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One More for the Road
By my count, I’ve had a hand in producing roughly 450 print issues of Washington City Paper since I joined its staff as the City Lights editor in the fall of 2012. Several stand out for reasons good and bad—massive Best of D.C. books that had us working around the clock, stories we knew we’d beaten our competitors to, an issue sent to the printer so late that we feared it might not come out. The rest ebbed back into the ocean after cresting on Wednesday nights.
From a technical standpoint, my generation of City People has a significantly easier time producing print issues than our predecessors did, assembling our issues with trackpads and keyboard commands while they used knives and paste. In the paper’s nascent days, when it was still produced in Baltimore, the staff sent pages and materials back and forth on a massive fax machine. That was an improvement, former publisher Amy Austin says, over the previous method: On Monday nights, she used to deliver the necessary files to the Greyhound bus station, where they would be ferried north.
Print issues were commodities. Readers grabbed them from delivery drivers before they could even drop off a stack at a business or a street box. The need for news, for criticism, for event listings, for classified ads, or a good story was immediate, and the internet has only expanded that pleasure center.
In my time at City Paper, the issues shrunk. Advertisers moved online and found ways to reach the specific audiences they were looking for. Competitors arrived on the scene, offering their own irreverent takes on life in the District. Still we pushed forward, filing dispatches on abandoned car parts, shameless developers, and the characters entering and exiting the Wilson Building. Newer annual issues, such as the Answers Issue and the People Issue, still demanded a place on a coffee table or in your hand at a coffee shop.
And then came a novel coronavirus, the enemy of almost everything but especially independent arts venues. We muddled through what we hoped was the worst of it, but eventually had to face a harsh reality: Our advertisers and many of our readers are elsewhere. We meet readers in their email inboxes more frequently than we meet them on the street. A bar that hosts live music is most focused on paying its staff right now.
So this is the last regular print edition of Washington City Paper you will see. In the weeks leading up to this issue, I found myself thinking about those departed characters whose shadows hang over the institution. Of Jim Graham, the AIDS advocate and former Ward 1 councilmember who would register his complaints every week without fail but still stop by a holiday party. Of Marion Barry, the main character of D.C.’s home rule era and of countless City Paper stories, who transformed the District in so many ways. Of Michael Mariotte, the punk-rock drummer who decided to kick this whole thing off. Of David Carr, the tough but transformational leader whose wisdom on craft and reporting are still being passed down to generation after generation of aspiring writers. What would they say? (Carr, I’m guessing, would tell us to keep working.)
In the pages that follow, you’ll read stories from the extended network of people who honed their skills by covering community meetings or entering event listings and forged friendships over cheap beer and Cheez-Its. Those relationships and the respect for one another kept City Paper going through 41 years of late nights, periods of financial instability, and fears over getting everything right.
“Early on, Jack Shafer laid out the stakes: If you get it wrong and we print it, every person in this place will lose her job,” City Paper alum Katherine Boo tells me. “All the sentences I’ve written since have been informed by that terror.”
Washington City Paper will still be around, albeit in digital formats and with a smaller staff. And we will still do our damnedest to get it right.
—Caroline Jones, editor, Washington City Paper
It took Neil Drumming all of five minutes to respond to my email asking if he’d like to contribute to our final print issue. He teased “one small, telling anecdote” that illustrated his time at City Paper. We spoke on the phone the next day, and that’s where our conversation (edited slightly for length and clarity) starts. —Mitch Ryals
Neil Drumming: I’ll be really honest with you, I was a kid, probably 22 or 23, just got out of college. I applied for City Paper two or three times—twice in the advertising department, and then I got the City Lights job. And then slowly I started writing about stuff I would see. I had no experience writing for a newspaper.
But the thing I remember most was the listings were done in this corner, and I split the responsibility with someone else who sat in the corner with me. Ta-Nehisi Coates was working there at the time, and we became friends and he would come and sit on my desk or hang over the cubicle wall and we would shoot the shit all the time. Just talk about stuff we cared about, mostly music, but everything really.
And one day we were having an argument about the group A Tribe Called Quest, which is seminal to both of us. I’m from Queens and I used to see Q-Tip at the bus stop. I loved Tribe. We were arguing about whether or not they should break up. I think this was around the time their fourth album came out.
There were all these rumors and we were arguing about, ‘Is Tribe dead? Is it over? Are they gonna still be good?’ And someone came over to the desk and heard us arguing so vehemently and was like, why don’t you guys just write that for an arts feature? And we did!
Who knows what it meant to anybody, but what it meant to me was that the stuff that I cared about, which was pretty narrow when I was in my early 20s, had a place in the real world, in the bigger world, that this newspaper that to me was a big deal had sanctioned me talking shit about one of my favorite bands. And it made it feel like it was relevant, and it wasn’t just in my head—that it actually belonged in the world somehow.
And in general my experience at City Paper was that. I had not done culture criticism or arts journalism before, and I just started doing it, and they trusted me. I just had to trust my own sensibilities. That was the gift that City Paper gave me.
I’ll tell you one other stupid story. I got my nose broken for a feature story I wrote.
I found this guy, Abdul, who started a record label called the House of Abdul. And he put these ads in music magazines looking for a young rapper. And he found a young rapper, and he signed him. I remember Abdul put $60,000 of his own money into putting out his first hip-hop album.
I wanted to write about how hard it is to launch your own record label in D.C. and launch an artist. So I followed these guys around and watched them do promotions and go to clubs and give out the white label version of the vinyl. And I remember the promotion guy, I think his name was Fahim, was like, “It’s really hard to get DJs to play this record because it’s not that great.”
Which for me, that was a great quote! He was the guy they hired. So I wrote up this feature and it had that quote in it. And I remember [then-editor David] Carr being like, “That’s a big step for you. You divorced yourself from it.” So I was really happy.
And then one night me and a bunch of my friends were standing outside the 9:30 Club. KRS-One was performing. And I see a car pull up and the rapper from my story, Millennium, and his manager, Casino—never trust a guy named Casino—get out of the car. This is like three months after the article came out. So I know they’re gonna say something about the article, good or bad. But they didn’t say anything. The kid stood there, and the manager rushed around my friends and just punched me square in the face and knocked me out on the street in front of the 9:30 Club and broke my nose. I remember I blacked out. I think an ambulance came. And I woke up the next morning with my face black. It was like I was wearing a mask.
I remember Carr called me into his office and called the owner of the label and bitched him out on the phone. But the guy was like, “I’d have done the same thing,” which is crazy for a grown ass man to say that.
But Carr backed me up fully on that, and I felt like the institution was behind me. It was a little thing, and of course what are you gonna do? Let one of your reporters get the shit beat out of them? But I felt supported.
Those are two of the many ridiculous things that happened to me. Now you can ask your questions and get something you can actually use.
How long were you the City Lights editor?
It was probably 1997 to 2000? I don’t remember how the rankings went. There was somebody over me, so maybe that was the City Lights editor? And I was an assistant editor?
Why did you want that job?
Because I was really into hip-hop and the culture around it and by extension arts. I think Ta-Nehisi remembers this. I think this is true. I used to read his music reviews, and I think he wrote a review of a Nas album, and I remember writing an angry letter to him about it.
But it was reading stuff like that. This is why it makes me sort of sad that, not just your paper, but papers like this are decimated. The first thing I would do in any city when I visited, and especially when I got to D.C., was to try to figure out how to have a life and what bar to go to and what music to see. It was the touchstone.
Of course I wanted to work there. They were the only people in a conservative city like D.C. talking about the things that I cared about and pointing at things that I was interested in.
So it would have been the only ideal place really for me to work.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve written for City Paper?
I wrote a review of a Maxwell concert. Maxwell had sold out seven shows in D.C. in one week—seven shows in a row. And I went to review his concert. It was crazy. It was like all the men brought dates, women as dates, and the men just disappeared. It was just so fun to be at and so weird. That’s probably my favorite because it was fun to write, and I think it was pretty funny, and I had a good time with it.
But after that I went on to write entertainment journalism stuff at Entertainment Weekly. I don’t think I wrote a single thing at Entertainment Weekly in five or six years that was anything close to what I wrote at City Paper in terms of quality and daring.
Why is that?
Because Entertainment Weekly had a magazine-wide voice. The opposite was true ofCity Paper. My entire worth there was my personality, my idiosyncrasies, how I thought about the world. That was everything to them. That was what they wanted from me. There was no quota to fill, it was just, ‘“If you have something to say here, we trust you.”
That seems like an incredibly valuable experience for a 20-something to have in a professional setting.
Yeah and I didn’t even know what a professional setting was supposed to be. I mean, I was garbage. I had no discipline—I still don’t have much discipline as a writer—but all I had was a little bit of personality and flair. They gave me enough skills to get jobs. Rolling Stone and Blaze magazines called me. I remember them calling me at the City Lights desk. Like I was a peon. I was just doing listings and writing on the side, right? It wasn’t even my job. But I got enough licks in writing at City Paper doing 1,600 word reviews—1,600 word reviews, that doesn’t even exist anymore!—I got enough reps in doing that that I got a job in New York at a magazine.
Can you describe how City Paper fit in the local media ecosystem when you were there?
Only in an anecdotal way, which is that you definitely felt the effects. When you would write something, it was like the people that you wrote about would, in the worst-case scenario, punch you in the face, but you knew that it had an effect.
Did you feel some kind of way about your work appearing in print?
Oh my god, yeah. Just seeing a big spread, broadsheet of your work and your byline. Dude, that was incredible. That shit was incredible. To just pick it up off the street. Yeah, I wrote that. Being on U Street at a bar and being like, “Yeah, I’m the person who wrote that piece that you’re reading.”
What are we losing by ceasing print production?
For me, I feel the effects of this even in my work. When I was at This American Life especially, but any producer at This American Life, is constantly looking for stories. And for a long time, I was like, I’m just gonna see what Jason Cherkis is writing about. I just thought, this is where the best local stories are being told: at alt-weeklies across America. I’ll just find them and talk to their writers and see if they want to do radio. I just thought it would be that simple. And those papers just started drying up, literally disappearing while I was looking for them.
So for me personally, I’m like, who is telling the kind of story that I want to make as a radio producer but also that I like to read as a person? What is going on near me? And not just what’s happening, but who’s doing it? The kind of human-driven narrative behind the things that you see in front of you. That’s what City Paper was for me.
Any words of wisdom?
Anybody who still works there and is still writing, you should be proud of that work. The aesthetic and goal of an alt-weekly, the need for that still exists in the world. I’m looking for those stories. What makes me sad is it’s fun work, and it sounds like it’s not as much fun for you guys. With the struggles and everything, it can’t be that much fun. And that sucks because it should be. The fun of it and the excitement of it and the challenge made good work.
Before we hang up, Drumming asks if I’ll pass along his greetings to the staffers he worked alongside, including his friend Ta-Nehisi.
I haven’t talked to the dude in a while, but probably the best thing to come out of my time there is a 15-year friendship, and it was one of the best times in my life.
Neil Drumming is the managing editor for Serial Productions, a New York Times company, and a former producer for This American Life. He wrote and directed the 2013 film Big Words. He wrote for City Paper from 1995 to 2000.
Fresh from completing my master’s in journalism at Columbia University, I arrived in D.C. in the summer of 1994 as a young Black woman accustomed to navigating predominantly White spaces. D.C. in the ’90s was a welcome oasis of Black excellence. The city lived up to its Chocolate City moniker. It had a southern-with-hustle vibe, rich local cultures, and warm hospitality. That summer, I fell in with a group of talented poets and writers who frequented open mics along U Street NW. We quickly became close friends, and remain so to this day.
I don’t remember exactly when I wrote my first freelance piece for City Paper, but by 1995 David Carr had become the editor and had secured funding for a new minority fellowship that paid a modest salary. I also worked a second part-time job as a teaching artist with DC WritersCorps to supplement my income.
In 1996, I wrote what would be my biggest story for the paper, a 4,500-word cover piece titled “Why B.E.T. Sucks.” This was decades before HBO and Netflix would provide a platform for original programming written by and starring Black creators. At that time, Black Entertainment Television was the beginning and the end of Black popular representation on cable. The network, helmed by media mogul Robert Johnson, was headquartered in D.C., so the story and incendiary headline grabbed the local community.
For the story, I watched 24 hours of B.E.T., which I did with the help of a VHS recorder and alarms set to change the tapes at odd hours. I wrote from a first-person perspective about why I was dissatisfied: endless video vixens, infomercials, and lackluster original programming. In true City Paper form, the piece was irreverent and cheeky, but still made serious points. It wasn’t enough just to have Black faces in high places. I questioned how we could advance the narrative. What does it mean when Black folks traffic in the same tired tropes that White media have for decades? It was important to me that the criticism of the network come from the perspective of a young, Black person.
The piece was picked up on the alternative news wire and reprinted in other cities, including LA Weekly. It was one of the few times I received hate mail for a piece of writing.
Being a staff writer for Washington City Paper legitimized my identity as a young writer at a crucial stage of my creative development and gave me an education in the arts. I had the opportunity to peek behind the veil and meet and interview people I admired, such as the late local DJ Sam “the Man” Burns. As a multidisciplinary artist, those journalistic skills are a huge part of my artistic practice today. They’ve taught me how to go into a new community and understand what it means to authentically engage and connect and listen to people’s stories and to distill that into a creative experience.
For my solo dance performance, “American Woman,” currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, I used a lot of my journalistic skills to go through archival footage of speeches and interviews about the political and cultural contributions of Black women in America.
