Erik Wemple, the editor of Washington City Paper, announced to the staff this morning that he will leave the paper in mid-March. He will edit the Allbritton Communications Company’s as-yet-unnamed D.C. news Web site, which is planned for a spring launch. Wemple, 45, started freelancing for City Paper in 1994, eventually moved into a staff position, and served as the paper’s Loose Lips columnist from 1999 to 2000.

He left City Paper in 2000 to work for the short-lived and returned as editor of the paper in 2002. When he was interviewing for the City Paper job, Wemple says he told the paper’s then owners “that I may never leave.”

“Of course,” he says, “I tried once.”

That was in 2006, when he was hired to edit the Village Voice, a job he quit before he started.

Wemple stayed at City Paper, and his subsequent tenure coincided with what was perhaps the alt-weekly’s most difficult period—-its July 2007 sale to Creative Loafing, a chain of alternative newspapers based in Tampa. Battered by the recession and debt it took on to finance the purchase of City Paper and the Chicago Reader, Creative Loafing demanded deep staff cuts, including the elimination of the paper’s entire art and production departments, before declaring bankruptcy the following year. The staff is now half the size it was before the acquisition.

Creative Loafing was purchased by Atalaya, a hedge fund, last year. Between the bankruptcy and that sale, City Paper turned from a weekly paper with an anemic online presence to a two-platform publication with a robust, frequently updated Web site.

One casualty of this shift was the paper’s trademark long-winded cover stories, which could run for thousands of words on subjects like renegade ginseng farming, the history of the half-smoke, and noxious young socialites. The paper was rewarded with numerous awards for such work: City Paper has won 51 Association of Alternative Newsweekly awards, the second-highest total in the awards’ 14-year history, and Dave Jamieson‘s 2007 feature “Letters From an Arsonist” won the 2008 Livingston Award. Wemple edited the preponderance of the award-winners during his tenure, and he won two for his media criticism. His piece “One Mission, Two Newsrooms,” won first place in media criticism last year.

Nowadays the paper neither employs the general-assignment staff writers who regularly brought home such hardware nor has as many ad-bedecked pages to fill. (Cover stories are still published on occasion but are often written by freelancers.) Wemple turned attention of the staff from nostalgia for these circumstances to an all-consuming desire to increase Web traffic and figure out how City Paper‘s brand of low-to-the-ground local journalism could thrive online.

Wemple says Jim Brady, the former editor of whom Albritton tapped to lead this project, “wants the Washington City Paper voice and feel and sense of authority about local stuff.”

Wemple says he doesn’t know what the new Web site will be called. “I knew that was a touchy subject,” he says, adding he “didn’t even go there” during his interviews. He says he’s “studiously guarding against” conflicts of interest with City Paper as he transitions to the new job—-he will stay to oversee the hiring of four editorial positions, a process that is well under way. Also, he has three cover stories he intends to finish editing.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery