Is the City Paper dying or just growing up?

September 25, 2008

See the slideshow that accompanies this story

“I see the City Paper a year from now as something that is very, very, very much a web machine,” Erik Wemple, editor of the Washington City Paper, said, sitting in his corner office above a side street in Adams Morgan. “[It] had to make a choice so it’s customizing its material for the web and then scrambling as best it can to push it into the paper.

“And if there’s a narrative out there,” he added, “if there’s a long cover story, it’s done on someone’s personal free time.”

Wait, what? A City Paper without a regular cover story?

Yes, Wemple said, probably within a few weeks. The resources for a weekly lengthy feature with artwork and graphics just aren’t there.

It will without a doubt come as a bit of a shock when longtime City Paper readers pick up a copy and find that it is missing what has long been the paper’s mainstay—intensely reported, in-depth narrative journalism. But media is evolving, and the City Paper is changing along with it.

Creative Loafing, a national chain of alternative newsweeklies, bought the City Paper and the Chicago Reader from a group that owned both papers in July 2007, the new ownership has meant one thing for D.C.’s altweekly: getting serious about the web. The newspaper industry’s shift toward the internet is just too strong to ignore, Creative Loafing CEO Ben Eason believes.

“You can’t say, we’re going to do something different,” Eason, an Atlanta native, said in a slight southern drawl. “You’re going to get crushed.”

Eason, whose parents founded Creative Loafing in 1972 when alternative newsweeklies were beginning to spread across the country, bought the company from his parents in 2000 and is now focused on making it a national web presence.

The joint ownership of Creative Loafing’s four pre-existing papers—in Atlanta, Ga., Tampa Bay, Fl., Charlotte, N.C., and Sarasota, Fl.—and the City Paper and the Chicago Reader, Eason believes, will give his company the scope to create a network of like-minded websites in cities across the country.

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“The internet is a national game,” Eason said. “If you’re going to participate in the internet, you absolutely have to be at a national level.”

But how will the City Paper maintain its character and culture as part of a larger, national corporation? The answer, Eason thinks, lies in Wemple and Amy Austin, the City Paper’s publisher. He may tell the pair how much money they need to cut from the budget and what direction the paper should go in, but Eason leaves the details of the budget cuts, as well as all editorial decisions, to Wemple and Austin.

Eason is not the only one who sees Wemple as the key to saving the City Paper’s culture. Mike DeBonis, the paper’s “Loose Lips” columnist and, said that he does not have faith in Creative Loafing but will not be truly worried about the paper as long as Wemple remains (full disclosure: DeBonis is a former Voice editor). Richard Karpel, the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, also said the paper will be fine as long as Creative Loafing leaves Wemple, who has been the City Paper’s top editor since January 2002, to run the paper as he sees fit.

“He sets the culture there,” Karpel said.

Wemple’s no-bullshit manner, his passion for local issues, and his extensive journalism knowledge have made him a fixture at the City Paper as well as a sought-after editor outside D.C. In 2006, the Village Voice, New York’s main alt weekly, and one of the oldest and largest in the country, chose Wemple out of a dozen candidates to be their new top editor. Wemple ultimately decided to stay at the City Paper.

Like the City Paper, Wemple is a little rough around the edges. Sitting in his cluttered corner office a few weeks ago, shoes off and dressed in a white t-shirt and white pants, Wemple looked more like a house painter than a newspaper editor. But his office decor gives the newspaper man away: a stack of yellowing City Papers sat next to the door and copies of the day’s newspapers, from the New York Times to the Washington Independent, lay scattered across his desk.

Wemple’s most distinguishing characteristic might be his youthful intensity, an energy that’s simultaneously engaging and arresting. When he tapes “Fuego/Frio,” an internet video series in which he critiques local media, Wemple turns into journalism’s Jim Cramer, ranting about Washington Hispanic’s front page stories or a bloated headline in The InTowner.

“Conflict of interest all over the place!” he howls in the latest episode. “Come on, you can’t do that!”

Despite Wemple’s energy, the City Paper’s offices have a subdued vibe. The paper, originally founded in a ratty townhouse on 6th and K street with sewage in its basement, now occupies the second and third floors of a building just a few blocks from Adam’s Morgan’s main drag. On production night two weeks ago, the loudest noise in the office was the hum of the ventilation system, punctuated by the clacking of keyboards and the intermittent squawk of an intercom. Loose papers and old editions of the City Paper were everywhere. In total, nine workstations were empty—the paper’s staff has shrunk drastically due to a spate of recent job cuts.

