The Death of a Ludicrously Local, Incredibly Essential Newspaper

The Current was Washington’s most parochial publication — and that was the best thing about it
Images of local events taken by photographer Bill Petros over the years for the Current.
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Nov. 16, 2017, should have been a banner day at the Current newspapers. The publisher of four community weeklies covering Northwest Washington was marking its 50th anniversary — five decades of reporting on the most affluent quadrant of the nation’s capital, where powerful, highly educated residents live alongside embassies and elite prep schools, world-class universities and tony restaurants, as well as Washington National Cathedral and the National Zoo. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser celebrated the milestone with a formal proclamation, declaring the date “Current Newspapers Day.”

In the Current’s basement offices on MacArthur Boulevard, however, the mood was anything but celebratory. The company was falling apart, nearing the end of a year in which employee paychecks had been withheld, health insurance coverage had lapsed, and longtime reporters and editors were preparing to depart. There were no balloons. No champagne toasts. No festivities of any kind. The anniversary came “right as the s— was hitting the fan,” recalls Brian Kapur, who had been the Current’s sports editor since 2011.

Images of local events taken by photographer Bill Petros over the years for the Current.

Sure enough, within two months, the Current, more than $1.25 million in debt, would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Kapur, along with assistant managing editor Brady Holt and managing editor Chris Kain — the man most responsible for the papers’ success for a quarter-century — would all leave the company. After that, the Current was never the same. This past May, having staggered along for a year and a half with a skeletal staff and publishing only intermittently, the company ceased editorial operations entirely.

It was a sad, ignominious end for what had long been “must-read papers,” as Bowser termed the Northwest Current, the Dupont Current, the Georgetown Current and the Foggy Bottom Current, known collectively as the Current. The papers’ disappearance was a loss for both longtime Washingtonians and newcomers committing to the capital city. Those new arrivals may have come “to do things at the national level, but when they buy their homes and have their families, sometimes their perspective changes,” says Mary Cheh, D.C. council member for Ward 3, in the Northwest Current’s coverage area. “The Northwest Current gave them the path to understand their own neighborhoods.”

I worked at the Current for just shy of two years, and I can vouch that it changed my perspective. It allowed me, for the first time, to really get to know the place where I’d lived for half a decade in a university bubble. It sent me to cover not only Bowser and Cheh and the D.C. government, but also changes to Crestwood school boundaries, problems with Tenleytown traffic circles, and opposition to daytime nude dancing at a Glover Park strip club. I wrote about library renovations and Little Free Libraries. I reported on trees and trails. During one four-week period, I wrote no fewer than four articles about a narrow service lane near the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park. I’d arrived in the Current newsroom a kid from small-town Rhode Island, but I left a Washingtonian.

The Current never endeavored to paint a complete portrait of Washington. In a town known historically as “Chocolate City,” the papers served a mostly white readership, largely west of Rock Creek Park — an audience including politicians, government officials, bureaucrats, lobbyists, policy wonks, journalists and academics. (Asked to describe Northwest D.C., longtime Current columnist Tom Sherwood told me, “If you wanted to be mean, you could call it old, white, privileged and entitled.”)

Yet the Current covered those communities steadfastly, and many of the people we wrote about were genuinely public-spirited, working to improve Washington from the bottom up. No issue was too small — no concern too unreasonable — to escape our earnest, even iterative, coverage. And the Current was scrupulously fair, airing all sides of the most ludicrous neighborhood squabbles.

Over the past half-year, I talked with my former colleagues and other journalists about the publication’s decline. I asked prominent Northwest residents about the Current’s legacy. And I paged through yellowed, brittle back issues in the D.C. Public Library’s Washingtoniana collection.

What I found was the story of a publication that fell hopelessly behind the times — it resisted developing a traditional Web presence until 2017 and printing in full color until 2016 — but still managed to deliver readers what nothing else quite could: the complete, reliable view from the streets where they lived. The word “parochial” is generally used as an insult — a synonym for small-minded thinking, for a failure to see the big picture. Yet there was something redemptive about the parochialism of the Current. In an era awash in major stories of global significance that hardly touch on our daily existence — an era when the big picture, with its sweeping Shakespearean narratives, threatens to crowd out everything else — the Current was a weekly reminder that smaller ideas and debates and connections are, or at least should be, an essential part of our lives.

