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Readers of the Dupont Current in early March found a nice little scoop when they grabbed their paper at their front stoops. A zoning panel, wrote reporter Ian Thoms, had ruled that the soon-to-open Harris Teeter supermarket in Adams Morgan could sell alcohol, despite challenges from a community group.
Locals who didn’t come across the paper version of the Dupont Current might have had some trouble getting the news. The story was a few days late getting up on the Web because the person responsible for posting that week’s paper on currentnewspapers.com fell sick.
And when it did go virtual, it fell into the Current’s archives, a place where you can find pdfs of back issues if you try hard enough. To read Thoms’ story, you had to click on a pdf of the first part of the March 5 edition. Then you had to click on another pdf containing the part of the article that comes after the jump. Then you had to scroll and, well, you get the idea.
So the Current isn’t the most tech-savvy publication around. It just happens to be among the most prosperous.
Headquartered in the basement of a MacArthur Boulevard office building, the Current is actually several weekly papers—the Georgetown Current, the Dupont Current, the Foggy Bottom Current, and the Northwest Current (two editions)—with a combined circulation of about 60,000 in the District’s most affluent communities. (The company added another, VOICE of the Hill, in the mid-’00s.) That’s double the total circulation of about 30,000 a decade ago.
Other vital signs follow suit: The Current’s advertising volume has gone up, on average, about 15 percent a year over the past eight years, helped along by merchants as varied as Bloomingdale’s and College Hunks Hauling Junk. Editorial staff stands just shy of 10 full-timers—that’s up from less than three in the early ’90s, when Publisher and Editor Davis Kennedy bought the outfit.
Kennedy, 69, is a veteran of community newspapers in this region, having previously owned the Gazette papers in Maryland and a chunk of an Alexandria community paper. He isn’t revealing any trade secrets when he says how the Current has joined the ranks of other publications that have beaten industry trends. “Local, local, local,” he says.
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The Current papers are like a homeowner’s survival guide that hits the streets for free every Wednesday. The coverage runs down the latest in libraries, waterfront parks, new businesses, liquor-license disputes, zoning spats, parking, politics, and that controversial deck that Mr. Jones is building on the back of his Wesley Heights estate. None of its local competitors—not the Washington Post, not the Examiner, not the Washington City Paper—has the Current’s appetite or attention span for the nitty-gritty of neighborhood politics. In fact, it’s hard to find a community throwdown that’s too insular for the Current. “It depends on…whether we think a particular dispute will resonate with neighbors,” says Managing Editor Chris Kain.
Though the Current blankets the stories that arouse passion in urbanites—think dog parks and nightclub regulation—its news coverage emits nary a whiff of bias. It’s got to be one of the greatest feats in modern journalism—that is, to cover the District’s most petty and tendentious NIMBY activists for decades without ever making fun of them. Says Kennedy: “I can think of one [Current] reporter who had an agenda, but you couldn’t tell it from the stories.”
What else does the Current do well? Just about everything. It occasionally beats the Washington Post to citywide stories, as it did recently with a scoop on the release of this year’s real-estate assessments. Also, it puts together a great high school sports page plus an exhaustive events calendar.
And like any proud community pub, the Current comes up with some really awful headlines: “Planning commission analysis creates stir”; “Former embassy’s designation sparks battle.”
Penny Pagano, a Palisades activist and former staffer on the D.C. Council, is among the weekly’s faithful. “It comes to my house, but I would pick it up anyway,” she says.
The Current gets all of this done in part because it doesn’t mess around with the Web. There’s no Current blog with a title like “The Northwesterner”; there’s no video of that contentious advisory neighborhood commission meeting in which the irate activist tells his opponents to move to the ’burbs; there’s no interactive online feature that duplicates the Current’s exhaustive election guide; there’s no “Related Content” box that enables the paper’s readers to track all the previous articles on the Harris Teeter fight.
Minimal Web content means minimal Web meetings. The paper’s editorial staff busies itself with newsgathering, period. Internet presence, notes Kennedy, “is a major investment. How much revenue comes in from that versus the cost?”
Adds Kain: “The need for as many reporters as possible is tremendous.”
If anyone can afford to dis the Web, it’s a strong community paper. Immersion coverage of the P Street upgrade, the local Safeway’s beer-and-wine license, and other such issues constitutes something of an editorial monopoly for the Current—there aren’t scores of alternative sources for this swath of news. So the Current doesn’t have to contend with the commodity-news blues of national dailies, which produce often interchangeable stories on Iraq, the economy, and presidential politics.
Yet the resulting Web void invites new players. “They’re going to have competitors on the Web, and it’s easier to start something on the Web without having to print anything,” says Mark Potts, who writes on recoveringjournalist.com and consults on Internet news sites. “Somebody who’s got a real good formula for a local Web site—it’s going to be like Wal-Mart coming in.”
Or perhaps the Washington Post coming in. Last summer, washingtonpost.com opened a grand experiment in “hyperlocal” Web reporting by launching a site focusing on Loudoun County. Visit loudounextra.com and you’ll find a site that feels a lot like a virtual Current newspaper. “Board Faces Hard Choice on Property Tax Rate,” reads one of the headlines. Other news items focus on schools, crime, high school sports, and other topics that matter only to those with a Loudoun ZIP code.
In addition to bringing a community news sensibility, loudounextra.com piles on with stuff that really glistens on the Web. Talk about event calendars—this one has everything. Aficionados of spoken word performances, just to take an extreme example, can use loudounextra.com to scan for all scheduled events in the county on any given day. (Truth be told, there are precious few.)
Rob Curley, who has spearheaded washingtonpost.com’s hyperlocal project, sees a sustained future for smart print products but cautions against ignoring the Web. “At any time the tables can turn,” he says. “If someone else does exactly the same thing [as a community paper] and starts delivering it via Internet and cell phone, it can change.”
Now washingtonpost.com’s hyperlocal bus is headed eastward. It’s working on a Fairfax edition, which means that D.C. can be only so far behind. Pump “districtextra.com” into a domain name search and up comes Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive.
The prospect doesn’t exactly terrify Kennedy, who admits that he hasn’t taken a look at loudounextra.com. “But I probably should,” he says.
His nonchalance isn’t baseless. News consumers already see the Current as a hyperlocal product whose staff knows the community landscape better than any interlopers. The 38-year-old Kain, for instance, is a brilliant and detail-oriented editor who regularly puts in 12-hour days. He has spent his entire professional career at the Current. “I think he comes in seven days a week,” says longtime reporter Charles Bermpohl. “It’s like his car is always there.”
Nor can the Post cherry-pick the most affluent D.C. communities to cover, as has the Current. As the city’s paper of record, it’ll have to do its hyperlocal thing evenly across all city quadrants, a manpower challenge that could well prevent it from siphoning readers from strong community publications.
Says Kennedy: “We’ll wait and see if they spread it out.”