Washington City Paper Alumni Look Back on 41 Years of Print Issues and Memories

From a story on washingtoncitypaper.com by Caroline Jones headlined “City Paper alumni look back on 41 years  of print issues and memories”:

By my count, I’ve had a hand in producing roughly 450 print issues of Washington City Paper since I joined its staff as the City Lights editor in the fall of 2012. Several stand out for reasons good and bad—massive Best of D.C. books that had us working around the clock, stories we knew we’d beaten our competitors to, an issue sent to the printer so late that we feared it might not come out. The rest ebbed back into the ocean after cresting on Wednesday nights.

From a technical standpoint, my generation of City People has a significantly easier time producing print issues than our predecessors did, assembling our issues with trackpads and keyboard commands while they used knives and paste. In the paper’s nascent days, when it was still produced in Baltimore, the staff sent pages and materials back and forth on a massive fax machine. That was an improvement, former publisher Amy Austin says, over the previous method: On Monday nights, she used to deliver the necessary files to the Greyhound bus station, where they would be ferried north.

Print issues were commodities. Readers grabbed them from delivery drivers before they could even drop off a stack at a business or a street box. The need for news, for criticism, for event listings, for classified ads, or a good story was immediate, and the internet has only expanded that pleasure center.

In my time at City Paper, the issues shrunk. Advertisers moved online and found ways to reach the specific audiences they were looking for. Competitors arrived on the scene, offering their own irreverent takes on life in the District. Still we pushed forward, filing dispatches on abandoned car parts, shameless developers, and the characters entering and exiting the Wilson Building. Newer annual issues, such as the Answers Issue and the People Issue, still demanded a place on a coffee table or in your hand at a coffee shop.

And then came a novel coronavirus, the enemy of almost everything but especially independent arts venues. We muddled through what we hoped was the worst of it, but eventually had to face a harsh reality: Our advertisers and many of our readers are elsewhere. We meet readers in their email inboxes more frequently than we meet them on the street. A bar that hosts live music is most focused on paying its staff right now.

So this is the last regular print edition of Washington City Paper you will see. In the weeks leading up to this issue, I found myself thinking about those departed characters whose shadows hang over the institution. Of Jim Graham, the AIDS advocate and former Ward 1 councilmember who would register his complaints every week without fail but still stop by a holiday party. Of Marion Barry, the main character of D.C.’s home rule era and of countless City Paper stories, who transformed the District in so many ways. Of Michael Mariotte, the punk-rock drummer who decided to kick this whole thing off. Of David Carr, the tough but transformational leader whose wisdom on craft and reporting are still being passed down to generation after generation of aspiring writers. What would they say? (Carr, I’m guessing, would tell us to keep working.)

In the pages that follow, you’ll read stories from the extended network of people who honed their skills by covering community meetings or entering event listings and forged friendships over cheap beer and Cheez-Its. Those relationships and the respect for one another kept City Paper going through 41 years of late nights, periods of financial instability, and fears over getting everything right.

“Early on, Jack Shafer laid out the stakes: If you get it wrong and we print it, every person in this place will lose her job,” City Paper alum Katherine Boo tells me. “All the sentences I’ve written since have been informed by that terror.”

Washington City Paper will still be around, albeit in digital formats and with a smaller staff. And we will still do our damnedest to get it right

Michael Schaffer

The thing newbies always talked about was the sex workers in the lobby. In those days, City Paper was thick with classifieds and personals and ads for “adult services.” Pre-web, buyers would purchase the ads in person, lining up in high heels and tiny skirts at the front counter on Champlain Street NW. Just another day at an alt-weekly in the time of robust staffs, big circulation, and 180-page print papers every Thursday.

In a lot of ways, the writers were the least oddball people in the place. In the ’90s, production—that’s the people who paste up the book, kids—was full of creatives and music-scene people, folks who would drop work to go off on tour. We editorial types, by contrast, were postcollegiate and conventionally ambitious and really cared about our day jobs. And most of us realized that we’d landed at a place where those ambitious could take wing. When I first started contributing to the paper, there was a murderers’ row of talent around the place: Eddie Dean and David Plotz and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Amanda Ripley and Brad McKee and Jason Cherkis and Stephanie Mencimer and Erik Wemple and a bunch of other people much smarter than me. On Wednesday nights, when we closed the print issue, the cover story author would go out and fetch beer and snacks. The next morning, when the papers arrived, the office would be quiet except for the rustling pages. I thought, naively, that all journalism jobs were like this: A team of wiseasses dissecting the task of writing, working extra hard because I didn’t want to disappoint them.

