we’ve seen the volume of seed deals balloon. This “crunch” is now happening thanks to “pesky angel investors flinging dollar bills harder than Rick Ross out of a Maybach’s front, driver-side window, #LIKEABOSS.”

What that has created is an issue of supply and demand. With so many startups having received smaller rounds of seed financing, that means there are now more startups shooting for a limited amount of Series A funding. A portion of those startups are crappy startups that don’t deserve money, period.

Others, however—ones perhaps worthy of, and in need of, more investment dollars—will garner no attention from Series A investors. Which means those startups will receive no more funding. Which means those startups become subject to fortune (as well as a caffeine drip and the relative worth of whatever they’re selling). Will they make enough money to keep operating, or will they be forced to close shop? (Remember when unemployment was below 7 percent?)

CB Insights’ latest report shows that the volume of Series A deals in Q4 of 2012 increased.** So why the crunch?

Let’s pick a word that shines the spotlight on the problem: far, far too many seed deals.

*Rick Ross GIF unrelated to aforementioned crunch.

**Yes, yes, I KNOW even the smallest increase in Series A deals won’t alleviate the painful money-strapped smackdown many a startup will face as 2013 continues.

Lessons from The Greyhound

Last week I finished my tenure as Editor in Chief of The Greyhound, Loyola University Maryland’s student-run newspaper. During my time there, I served as columnist, copy editor, news staff writer, Opinions Editor, Copy Chief and Managing Editor, all before taking over as Editor in Chief in April 2010.

I inherited a paper that completed the bare minimum to put out a print product every week, an aggravating fact given the extremely privileged position in which college newspapers nationwide find themselves. (They’re niche markets, for chrissakes–no advertising falling off there.) Our stories were stale; we covered lectures, and reports on campus events were boring re-tellings of what happened. Our website was stagnant and one-dimensional; it was, essentially, an article dump. We had no social media strategy, no policy on how often staff writers needed to contribute articles, no copy editing standards (no attention to fact checking as an integral piece of copy editing), and seemingly no interest in producing articles of feature length or quality.

In a year’s time, with the help of a dedicated and talented staff, we implemented significant changes at The Greyhound, including:

  1. A website redesign and relaunch, facilitated by College Media Network and College Publisher 5 content management system.
  2. Social media presence–Facebook, Twitter–using HootSuite’s excellent dashboard interface.
  3. Ticket giveaways to concerts via our PR contacts at Rams Head Live! in Baltimore; we started off giving away two pairs of tickets to see The Roots.
  4. Full-page, color front pages, which effectively removed columns of text from the front page of our print product. (An aesthetic choice, admittedly, but one we made–despite the “tabloid” feel and association–because we didn’t think students would be more apt to pick up a large photo than columns of black and white text.)
  5. Several feature stories, in various sections of the paper, that broadened our content and coverage, and allowed us to view the print paper less as a round-up of the week’s events and instead treat it as a weekly magazine. (In other words, lectures were now online-only content, and we reserved paper space for more interesting, more in-depth coverage of other stories.) One such story, printed as an insert, was our Greyhound Guide to Baltimore.
  6. One of these feature stories, a profile on basketball player Jamal Barney, was subsequently picked as a Mark of Excellence Award winner by the Virginia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
  7. Better management of our budget, a sore spot among Greyhound staffs of old. There was no soliciting or courting of advertisers; that ended this year, as we worked with our contacts at advertising “clearing houses” like Alloy Media to pull in advertising, in addition to our own proactive efforts to contact local businesses. (For instance, after reaching out to clothing store South Moon Under with a media kit, they began an advertising campaign with us.) Beyond that, we partnered with CampusAve to streamline classified advertising placement and to take the entire process online, which allowed advertisers to use their credit card to purchase ad space. (A first at The Greyhound.)
  8. Actual copy editing, with a Greyhound style guide outlining our house style.

I make these points not in a self-aggrandizing effort, but rather to highlight the opportunities college newspapers have to truly be laboratories of journalism. Like their professional counterparts, college newspapers oftentimes stay mired in the status quo, unwilling or unable to implement substantive, innovative change.