I can still recall the anticipation of picking up the latest edition of City Paper on Thursday morning: the thrill of riding the Metro and seeing dozens of people on the train holding a paper with my story on the cover, and the perk of knowing I could get a copy at the office when all of the boxes ran out of papers. But it’s been many years since I picked up a physical copy of City Paper. The same is true for the Washington Post and New York Times, for that matter. I am a part of the cohort of digital-only readers and ultimately part of the reason so many outlets have now put their last print editions to bed.
Some weeks after my story on B.E.T. ran, I received an unusual call. “Please hold for Don Cornelius,” a woman’s voice said on the other end of the line. As a longtime lover of Soul Train, the show that Cornelius founded and hosted for decades, my first thought was that this must be some elaborate hoax cooked up by a friend. But moments later, I was talking to the OG Black media innovator—he of the always-clean suits and perfectly shaped ’fro with a voice second only to Barry White in its delicious baritone.
Mr. Cornelius had read my article and assumed that I was based in Los Angeles. He wanted to meet the young writer who was ballsy enough to confront the current Black media establishment. He was looking to expand his team and invited me to interview for a job. Had I been a more savvy or ambitious person, I would have booked a flight to L.A., and crashed on a friend’s couch in order to meet one of my personal heroes. But alas, I have always been a good art nerd and a bad networker. As I stood barefoot in my living room, cradling the cordless phone to my ear, Mr. Cornelius gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. In his smooth-as-silk voice, he said, “You cool, Holly Bass. You cool.”
Holly Bass is a multidisciplinary artist and the national director of the Turnaround Arts program at the Kennedy Center. She wrote for City Paper from 1995 to 2001.
When I began writing for the paper in the late ’90s, the whole office operated by the print deadline. Each new issue started with editorial meetings in the conference room on the third floor of a bland building located within sniffing distance of the puke and warm piss wafting from Adams Morgan’s main drag. The small room would fill up to the walls with writers, editors, interns, and sometimes a few freelancers.
The room overlooked the deck, where the lucky few got to park and the rest of us got to smoke Camel Lights while we waited for sources to call us back. The story meetings were brutal. If your idea sucked or your pitch was longer than a short paragraph, you could get roughed up. My first two years there I barely spoke during these meetings. We were all sensitive nerds with snotty exteriors in a newsroom that trained us to worry about every detail. One senior copy editor warned me early on: “It takes brass balls to work here.”
The list of never-accepted pitches ran long: no store openings, no stories that read like tourist trips through a rough part of town, no reporters going undercover, no stories involving even a whiff of a conflict of interest, no hot takes. If you had made an error the previous week, you had to explain to everyone how you screwed up. If you were late to the meeting by a minute, you didn’t even bother showing up. Unbelievably, there were always story ideas that made it through. And with those ideas came the next big nightmare: a deadline.
Sometimes you had a few days, sometimes a week, sometimes a month. But that deadline was always looming, and I sucked at deadlines. Because the paper was printed—and at the time had very little investment in a web presence—everything hinged on writers, photographers, graphic artists, editors, proofreaders, and sources cooperating enough to fill the paper each week. In that era, the paper could be as long as an Ian McEwan novel.
As far as I remember only one full-time reporter was married with kids. When I started dating someone, an editor expressed disappointment, joking that I now wouldn’t have as much time for work. I was making $12,000 on a freelance contract. It didn’t matter, marriage or not. The cover stories that filled the paper required obsession and hustle and sometimes writing 3,000 words overnight. We didn’t deserve our editors, who had the patience of mechanics working on cars with limited Blue Book value. Some pieces took weeks and weeks to come together and just as long to fix. Editors were always looking for the one thing that would make our stories go. Some stories never got there.
The real anxiety for the entire newsroom would set in on Sunday night and be on blast by Monday afternoon. There were never enough news briefs for the City Desk feature. Tuesdays were manic: Loose Lips would need a second item, freelance critics would be late with their picks for the City Lights section, the cover story would need a better kicker. The reporter with the cover—which could run 10,000 words—inevitably kept wanting to make changes (this was mostly me). Editors had to settle on headlines. Photographs, taken with a film camera, had to be developed, selected, and given cutlines. If a story was important enough to warrant a call with the paper’s jovial Midwest libel lawyer, you got the tiniest inkling that your work might be worthwhile.
Wednesdays were all heartache and stress, right up till the paper shipped to the printer. Reporters and editors kept tinkering, struggling for objective accuracy and a subjective degree of polish and style. Reporters had to fact-check their own stories—relying on stacks of phone books and oversize street atlases, patient librarians, and phone call after phone call with sources. There were always a thousand other asks, a hundred pleas: I’ll die if this gets cut. Can we get that source on the record? Can we go back to that neighborhood one more time? Can we fact-check that last bit—the part I just added without telling you? Can we bring back that section on the inmate’s backstory? This last answer was no—and nearly 15 years later, it still hurts.
Our diligent copy editor, a Deadhead with a near-perfect SAT score and our Wednesday General, read each story. Copy-editing marks were made in pencil on the page. If she had questions, she scrawled them in the margins. (The more she wrote, the higher your stress level; it meant your story was a mess. But it also meant your story was about to get a lot better.) My drafts often resembled scrapbooks, with ribbons of new text stapled to pages, names marked as fact-checked, and scribbled answers to the copy editor’s queries above the problem paragraphs. At a critical point in the process, stories made it to “greens”—galleys printed on green paper—and three more people read the piece, including the editor-in-chief (again). The churn didn’t let up until you had no choice but to stop.
By 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the production team pasted corrected galleys, along with illustrations, headlines, and ads, onto camera-ready “boards” in a large, airy space on the third floor. The tension eased somewhat. The room was an oasis of X-ACTO knives and wax, with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew spinning at low volume on the CD player. Higher-ups hunched over the pages scanning for blemishes or fuckups that needed fixing. The reporter who had the cover story that week was given $20 for beer and snacks. In a corner of the room, they would assemble a plastic bag of baby carrots, a tub of hummus, and two six-packs. Reporters would stand around, quietly critiquing the spread and how it lacked salty and sweet. The $20 never went far enough. But we were underpaid journalists, and that was dinner.
When the paper was sent off to the printer, the tension transferred to the tireless circulation crew, who would be loaded up and on the road by early Thursday morning. There were no more details to cram in, no more edits to make. Next week was tomorrow’s worry. The copy editor returned to her hot, book-lined cave with photographer Darrow Montgomery and a writer or two. Time for a smoke, the rest of the beer, or some Scotch kept in a drawer. You felt the week’s grind in your bones, and you smelled it on your skin, this up-all-night funk some of us wore like cologne.
The rest of the newsroom was still and quiet, the dog-eared reporter’s notebooks snowed under by drifts of that week’s drafts. In the worst cubicles, the books and papers looked like a heap of springtime slush in a grocery store parking lot, never thawing, growing filthier by the day. We’d stub our cigarettes in an empty Altoids tin kept on a bookshelf. The bottom of the tin would warm as it filled with our ashes.