At the center of it all was David Carr, the editor. I started writing for the paper not long after he showed up from Minnesota, and he hired me full-time in 1997. At first, I had a seat right by his office, where the walls were so thin that I could hear him working stories and cajoling sources and pushing back at angry callers. It was great eavesdropping: The time a community activist called to complain about being called an “asshole” (after listening to the guy for a while, Carr rang off by saying, “Ya know, Stu, you really are an asshole”). Or the time an overwrought D.C. councilmember called to complain that no one praised all the sacrifices he made for the city (“So quit!” Carr responded). Once I made the mistake of filing a story that used the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” “I am disappointed that you think this is acceptable language for Washington City Paper,” he said, before changing it to an elaborate metaphor involving Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Chicago Fire.

The thing is, the tough-love schtick worked: He made amazing papers. “Our job is to restore consequence,” he would say, exhorting watchdog coverage of a dysfunctional government that had just been taken over by a Congressional control board. Still, while people feel proudest of accountability coverage, the nice thing about a weekly was that the package had to include other things: Zany headline puns (“I’m OK. Eurotrash.”), goofy comics, unnecessary Shakespearean references in the Loose Lips column, and News of the Weird. Oh, and downright beautiful pieces of literary journalism: We regularly did cover stories that ran 8,000 words. We needed them to keep the ads apart.

Eventually, the staff had grown enough that we took over an extra floor of the building. I got promoted to be Carr’s deputy. Writers left, new writers came. Part of Carr’s spiel when hiring was that he couldn’t pay much, but if we were who we said we were, he eventually wouldn’t be able to afford us. That’s what happened with me. I left in 2000, and it felt like graduating.

Ten years later I came back—as editor. The return was a bit like reencountering an old friend who had aged dramatically. The personality was the same, but the body had withered. The intervening years had seen Craigslist decimate classifieds and voicey local blogs collect audiences who might once have been alt-weekly devotees. If you showed up early to meet a friend at a bar, you could now pull out your phone to pass the time, instead of picking up the paper from one of the racks that used to be ubiquitous at restaurants. City Paper had been sold, then gone bankrupt, and was now owned by the investment fund that had fronted the money. On Champlain Street, we had long since given up that extra floor. The sex workers, if they bought ads at all, were doing so online. The staff was about half the size it had been. The book size my first week back was 72 pages, on smaller paper. It would soon dwindle further.

But that personality! Still smart-alecky and ambitious and eager to stir shit up. I found myself learning a ton from the rising stars: Alan Suderman, who wrote Loose Lips, Lydia DePillis, who covered real estate, Jon Fischer, who edited arts, and Shani Hilton, who helmed City Desk.

As editor, I tried to reestablish some of the print hallmarks, like a big weekly cover story, on the logic that we shouldn’t give up our strongest elements. And in an environment where the rest of legacy local media was also being whupped, I wanted to keep up the energy on city politics—albeit in our own way. I once trudged down to the Wilson Building to be chastised by the then-D.C. Council chairman, who didn’t like the nickname Suderman had given him after reporting on his taxpayer-funded “fully loaded” SUV. We kept using the nickname, and not too long after that, the chairman resigned his office and pleaded guilty to (nonautomotive) federal charges. Another time, we sent Fischer and staff photographer Darrow Montgomery on a cruise featuring a bunch of D.C. music-scene types. Because the ship stopped in the Bahamas, that may have made them the first foreign correspondents in City Paper history. The piece ran with a headline nodding to David Foster Wallace: “A Supposedly Punk Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

The paper’s budget was hard to navigate—at one point, we couldn’t even replace Montgomery’s missing camera lens—but it forced us to use some magazine-style innovating. We did a lot of packages and took advantage of our great print designers. One of those got more attention than anything else that happened in my tenure, and perhaps in the history of City Paper. For years, Dave McKenna’s Cheap Seats column had chronicled the various ignominies of Daniel Snyder and his football team. I had the bright idea to pull together a guide to the lowlights, aimed at unhappy fans. For the cover, we used a picture of Snyder, but scrawled a mustache and devil horns on his face, the way a fifth grader might deface a yearbook picture of some unpopular teacher. Snyder was not amused. He sued.