Over the decades, the Current changed its look and design, but its purpose remained steadfast: to provide readers with the kind of detailed local news that larger publications had no inclination to pursue. (Matt Roth for The Washington Post)

The Northwest Current was born in 1967 as the Potomac Current, a biweekly paper covering the Washington neighborhoods of Foxhall Village, Berkley, Kent and the Palisades. According to a story the paper ran to mark the 50th anniversary, it was initially delivered to roughly 10,000 homes, primarily by schoolchildren, and cost 10 cents an issue, or $3 a year. By 1977, the year the name changed, circulation was up to 20,000, and annual subscriptions cost $7.25. Editions covering Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom were added in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Through all the changes, the Current’s purpose, the story declared, “stayed steady: delivering Northwest residents on-the-ground news that larger outlets might not have the time, inclination or resources to focus on.” Headlines in the debut edition included “New Post Office on MacArthur Boulevard,” “Congressman Attacks Jet Noise” and “Playgrounds Seek Program Suggestions.” Noise complaints were a perennial concern, and cranky neighbors were regulars in any number of dramas playing out in the Current’s pages. “McDonald’s To Enter Cleveland Park” was a front-page-worthy scandal in 1985: “Big Macs, fries-to-go, and Egg McMuffins will soon be part of life” in the neighborhood, the Current reported, but “not everyone welcomes the prospect.” One 1993 headline was “Pepsi plans Tenleytown Taco Bell despite neighbors’ opposition,” though Georgetown resident Luke Veale wrote a valiant letter to the editor arguing that “Taco Bell serves the best fast food money can buy.”

Many Current stories might have been news in any community with similar demographics, but some could have appeared only in the neighborhood newspaper of the Washington elite. The paper reported on local gatherings featuring Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” host Jim Lehrer and Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin. In 1978, the Current offered a downright worshipful description of the conservative columnist George Will, set to deliver “the first book-author review of the 1978 fall season” at All Saints Church in Chevy Chase, Md. “Often serious, he thinks very much for himself,” the Current explained, “and his incisive wit, the excellence and soundness of his thinking have put him in the forefront of political philosophers and sages.” (Sparkling writing not always being the publication’s strong suit in those days, it also noted that Will’s “funny bone leads him into unexpected humor that is fun.”)

In general, however, the Current directed its reverence for Beltway icons more at places than at people. The papers routinely ran detailed features about famous Washington landmarks — “With Eyes Trained on the Heavens: The Naval Observatory,” “Rock Creek Park celebrates 92nd year.” On July 31, 1980, the lead story was about “The Mysterious Mystique of McLean Gardens,” one of three front-page articles that year about the “post-card pretty” residential community on Wisconsin Avenue NW. Two of these managed to tout its “mystique” in the headline. The Current called McLean Gardens “the choicest forty-three acres in the city, if not in the whole country.”

The newspaper never shied away from marketing itself as a publication for the elite. A 1978 message to potential advertisers described readers as seeking “fine shops, services and craftspeople that fit their needs and lifestyle.” Another note that year insisted that the Current was “the community newspaper for the intelligent Northwester.”

Former managing editor Chris Kain recalls the early 2000s as boom times for the Current, with page counts reaching as high as 56 for standard issues and 84 for special editions.

A new era of the Current began on July 25, 1991, when it announced that it was debuting “a fresh, more modern look, in keeping with the most recent trends in newspaper design.” Along with this “crisper, cleaner appearance,” incorporating “the latest publishing technology,” the Current pledged “a renewed effort to bring the communities of Northwest the kind of information they need, but cannot find in the larger daily newspapers.”

This was Chris Kain’s first issue as managing editor. Circulation stood at 30,000, and each edition at that point ran roughly two dozen pages. Within a month, the Georgetown Current would launch, with the Dupont Current to follow in 2002 and the Foggy Bottom Current in 2005. (Two other editions, the Bethesda/Chevy Chase Current in the 1980s and the Rock Creek Current in the ’90s, were short-lived.)