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Wemple believes that the key to keeping the City Paper successful despite the changes it is going through is to maintain its core of reporting and good writing, regardless of whether information is presented in paper or web format.

So even though “The District Line,” a 20 year-old, 1,000 word local news feature, and “Show & Tell,” a five-year old arts feature, were scrapped two weeks ago, Wemple is filling their void with content from the City Paper’s blogs. Amanda Hess, “Show and Tell’s” former writer and a recent graduate of the George Washington University, now devotes all her time to her new blog on the City Paper’s website, “the Sexist,” which covers sex and gender issues in the District and is the basis for a column in the print edition each week.

This is part of Wemple’s plan—assigning his writers to regular beats to ensure constant output and increased web traffic. Staff writer Ruth Samuelson now focuses her energies on “Housing Complex,” a real estate blog.

One section of the paper has remained largely untouched by all the changes, though: “Loose Lips,” the paper’s local politics column. Nearly as old as the City Paper itself, Loose Lips is a near-perfect distillation of the paper’s culture and values. The column is obsessed with local issues, has a smart—some would say smart-ass—tone, a foundation in intensive reporting, and a tradition of speaking truth to power.

DeBonis posts prolifically on City Desk, the City Paper’s news blog, but unlike other writers who have been forced to assume additional duties around the office, DeBonis has not seen major changes in his job description since the 2007 buyout. He still frequents as many local political events as he can manage, spends his Thursdays wandering City Hall, and makes upwards of 25 calls a day.

Wemple and DeBonis joke that DeBonis will be the last one to turn out the lights at the City Paper. “If you lose ‘Loose Lips,’ what’s left?” Wemple said.

The cover stories, which translate poorly to the web, will not be so lucky. There will soon no longer be a weekly feature because the paper does not have enough money and its staff does not have the time to spend on reporting an in-depth, lengthy feature each week. Not only will the frequency of the covers decrease, but the investment in each will likely as well. Take, for instance, a May 2007 feature entitled “Letters from an Arsonist.” Dave Jamieson, a former City Paper staff writer, corresponded for a year and a half with a man in an Indiana jail who was responsible for setting 353 fires in the D.C. area. The fires caused millions of dollars worth of damage, and claimed at least two lives. The resulting article, an In Cold Blood-esque narrative both chilling for its intimacy and meticulous in its details, received the Livingston Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious honors.

But with the City Paper’s new emphasis on web traffic, “Letters from an Arsonist” probably would never have been written today. The number of hits the story received on the web, Wemple said was “robust, but not a year and a half of labor robust.”

Wemple speaks enthusiastically about embracing the web and building the City Paper’s online presence, but that doesn’t make the transition any easier for him to bear.

“We’re just going to have to find the glories in a faster tempo,” he said. “Maybe the glories are no less satisfying. I don’t know, but we just have to find them.”

For Eason, though, the web-first model is ideal for the City Paper. “You want to create a rich environment and then bring it down into the print,” he said, adding that the web content can incorporate audio, video, and links to related material.

“Without a doubt, the web is a far richer environment than print,” he said.

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It may be richer in content, but thus far the web hasn’t been plentiful in terms of cash. Figuring out how to monetize content remains one of the biggest challenges for the City Paper and alt weeklies across the country.

“Everyone talks about [the web] and it’s a big deal,” Karpel said. “But, really, right now there’s no business model.”

Online advertising revenue is growing at an exponential rate for the City Paper, Austin said, but it only makes up approximately 5 percent of the paper’s total revenue. In the newspaper industry as a whole, revenue from online advertising grew by 18.8 percent in 2007, but this increase was dwarfed by the 9.4 percent decrease in print advertising revenue, according to figures from the Newspaper Association of America.

This problem is especially acute for the City Paper. In addition to the overall decrease in print advertising, revenue from classifieds—previously a cash cow for the paper—have taken a nosedive in the wake of the success of Craigslist. Competition from other free newspapers which have sprouted up in D.C.—The Examiner, Express, The Onion, Politico, and so on—hasn’t helped either.

As a result, the City Paper’s net income as a percentage of advertising revenues, traditionally around 15 percent, declined from 11.3 percent in 2003 to roughly 4.7 percent in 2006. By the time Creative Loafing bought the City Paper in July 2007, it was still a profitable business, but, Austin said, “It wasn’t as profitable as [Creative Loafing] would like companies to be.”

To cut costs after the buyout. Creative Loafing’s first move was to lay off the City Paper’s production staff and outsource layout and design to the Creative Loafing staff in Atlanta. Not all those who were laid off went quietly. “The time has come for our local paper to be just another mass-produced import,” Pete Morelewicz, the City Paper’s former art director wrote in a farewell blog post.

The layoffs weren’t well received by the remaining staff either, and because of the cuts, DeBonis said, the staff of City Paper and Creative Loafing “did not get off on the right foot.”

The office’s atmosphere changed, too. Before the buyout, the editors and writers would head up to a now-empty room on the third floor at the end of the night to have a beer or two and hang out with the production staff as they put the paper to bed. With all the layout and design done remotely, Andrew Beaujon, the managing editor, said, “Now we change the status [of a file on our computers] and go home.”

The move slowed the process of putting the paper together, as editors in D.C. have to wait while the large files containing the pages of the newspaper transfer to Atlanta. “A big part of our day is watching these blue progress bars,” Beaujon, who calls to mind the bald record store clerk from High Fidelity, said.

Perhaps most significantly, the communication between the City Paper’s editors and the production staff in Atlanta—instant messaging, email, and phone—simply isn’t as efficient or effective for conveying visual ideas as an editor and a designer looking at a print-out together in the same room.

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“Being a word person telling an art person how to layout a page over the phone, it’s comical,” Jule Banville, the assistant managing editor, said.

For all of its downfalls, though, Creative Loafing’s centralized production system has one giant upside: it cut the City Paper’s production costs to roughly half the industry average, according to Eason.

The second round of Creative Loafing’s planned cuts came in December 2007, as they scaled back the paper’s editorial budget and slashed the editorial staff. According to Austin, the size of the City Paper’s editorial budget as a percentage of overall revenue, the method most newspapers use to measure the size of each department, was historically much larger than the industry average.

“It wasn’t like [the editorial budget] couldn’t stand some reducing,” Austin said. “What we’re trying to do now is make it so [the cuts don’t] go any further.”

David Carr, a media and culture columnist for the New York Times and a former editor of the City Paper, criticized on the December 2007 layoffs at the Chicago Reader, which mirrored the City Paper’s cuts, in a column in the Times.

“It is as if Creative Loafing executives bought a shiny new doll and then once they got their hands on it, felt compelled to tear its head off,” he wrote.

The City Paper now has eleven full time editorial staff members, putting it on par with the staff of Seven Days, Burlington, Vt.’s alt weekly. The main alt weekly in Denver, which has a population roughly comparable to that of the District, has an editorial staff of about 18. About 30 editorial staffers are employed by The Village Voice.

The City Paper’s staff is only going to shrink further. A lackluster financial performance in July and August coupled with recessionary trends in the economy make more editorial layoffs seem inevitable.

“Media markets are not in good shape right now,” Eason said. “We’re just doing what everybody else is doing.”

The specifics of this next round of layoffs remain to be determined. “How far can [the cuts] go?” Wemple asked. “We’re trying to define that now. I don’t feel it can go much farther, obviously.”

The possibility of future layoffs has affected the staff differently than the December 2007 layoffs, which were greeted with a fair amount of gallows humor, according to Wemple.

“Now [the response is] more outright angst and anger and misery over what’s going on,” he said.

The paper is scrambling in an attempt to prevent, or at least delay, more cuts. Possible solutions, however, like moving the remaining editorial staffers up to the third floor so the second floor can be leased out, are in short supply.

More plentiful, though, are less plausible ideas, which appear on a giant paper mural covering a stretch of a hallway of the third floor of the City Paper’s building. At the top in thick marker the mural reads, “SO WHAT ARE WE GONNA DO?”

A few of the suggestions seem serious. One person recommended offering City Paper merchandise for sale on the website. “Spring arts guide,” wrote another. “Sex blog,” next to a checked box, is up there too.

But the overwhelming majority of the ideas appear to be jokes.

One staffer suggests completely reversing the current trend: “BLOW THEIR MINDS WITH LONGER STORIES.”

Two ideas reference the presidential election: “Marry a Beer Heiress” and “Put lipstick on it.”

The suggestion, “Start taping $1 bills to the wall until we have 10,000,000” has above it a piece of tape with a fragment of a one dollar bill on it as if a bill had been ripped down.

Maybe these ideas mean that, even at such a dire time, the City Paper’s staff can’t suppress their bon mots. But maybe they just mean that no one really knows what can be done.

“Nobody wants to lose anything out of this game,” Austin said. “Nobody wants this paper to be less. But certainly it has to be different.”

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