The tension of nine months of legal back-and-forth stressed every existing fissure in the organization. The public response was massive; readers kicked in tens of thousands of dollars for legal defense. What the suit was really about, we figured, was getting McKenna off the beat. To their great credit, no one in ownership ever told me to do that. It would have been a betrayal, and it would have tanked the brand.

With courts likely to toss the much-ridiculed case, Snyder folded his cards right before the first game of the next season. In an interview with the New York Times, he admitted not having read the package in the first place. That made him a rarity: Thanks to the suit, it became the most-read story in City Paper history. Social media allowed it to travel, but people still came to the office to ask for hard copies for posterity.

It’s odd to think the best-remembered incident during my time as editor involved an NFL team. Professional sports coverage is one type of journalism that isn’t disappearing. A lot of the other stuff City Paper published has a less certain future in American journalism: Coverage of relatively obscure local officials, critical appraisals of lost-to-the-ages punk bands, a willingness to go big on stories about nobodies. None of that goes away with print. But the ability to put it on the cover of a stack of dead trees in a way that makes a statement is something any editor will miss. And a lot of readers will too, I suspect.

Michael Schaffer writes the Capital City column in Politico. He was editor of City Paper from 2010 to 2012 and later editor of  Washingtonian magazine,

Jack Shafer

Jack Shafer was the editor of Washington City Paper from 1985 until 1995. He asked that I include a preemptive apology to those former staffers he neglects to mention but who were integral to the paper’s success.—Mitch Ryals

Why did you want the job?

I was a longtime enthusiast for long-form journalism and had spent a lot of time reading alt-weeklies, both the Chicago Reader and LA Weekly and LA Reader. And at the same time I was enamored with the kind of journalism you’d see in Rolling Stone and Esquire and in the mid ’70s, a slick magazine called New Times, which nobody remembers but should.

I thought there was an opportunity at City Paper to shape a publication that was about the city in which we lived. There really wasn’t anything that reported consistently, peer to peer, about what it was like to live in this city. We gave primacy to covering the D.C. Council, which the Post didn’t spend as much resources on as it should. Ken Cummins was very strong in covering the circus that was the D.C. Council then and Mayor Barry of course.

And I’ve always been interested in culture and was lucky enough to inherit Joel Siegel as a film critic and then bring Mark Jenkins in as the resident polymath. And if I’m tossing out credit, I could have never made it through those early years without Jon Cohen. He was essentially my copilot. Alona Wartofsky was there before I was there. She knew the city really well and gave the paper its broad stance in the arts. And I really owe a great debt of gratitude to Mike Dolan. As a freelancer, he contributed more cover stories than anybody.

Why did you leave?

At a certain point, I think at 10 years, you’ve basically done every story you set out to do. Staffers started to propose stories and I’d say, “Oh we did that in ’91.” That was fine for me. I didn’t want to repeat myself, but I began to think it was a little unfair of people who didn’t know the city, hadn’t had the benefit of editing the paper for 10 years. And it was a wise decision because David Carr came in and to my surprise ran lots of the stories that I had bounced. And they really did quite well.

That speaks to the value of the paper as an institution.

Right, right. There were never political litmus tests for a City Paper story. I ran a lot of stories whose premises I didn’t agree with, but I thought they were argued and reported really well. So the key was that the paper was really writer driven.

What was your vision for the paper? How did you shape it? Could you talk about how it changed over those 10 years?

My vision was to get the paper pasted up and straight and out the door by Wednesday at 6 o’clock so it could be printed. In the early days we were producing the paper out of Baltimore, so I would drive up there on Wednesday and supervise the layout and proofreading and the final touches. Very time consuming and awkward not having production in your back room.

So in the beginning the vision might have been to create a paper that was about the city, but fuck vision, I had to get the paper out the door, and that was the most pressing thing. When the paper goes out the door, the clock starts again, and you have another seven days, not so much to fulfill the vision but to get another paper out the door.

What did the paper mean to its readers and how did you know?

I think it depends from reader to reader. The very first piece of mail I got after my first issue was an anonymous letter that I pinned up over my desk and kept for years. It said, “Your paper sucks shit out of a dead dog’s asshole.” And I thought that’s the reader that I’m looking for. A reader who’s discerning, who has a way with words, who isn’t afraid to be vulgar to make their point. And I think the goal every week was to make the paper a little less shitty. I never heard back from that gentleman or gentlelady. But it would really depend on who you saw.

