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Dave McKenna realizes now that he missed the memo. During his time at City Paper, he saw an “incredible honor roll” of people arrive, work at the paper for a few years, and then move on. McKenna stayed for 26 years.
“I never had a goal,” he says. “In my life, I’ve never had a goal and I met everyone of them … But having a column in City Paper seemed so far beyond and cooler than anything I ever thought I would ever get to do, so I never had a reason to leave. I could write whatever I wanted. Like, what’s better than that?”
McKenna, a former staff writer and celebrated sports columnist for the paper, often gravitated toward his obsessions and stories that other outlets weren’t covering. That’s how he approached his weekly sports column, Cheap Seats, and his feature stories. Even now, all these years later, McKenna still gets emotional when talking about the late Elgin Baylor, a D.C. native and Basketball Hall of Fame member who was the subject of many of his articles. A self-described “Baylor obsessive,” he calls Baylor, who died at age 86 in March of 2021, one of the “most influential and most underappreciated athletes in American history.”
McKenna didn’t let the lack of zeal from other publications for these stories dissuade him. They were important to the city’s history.
“I was always obsessed with D.C.’s sports and cultural and racial histories,” McKenna says. “Even though I was from Falls Church, D.C. was my hometown, and when I had a sports column, I had to come up with something every week and something I realized was the most undercovered subjects in Washington sports were the incredible homegrown athletes of the 1950s who happen to be Black.”
McKenna joined City Paper on Jan. 6, 1986, as an arts intern for then-arts editor Alona Wartofsky, and wrote music listings for two years for no money. At the time, he was a substitute teacher and lived in a group house with police officers in Chevy Chase. Rent was $250 a month. McKenna immersed himself in the city, and whenever he wanted to find out which bands were playing in town, he picked up a copy of City Paper. “Everything about City Paper just seemed so ‘urbane’ and cool, and I was ‘suburbane,’ and so I wanted to be a part of it,” McKenna says.
He eventually worked up the courage to turn in some Best of D.C. and City Lights picks that appeared in print. But the story that gave McKenna confidence as a City Paper writer—and that caught the attention of then-editor Jack Shafer—was about local politician and notorious sports heckler Robin Ficker. Shafer put it on the cover, with the headline “Tell That Ficker to Shut Up.”
Shafer thought very little of McKenna in the beginning. He says McKenna would mostly show up to the office to “hit on girls” and that he “seemed to be a completely frivolous person.” The Ficker story changed his mind. “I realized with that story that I was a moron and Dave was a genius,” Shafer says. “He probably had all these skills all the time but because there’s not enough time to assess everybody’s talent, I overlooked him.”
McKenna, for his part, says Shafer, “was really intimidating, but he made you want to be a part of it. You could tell he cared more about the story than he cared about you. But that was what young people need. I think he was fantastic.”
Eventually, Shafer asked McKenna to write a football column called Skins Heads, which became Cheap Seats when David Carr became editor in the mid 1990s. McKenna went from writing about 10 columns a year to writing one every week. While it started off as a football column, McKenna fondly remembers stories he worked on outside of the scope of the major sports leagues. He wrote about Baylor and Gary Mays, the one-armed sports star who shut down Baylor in high school. (“That’s when Mays, playing for Armstrong Tech, temporarily reduced Elgin Baylor to mortal status,” McKenna wrote in a 2010 column.) He covered University of Maryland men’s basketball recruit Tamir Goodman, a local Orthodox Jewish high school basketball star dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” by Sports Illustrated. He reported on Ronnie Franklin, the jockey who rode the horse that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1979, and Franklin’s struggles with drugs later in his career.
McKenna didn’t need a press box to find stories. Even when he covered games in person, like he did during Dan Snyder’s first season as owner of the local NFL team in 1999, he found the experience to be “antithetical to getting a good story.” (Snyder infamously sued McKenna and City Paper in 2011 over a cover story listing many of Snyder’s controversies and failures.)