That has to end. The new Greyhounders coming in need to view the paper–in both its print and online forms–as an incubator for journalistic creativity and innovation…

It begins with putting a premium on your online content. Divide stories into online-only and print stories. Seek to publish at least one new article each day on the website. Hire bloggers who are feisty social media junkies to write online-only content. View the website as a means by which readers can be more involved in the campus conversation. This means encouraging people to check out the site, and then being open to commenters and engaging in dialogue with them.

Photos and videos. Rinse. Repeat. All digital cameras have a record function. Thirty-second video clips of live events go a long way in enhancing a reader’s experience; iMovie software is simple enough to understand, and it’s available in the Mac labs on campus. Photo albums–ones rife with photos, and not just three or four additional shots–should assist a reader looking to grasp a better sense of the surroundings in a particular story.

Everyone is a web editor. Everyone should be on Facebook and Twitter. Every editor should be running a section blog. Every editor–and all the writers–should take their cameras to each event they attend. The new “New New Journalism” places greater emphasis on having a conversation with readers. No longer can newspapers see their audience as people they are speaking to; social media and online commenting have broken those boundaries. Get online, and get to talking to people who read The Greyhound.

Take chances. Think of stories you want to cover, and then cover them. Working for a college newspaper gives you a unique chance to mess up and not ruin yourself professionally. That isn’t to say be unethical, plagiarize, or manufacture a story or information. But it is to say that you can try out various story ideas and see if they work. You’ll never learn otherwise.

Finally: have one editor learn WordPress, teach it to the other editors, and then make the switch. Because WordPress is open source, newsrooms have greater flexibility to create, manipulate, and transform their online operations, without the hassle of negotiating through a third-party organization. That, and WordPress is simple enough for everyone to use and infinitely more cost-efficient given College Media Network’s new pricing plan. Look for newspaper WordPress themes online, and let the gears start churning.

As pithy as this sounds, making the above changes isn’t going to easy, but it will be rewarding in the long run. Not only will you put out a better Greyhound, but you’ll cultivate skills on a level of creativity that is absolutely vital to the newsrooms of today.

And always remember: When the going gets tough, you can always keep drinking.

You Can’t ‘Return’ Players

It has been roughly two months since I began my foray into the world of semi-professional copy editing at the Baltimore Sun. (I say semi-professional because I’m just an intern.) But certain points of journalistic writing and style aggravate the hell out of me.

The latest is a classic example of the type of “journalese” that John McIntyre — witty, bespectacled, curmudgeonly veteran of the Baltimore Sun‘s copy desk — verbally trounces … I think.

“The [insert team's name] return [insert player's name] for a second season.”

E.g.: The Eagles return Mike Vick for a second season.

Two points to note here:

1. In journalism, I’ve been taught writers should probably write more colloquially than “journalistically.” Saying “Sen. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)” is always more clunky than saying “Democratic Sen. Steny Hoyer,” or “Maryland’s Democratic Sen. Steny Hoyer.” As a journalist, your job is to disseminate information in a logical, organized and easily digestible format.

2. Still, I have never heard even the most avid sports-buff friends of mine use “return” as a verb in the above context. People will say “Mike Vick is coming back for a second season,” or “Mike Vick returns for a second season,” or “Mike Vick will be returning,” but never do I hear people say “The Eagles return Mike Vick.” My next question, upon hearing that, is to ask where they are returning him. To the supermarket? The department store? Outside the NFL draft, is there a special store that houses players in hermetically-sealed packaging before throwing them on an AstroTurf field to live their lives in states of football-induced concussive bliss?

Yell all you want, but this is my blog, dammit.

Marks of Excellence

I won a pair of Region 2 Mark of Excellence Awards for student journalists. The awards are given out by the Society of Professional Journalists in a variety of categories.

The first award is for a non-fiction magazine article, which I won for my College magazine story, “Getting Under Annmarie Nitti’s Skin: It’s More Than Swimsuits and Lingerie for This College Model.” Read that story here.

The second award is for feature writing, which I co-wrote with Rich Conforti. We won for our Greyhound newspaper profile, “Who is Jamal Barney? From the Blacktops of Baltimore to the Hardwood of Reitz Arena, Jamal Barney is on His Game.” Read that story here.