Correction to This Article
This article about Washington City Paper misspelled former editor Jack Shafer's last name.

City Talk

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By Stephen Lowman
Sunday, August 9, 2009

The crack cocaine epidemic. The gentrification debate. The history of big-slice pizza in Adams Morgan.

For nearly three decades, Washington City Paper has been a guide to the machinations of District government, a chronicler of the city's arts scene, a snapshot of life in Washington beyond the monuments. And, as a July issue that featured a photo of Marion Barry above a sexually explicit headline unprintable in a mainstream paper proved, a City Paper cover story can still stir controversy.

The list of people who made their name at Washington City Paper is a who's who of journalists -- among them Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens (he reviewed local bars), ABC News's Jake Tapper and Slate Editor David Plotz -- many of whom still aggressively cover the District and many others who now report for larger media organizations. While City Paper has continued to win awards and scoop the District's larger media outlets, in recent years it has also lost a large portion of its audience. Content that was once a mainstay of alternative newspapers, such as classified ads and event listings, has fled to the Web. City Paper, like other newspapers, has suffered from a decline in print advertising -- ads that still make up most of the paper's revenue. The numbers of pages, long-form pieces and employees have shrunk.

Facing its own business troubles, longtime owner Chicago Reader sold City Paper to Creative Loafing, the national chain of alt-weeklies, in July 2007. But Creative Loafing found itself in huge debt, incurred in part by its purchase of City Paper, and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2008. Creative Loafing's chief executive, Ben Eason, is facing an equity auction this month that will determine the paper's fate.

Meanwhile, some of the individuals who shaped the paper reflect on what they helped create.

Russ Smith, co-founder (with Alan Hirsch) of Baltimore City Paper in 1977 and Washington City Paper in 1981: When it started, it was called 1981, for no good reason other than novelty. The idea was the paper would change the name each year. Another cool idea, no doubt hatched at some bar, but one that should have been scuttled.

Mark Perry, editor, 1983 to 1985: I was 30 at the time and freelancing for 1981. We were in a tumbledown townhouse on Sixth Street NW, right off Mass. Ave. There was a bar on the corner we'd go to after work. One of the dreams that every young reporter had in college was starting an alternative newspaper. If you were a young writer and you wanted to write, that's where you came. We really gave a damn about it.

Jeff Stein, editor, 1982 to 1983: I didn't know anything about this free circulation stuff; that was a total mystery to me. How do you make money on a free paper? But then I saw how it worked, the logic of it. I thought: Oh, I see. The paper is stacked up in a bar, and people are reading it at the bar, and the owner and managers can see that people are reading it, and they're advertising. We targeted that advertising segment that could not or would not advertise in The Post because it was too expensive. The ad people would slam the phone down, come running down the stairs and yell, "We got an ad from the Hair Cuttery!" It was like, Wow! You hit one out of the park!

Russ Smith: The beauty of a free weekly was that, editorially, it was entirely liberating. Because the paper was loaded with listings and classified and adult ads and comics, which is why 75 percent of people picked it up, as an editor I had the freedom to run whatever stories I wanted, not worrying whether many people would actually read them. In fact, we could have put out a paper with just a logo, and the pickup wouldn't drop much. Writers hated that basic truth, thinking it was their theater review that drew readers, but it was one of the first basic publishing lessons I learned.

Jeff Stein: What's really interesting that people aren't paying attention to? Or what's outrageous? Let's do stories that newspapers should do but don't. If we had an editorial policy at that time, it was: We are against jerks, jerks with power.

In January 1982, the biweekly newspaper was renamed Washington City Paper, and in November, it began publishing weekly. With both their papers financially troubled, Russ Smith and Alan Hirsch sold 80 percent of Washington City Paper that December to the owners of the influential, and profitable, alternative weekly Chicago Reader.

Jeff Stein: It almost happened simultaneously that I realized the newspaper had really caught on and that it was the beginning of the end for me. The Chicago Reader management comes to town, and they take me to some place like the Palm, so I know my execution is coming. While they were yapping on, these guys at the table next to us said, "Did you see that story on such and such in the City Paper?" It was a story about the funeral of this mob guy. I just beamed. [The Chicago Reader management] are just hammering me, telling me how my editorial idea is all wrong. I am explaining to them that my idea is that Washington is a place where local and national is kind of fused, and that lots of people come here to work on federal issues and that you just can't feed them neighborhood or city council stories. So picture it: I am trying to make my case to them, and the well-heeled guys sitting next to us are going on about how fabulous this story was.


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