The next day perhaps you’d get your reward. You’d spot someone reading the paper on the Red Line. You’d watch them skim the bold names in Loose Lips and then flip to the club listings. You had to hope they were just saving your story for later. By Sunday morning, that week’s paper would have become litter, crab-walking down the sidewalk or wedged into the corner of a subway seat. Within a month, we would barely remember the names of the people in our stories—the exceptions would haunt us forever.
It was always on to next.
Jason Cherkis is a reporter and writer based in D.C. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 and is working on a book about suicide. He wrote for City Paper from 1997 to 2011.
The thing newbies always talked about was the sex workers in the lobby. In those days, City Paper was thick with classifieds and personals and ads for “adult services.” Pre-web, buyers would purchase the ads in person, lining up in high heels and tiny skirts at the front counter on Champlain Street NW. Just another day at an alt-weekly in the time of robust staffs, big circulation, and 180-page print papers every Thursday.
In a lot of ways, the writers were the least oddball people in the place. In the ’90s, production—that’s the people who paste up the book, kids—was full of creatives and music-scene people, folks who would drop work to go off on tour. We editorial types, by contrast, were postcollegiate and conventionally ambitious and really cared about our day jobs. And most of us realized that we’d landed at a place where those ambitious could take wing. When I first started contributing to the paper, there was a murderers’ row of talent around the place: Eddie Dean and David Plotz and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Amanda Ripley and Brad McKee and Jason Cherkis and Stephanie Mencimer and Erik Wemple and a bunch of other people much smarter than me. On Wednesday nights, when we closed the print issue, the cover story author would go out and fetch beer and snacks. The next morning, when the papers arrived, the office would be quiet except for the rustling pages. I thought, naively, that all journalism jobs were like this: A team of wiseasses dissecting the task of writing, working extra hard because I didn’t want to disappoint them.
At the center of it all was David Carr, the editor. I started writing for the paper not long after he showed up from Minnesota, and he hired me full-time in 1997. At first, I had a seat right by his office, where the walls were so thin that I could hear him working stories and cajoling sources and pushing back at angry callers. It was great eavesdropping: The time a community activist called to complain about being called an “asshole” (after listening to the guy for a while, Carr rang off by saying, “Ya know, Stu, you really are an asshole”). Or the time an overwrought D.C. councilmember called to complain that no one praised all the sacrifices he made for the city (“So quit!” Carr responded). Once I made the mistake of filing a story that used the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” “I am disappointed that you think this is acceptable language for Washington City Paper,” he said, before changing it to an elaborate metaphor involving Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Chicago Fire.
The thing is, the tough-love schtick worked: He made amazing papers. “Our job is to restore consequence,” he would say, exhorting watchdog coverage of a dysfunctional government that had just been taken over by a Congressional control board. Still, while people feel proudest of accountability coverage, the nice thing about a weekly was that the package had to include other things: Zany headline puns (“I’m OK. Eurotrash.”), goofy comics, unnecessary Shakespearean references in the Loose Lips column, and News of the Weird. Oh, and downright beautiful pieces of literary journalism: We regularly did cover stories that ran 8,000 words. We needed them to keep the ads apart.
Eventually, the staff had grown enough that we took over an extra floor of the building. I got promoted to be Carr’s deputy. Writers left, new writers came. Part of Carr’s spiel when hiring was that he couldn’t pay much, but if we were who we said we were, he eventually wouldn’t be able to afford us. That’s what happened with me. I left in 2000, and it felt like graduating.
Ten years later I came back—as editor. The return was a bit like reencountering an old friend who had aged dramatically. The personality was the same, but the body had withered. The intervening years had seen Craigslist decimate classifieds and voicey local blogs collect audiences who might once have been alt-weekly devotees. If you showed up early to meet a friend at a bar, you could now pull out your phone to pass the time, instead of picking up the paper from one of the racks that used to be ubiquitous at restaurants. City Paper had been sold, then gone bankrupt, and was now owned by the investment fund that had fronted the money. On Champlain Street, we had long since given up that extra floor. The sex workers, if they bought ads at all, were doing so online. The staff was about half the size it had been. The book size my first week back was 72 pages, on smaller paper. It would soon dwindle further.
But that personality! Still smart-alecky and ambitious and eager to stir shit up. I found myself learning a ton from the rising stars: Alan Suderman, who wrote Loose Lips, Lydia DePillis, who covered real estate, Jon Fischer, who edited arts, and Shani Hilton, who helmed City Desk.
As editor, I tried to reestablish some of the print hallmarks, like a big weekly cover story, on the logic that we shouldn’t give up our strongest elements. And in an environment where the rest of legacy local media was also being whupped, I wanted to keep up the energy on city politics—albeit in our own way. I once trudged down to the Wilson Building to be chastised by the then-D.C. Council chairman, who didn’t like the nickname Suderman had given him after reporting on his taxpayer-funded “fully loaded” SUV. We kept using the nickname, and not too long after that, the chairman resigned his office and pleaded guilty to (nonautomotive) federal charges. Another time, we sent Fischer and staff photographer Darrow Montgomery on a cruise featuring a bunch of D.C. music-scene types. Because the ship stopped in the Bahamas, that may have made them the first foreign correspondents in City Paper history. The piece ran with a headline nodding to David Foster Wallace: “A Supposedly Punk Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
The paper’s budget was hard to navigate—at one point, we couldn’t even replace Montgomery’s missing camera lens—but it forced us to use some magazine-style innovating. We did a lot of packages and took advantage of our great print designers. One of those got more attention than anything else that happened in my tenure, and perhaps in the history of City Paper. For years, Dave McKenna’s Cheap Seats column had chronicled the various ignominies of Daniel Snyder and his football team. I had the bright idea to pull together a guide to the lowlights, aimed at unhappy fans. For the cover, we used a picture of Snyder, but scrawled a mustache and devil horns on his face, the way a fifth grader might deface a yearbook picture of some unpopular teacher. Snyder was not amused. He sued.
The tension of nine months of legal back-and-forth stressed every existing fissure in the organization. The public response was massive; readers kicked in tens of thousands of dollars for legal defense. What the suit was really about, we figured, was getting McKenna off the beat. To their great credit, no one in ownership ever told me to do that. It would have been a betrayal, and it would have tanked the brand.
With courts likely to toss the much-ridiculed case, Snyder folded his cards right before the first game of the next season. In an interview with the New York Times, he admitted not having read the package in the first place. That made him a rarity: Thanks to the suit, it became the most-read story in City Paper history. Social media allowed it to travel, but people still came to the office to ask for hard copies for posterity.
It’s odd to think the best-remembered incident during my time as editor involved an NFL team. Professional sports coverage is one type of journalism that isn’t disappearing. A lot of the other stuff City Paper published has a less certain future in American journalism: Coverage of relatively obscure local officials, critical appraisals of lost-to-the-ages punk bands, a willingness to go big on stories about nobodies. None of that goes away with print. But the ability to put it on the cover of a stack of dead trees in a way that makes a statement is something any editor will miss. And a lot of readers will too, I suspect.
Michael Schaffer writes the Capital City column in Politico. He was editor of City Paper from 2010 to 2012 and later editor in chief of Washingtonian.
The second-best Wednesday I had at City Paper was the night we closed an investigation on D.C. slumlord Sanford Capital. I was the managing editor at the time, and I did the story with a staff reporter, Andrew Giambrone.
The weekly print edition created a middle space—12 hours in which the work was done, but not published. Over many years, many City Paper staffers took this middle time as an opportunity to drink, and that’s what Andrew and I did that night. After the routine drinks with the staff in the office, we went to a bar and got one or two more.
That Wednesday night was particularly sweet. The information in our story was devastating, but I wanted D.C. to know about it. Plus, I was sure we’d beat the Post, whose reporters were working on the same story. (We did.) I was confident in my editor, Liz Garrigan. And I was asleep by 10 that night, eager to wake up and go to work the next day.
There were worse Wednesday nights in my future. A few months later, I became the editor of City Paper, which added a layer of pressure I felt I could never quite manage. There were Wednesdays I went home and edited more stories, late into the night; Wednesdays when I didn’t know if the paper would exist in a month; Wednesdays when the after-work drinks felt like a burden, even if I didn’t partake; Wednesdays when I knew the staff was angry about their working conditions and they’d start howling as soon as I left the office.
The hard times made the wins all the more precious. I loved knowing we had a good story coming out, and I loved it when the articles and photos fit together like a onetime puzzle—like someone could read from cover to cover and enjoy something on every page.
But the best night I had at City Paper was one I didn’t see or understand. I was in my early 20s and not yet a journalist. The editor was Erik Wemple, whom I didn’t know. My picture was in the paper that Wednesday night—a cub reporter had interviewed me for his first big City Paper story. When it came out the next day, my friends and colleagues kept calling to say they’d seen me in the paper. The reporter, Justin Peters, called too. We were already friends, and he met me with a copy of the paper, and we took a long walk. Today he’s my best friend—and my husband of more than a decade.
When I worked at City Paper, the arts editor, Matt Cohen, had a quip. About once a week, he’d find a way to say: “But isn’t it really about the friends we made along the way?” His words didn’t strike me at the time. I hardly even noticed and didn’t laugh—it was just something Matt said. But as I wrote this piece, his words are the ones I remembered most of all.
Alexa Mills was the managing editor of Washington City Paper from 2016 to 2017 and the editor from 2017 to 2020.
Considering how many Wednesday afternoons I spent worrying about City Paper’s print edition, I am a little surprised to realize that my fondest memories of the paper have nothing to do with the painstaking hours of proofing, the drinks and snacks after we were done, or even the supreme delight of finally settling on the perfect cover line (usually thanks to a last-minute bit of brilliance from Darrow Montgomery).
Sure, all of that was a lot of fun—well, OK, the proofing wasn’t always fun, but the rest of it was.
No, when I think about the end of City Paper as a print product, I mostly think of the time long before I worked there. In high school in Rockville, in the early 1990s, my friends and I would stop at Tower Records every week to pick up a copy. When I moved back to D.C. in 2000, I grabbed one on the way to the Metro after leaving work on Thursdays. If I was out meeting friends somewhere back in the pre-smartphone days, I’d read and reread the week’s paper before they got there, the way you’d scroll Twitter or Instagram now to kill time and/or learn something. I used to keep Best of D.C. issues around for months in my living room; I don’t know how often I ever bothered to refer back to them, necessarily, but I liked having the option. I picked the paper up for the carefully reported, artfully written cover stories, but also for the columns, and the Straight Dope and Savage Love, and to laugh or gawk at the missed connections classified ads. It was always more than a week’s worth of entertainment, and there it was, week in, week out, free for whoever wanted one.
I hope City Paper finds nothing but success in its new online-only mode, and I realize the print edition probably hasn’t made much business sense for years. Clicking “publish” on a great story when I worked there was a thrill, too. But I’ll still miss the paper as I first knew and loved it.
Mike Madden was the managing editor of Washington City Paper from 2010 to 2012 and the editor from 2012 to 2015.
NATALIE HOPKINSON AND REGINOLD ROYSTON
Natalie Hopkinson and Reginold Royston worked as interns at City Paper in the mid-’90s. They became good friends and now both work in academia: Hopkinson as a professor at Howard University, and Royston as a professor of African studies and information studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The two asked to be interviewed together, and shared a byline on a story about interracial relationships, “Love Knows Color,” in 1997. That’s where our conversation starts. It’s been edited for length and clarity. —Mitch Ryals
NH: So embarrassing. Maybe you’re still proud of it, Reggie.
RR: Oh you know, I’m proud of what we did when we were 19 or whatever. It’s less so these days, but it was very taboo to be in an interracial relationship at the time, especially if you were at Howard, and I know we were both coming from our segregated cities. So we had something to say on it.
NH: I haven’t read it in a while, but I just cringe at it a bit because it feels like one way you can read it is us throwing cold water on interracial relationships. But what I think is true about the impulse is this whole kumbaya thing around “love is blind.” That’s nonsense. Race is a thing. There’s no such thing as being blind to race. But where it got perceived as an attack on interracial couples, I don’t like that. If I were writing it now, I would be more careful. We got a lot of angry letters.
RR: For weeks, maybe months.
NH: It was good training for the rest of my career. You just get used to people yelling at you and having to defend yourself. David Carr, he was just a shit-starter.
NH: The newspaper shouldn’t just lay there. It needs to jump up and want to be read and talked to and yelled at. That was one of the things I learned from working with him.
RR: He wasn’t easy either, he was a pretty rough editor to work under. I think rough is a generous word. And we took that energy back to the student newspaper, the Hilltop. We were already trying to be rabble-rousers at the Hilltop, and having interned at City Paper unleashed us to be totally irreverent but also to be good storytelling reporters.
Why did you want to work here?
NH: I think Ta-Nehisi was there, and he connected us. You didn’t learn about literary journalism [in school]. Like, there were no classes on that. So how else would you learn that? And there was always a sharp angle, there was always a take, there was an opinion, there was an attitude. You were supposed to have a point of view, which wasn’t allowed in the daily newspaper journalism with the sort of B.S. objectivity that they still try to pretend like they have. There was none of that with City Paper.
It was a place where you learned the takedown. Sometimes you just need to take people down. That’s the kind of thing you learn at City Paper: Some people become so powerful and have abused their power in such a way that you really do have to just …
RR: Slap ’em with the facts.
NH: Yes! And there is an art to that. You can’t just say, “I don’t like her haircut.”
RR: One of my favorite images from City Paper was this graphic that ran while I was there. They had the diamond of D.C. and it was one color and there was this little sliver around Capitol Hill all the way to Georgetown. That graphic said, “This is D.C.” And then there was an arrow to the sliver: “This is what the Washington interns see.” That’s what the City Paper seemed like before us. They weren’t covering Black D.C. in any sort of depth. It was all about Northwest, and Capitol Hill intrigue. It was about roasting the mayor. And we brought in young Black voices.
NH: Yeah, Black people were sort of like punching bags. The local power was Black and so City Paper saw it as a need to take down the local power, but you couldn’t avoid the racial connotations given the writing staff, so it was kind of this weird space that the City Paper was in.
I’m so fond of our time at City Paper and the lessons I learned there and writing about politics, culture, and everything. I wonder, Reggie, what’s your take on where the alt-weeklies go?
RR: It’s a good question. Those weeklies are important, and they were important for me as a musician, as a music critic, as a reader. Before the internet took over listings … they were really places to hear about what’s gonna happen, to plan your week. Then the story sits around. You hold it. Right now I’m getting back into ordering magazines to my house because I want things to see. I want to be like, “Oh you need to read this thing.” My children need to see what’s in Essence regularly.
NH: I think also journalism as a whole is becoming sort of like being an artist. It’s only for the elite because only the elite can afford it. I think we were only paid 10 cents a word. Something crazy.
Most people can’t afford to do that, but if you were of a certain social class—Reggie and I, middle class; Ta-Nehisi middle class—you have a certain kind of access that comes with being in a certain social class.
Where do you see City Paper going, Natalie?
NH: Things move on, so you just have to evolve and find relevance. I’m hoping that’s what happens with City Paper: that it takes the niche that it filled and continues to serve that but also evolve and figure out a way to stay relevant. There is a place for that voice and that perspective.
Reggie, what did it mean to work for City Paper when you did as a young person?
RR: I’m not involved directly in journalism anymore, but I took the idea of grit, being unafraid and someone who’s gonna slap people with facts, with a lot of opinion and flair, having that freedom and license. You don’t get that working at a daily paper.
What’s lost with the death of the printed paper?
RR: With everything being so digital and competing for your attention through streams of data or media, you lose something that is tangible, static, and that cements the conversation, if only for a week.
I suppose you can get that by the immediacy of commenting and blogs, but our attention span moves way too quickly now. And we move through news way too quickly. And with something that sits around and demands your attention with something that’s tangible, with these great images, photographs, that’s what we’ve lost. We’ve lost the ability to have a common conversation in one space and there being an object of that conversation. Now, we are in a conversation, which is probably more interesting because of the diversity of voices, but everything is overwhelming us.
Jack Shafer was the editor of Washington City Paper from 1985 until 1995. He asked that I include a preemptive apology to those former staffers he neglects to mention but who were integral to the paper’s success. Our hour-long conversation has been edited for length and clarity. —Mitch Ryals
Why did you want the job?
Jack Shafer: I was a longtime enthusiast for long-form journalism and had spent a lot of time reading alt-weeklies, both the Chicago Reader and LA Weekly and LA Reader. And at the same time I was enamored with the kind of journalism you’d see in Rolling Stone and Esquire and in the mid ’70s, a slick magazine called New Times, which nobody remembers but should.
I thought there was an opportunity at City Paper to shape a publication that was about the city in which we lived. There really wasn’t anything that reported consistently, peer to peer, about what it was like to live in this city. We gave primacy to covering the D.C. Council, which the Post didn’t spend as much resources on as it should. Ken Cummins was very strong in covering the circus that was the D.C. Council then and Mayor Barry of course.
And I’ve always been interested in culture and was lucky enough to inherit Joel Siegel as a film critic and then bring Mark Jenkins in as the resident polymath. And if I’m tossing out credit, I could have never made it through those early years without Jon Cohen. He was essentially my copilot. Alona Wartofsky was there before I was there. She knew the city really well and gave the paper its broad stance in the arts. And I really owe a great debt of gratitude to Mike Dolan. As a freelancer, he contributed more cover stories than anybody.
Why did you leave?
At a certain point, I think at 10 years, you’ve basically done every story you set out to do. Staffers started to propose stories and I’d say, “Oh we did that in ’91.” That was fine for me. I didn’t want to repeat myself, but I began to think it was a little unfair of people who didn’t know the city, hadn’t had the benefit of editing the paper for 10 years. And it was a wise decision because David Carr came in and to my surprise ran lots of the stories that I had bounced. And they really did quite well.
That speaks to the value of the paper as an institution.
Right, right. There were never political litmus tests for a City Paper story. I ran a lot of stories whose premises I didn’t agree with, but I thought they were argued and reported really well. So the key was that the paper was really writer driven.
What was your vision for the paper? How did you shape it? Could you talk about how it changed over those 10 years?
My vision was to get the paper pasted up and straight and out the door by Wednesday at 6 o’clock so it could be printed. In the early days we were producing the paper out of Baltimore, so I would drive up there on Wednesday and supervise the layout and proofreading and the final touches. Very time consuming and awkward not having production in your back room.
So in the beginning the vision might have been to create a paper that was about the city, but fuck vision, I had to get the paper out the door, and that was the most pressing thing. When the paper goes out the door, the clock starts again, and you have another seven days, not so much to fulfill the vision but to get another paper out the door.
What did the paper mean to its readers and how did you know?
I think it depends from reader to reader. The very first piece of mail I got after my first issue was an anonymous letter that I pinned up over my desk and kept for years. It said, “Your paper sucks shit out of a dead dog’s asshole.” And I thought that’s the reader that I’m looking for. A reader who’s discerning, who has a way with words, who isn’t afraid to be vulgar to make their point. And I think the goal every week was to make the paper a little less shitty. I never heard back from that gentleman or gentlelady. But it would really depend on who you saw.
I never fooled myself that Washington was waiting with baited breath to read our cover story or reading Joel Siegel on film. I think that a lot of people picked up the paper for the listings, for the advertisements, the classifieds, and in the long tradition of newspapering, to kill time. This was before you could carry around a super computer in the palm of your hand where you can dial up great works of literature, the latest news, pornography. You don’t even have to get your fingers dirty paging through the newspaper.
I heard a story that you once found a terrified reporter sleeping under their desk.
It was probably me. I slept a lot of times at the paper. I’m sure that it happened. A nap at the paper is a long wonderful tradition.
You’re a media columnist now. If you were to write something about the print death of this newspaper, what would you write?
I guess I’ve been waiting for this to happen for a long time because so many of the other papers in the country have fallen. Mortality seems to have been built into these papers, and they have expired as both a cultural and as a business force. You have to be careful about not being too overly sentimental about preserving the things that shaped you. I’m sure that people were really upset when horse and buggies departed, and I think this was an inevitable end.
What are we losing with the death of the printed paper?
I remember when City Paper was doing matches ads long before the Washington Post got there, and we were doing same sex matching ads, and the Post would do only opposite sex ads. I don’t know when it was, but it was cultural breakthrough when Post started running same sex ads. The paper benefited by how conventional and straitlaced and out of the loop of city life that the Post was. I don’t think you get a reflection of the flavor and variety and the conflict that’s going on in the city and we were able to do that.
