RNN cover

RNN cover

It was Reagan who lied to us first.

The "us" is a room of about 30 people, overwhelmingly of the Millennial set. We're gathered in Highlandtown listening to a panel of CEOs, nonprofit founders, artists, and students talk about what they're doing to make Baltimore City a better place, the sort of easy, hopeful rhetoric that, at least at tonight's event, is supposed to go unchallenged. One gets the feeling that Paul Jay, the founder, CEO, and senior editor of the Real News Network, feels especially sorry for the folks in attendance in their 20s and early 30s. Because in his calculation, they've been lied to virtually their entire lives.

Ronald Reagan's policies meant to ensure wealth trickled down to poor Americans? "That was a lie," he says. Bill Clinton, who, when he wasn't philandering, steadily deregulated Wall Street in the name of U.S. economic growth? "There was growth, but it turned out to be a fraud; it turned out to be a bubble. And that was a lie," Jay says. We were lied to about the reasons for 9/11. ("You were told that 9/11 happened because some people hate democracy and it has nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy.") We were lied to about the reasons for waging war in Iraq. ("Everybody knows what that lie was.") We were lied to when we were told that protections have been put in place to prevent another economic crash similar to what happened in 2008.

"You are the generation that has had the most access to information in history," Jay says. "And you're also the generation that may have been the most lied to in history."

And then Jay, a middle-aged man of dual citizenship-a mother from Chicago, a father from Montreal-makes his main point: Complicit in this web of lies is a credulous mainstream news media, largely controlled by corporate interests as a result of its dependence on advertising revenue, that practices a kind of self-censorship to preserve access and keep the checks rolling in. What's needed, therefore, is a new media outlet whose interests lie with everyday people and whose economic model "rewards going where the facts go, no matter the consequences," Jay says. For him, that means financial dependency on viewers, readers, and listeners, and not on advertising.

Enter the Real News Network, an independent, nonprofit, online outlet that, since its founding in the middle of the last decade, has focused on producing five-to seven-minute video reports. Drivers cruising downtown on I-83 have probably seen the network's sign on the north side of the old C.J. Youse Building, on Holliday Street. In April,they also took over the adjacent building, the former location of the Brink's armored car company, blocks away from the Baltimore Sun and in the shadows of City Hall.

The mission, according to Jay, is to practice investigative journalism about Baltimore's problems-crime, a deteriorating public education system, and the privatization of public housing, to start-report on people and groups formulating potential solutions, and then host town hall-style debates that bring together academics, policy wonks, and everyday residents to talk about possible fixes.

"People are very focused on their city, and there's no television worth watching about it," Jay says during a tour of the Real News Network's 35,000-square-foot, partly renovated space in May. "We want to become the mainstream media for Baltimore."

But that's only one part of why an Internet media outlet initially focused on international news has since become an Internet broadcast network dedicated to local reporting. Funding from foundations and small donations from loyal followers-a move to make the operation reliant on "ordinary people," Jay says, for its livelihood-never totaled enough to create a truly global media network when Real News began doing daily news in fall 2007. After five years of experimentation, Jay recalibrated, pivoted the network to local news, and landed on Charm City as the pilot site. He believes he can export Real News to Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and more cities if this model of people-funded reporting works in Baltimore. And with a full-time staff of 16, a brand new media center, and a collaboration with local public radio powerhouse Marc Steiner, all Jay has to do now is persuade everyday Baltimoreans to tune in.

"They thought Baltimore was the perfect place to tell stories about urban America," Steiner says one afternoon in late April. "They wanted us to work with them. So we did; we are."

But finding a way for independent local news to pay for itself is something Jay is still figuring out. As a documentary filmmaker for more than 30 years, producing and directing films including Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, about former World Wrestling Federation superstar Bret Hart, and Return to Kandahar, about a woman's search for her childhood friend in Afghanistan, Jay worked with budgets of more than $1 million, a sizable sum for one-off video projects.

When he launched Independent World Television in 2005, the first version of what would become the Real News Network, he had about $4 million in startup funding from several big donors, including the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, but was well shy of the $25 million mark he was hoping to get to compete immediately with cable television stations.

"The original plan was to create a real, full-fledged television network that could contend with cable news," he says. "The idea was, if you had 500,000 people donating $10, you start getting those kinds of numbers."

Jay readily admits Real News didn't see anything in the vicinity of $25 million. In 2013, the Real News Network raised just above $1.2 million, according to numbers provided by the network, with almost all of that going to news-producing costs. A little less than $440,000 came from individual donors, while the rest came from several foundations. (The $3 million for the two buildings Real News occupies on Holliday Street was provided by the Delaware-based Quitiplas Foundation; Real News has a 99-year lease at both spaces and pays $10 a year, the stipulation being it continues to produce its news programming.) Three or four online fundraisers are held per year to raise money, Jay says; as of press time, Real News had raised $31,000 of its goal to clear $150,000 by June 22.

