Remembering Washington City Paper
Washington City Paper has ceased its print publication after 41 years. The final edition on May 5, 2022, was filled with memories from many of the stars who helped make the paper the legend that it was.
For reasons that my lawyers will surely discover, I did not get a call to contribute. But here are my thoughts anyway.
I worked at City Paper for two months shy of 17 years, one of the longer runs. I started as the typesetter, though that was a completely misleading title. My neighbors growing up ran a hot-metal typesetting business, laboring over some of the last of the behemoth Linotype machines, and I worked for them on weekends during high school. One of my tasks was melting pieces of old type in a furnace that turned them into long, thick slugs that hung from the Linotype and got melted back into type. I still have burn marks on my arm. So I know what typesetting is.
At City Paper, the job was to convert the DOS-based XyWrite word processor files from the writers to the Krohm publishing system and then print out long strips of slick paper that would be pasted on boards and sent to a printer. So medieval. And that was the reason I got the job–I knew Krohm. I had worked for the Washington Business Journal, which was one of the only other newspapers to buy Gary Krohm’s arcane product. And I knew Mark Jenkins from when we both worked at Unicorn Times, and he knew that I knew the mysteries of Krohm.
And those codes were close to what would become HTML, the instructions that powered the early World Wide Web. So in 1996, when some of the smarter set were buying Dot-Coms, David Carr decided that I would be the guy to run City Paper‘s online presence as the Webmeister. (CP already had a Webmaster, Eddie Codel, who was the IT guy. Eddie was so sharp he was able to snag eddie.com.) (Parenthetical: I had also written some early Internet fanboy stories, including one about an Al Gore chat on CompuServe, and I was a regular contributor to the Washington Post‘s glossy tech supplement Fast Forward. Almost every CD-ROM I reviewed for them would destroy my computer.)
So most of my years at City Paper were spent as the editor for the music-focused online section, inDC. And for almost all of that time the owners in Chicago were not particularly interested in this new online world. They rightly saw it as a threat. Indeed, I made a promo ad to announce our shiny new website, in the form of what’s called a “tombstone ad” (Irony!), with a single quote: “Print is dead.” –Dr. Egon Spengler. I figured our hep audience would get the Ghostbusters reference and the general snarky attitude.
As with all house ads, it had to be faxed to the owners in Chicago for approval. No sooner had the machine stopped then my phone rang and Mike Lenehan was on the line screaming at me: “That will never run in our paper! Destroy it!” And on and on.
But Lenehan, et. al., finally, grudgingly, agreed to this online-only addition to the brand, eventually adding the cover story and Loose Lips columns to the site. And, once again, part of my job became converting QuarkXpress files to HTML and uploading them one by one after the paper had been put to bed. Wednesdays were very long.
inDC featured a weekly band interview, the Spot the Drummer contest that I first came up with as a print feature, and several columns, among them What Goes ON, by Mark Jenkins. I wanted Mark’s voice for the site and because these were the days of Internet euphoria he was able to negotiate a very handsome fee. I contend that he did some of his best work with What Goes ON, mostly because he didn’t think anyone was reading, so he could lighten up — as much as Mark ever lightened up.
There was also the extremely vibrant message board, inDCent eXposure, that saw many friendships formed, bands created, concerts organized, and marriages arranged and dissolved. And some bestiality photos that slipped by before we disabled the ability to post images. Eventually 50,000 unique visitors came to the board every month. This is back when dial-up was still prevalent. The sales department never even put a banner ad on the page.
My email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, was on almost every page of the site, which meant that I also became the defacto online receptionist. A fair amount of my time was spent dealing with happy and unhappy readers, forwarding emails to the proper recipient, including story tips to writers, and sending T-shirts to those I deemed worthy.
When a reader emailed a thoughtful response to one of Jenkins’ columns, I expected it to run on the Letters to the Editor page. An argument ensued and I was told that the letters page was only for discussion of stories appearing in the paper. OK. The editor making that decision was Erik Wemple. David Carr had left for the online-only venture Inside.com. Wemple would eventually leave for the online-only site TBD.com. OK.
So I had my little fiefdom and enjoyed the perks of being largely ignored. And now completely erased–because all of that work vanished in one of the many post-bankruptcy moves that City Paper went through after the goons from Creative Loafing bought it. I still have almost all the inDC files and could upload everything to my site but that’s a lot of unpaid work.
I wore many hats at City Paper. Because I was not technically a staff writer (though on the masthead twice with a Contributing Writer credit), I could get away with writing advertorials. When Sales started ad sections targeting the tech and auto markets, I was tasked with providing some text between the many ads they hoped to sell. I interviewed a Channel 4 weatherman about how the TV graphics were put together. (Where I first heard about GIMP, the open-source alternative to Photoshop.) I went on a test drive with a top salesman at a car dealership to get the scoop on tricks of the trade. The sections didn’t last too long; newspapers were already under siege.
Similarly, I was on the marketing committee. Surveys showed that the average CP reader was a 41-year-old white male suburbanite. And that none of the college kids on any of the many area campuses had heard of City Paper. Not at all what the publisher wanted to hear. The decision was made to ignore the people who enjoyed our product and go after the ones who were ignoring it. Ultimately a lose-lose situation.
I was also involved in Nosh Mobs, live events that grew out of CP‘s Restaurant Finder. A true innovation, Restaurant Finder was a pre-Yelp site that catalogued almost all of the city’s restaurants, each one geo-tagged thanks to the exhaustive months-long efforts of Chad Molter. So, for instance, you could search for sushi within four blocks of the 9:30 Club. I came up with the idea of printing postcards to distribute to popular venues, with a list of some of the dining options nearby. And of course our URL. Years later, I was in the offices of the AFI Silver Theater and saw one pinned to a cubicle.
A few thousand people signed on to be Restaurant Raters and leave reviews of the places they ate. Every so often, we’d reward them with invitations to exclusive visits to happening eateries. I was one of the hosts and sent out the invitation newsletter. Once we scheduled a Nosh Mob on a Jewish holiday. There were no Jews on our planning committee. And, reader, we did the same thing a second time. Diversity matters.
When Youtube appeared in 2005, I started shooting videos, covering the annual Crafty Bastards gathering, as well as the first Capital Fringe and DC Shorts festivals. Just before the Creative Loafing hammer fell, my title became New Media Editor. Here’s a video I made for an annual meeting, full of inside-jokes, starring many of the bold names from the final print edition: “The Passion of the City Paper.”
Being at City Paper and managing inDC was the best job ever. The remembrances (here here here here here here) captured the spirit of the place. Though stalwarts Mike Dolan and Mark Jenkins are mentioned, I’m surprised they weren’t included. Or Clara Jeffery, now editor of Mother Jones magazine, and Jandos Rothstein, who finally killed Krohm when he introduced something called “desktop publishing” to the paper, a decade or so after all other publications were doing it.
Finally, every few years City Paper would conduct a reader survey. Questionnaires would be inserted randomly into papers and several hundred responses would find their way back to the office. I always read them, every one. In addition to the usual reader complaints about not covering some stories or writing too much about others, the main complaint was that the cover stories were too long. Editorial always ignored this advice, rightfully so.
While there was often praise for the writing, the only name that regularly appeared on the surveys was Darrow Montgomery. Everybody loved his photos. But the last survey I read contained a surprise: My name. (And Jessica Gould, who I believe was a recent hire and I apologize but I don’t recall her well.) Somebody, and I swear I have no idea who, wrote, “I love anything by Dave Nuttycombe.”
Thank you, mystery person. I loved everything I wrote for City Paper.
If you enjoyed this stumble down memory lane, please buy my posthumous memoir, So Close and So What? Pissing Away White Privilege: The Dave Nuttycombe Story. You’re welcome.