They Were Young, They Were Low-Paid, and They Went On to Change Journalism

By Jack Limpert

In my second issue at The Washingtonian, back in April 1969, we ran a lively little piece, “Ben, Where Are You Hiding the Women’s Section?” It laid out how executive editor Ben Bradlee had dismantled the Washington Post’s venerable Women’s section, replacing it with the Style section, which the Post’s managing editor, Gene Patterson, said would be full of “highly gifted talent” and attract younger readers. In the next 40-plus years, we ran hundreds of pieces on the Post—big stories about Bradlee, Katharine Graham, Len Downie, and Don Graham, lots of smaller pieces, and a monthly PostWatch column that readers loved and Post editors hated.

But we almost never wrote about the Washington Monthly or the Washington City Paper, and looking back we missed what was most interesting about them. Both, in very different ways, have changed journalism.

Charlie Peters started the Washington Monthly in January 1969 to help readers “understand our system of politics and government, where it breaks down, why it breaks down, and what can be done to make it work.” At the time, Charlie was 43, a West Virginia lawyer, and for the previous six years he’d been director of evaluation at the Peace Corps.

Maybe the smartest thing  he did was to establish a pipeline to Harvard. Charlie hired very bright graduates willing to work at low pay: among them James Fallows (Harvard class of 1970), Michael Kinsley (1972), David Ignatius (1973), Nick Lemann (1976), Jonathan Alter (1979), and Tim Noah (1980). Those six, plus other Washington Monthly alums Jon Meacham (The University of the South), Taylor Branch (North Carolina and Princeton), Katharine Boo (Barnard), James Bennet (Yale), and Joe Nocera (Boston University), form probably the most influential group of journalists ever to get started at one publication.

If the Washington Monthly heavy hitters mostly come out of Harvard and other top colleges, how would you describe the Washington City Paper influentials: Jack Shafer (Western Michigan), David Carr (University of Minnesota), Erik Wemple (Hamilton College), and  Andrew Beaujon (Virginia Commonwealth)?

Shafer, editor from 1985 to 1995,  and Carr, editor from 1995 to 2000, made the City Paper something special: smart, fearless, and controversial. Shafer went on to Slate and now is the media watcher at Reuters; Carr almost needs no introduction—he’s at the New York Times and is the nation’s number one media analyzer and critic. Then came Wemple, now covering the media for the Washington Post, and Beaujon, now the top media reporter at Poynter. Other ex-editors at the City Paper include Michael Shaffer, now at the New Republic running its digital side, and Mike DeBonis, who covers local government and politics for the Washington Post. Influential City Paper alums also include the aforementioned Katharine Boo and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a rising star at the Atlantic. And then there’s Jake Tapper, who made his first big splash with a City Paper piece about a date with Monica Lewinsky—he has just moved from ABC to CNN and is probably the highest paid of anyone mentioned here.

I follow Shafer, Carr, Wemple, and Beaujon on Twitter and think of them as the City Paper Mafia—they retweet one another and  come close to dominating the world of media criticism (pausing to be thankful that Jim Romenesko, since 1999 the liveliest media writer of them all, is still hard at work and keeping everyone honest).

The New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, and Washington Post all have lots of distinguished alums, but most got started somewhere else. Can anyone match the Washington Monthly and the Washington City Paper for hiring so many big talents for so little money and then watching them become well-known and influential journalists?

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