“It is the fucking worst,” McKenna says of covering local NFL games from the press box. “Because everything you get, 75 people or 100 or more are exposed to exactly what you’re getting. And then they’re fed the same meal, the same press releases. … My paper wasn’t gonna come out for four more days [on Thursday], so it didn’t help me at all to go to those, and I found it gross.”
Like McKenna, Huan Hsu found sports stories outside of the mainstream lens to be more interesting. Hsu first wrote for City Paper in January of 2004—an arts feature on author Mike Tidwell—while he was studying for his MFA in creative nonfiction at George Mason University. When a staff writer position opened up, Leonard Roberge, then the arts editor, encouraged Hsu to apply for the job. The 20-something joined City Paper halfway through the last year of his program. At City Paper, Hsu found a niche in covering sports and education.
“I played a lot of sports, and I was always kind of oriented toward sports, so it was easier for me to kind of understand local sports than, for example, local politics,” says Hsu, who is now a journalism lecturer at Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands. “There was a kind of accessibility dimension to it, and, I think, probably the journalism that I consumed most growing up was sports journalism.”
Several of Hsu’s features appeared on the cover of City Paper. Hsu, who worked briefly as a Division III collegiate tennis coach at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, after college, wrote about Trevor Spracklin and his experience competing on the lower rungs of professional tennis and at a local professional tennis tournament. He also wrote a profile on former American University cross-country and track and field coach Matt Centrowitz and another on Darren Harper, a skateboarder from Southeast D.C.
Hsu left City Paper in 2007, but the brief experience left a lasting impression on him. Every year, he orders copies of the New York Times for his students to read during the first week of class. It’s often the first time they’ve held or read an actual print copy of the newspaper, Hsu says. He still remembers his excitement in picking up multiple copies of the print edition of City Paper whenever he had a cover story in the paper.
“I love the paper, paper,” Hsu says. “So to hold it, see my name in print, like so permanently—I mean, it’s also great to publish stuff online, but it’s just so ephemeral, and so it’s just like this was a document, it was so permanent. It was a great feeling. It was super awesome.”
For McKenna, the print paper provided routine. When he lived in Mount Pleasant, he would wait every Thursday to pick up a copy in Heller’s Bakery. “It’s one of life’s little pleasures,” McKenna says. “Having something to look forward to is the key to warding off depression, even something as small as the Thursday edition of the City Paper.”
Matt Terl has similar vivid memories. As a student at University of Maryland, he would go to the Closet of Comics comic book store in College Park and pick up a copy of City Paper every week, and that’s what he would read while eating lunch from a local Chinese restaurant. McKenna profiled Terl in 2008, when he was the official blogger for the Washington Commanders, and Terl later wrote a weekly sports column for City Paper called Unobstructed View.
“Print made a huge difference,” Terl says. “I did independent blogging back in the aughts, when such a thing was just sort of what everybody who was overly verbose did. And it was a way to get your words out there. But a side effect of that, for me, was that it totally devalued being published online. But being in print was something I couldn’t fake. It was something I couldn’t do on my own, and it definitely had a significant impact.”
Steve Cavendish, the City Paper editor from June 2015 to July 2016, hired Terl to bring a more regular sports presence back to the paper after McKenna left in December of 2011.
“We’re not a paper of record,” he says. “But what we are is a paper of vital interests. And that could take a lot of different directions, but our job at the City Paper was always to be vital to the people who lived in D.C. and lived for D.C.”
McKenna, Hsu, and Terl all found stories that were unique to D.C. They looked in places where others neglected. They covered sports stories that otherwise would not have been told. They wrote to an audience that cared about the city.
“I tried to tell stories,” McKenna says. “It’s the same thing that City Paper was known for, whatever it was, whether it’s politics or just life in the city, the side of the city that other papers didn’t cover. Just look for the stories, and the stories are still going to be there, no matter what the medium is.”
Mitch Ryals contributed to this report.