Jeff Stein, editor of Washington's City Paper, left his position in a fit of indignation yesterday and notified the owner that virtually the entire editorial staff was going with him.
At issue was who was to control the editorial content of the alternative weekly: Stein, 39, installed as editor last November; or Russ Smith and Alan Hirsch of the Baltimore City Paper, which co-owns the Washington paper with the Chicago Reader, a prosperous alternative weekly.
"It's your traditional long-simmering dispute," Stein said yesterday. "I had all the responsibility but none of the final authority." Stein and Smith had often quarreled over editorial policies, payments to writers and other issues, but the turf war came to a climax two weeks ago when Stein was wrapping up the April 1-7 issue.
He shipped his copy to the Baltimore production facilities, and "woke up the next day to find that our interview with presidential counselor Ed Meese had been cut by a quarter without my knowledge." The cuts altered the context, Stein claims, and "it made Meese look like a dolt." As a result, "what should have been a great chapter in our infancy turned into egg on our face. It made it look like a cheap shot." Worse yet, Stein said, "an article I had never commissioned was thrown into the paper without my knowledge."
Stein complained to Smith and demanded that henceforth the galleys of the City Paper be sent to him in Washington. On Thursday, Smith refused. "At that point," Stein said, "I blew up" and resigned.
Smith, editor of the Baltimore paper, remembered it differently yesterday: "He said, 'I guess we can't work together.' I said, 'That's what it looks like.' So I guess I fired him."
"It had been building for many weeks," Hirsch, business manager of the Baltimore paper and copublisher with Smith of the Washington edition, said yesterday. "Jeff has regularly threatened resignation as a technique for getting his way. And we finally took him up on it." Smith called the Meese cuts a minor issue, "mostly stylistic things, nothing of substance. The main thing is that he alienated people, blowing up at them in a tantrum." And as for examining the galleys, "that's not an editor's job," Hirsch said. "Jeff assumed that he had the right to just print what he wanted just because he was the editor."
In a letter written yesterday, Stein notified Smith that his associate editor was also leaving, along with seven contributing editors, three writers and all the paper's columnists, including "Bookflaps" writer Barbara Raskin. "Last night I was starting to feel bad," Stein said yesterday, "that I let everybody down by being too explosive. I do regret that I'm not more like Phil Habib. But my diplomatic skills at getting first-rate writers to write for peanuts had simply dried me up, and I had nothing left over to deal with publishers with strange practices."
"Personally," Hirsch said, "we all like Jeff a lot and have a lot of respect for his abilities. But in an alternative paper like this, you simply can't spend your time fighting administrative battles or worrying about whose turf you're on." The Washington edition will continue to publish on schedule, he said.
A prolific magazine writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, New York, The Village Voice and Saturday Review, Stein said "there is a very good possibility I'm going to start another paper. I have a lot of good people available as a package." And besides, "I'm firmly of the school of Don't Get Mad, Get Even."