Aside from Kain’s arrival, the change that most defined the modern Current came on Dec. 7, 1994, when it introduced its new owner and publisher: Davis Kennedy, the former owner of the suburban Maryland Gazette newspapers, which he had sold to The Washington Post Co. in 1993.

Gary Socha, who worked nearly four decades for Kennedy in advertising and business roles at the Gazette and the Current, recalls the uber-formal style of the man who would always introduce himself as “Mr. Kennedy.” Even after leaving the Gazette, Socha says, “he would still stop in my office every Tuesday afternoon, which was our Casual Day, instituted after Kennedy left. He would sit at my desk, eat ice cream — and tell me what a mistake it was for me to participate in Casual Day.”

Notwithstanding this aversion to dressing down, Kennedy was considered a generous employer when business was good, and he was well regarded for developing the Gazette into a successful group of free community papers. Kennedy’s model was total market coverage, believing that a quality product distributed at no charge — the Current was delivered free under his tenure — would yield the kind of readership advertisers craved.

At the Current, Kennedy made the strategic choice to spurn the Web almost entirely. This saved money and resources, and — as Erik Wemple, now a media critic at The Washington Post, explained in the Washington City Paper in 2008 — the publication didn’t exactly face tough competition: “Immersion coverage of the P Street upgrade, the local Safeway’s beer-and-wine license, and other such issues constitutes something of an editorial monopoly for the Current.” The papers’ only concession to the Internet age was posting PDFs of issues online.

Kain knew that this strategy wasn’t sustainable forever. “Long term, that was going to be a problem for the company’s viability,” he told me, “and it certainly limited the audience.” In the short term, however, the belief was that a print-only product “probably helped protect print advertising and readership.”

By Jan. 22, 1997, with three editions (Northwest, Georgetown and Rock Creek) and a circulation of 35,000, the papers moved to weekly publication. Kain remembers the early 2000s as boom times, with page counts reaching as high as 56 for standard editions and 84 for special issues. He recalls as many as 10 people on the news staff in the middle of that decade. “The Current’s advertising volume has gone up, on average, about 15 percent a year over the past eight years,” Wemple reported for the City Paper in 2008, “helped along by merchants as varied as Bloomingdale’s and College Hunks Hauling Junk.”

This mirrored national trends. “Newspapers were having some of their best years financially in the 1990s into the early years of the 2000s,” says Ken Doctor, who writes the “Newsonomics” column for the Nieman Journalism Lab.

But problems were around the corner. “By 2007 and 2008,” says Doctor, “you could kind of see that digital disruption was starting to eat into the newspaper business, especially with classifieds.” Then the financial crisis hit. “I think it was key,” Kain says of the crisis. “Real estate advertising had always been big, and though that continued, I think there was a bit of a slowdown. … I think that’s around the time when the staff started contracting.”

Chris Kain, former managing editor of the Current, was the man most responsible for the papers’ success for a quarter-century. (Matt Roth for The Washington Post)

I joined the staff in 2013 — well after the Current’s glory days but before things got dire. I had just finished my master’s in journalism at American University and had split the early summer between an internship in Takoma Park, Md., and a frustrating search for permanent work. I was hoping to cover Barack Obama’s presidency, which had defined my young life. But one day, while racking my brain about where to apply next, I happened upon a copy of the Northwest Current, probably in the reliable stack by the door at Angelico La Pizzeria in Tenleytown.

I carried it to my group house on Brandywine Street NW, sat down at our dining room table and immediately cold-called Kain to ask about a job. A few weeks later, he hired me. The pay was awful — just $25,000 a year at the outset — but it was a start. When my housemates and I threw a party in our backyard around my 24th birthday that September, friends presented me with a sheet cake printed with the front page of my debut issue. I was covering the 17th Street liquor-license moratorium, not Obama’s second term, but on some level the upshot was the same: I was a Washington reporter.

My first month on the job was a memorable one. In the heat of late August, I was sent to the Mall to cover the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. My assignment was one of the day’s smaller events: a morning rally at the D.C. War Memorial, where District leaders cast their quest for statehood and voting rights in Congress as a modern-day civil rights struggle. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives, who had been an organizer of the original 1963 march, implored visiting activists to join the city’s push for full enfranchisement. “They come to Washington to tell their story,” Norton said, jabbing her finger in the air. “We want them to hear our story.”

