Media Notes: Garrett Graff, part editor, part rocket, takes the helm at Washingtonian magazine

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

He may be one of Washington's hottest young journalists, but Garrett Graff spent enough time as a campaign flack to learn the art of the politically adept reply.

Sitting in his neatly organized Washingtonian office in a sport coat and lavender tie, the preppy-looking 28-year-old is asked why the magazine he just took over doesn't run more cutting-edge reporting. He puts his finger to his lips and ponders the question, perhaps not wanting to offend his predecessor just down the hall.

"I would certainly agree that is the perception," Graff says. There is a need to "freshen up" the magazine, but "service" journalism -- "Fall Weekends," "Eat Cheap," "Inside 10 Great Homes," "26 Reasons to Love Living Here," to name some recent covers -- "is what sells on the newsstands. I think the reader can tire of that if they don't make it past the cover."

The soft-spoken Graff has eased his way up the ladder -- from presidential campaign speechwriter to media blogger, from Washingtonian freelancer to top dog -- with remarkable fluidity. And he managed to replace Jack Limpert, 75, who ran the place for four decades, without a trace of hard feelings.

"He was the brightest 23-year-old I'd ever seen in journalism when I hired him, and I think he's the brightest 28-year-old today," says Limpert, who has traded jobs with Graff. "Very smart, lots of energy, and best of all, he understands the digital world in a way some of us old-timers don't."

Catherine Merrill Williams, the publisher, says that when she took over Washingtonian, "my biggest fear was, what if Jack was hit by a bus? Garrett is just a uniquely talented individual who is Web-savvy, print-savvy and just has journalism run through his blood."

Williams is also part of the generational shift at the magazine long owned by her family. She took over in 2006 after her father, Philip Merrill, died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound while on a Chesapeake Bay sailing trip.

The question now is how much to tamper with the monthly's formula of safe, bland comfort food. While conceding that its most popular features are the restaurant reviews and front-of-the-book gossip items, Graff proclaims a passion for long-form journalism.

The October issue, his first as editor, features a richly detailed piece on a Washington couple charged with spying for Cuba. But the cover story is a puffy look at Fairfax's Thomas Jefferson High School. (Although it does have the unusually contrarian headline "Why You Should Hate This School." Answer: because it might be too good.) Washingtonian's default setting is upbeat; an August cover piece on a fire rescue in Bethesda is touted as "The Inspiring Story."

The monthly hasn't been immune to the recession, although Williams says it still makes money. Paid circulation is 137,000; Graff intends to focus equally on the Web site, which caters to younger readers and is drawing 340,000 unique monthly visitors. Five journalists have been cut from an editorial staff of 35 this year.

A relative newcomer to the Beltway, Graff grew up in the tiny Vermont capital of Montpelier. His dad ran the Associated Press's Vermont bureau; his mother was a children's book author and later editor of Vermont Life magazine; his father's stepfather had been drama critic for New York's Herald Tribune. At 14, Graff became a summer press aide for the state's Democratic governor, Howard Dean, staying on to write press releases after school and building Dean's first Web site in 1997.

Graff went to Harvard (there were also Washington internships at ABC and the Atlantic), where he devoted four years to the student paper. He and some colleagues at the Crimson scored the scoop that the university had tapped Larry Summers as its next president; the head of the search committee refused to confirm it, dismissively telling the Boston Globe the next day, "Kids can get it wrong sometimes."

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