For me, not being able to pick up a City Paper is like coming home after a hard day of work and you go to your refrigerator because you know you have one beer left, and it’s gone. That feeling of loss and depression that you’re not going to have the comfort of the bottle and the cold brew going down your throat.
Any words of wisdom?
I think it’s going to be really hard. The unique thing about City Paper was that it stood out. It was visible everywhere, and people referred to it, and people kept it in their houses to figure out where to go at night, what shows to go see. I think the problem with an online publication is it’s hard to maintain that good visibility. The paper has an uphill climb and has had an uphill climb as circulation has fallen and there are fewer distribution points. And I think COVID kicked the shit out of it too.
After our interview, Shafer messaged to give his version of a common theme running through some of our conversations with former staffers. While the work is about telling human-centered stories, at least some of the reward is the humans we meet along the way.
“I forgot to say that I eventually got a wife out of City Paper,” Shafer said. “I married my last arts editor, Nicole Arthur, six years after I left the paper.”
I have no recall of the first time a copy of the Washington City Paper found its way into my hands, just as I no longer remember when I first became aware of the ubiquitous street boxes that served as its chief distribution point, but I am almost certain that I read that issue from back to front. At least half of the pages in those days were crammed with a seemingly inexhaustible bounty of classified ads, the sustenance that made the paper’s mission of chronicling the people, the personalities, the cumulative eccentricities of the nation’s capital possible. Drum instruction, guitar lessons, model/actress wanted, redecorate your home, hypnosis, and spiritualist healing. Find what you need or simply find out what others have needed. In the years before algorithms came to catalog our every curiosity, those pages were a micro-font index of human need: the commercial, “DON’T LEASE ANOTHER BEEPER UNTIL YOU CALL MESSAGE WORLD,” the personal, “Clayton, be nicer to your chimp or I’ll report you to the ASPCA,” the transactional, “Uncontested Divorce $175” the mad volume of sexual miscellany, “Miss those spankings your dad used to deliver? Trim, attractive WM will fulfill your needs. No strings” or “Ladies, double your pleasure, two SWMs seeking 1-2 s/mwf for fun and games.”
The editors and journalists at the City Paper scoured D.C., crafting weekly installments covering the mundane, the absurd, the outrageous (had the paper itself been categorized as a genre it would have been a dramedy). Yet for all the work that went into creating the front of the book, all that reportage might not have been more revelatory than what was happening in the back of it. Some future anthropologist seeking to understand life in the nation’s capital during those days would comb through the sundry postings, the furtive inquiries the sum of happenings there. Not everything that appeared there was intentional. In the early ’90s, at a point at which the paper had become a staple in my life, a coworker from the old Crown Books between P Street and New Hampshire Avenue was cutting across Dupont Circle when a photographer stopped him saying he was shooting portraits of Washingtonians. This was at a point when the Circle was still overrun with rats and scams and on any given day either of the two might predominate. My friend sat for the impromptu photo shoot, signed a release, and was shocked a few weeks later when his picture showed up in a listing for vaguely worded “massage services.” Lesson learned.
The yield of those libidinous posts was WCP’s trademark long-form explorations of the D.C. life. Six-thousand words on a subject, now all but unheard of, was the standard. A job listing for the publication back in the day listed the preferred level of experience and job requirements along with the capped declaration that applicants must be able to handle long-form. So strange then that those advertisements for the unbridled world that the District back then might dwindle and then all but disappear, taking with them a vital part of the media landscape. The logic of the alt-weeklies, dating all the way back to the founding of the Village Voice, held that a city could sustain multiples narratives—the one typically chronicled in the solemn, official prose of what we now call legacy newspapers and another, less staid, stream of observation about those same locales. These outlets were not defined simply by their relationship to the larger newspapers they existed alongside but rather by the entire style of journalism they practiced: arch, irreverent, occasionally profane. Dispatches from Washingtonians to and for Washingtonians, as local as your corner bar.
Any institution that exists for as long as WCP contains multitudes—eras so rich with anecdotes, spectacles both small and grand, foibles and fuckups that could be the basis of a book of their own. Mine was the David Carr era, when D.C. was still regaled as Chocolate City and the paper’s skeptical-to-cynical coverage of Marion Barry’s leadership was shot through with race politics of the day. Black Washington regarded the City Paper with suspicion, which was not unrelated to the fact that the mostly Black city was being covered by paper’s mostly White staff. Carr entered this equation as editor in chief in 1995 and, with an almost stereotypically Midwestern degree of practicality set out to diversify the paper’s ranks. His initial class of recruits included Holly Bass, Neil Drumming, myself, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
This was not a panacea, but it was a difference. One time an irate Black reader called into the office screaming about a piece I’d written that touched upon several racial themes. The caller stopped his tirade mid-sentence and said, “Wait, are you Black?” When I indicated I was, he said “Oh, never mind,” and hung up.
We joined a staff that included Glenn Dixon as arts editor, Eddie Dean, Mike Schaffer, Erik Wemple, and Stephanie Mencimer as staff writers, and James Lockhart as an editor. Jake Tapper, then a frequent freelancer, wrote a still-memorable (and in some corners infamous) first-person piece about going on a blind date with a pre-White House Monica Lewinsky.
What I could not have known at the time was how integral City Paper would become to everything else I wanted to do later. We learned the metabolism of the weekly publication, from pitch to closing, the particulars of reporting, the imperatives of meeting deadlines, the double and triple checking of salient facts. The alt-weekly system served as a farm league where writers and editors could perfect their crafts, find their professional voices, and learn from the inevitable mistakes. The current struggles of local papers of all sorts but particularly the alt-weeklies has a compound effect of not only squeezing the many talented people doing this work right now, but also making it that much more difficult for tomorrow’s writers and critics to find a foothold in the arena. The Washington of that era no longer exists. In its place stands a cleaner, newer iteration of the capital city, one whose very functionality can remind you that grit makes more good news days. The city is less familiar to me these days. My mental geography of D.C. is marked as much by my recollection of what once stood at a particular corner or down a specific alley as any knowledge of what currently exists there. The disappearance of the once-ubiquitous City Paper boxes will render the city that much less familiar to the old heads of my era. A reminder of the great ambivalence of progress, a reminder to take note of what is because it invariably becomes what once was. Lesson learned.
Jelani Cobb is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He wrote for City Paper from 1995 to 2001.