Days like that helped sustain me through less gripping assignments, including the Cleveland Park service lane saga a few months later. This is a perennial debate in the neighborhood — whether the narrow lane running alongside Connecticut Avenue NW between Macomb and Ordway streets is valuable commercial parking or a dangerous eyesore. I interviewed the business owners rallying to its defense. Then I talked to the activist pushing to make it a sidewalk. (As of this writing, the lane remains, but I take pride in having chronicled the threats against it for the history books.)

Half the fun of working at the Current was laughing about these sorts of episodes in a tightknit newsroom that felt like a college paper. Kapur and Holt were guys my age who had gone to the University of Maryland together; also working in the office was staff writer Kat Lucero, who’d become a reporter in her early 30s and had recently finished her master’s in journalism at Georgetown University. (Three other staffers worked remotely.)

Like many community newspapers, the Current offered its modestly paid staff a flexible schedule. We were out of the office most days but all came in on Tuesdays for production. My four weekly stories would be due around 5 p.m., though I blew that deadline more often than I care to admit. At some point in the evening, we’d gather around the table in the conference room with Kain for dinner, which the company provided through an advertising deal with Mac Market, the convenience store and deli in our building, and Bambu, an Asian place down the street.

When production nights ended, typically in the predawn hours of Wednesday, we’d huddle briefly with Kain to talk about story assignments for the coming week. Then Holt would drive Lucero home to Petworth and me to Tenleytown, where I’d tiptoe upstairs and collapse into bed until noon. On Wednesday evenings, I’d head out to the events that generated so much of our news: meetings of the advisory neighborhood commissions.

Washington’s advisory neighborhood commissions, or ANCs, are nonpartisan elected bodies with anywhere from two to 12 members; they counsel the city and federal governments on issues from traffic and parking to liquor licenses and public safety. These panels were established by the District of Columbia Home Rule Act of 1973, and the Current reported on them through most of its history.

ANCs typically find unassuming meeting spaces in schools, police stations or hotels, but during my time at the Current, the Dupont Circle officials always convened at the Brookings Institution, one of the nation’s most prominent think tanks. There, in the same auditorium that might host an economic policy address by the vice president or a conversation on foreign affairs with members of Congress, I watched commissioners take up more parochial concerns. They discussed construction plans to turn the old home of the National Trust for Historic Preservation into the new headquarters of the American Enterprise Institute. They pushed for more DC Circulator bus service between the Lincoln Memorial and Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW — an “Abe’s to Ben’s” route proposed by one of their colleagues in Foggy Bottom. They even debated whether regulations on sidewalk “publisher boxes” — those ubiquitous containers filled with newspapers and pamphlets — violated the spirit of the First Amendment. “All of these things would chill the kind of pamphleteering that founded the nation,” one commissioner insisted. “Thomas Paine couldn’t comply with any of this stuff.”

Occasionally, I’d encounter commissioners who straddled the worlds of national and local Washington. Gayle Trotter, a conservative commentator who appears regularly on Fox News, used to bring cookies to meetings as chair of the ANC representing AU, Foxhall, the Palisades, Spring Valley and Wesley Heights. Mike Silverstein, a retired journalist who served on the Dupont ANC and the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, joked that he went “from ABC News to ABC booze.” But no one embodied the national-local overlap better than Glover Park ANC vice chair Jackie Blumenthal, the direct-mail fundraising consultant married to well-known Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal.

Though WikiLeaks revealed that Hillary Clinton congratulated her on winning her ANC seat back in 2009, Blumenthal told me that, to her friends in Washington’s political elite, her ANC service is a mystery. “When I mention what I do, people are completely curious,” she says. “They haven’t a clue about how the District is run, what an ANC commissioner is. They don’t know anything. It’s like I’m coming from Mars.”

This may be partly because much of the city’s power class didn’t read the Current. Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, whose book “This Town” is the definitive portrait of the capital’s power brokers, told me he seldom picked up the publication. “I’ve of course had the paper delivered to my driveway,” Leibovich wrote me in an email. “But to be honest, it almost never makes it into the house.”

