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Halfway up the steps of the 18th Street Lounge, I start to worry about my tie. A green-and-gray-striped number, it suddenly looks to me like a cliché Washington cravate. Earlier in the day, the tie seemed like the proper accent for tonight’s cocktail party. But now, as I pass by the silk-shirted bouncer who checks my name against a list, I wonder if this rather dated tie is just too stuffy for such hip surroundings.

I’m about to mingle with more than 100 strangers, all of whom are in my line of work. I fidget with my collar like a man on a front porch before a blind date. And indeed, tonight’s party is supposed to function as a matchmaking event, albeit a professional one. The party is for media types only. Sure, journalists schmooze all the time wherever free food is offered, but—being somewhat nerdy by nature—they usually don’t gather en masse at trendy cash-bar clubs on Wednesday nights.

Finally, after more deliberation at the top of the stairs, I loosen the tie and stuff it into my pocket. Striding to the bar, I’m fairly confident in the casual, blazer-and-no-tie look I’ve just crafted—it’s European, sort of.

I soon find I’m not the only one who’s weighed the importance of sartorial special effects. Laurel Touby, the woman responsible for tonight’s shindig, is decked out in a red dress, a red feather boa, and an aura of absolute confidence. After sashaying over to introduce herself, she explains that boas are one of her trademarks. Trademarks, apparently, are crucial when you throw a lot of parties.

Over the last seven years, Touby, a 30-something New York City resident and former journalist, has made a name for herself by hosting monthly gatherings in the Big Apple for none other than media professionals. Her goal: to build a sense of community among editors, writers, online producers, and other creative types via regular soirees at which they can meet, trade numbers, sip drinks, and share ideas. In July, Touby instituted the monthly media party—named for her Mediabistro.com Web site—in D.C.

The room crackles with giddy self-conscious energy. Conversations are bubblier than the $5 bottles of Stella Artois beer spotted in more than a few hands. In one corner, Ken McNaughton, an associate editor for The Industrial Physicist, listens in as several online reporters compare their current salaries with those from their previous newspaper jobs. Across from them, local freelancer and Mediabistro.com co-hostess Sacha Cohen describes her recent publishing successes to Elaine Wu, a reporter for Dbusiness.com who graduated from college only last year. Between bites of bread and cheese, people everywhere exchange business cards. This is D.C., after all.

Because tonight’s event is only the third of its kind in Washington, many guests are here for the first time. Touby, the caricature of a hostess, flits from room to room, constantly introducing strangers to each other. She has no tolerance for wallflowers: Several times I watch her cheerfully pull stragglers from corners and, with her boa trailing behind her, march them into a huddle of people.

Midway through the party, Touby stands on a chair to make a brief announcement meant to soothe any possible skeptics: “This is not networking,” says Touby. “It’s connecting.”

“Really, I never do this kind of thing,” says Rachel Dodes. The young woman is wearing a long black dress and sipping a glass of red wine. In the candlelit twilight of the lounge, we talk and share laughs near a doorway. Faint jazz spills from the speakers. She gives me her card. Maybe I’ll call her. But if I do, it will be about a dateline, not a date.

Dodes, a reporter at Washington Business Forward, is just one of the many journalists here from smaller, newer publications looking to connect—and promote their outlets. Many of tonight’s other guests work for online media companies. And although dot-coms have only just begun to compete in the journalism world, the Internet looms large over tonight’s festivities.

As Touby explains, the success of her media soirees—also held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London—inspired her to start her own community/e-recruiting Web site, Mediabistro.com. Originally called Hireminds.com, it serves both online and traditional media professionals. Touby launched the site herself in 1997 with a lot of volunteer assistance, back when the Internet boom was mostly grass-roots. Recent dot-com busts, Touby says, have not significantly altered her business plans, and she’s now doing some serious courting.

