City Paper is not for tourists
About eight years ago, not long after I started this job, I called a bunch of colleagues into my office—-maybe three or four of them. We dialed up Mike Lenehan, an ace editor who doubled as part of our ownership team. We put Lenehan on speakerphone from Chicago and proceeded to discuss for quite some time how best to craft a lede for a huge narrative that we’d spent months working on.
It was a good discussion, the lede turned out well, and the 12,000-word story ended up winning us a nice prize.
We don’t do that stuff anymore—-summoning groups of people to obsess over the fine points of storytelling. If we’re lucky enough to get a long-form story from one of our freelancers, we edit it in a vacuum, in between blog posts and tweets. Hopefully it’ll make sense once it hits the paper and the Web.
There’s not much to lament here. Moving from a weekly frequency to one that refreshes washingtoncitypaper.com many, many times per day has been a blast. Perhaps the greatest input-output machine civilization has ever seen, the Web rewards news, original thought, and finely articulated outrage. When we manage to pull off any of those things, the feedback is immediate and engaging. Compare that to the grind of yore, in which we’d drop a big stack of words on the public every Thursday. Those stories would routinely “bounce like a box of rocks,” in the words of a former colleague.
Of course, we still do put out a weekly paper—-it’s just that it rarely has that gaping cover hole and often has content republished from our Web site. Though the double-platform world often feels tyrannical, it’s more often exhilarating. Anything that demands more writing, more editing, more riffing on headlines, more collaboration with the staff—-that’s more fun for me.
The Boilerplate Editor Farewell Letter requires at least several expressions of gratitude, and who am I to break this particular mold? So here goes.
Thanks to our readers. Without you, we wouldn’t have this shaky business model that we’ve been trying to fix for several years now. I’ve closely observed you in cafes, restaurants, and Chipotle, grabbing Washington City Paper and flipping straight to the ads and the syndicated content with which my editorial staff and I have nothing to do. Yet I still love you. You are motivated, smart, clever, and hip people, though I’d appreciate it if you showed more of those attributes in the comments section.
Thanks to my sources. Yesterday marked the end of the coverage of local media under this byline. Over eight years, I’ve written about many local outlets, including the Washington Times, the Examiner, the Washingtonian, the InTowner, the Northwest Current and so on. The preoccupation of the coverage, though, has been the Washington Post, an outfit that’s one of the easiest conversation starters in the region. In recent months, I’ve had numerous discussions with friends in the industry, and the feedback I get about the paper is pretty uniform: The Post has dropped to a new low, it’s missing key stories, it’s boring, it’s [insert other pejorative comment here]. There’s no question that the newsroom has lost some bandwidth via four buyouts and general attrition. Yet it remains the greatest bargain in the household budget of my family—-and we are aggressive Costco shoppers. How do I reach this clinical determination? Easily: There’s a stack of old Post sections sitting on my bedstand; they represent all the stuff that I didn’t get a chance to read in the morning before rushing out, plus all the stuff I didn’t read on the Web during work. I try to plow through them before I fall asleep at night, and I never make it through the pile. The point here is that the Post is giving me more interesting stories—-coverage I really want to read—-than I can possibly digest. So there.
Before I started covering the Post, I wondered how I’d get sources. A friend told me, “They’ll help you,” referring to staffers at the paper. He was right—-Post journalists, for the most part, welcome scrutiny of their work. Despite my rantings about the Brauchli Doctrine, named for current Executive Editor Marcus, the paper remains a transparent and accountable place. To all the people at the paper who have trusted me with their accounts of internal deliberations and a fistfight, un abrazo.
Thanks to my colleagues. This is the part I really can’t write without breaking down, so I gotta call it a day. Plus, it’s a Friday afternoon and the audience for this thing is dying. I’m just going to post it—-no updates or followups this time.