“Unlike Mark, I totally read it,” says Leibovich’s close friend David Plotz, the former editor of Slate who’s now CEO of the media company Atlas Obscura. Plotz, who delivered the Northwest Current as a 12-year-old in 1982, found it a useful community guide. “I’m really bummed,” he told me. “I will miss it. I love looking at the real estate listings. Even the sports coverage I really like. It’s so rinky-dink, but sometimes you just want to read a rinky-dink story about what’s happening on the Wilson [High School] baseball team.”

Lots of families wanted to read those stories. Kapur built a strong following covering schools like Sidwell Friends and Gonzaga, giving student-athletes the kind of attention that — even in a media town like Washington — they’d get only from a vibrant community newspaper. When Kapur wrote about a pair of graduates playing together on Villanova’s basketball team in 2016, Luke Russert — son of the late “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert — tweeted, “You know how #Villanova is #DC’s team when the ‘Northwest Current’ writes up the Sidwell & Gonzaga grads.”

Timothy Noah, an editor at Politico, found those write-ups a welcome reminder that Washington is more than “a place that defines itself only through pompous abstractions.” The Current “presents Washington as a place like any other, where high schools play basketball against each other, long-established neighborhood restaurants close when their landlords jack up the rent, and communities come together to save old movie theaters.”

HuffPost Washington bureau chief Amanda Terkel became a Current devotee after moving into her Tenleytown house, finding the publication more informative and factual than online mailing lists. “It gave you the intangible character of the neighborhood, for better or worse,” Terkel says. “It’s nice to feel like you’re part of a community, and a community newspaper helps create that feeling.”

Part of the way the Current created that feeling was by taking the community seriously, even when it was slightly ridiculous. Reflecting on his time covering ANCs, Holt says, “You’re meeting people who care very deeply about issues in their community, and sometimes the issues in those communities — if you take a step back and think about it — are kind of silly. You’ve got these really educated people who are really passionate about which way the lap lanes across a swimming pool need to be strung at what times.”

As much as we staffers were amused by the silliness, our sincere journalistic approach to these issues was the Current’s major strength. “It’s got to be one of the greatest feats in modern journalism,” Wemple wrote in his City Paper story, “to cover the District’s most petty and tendentious NIMBY activists for decades without ever making fun of them.”

Jackie Blumenthal, vice chair of Glover Park’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission, says many of her friends in Washington’s political elite have no idea what her service on the local community panel entails. (Matt Roth for The Washington Post)

Although I’d come to the capital to dive into the national political fray, I found myself completely in my element live-tweeting a mayoral forum at Georgetown’s Dumbarton House or sitting through a Ward 4 straw poll at Paul Public Charter School. I interviewed Bowser and the other mayoral candidates during parades, listened to them speak in churches, showed up at their fundraisers. It wasn’t covering midterm congressional elections, but in many ways it was better. I could see the direct, human impact of fiery debates over development on Georgia Avenue or 14th Street — who benefits from economic development, who gets priced out — in ways that are often obscured in national politics.

Some of my most vivid memories of the mayoral campaign are of sitting with Davis Kennedy, then in his mid-70s and perpetually clad in a suit and tie, as he conducted interviews in his office for the Current’s Voters Guide. This section was Kennedy’s pride and joy: He often touted a 2002 letter he received from John Finney, a former Washington correspondent for the New York Times, who called the guide “outstanding.”

All the major candidates for mayor, attorney general, D.C. Council and D.C. State Board of Education came in individually to endure his famous inquisitions, which could last two or three hours each. Leaning back in his swivel chair, he would pose dozens of questions to each candidate seeking the Current’s endorsement. Most were conventional, on subjects like charter schools, gentrification and D.C. statehood. But there were other lines of inquiry that only the publisher of the Current would pursue. “Is the present level of enforcement for quality-of-life offenses such as public urination, graffiti and littering generally adequate, too heavy-handed or not tough enough?” he asked the men and women vying to lead the most powerful city in the world.

“When I mention what I do, people are completely curious,” says Jackie Blumenthal of Glover Park’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission. The Current covered ANC meetings.