This summer, Touby closed on her first venture-funding deal, to the tune of $1 million, with New York-based Gotham Partners and individual investor Martin Peretz, owner of the New Republic. Meanwhile, numerous D.C. publications, including this one, are now paying $150 a month to post job listings on Mediabistro.com—about three times the cost of placing an ad on bigger job sites like Monster.com. (Media outlets, like their advertisers, will pay more to reach a targeted audience.) Today, Mediabistro.com boasts 140,000 monthly visitors. Touby, the company’s CEO, has given up her writing to work full time for her creation.

“This all started…because I used to feel like the quintessential outsider in an insider’s world,” recalls Touby, who has worked for Glamour, Business Week, and Working Woman, among other publications. “I was a damn good writer, making good money, but I didn’t know anyone in the field. So I thought, What better way to meet people I’d never meet otherwise than to invite them to outrageously friendly cocktail parties…or to link up journalists on a site of their own?”

Now gifted in the art of light arm touching, Touby says her stylish parties are superior to other, “drier” networking activities.

“Many big-time journalists can be very

intimidating,” says Touby. “But many of them are also easily intimidated. So they need a warm, relaxed setting to help them reach out, and I’m the enabler.”

The few members of the brand-name media that I do encounter tonight seem pretty relaxed, but none too friendly. Two USA Today reporters sipping beers groan when I introduce myself. Some CNN people barrage me with “Don’t interview me” requests when I state my affiliation. Touby tells me later that reporters from the Washington Post and Reuters also attended the gathering, but somehow I missed them. Perhaps they were among the people who remained seated at the bar all night.

D.C. already has the National Press Club and a variety of media societies, not to mention plenty of high-tech media networking groups. As Washington Post business columnist Shannon Henry wrote earlier this month, members of D.C.’s technology circle can “go to a 7:30 breakfast, a schmoozefest lunch, a cocktail party, and a dinner almost every day.”

Does Washington really need another social club?

“Absolutely,” says Cohen. “Many journalists are introverted. Those who aren’t might be shy when they’re not working on a story. That’s why this has got to be about having a good time, not just stopping in to give out business cards.”

Cohen, a self-described “bon vivant,” recently signed on to help Mediabistro.com establish its business presence in D.C. Also sporting a boa at the October gathering, Cohen predicts that her once-a-month parties will allow the many “isolated” members of D.C.’s Fourth Estate to form a more perfect union.

The “isolated” world she describes strikes a chord with the many freelancers and part-timers in the bar tonight. For sane folks who’ve never tried it, freelancing is like the worst parts of dating: You wonder when anyone will ever call back. You envy friends with full-time jobs the way you envy friends with steadies. On the other hand, freelancers are among the select few who ever realize the work-from-home dream.

Maybe the sense of celebrity that tonight’s event seems to instill in many guests is simply irresistible. The majority of revelers say they dig the party, whether it furthers their careers or not. Many say they’ve come not to look for jobs, but rather to make friends, talk issues, maybe even flirt a little.

But for at least some skeptics here tonight, the thrill of being a journalist is exploring the world without having to be on display in it. “We should all be making ‘moo’ sounds, because we’re just like cattle in here,” says Bob Margolis, a freelance writer and content editor for MTVi.com. “Basically, this party’s like any other networking event. It’s just about social and professional hierarchies and people trying to look beautiful.”

Nonetheless, he hopes to salvage something: “If I end up getting an assignment from this—you know, a few hundred dollars—” Margolis says with a chuckle as the party winds down, “that would definitely be worth it.”

Later, it’s time to bid Touby farewell, for she must return to New York the next morning. Although I’ve known her for just a few hours, somehow I’m not surprised when she gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. But I am surprised that a natural-born hostess who has just collected several handfuls of business cards forgets to give me one of her own. Then, on the way home, I look down to discover that Touby has, in fact, left me with the indelible evidence of her presence: Stuck to my blazer are dozens and dozens of tiny red feathers. CP