I never fooled myself that Washington was waiting with baited breath to read our cover story or reading Joel Siegel on film. I think that a lot of people picked up the paper for the listings, for the advertisements, the classifieds, and in the long tradition of newspapering, to kill time. This was before you could carry around a super computer in the palm of your hand where you can dial up great works of literature, the latest news, pornography. You don’t even have to get your fingers dirty paging through the newspaper.

I heard a story that you once found a terrified reporter sleeping under their desk.

It was probably me. I slept a lot of times at the paper. I’m sure that it happened. A nap at the paper is a long wonderful tradition.

You’re a media  columnist now. If you were to write something about the print death of this newspaper, what would you write?

I guess I’ve been waiting for this to happen for a long time because so many of the other papers in the country have fallen. Mortality seems to have been built into these papers, and they have expired as both a cultural and as a business force. You have to be careful about not being too overly sentimental about preserving the things that shaped you. I’m sure that people were really upset when horse and buggies departed, and I think this was an inevitable end.

What are we losing with the death of the printed paper?

I remember when City Paper was doing matches ads long before the Washington Post got there, and we were doing same sex matching ads, and the Post would do only opposite sex ads. I don’t know when it was, but it was cultural breakthrough when Post started running same sex ads. The paper benefited by how conventional and straitlaced and out of the loop of city life that the Post was. I don’t think you get a reflection of the flavor and variety and the conflict that’s going on in the city and we were able to do that.

For me, not being able to pick up a City Paper is like coming home after a hard day of work and you go to your refrigerator because you know you have one beer left, and it’s gone. That feeling of loss and depression that you’re not going to have the comfort of the bottle and the cold brew going down your throat.

Any words of wisdom?

I think it’s going to be really hard. The unique thing about City Paper was that it stood out. It was visible everywhere, and people referred to it, and people kept it in their houses to figure out where to go at night, what shows to go see. I think the problem with an online publication is it’s hard to maintain that good visibility. The paper has an uphill climb and has had an uphill climb as circulation has fallen and there are fewer distribution points. And I think COVID kicked the shit out of it too.

After our interview, Shafer messaged to give his version of a common theme running through some of our conversations with former staffers. While the work is about telling human-centered stories, at least some of the reward is the humans we meet along the way.

“I forgot to say that I eventually got a wife out of City Paper,” Shafer said. “I married my last arts editor, Nicole Arthur, six years after I left the paper.”

Eddie Dean

The camaraderie and the cussing. The laughter and the tears. The agony and the ecstasy. The love and the hate—especially the hate mail.

The staff of Washington City Paper in the ’90s: An odd group of contrarians and misfits, exiled from the corridors of power and shunned by polite society, who banded together despite high levels of dysfunction and low wages “to put out a goddamn paper,” in the mantra of editor David Carr.

The weekly mission: to explore the dimensions of conflict wherever it leads, from the streets and alleys of the nation’s capital to the darkest recesses of the human heart. “What all good stories have in common is conflict,” in the credo of Carr’s predecessor, Jack Shafer.

A highlight/job perk, among many: Cigarette breaks on the parking deck with film and music critic/iconoclast Joel E. Siegel as he exhaled clouds of mentholated wisdom, riffing on his favorite culture warriors (Val Lewton, Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Jean Vigo, Shirley Horn, et al.) and castigating slick frauds like Michael Feinstein.

The sheer pulpy heft of a 144-page, every-Thursday edition of Washington City Paperfrom its print-only heyday could make for sustaining, if unwieldy, reading fodder on a crowded Metro. That heft, as well as its status as a free weekly in the service of Free Speech and including an f-bomb when somebody in a story said one, was made possible by display ads from the likes of Atlantic Futons, Bigg Wolf Movie Discounters, and Royce’s Video Outlet, among many now-defunct advertisers and defenders of the First Amendment in the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.

We will miss the once-ubiquitous, often obnoxious rustle of CP’s unruly, ink-bleeding pages getting pawed and read to tatters in public places. It has been replaced with the quiet antiseptic scrolling and pervasive “mechanized hum of another world,” first described by the doomed protagonist of Steely Dan’s “Don’t Take Me Alive” from The Royal Scam, which featured the lyrics—of course—printed on the inner sleeve.

Good night, sweet print. You were a blast while it lasted.

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