Kennedy would also interject meandering hypotheticals in which candidates were expected to engage. And he would frequently ask them to slow down as he pecked away at his keyboard, typing out all their answers in real time. “I remember leaving there going, This is the weirdest interview I’ve ever had,” Cheh says, recalling her first encounter with Kennedy in 2006.

“The main things I remember are just the horribly awkward things he would say,” recalls Holt. “I’d sit through four candidate interviews, and they’d all ask him where he was from, and he’d tell them where he was conceived instead of where he’d lived. I’d just sit there and think, I know he’s going to use the ‘conceived’ line again. Here it comes.” (Kennedy, who was born in West Virginia, initially told me he didn’t remember this, but when I told him that I did, he offered an explanation. “I thought that was important, to show that I was District-oriented even though I wasn’t born here,” he said. “I wasn’t some outsider who just came in.”)

Many of these stories became public knowledge, at least among the local press. “The only reason I didn’t run for office is because I didn’t want to submit myself to a Davis Kennedy interview,” Sherwood joked to me.

It was all exceedingly idiosyncratic. And yet, there was also something admirable in Kennedy’s engagement with those D.C. leaders — who sat so patiently in that basement office for hours on end, responding to his queries, repeating themselves so that he could type every word, all to show that they cared as much as he did about the people and neighborhoods his newspapers covered. “They would all sit there and bear it,” Holt says, “because it was important for all of them to get an endorsement from the Current.”

As I wound down my tenure, things seemed to be holding together. I always got my paycheck, and I continued to enjoy the work. “Marion Barry, District icon, dies at 78” was the headline on my Nov. 26, 2014, article about the former mayor’s death. It was a three-day-old development by then and my word count couldn’t have been more than 750, but it still meant a lot to me to write the obituary for a genuine historical figure. I worked five more months at the Current after that — reporting on Bowser’s inauguration and the future of a grassy three-mile path where the Glen Echo trolley line used to be.

I finally left to pursue national political reporting in the spring of 2015, but not without lessons I still use to this day: In the age of live-streaming, I try to show up at public events — even, perhaps especially, when I’m the only reporter in the room. I look for big stories in small places, whether it’s a Virginia democratic socialist about to make a national splash with his election to the state legislature, or a powerful Maryland congressman making news about slavery reparations in a little-seen interview on the Howard University television station. Most of all, I try to remember that every grand national debate ultimately has consequences for local communities.

In the years that followed my departure, the Current’s problems mounted. David Ferrara joined the company, appearing on the masthead as president and chief operating officer in summer 2016. He oversaw the launch of the website the next year and ultimately succeeded Kennedy as publisher. But Ferrara, who declined to comment for this article, couldn’t turn things around. In late 2017, around the time of the mass exodus, the local media began to report on the Current’s financial woes, including debt to printing companies. Soon there were no staff writers on the masthead. This year’s May 8 issue — the last one posted to the Current website — was just 15 pages.

Not long before, in late April, Kennedy had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, signaling formal liquidation. “I’m very proud of the work I did with the Current,” Kennedy told me. “We provided community news of a type that’s not available anywhere else.”

The Current’s demise doesn’t leave Washington with no local coverage, of course. There are still numerous outlets — from The Post’s Metro section to Washingtonian magazine, from the City Paper to WAMU 88.5 — offering information about local goings-on. Two Current alums have started the Northwest Courier, which is modeled after the Current; Chris Kain, meanwhile, has launched the DC Line, an online nonprofit outlet covering the entire city. Many of these sources present a fuller picture of the District than the Current ever did. But at best, all will struggle to match the Current’s ability to cover the minutiae of neighborhoods with thoroughness and, most important, consistency.

“We were there, on the ground, with the community, throughout,” says Holt. “We weren’t just coming in once to share a brief overview that would miss the details that really mattered to you if you lived next door.” Journalists will probably never be able to give every street in America the kind of attention I paid to that Cleveland Park service lane, but after working at the Current, I really wish we could.

Graham Vyse is a staff writer at Governing magazine.

Credits: Story by Graham Vyse. Designed by Christian Font. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.