City Paper consumed me with the drama, passion, and madness of a first love. It was a yeasty place in the late ’80s, filled with astonishing writers, editors, photographers, and artists; the limitations were my own ambitions and visions. We were a small, overworked crew led by Jack Shafer and his vacuum cleaner mind, crazy high batting average, and blunt, unsparing judgment of words, ideas, and people. The place had a sitcom vibe with a constant stream of freelancers, musicians, wacko wannabes, theater people, intellectuals, fakes, drunk illustrators, and outright scammers coming through the door. I wrote about dying broke and an old potter’s field, Marion Barry’s arrest, the Finders cult, polio and AIDS vaccines, wife beaters, my brother being run over by a truck, prison architects, drug rehab at Lorton Prison, Blacks in the USSR, taking TB meds to a TB patient handcuffed to his hospital bed, the wacky ER at DC General during crack, the making of a Smithsonian show on the Great Migration, squatters, guerrilla art, and Elvis’ FBI files. We had loud fights and louder parties, mixing with journalists from all stripes at Dan’s Cafe (airplane bottle alcohol) on Thursday nights. I made friends for life. I cannot imagine a better way to have spent those five years. But I also was relieved to leave, first love and all that. —Jon Cohen
“Do you look that way because everything you touch is turning to shit?”
David Carr was right. I had the forlorn look of a young man who turned everything he touched to shit. It was 1995 and I was 20 years old and had come to City Paper as part of Carr’s first batch of interns—he’d taken over the reins only a couple months before. He wanted me to take big chances. So I did. And I kept missing. Badly.
But now, Carr said, he was confident in my “dead guy.” This was a man named Jim Hill, a former typesetter and Navy veteran who sat in the D.C. morgue for nine months. From the start I had little interest in the D.C. government angle, but more interest in Hill. He had walked away from that suburban life so many people chased after, for one of desolation—dying alone, going unclaimed. I just wanted to tell his story.
In truth, I didn’t really know where it would lead. It meant hanging out with his old friends and getting yelled at by his relatives, spending nights at the racetrack and going to the room where he died. Eddie Dean at one point said, “Jesus! You’re Jim Rockford!”
When “Goner” appeared—the last week of my internship—it marked my only cover at City Paper. Years later, when my dad and I were having dinner with the Carrs, Carr said this was possibly his favorite piece of my career.
“What a way to come out swinging,” he said, turning to me. “You haven’t come close since.” —Sridhar Pappu
The camaraderie and the cussing. The laughter and the tears. The agony and the ecstasy. The love and the hate—especially the hate mail.
The staff of Washington City Paper in the ’90s: An odd group of contrarians and misfits, exiled from the corridors of power and shunned by polite society, who banded together despite high levels of dysfunction and low wages “to put out a goddamn paper,” in the mantra of editor David Carr.
The weekly mission: to explore the dimensions of conflict wherever it leads, from the streets and alleys of the nation’s capital to the darkest recesses of the human heart. “What all good stories have in common is conflict,” in the credo of Carr’s predecessor, Jack Shafer.
A highlight/job perk, among many: Cigarette breaks on the parking deck with film and music critic/iconoclast Joel E. Siegel as he exhaled clouds of mentholated wisdom, riffing on his favorite culture warriors (Val Lewton, Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Jean Vigo, Shirley Horn, et al.) and castigating slick frauds like Michael Feinstein.
The sheer pulpy heft of a 144-page, every-Thursday edition of Washington City Paper from its print-only heyday could make for sustaining, if unwieldy, reading fodder on a crowded Metro. That heft, as well as its status as a free weekly in the service of Free Speech and including an f-bomb when somebody in a story said one, was made possible by display ads from the likes of Atlantic Futons, Bigg Wolf Movie Discounters, and Royce’s Video Outlet, among many now-defunct advertisers and defenders of the First Amendment in the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.
We will miss the once-ubiquitous, often obnoxious rustle of CP’s unruly, ink-bleeding pages getting pawed and read to tatters in public places. It has been replaced with the quiet antiseptic scrolling and pervasive “mechanized hum of another world,” first described by the doomed protagonist of Steely Dan’s “Don’t Take Me Alive” from The Royal Scam, which featured the lyrics—of course—printed on the inner sleeve.
Good night, sweet print. You were a blast while it lasted. —Eddie Dean
The only meetings I never hated were led by Erik Wemple. I especially loved Fitness Tips and Food Talk for five minutes before the one-hour story meetings commenced (and loved how they never went longer. And also that he’d lock out latecomers [Jason Cherkis]). My favorite meetings were for the cover heds, where anyone in the building with a pulse was welcome. Darrow Montgomery often came up with the winner because he’s really a word guy disguised as one of the world’s best photographers. I don’t know if he came up with “Hot for Creature” for a story about a teacher obsessed with sasquatch. But he could have. —Jule Gardner Banville
In September 2012, I was a week or two into my new job as the Housing Complex reporter, and I went to a community meeting in Anacostia or Congress Heights. I can’t even remember what the meeting was about, but I distinctly remember that just a few minutes in, an elderly man stood up and started waving the latest issue of Washington City Paper, which had Alan Suderman’s story about the broken Certified Business Enterprise program on the cover. He railed about the corruption in city government and shouted, “You have to read the City Paper!”
That’s when it kind of hit me that the work we were doing really mattered. There’s sometimes a sense—inside City Paper and outside—that it’s a bunch of overeducated, underpaid nerds riffing on basement bands from the ’90s and $15 cocktails. But in the paper’s best days, which spanned decades, politicians feared us, community members needed us, and no one could beat us on the kinds of stories we pursued. I always got a little thrill on Thursdays when I’d watch people reach into our black-and-orange boxes to see what was on the cover. I’ll miss that terribly. —Aaron Wiener
I worked at City Paper during the height of Black Bart mania (IYKYK) on F St. NW. I took over the receptionist position, later passing it to Nicole Arthur before it was passed like a torch to members of Unrest, Velocity Girl, and Black Tambourine. I met pimps and hos face to face (the term sex worker wasn’t around yet) while taking adult services ads at reception and over the phone. At one point there were four office couples and you would often trip over them canoodling in the stairwell! Next stop was the scintillating world of classified advertising, doing data entry and seeing responses and photographs for personal ads. Amy Austin, the greatest boss ever, valued my work ethic so she helped me move into production, where Mark Jenkins tried to teach me to do text wraps on ancient (pre-Mac) computers. I eventually learned how to use a Mac and QuarkXpress, and I already knew how to cut galleys with an X-ACTO knife, wax them and paste them to the blue lines with a roller. Tuesdays were frantic in production: We put on the Shaft soundtrack while we prepared the display ads and the issue for press. (My proofreading skills and Mac savvy were enough to get me design jobs and eventually jobs in NYC at SPIN, Time Out NY, and Entertainment Weekly.) Alona Wartofsky and Jack Shafer helped me become a better writer with tough love and opportunities to write Clubland, Artifacts, and local news. We once scooped Sassy magazine by outing Ian Svenonius as the “Sassiest Boy in America” before they announced it. I’ll never forget writing about the Arlington couple who got divorced and she got the tiki bar so he opened a competing tiki bar across the road; I felt like Geraldo! But it was a good learning experience for real life. Writing about local music was challenging because you often ran into the people you wrote about later, and they never forgot what you wrote. In addition to many magical memories and great people I met there, I met my BFF, legendary indie-pop singer Pam Berry, at City Paper, and all our skills helped us do a print zine together, chickfactor. It’s currently printing its 30th-anniversary issue. —Gail O’Hara