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The Loose Lips column has existed for the vast majority of City Paper’s four decades of existence, but its impact in print can generally be summed up with 12 simple words: “You put me out in Denver ’cause I wouldn’t suck your dick.”
The infamous 2009 headline captures so much of what’s made LL and WCP unique over these past 41 years: It was provocative, brash, and funny. It also exposed some secrets that D.C.’s political elite would have rather kept hidden, particularly those involving Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry, as so many of the best LL columns did.
While a headline like that would draw eyeballs anywhere, it just wouldn’t have generated quite the same reaction had it not been splashed on a front page over a picture of Barry and his paramour, and dropped in newspaper boxes around the city. As City Paper ends its print run, many of the previous authors of this column identify that story as the apotheosis of LL’s print past.
“We had people picketing outside our old offices on Champlain Street. It just turned into this big thing,” says Mike DeBonis, the story’s author and LL columnist from 2007 to 2010. “It was truly the spirit of the old City Paper, the old alt-weekly. No one else is going to do this, so we’re going to do it.”
DeBonis, now at the Washington Post, remembers the process of landing such a scoop fondly. He’d gotten a call from a man claiming that Barry had begun an affair with his ex-wife, evicting her from a hotel room in Denver while the pair attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. DeBonis didn’t think too much of it until the night Barry was arrested in Anacostia Park: July 4, 2009.
The U.S. Park Police charged Barry, then the Ward 8 councilmember, with stalking, and DeBonis quickly heard that the dispute involved a woman. He soon learned it was the same woman involved in the Denver kerfuffle: Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. Her ex-husband proceeded to provide DeBonis with voicemails and other recordings documenting her rocky relationship with Barry, including the quote that would become so famous.
“[Then-editor] Erik [Wemple] was determined, saying we had to put the ‘suck your dick’ thing on the cover, even though people on the business side were raising concerns,” DeBonis says. “He just would not be told ‘No.’”
The resulting outrage drew national attention (and briefly crashed the WCP’s nascent website). Ken Cummins, the inaugural LL columnist, remembers hearing through the grapevine that it had a distinct impact on Barry himself, too.
“Publicly, he had to make a big show about how offended he was about it, but I heard that he actually liked the headline, just found the whole thing funny,” Cummins says. If only Barry was still around to ask for comment on the incident.
For Cummins, who penned the column from 1983 through 1999, the experience of writing LL (and watching others consume it) was almost entirely tied to the print product. DeBonis had to juggle the demands of writing WCP’s first email newsletter and regular blog posts as well as writing for print (a “soul-killing amount of work,” he remembers) but Cummins had no such demands on his time.
He would spend all week gathering up the best gossip from D.C.’s political and media circles, often writing the column around 3 a.m. just before it was due. (For his first decade at WCP, he also worked a day job at other newspapers in town, so his time was limited.) None of his columns generated headlines as evocative as DeBonis’ Denver drama, but Cummins can recall at least one memorable print entry.
“I was writing a column once about how long the city was debating the renovation of Eastern Market, so I made this chart comparing it to the digging of the Panama Canal, the building of the pyramids, all those sorts of things,” Cummins says. “And of course the market took longer than all those. I would see that tacked up in Capitol Hill businesses for years afterward.”
But he remembers that the best part of seeing LL in print was waiting for newspapers to hit the steps of the Wilson Building, where many of his column’s subjects spent their days. He recalls then-At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot telling him it looked like a mad dash to grab a copy as his colleagues hustled to see if they’d made the column each week.
“You could tell when people started reading the paper,” says At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who wrote LL from 2002 to 2004 before pivoting to politics. “Thursday afternoons after lunch, you’d start getting calls or emails. And of course whenever I wrote about [the late Ward 1 Councilmember] Jim Graham, I’d get a call from him complaining, just like clockwork.”
Alan Suderman, who wrote LL from 2010 to 2013, says that dynamic didn’t change even by the time he took things over. Some “old-timers,” like Barry and Graham, never experienced the column without picking it up in print, he says. DeBonis says he always made a point of bringing copies of the paper to the Wilson Building and passing them around so that he could reach such print-inclined pols, absorbing their criticisms and picking up gossip for the next week’s column in equal measure.
Even with the rise of the web and social media, the paper remained a key way that many local politicos got their news. For older Black residents, in particular, the print edition of LL was a touchstone well into the dawn of the new century.
“So much goes down on Twitter now, and it can feel very myopic,” says Will Sommer, who wrote LL from 2013 to 2016. “But I would go over to Ward 8, anywhere, all over the city, and people would say ‘Oh, you’re Loose Lips, like City Paper.’ It was this free paper that anyone could pick up at the Metro station or as they’re getting on the bus. It had a very populist thing about it … A physical paper has a presence in the community in a way that a website just doesn’t.”
Yes, LL was important as a serious piece of print journalism. But it was just plain fun to put together, too. Just about every LL has stories about staying up late with the rest of the staff (usually on Wednesday nights) to put the print edition to bed, then sticking around the office for a few drinks to mark the occasion.
“It was always like a party,” says Jonetta Rose Barras, who wrote LL for about six months in 2001 but worked for WCP on and off for about eight years. “It could be really personal, really intense as you were working on the paper and putting it together, debating these stories. But then we would all still hang around afterward.”
The ride could be a bit wild, but the final product was always a point of pride for LL writers. Barras recalls how a key piece of art could “make or break your story,” with a striking photo of the interior of the Player’s Lounge defining her feature on the storied Ward 8 hangout. Suderman remembers feeling like he’d cleared a “rite of passage” upon writing his first big cover story about Barry in 2012, chronicling his final Council campaign.
“The cover was always a beautiful piece of real estate in the city,” Sommer says. “Having your first cover story as a reporter was absolutely a huge deal.”
That’s why the end of the print edition comes as regrettable news to many of LL’s former stewards, though they are hopeful this change marks merely a slight evolution in WCP’s history and not a full-blown change. The sarcastic, rabble-rousing ethos of the column is what they want to see survive, even as regular print production ends.
“There was always the sense that City Paper had this understanding of what the city really was and what made D.C., D.C.,” DeBonis says. “This city has as vivid and important an identity as any other city and it needs to be appreciated and interrogated and questioned and occasionally rendered bare for all to see … The classic City Paper form is taking the good and the bad and weaving it all together, and I think the city needs that.”
Even some of the Wilson Building’s current occupants want to see the publication keep going, no matter how often it may air their dirty laundry.
“Jeff Bezos is turning the Post away from its local mission, and that gives the City Paper a real opportunity,” Silverman says. “There are still so many people who are invested in the city and want to know what’s going on. And there is still a need to put all the pieces together, with all the context and the background of what’s happening behind the scenes. That is what Loose Lips has always been good at.”
For his part, this LL will do his best not to disappoint.