It's certainly not the first, or only, independent media in town. The Baltimore Brew, written mostly by newspaper industry veterans Fern Shen and Mark Reutter, has been around for several years, and takes the credit for breaking news in one of the coverage areas Jay says the Real News is looking to explore: the decision by Baltimore Housing to privatize the city's public housing.

But the Real News Network is certainly the largest such outlet in Baltimore, even though it's been headquartered here for barely two months. Close to $700,000 went to newsroom costs in 2013. The nonprofit has a full-time person based in Jerusalem filing two stories per week. Six days a week, about an hour of new, original programming is uploaded to the Real News website (therealnews.com). This year could be the breakout year Jay has been hoping for, as Real News recently signed a contract with Comcast to be available on demand in 8 million houses across the Northeast; another 5 million homes have Real News' content available to them via Roku, a tiny box for streaming video that allows people to port online videos for viewing on their home televisions.

The model for news coverage-video reports coupled with town hall-style events in a 125-seat soundproof studio equipped with a green screen, as well as the tech for livestreaming to the Internet and eight-camera switching-appears to borrow from Jay's time producing an hourlong debate show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 10 years. Based on his description, FaceOff, which gave birth to CounterSpin in 1998, sounds like the thinking man's version of CNN's Crossfire. It consisted of multiple guests crowded around a debating table, as opposed to Crossfire's format of two co-hosts and two debaters, and every episode was filmed in front of a live audience that routinely consisted of everyday citizens and professionals with knowledge of the debate topic. If the program one night was devoted to healthcare policy, for example, doctors, nurses, and health policy experts were in the first two audience rows.

"It was witty and smart, but we had a rule," Jay says. "To be a guest on the show, you had to know what you were talking about-so we almost never booked politicians."

The show went off the air in 2004, but it had revealed two factors crucial to Jay's thinking about news produced for a mass audience. The first was his growing disdain for assigning editors who he says "did not have an agenda of producing meaningful television," favoring instead programs with a more sensationalistic, almost reality-TV-like bent.

The other, according to Jay: "the capitulation of American news organizations post-9/11." He characterizes American newsrooms immediately following 9/11 as wracked by fear, worried about being labeled unpatriotic if they questioned the reasons for fighting in Afghanistan and, later, Iraq.

"When [then-president George W. Bush] says you're with us or against us, well, we can debate that," Jay says. Three days after 9/11, CounterSpin spent the full hour debating blowblack, the idea that U.S. foreign policy is a direct cause of terrorist attacks against the U.S. in the 21st century.

But Jay identifies the economic model of cable television newsrooms as more problematic than any fear, real or perceived, on the part of the journalists working inside them.

"If you're advertising-dependent, and thus ratings-dependent, if you're owned by a big conglomerate that therefore has to report to shareholders, if you're fundamentally a profit-driven enterprise . . . it's about the economic model," he says, summing up his feelings about current cable news wherever it's found in the U.S. in one question: "Are you working in a news organization that has funding that's independent of many of these kinds of forces so that you can reward people for going wherever the facts lead?"

Looking around Baltimore, Jay's skeptical of what he sees. His online pitch for the Real News Network's current fundraising drive calls local TV news "influential on the whole" before saying, "its journalistic standards are extremely low . . . it turns tragedy into infotainment. It dehumanizes victims and perpetrators. It shuns historical and social context and avoids seeking effective solutions."

From his second-floor office overlooking Holliday Street, Jays says, "When it comes to broadcast, Baltimore's a desert. There's no independent broadcast media here at all." Local news, in general, is "horrendous."

"I don't think that's a fair statement," says JoAnne Broadwater, a visiting instructor at Towson University and a former staff reporter for The Baltimore Sun from the 1970s until the early 1980s, when she switched over to a full-time freelancing career but continued to contribute to The Sun.

"Everything has to be in the context of the fact that the news business is having growing pains right now," she says. "I think it's struggling to find its place, but I think the news is there."

Nick Alexopulos, who was an investigative producer at FOX45 for five years and is now associate director of media relations at Loyola University Maryland, says Baltimore is actually stronger in investigative journalism than a lot of other cities. He cites his former colleagues at FOX45, such as Joy LePola, as well as others like WBAL reporter Jayne Miller.

"There is a fair amount of, I would say, exceptional enterprise reporting that is done in this market particularly," he says.

"It is a huge risk to do [enterprise reporting] in local television news, because if it's a story that needs three minutes and more detail, and that story falls flat, the financial consequences are huge because every minute of airtime is worth so much money," he says. "Just by virtue of the fact that these stations have continued to do that speaks volumes to their commitment to journalism."

Marc Steiner, who will tape radio segments for Real News Network to air but won't be leaving his eponymous weekday morning radio show on Morgan State University's public radio station WEAA, has a slightly different take from Jay's. The question, he says, isn't one of whether Baltimore is certifiably lacking in media outlets committed to daily, local reporting.

Instead, Steiner argues, Real News can provide coverage that he and Jay both see as speaking to working-class black and Hispanic residents, the people who oftentimes don't live in neighborhoods along the white "L" of Baltimore: Roland Park, Hampden, and Guilford in the north; downtown, the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill in the south; and along Harbor East, Fells Point, Patterson Park, and Canton to the east.

"It's important to cover things like Harbor Point," says Steiner. "But what has to be done alternatively is to think about whose needs are not being met and how do you meet those needs, and what's a different way of thinking about how you put a city together."

Steiner has his own office at Real News headquarters next door to a state-of-the-art recording studio where he will tape radio segments. "Real News can bring people together in a town meeting space that don't ordinarily meet. We want to collaborate with them on that, and focus on the city in ways that haven't happened before," he says.

As Jay puts it: "We try to answer the question: If you ran Maryland and Baltimore in the interest of the majority of its people, what does that public policy look like?"

The more regular programming won't kick off until the fall, he says, but already the Real News Network is covering one or two Baltimore stories a week, including video reports on the workers' strike at the Johns Hopkins University's medical campus and a four-part series on gentrification in the city.

Framing its news reporting as a matter of covering what policy decisions are best for Baltimore's everyday citizens would seem to make Real News more of an actor in its journalism than, say, The Baltimore Sun would be.

"I feel like we try to make what's happening here in Washington digestible and relatable for people. We want to get into the policy," says Jessica Desvarieux, a full-time reporter with Real News for almost three years who covers national politics in D.C. three days out of the week and spends her other two days in the Baltimore office. When City Paper gets her on the phone in late May, she's in the U.S. capital covering the global fast-food workers' strike to raise burger-flippers' minimum wage to $15 an hour. "I try to balance trying to get a face for the person who would be directly impacted by this, as well as the policy of what lawmakers are doing or not doing about the situation."

"We're here to answer the question of what's best for the well-being of the majority of people," Jay says.

Advocacy journalism might be stretching the description of what Real News is setting itself up to become, despite Jay's insistence that the network, through events like town hall debates, is "hoping we can play a role unfolding that kind of policy" that promotes the interests of the "majority of people" in Baltimore. For Real News, that inevitably means the working classes. While the network isn't interested in carrying water for Democrats-Jay says that some foundations that approach the nonprofit about donating want them "to be the left wing of the Democratic Party"-it's undeniable the network's political ideology skews left. Over iced coffee at Artifact in Hampden in late April, Steiner admits as much: "It slants left, clearly."

"Every media outlet understands its interests," Jay says. "We're here for our own interests. We're ordinary people, and we're living [in Baltimore]. Nobody likes living in this kind of paralyzed politics, meaning you can't actually solve much of anything. . . . And the people who aren't benefiting can't get organized and haven't been able to find a way to assert their interests. So Real News, we're with them-and we deliberately create an economic model that makes us dependent on them."

In other words, creating a nonprofit model for supporting the journalism the Real News Network does goes beyond the perhaps naïve idealism of throwing off the yoke of The Man with his corporate-company advertisement buys; it also means that the Real News can do journalism that openly acknowledges its opinion or perspective on the minimum wage or healthcare.

"This is a class society, and you cannot make news for all audiences equally," Jay says. "We've chosen to make our news for ordinary people."

If there's a conceit that lies in naming a network the Real News, it's this idea that peers of Jay's network-The Baltimore Sun, the major cable TV networks in town, the City Paper-are engaging in simple stenography, the he said-she said balancing act of purportedly objective reporting that covers the same people, the same places, and the same events continually.

"You don't hear the voices of working-class black people, other working-class people, in this town," Steiner says. "Just that dynamic forces a change in how we cover things, how you view things, how you think about things. . . . It forces people to address things. It maybe even builds a new political dynamic."

Jay maintains that, as journalists, it's not up to the Real News Network to have a hand in organizing anything like a new political movement, or to help agitate directly for something like an increase in the minimum wage. But the spine of the news he and his reporters are looking to produce-something that's more analytical and contextual, that asks not only why Baltimore city recorded 235 murders in 2013, but also what can be done to curb the violence-is wholly dependent on creating conversations among people and organizations in Baltimore that don't often see the limelight, who aren't always quoted in crime stories, and who might not be the people the city's other reporters, not to mention political leaders, immediately seek out for comment.

"What do people need from us? Verifiable, uncompromising journalism," he says.

Whether it changes much of anything for Baltimore's residents remains to be seen. But if Paul Jay can pull off the type of reporting he says he wants the Real News Network to do, he can at least tell Millennials he didn't offer them a basket of lies.