It Was a Time, What a Time It Was

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.

Is This Any Way to Run a Newspaper? The software that powered City Paper, XyWrite and Krohm.

Is This Any Way to Run a Newspaper? The software that powered City Paper: XyWrite and Krohm.

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.

Codes Make the Man! Before HTML there was Krohm--and I actually understood it.

Codes Make the Man! Before HTML there was Krohm–and I actually understood it.

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.)

A Bit Ahead of Myself. This ad never was never published.

A Bit Ahead of Myself. This ad was never published.

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 convertingĀ QuarkXpress files to HTML and uploading them one by one after the paper had been put to bed. Wednesdays were very long.

New Kids on the Blog: inDC opened up City Paper to more voices.

New Kids on the Blog: inDC opened up City Paper to more voices.

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.

The same 1996 technology powered our message board for 11 years. And letting everyone speak was, mostly, a good idea.

The same 1996 technology powered our message board for 11 years. And letting everyone speak was, mostly, a good idea.

 

My email address, webmeister@washcp.com, 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.

I Was a Member of Advertorials Anonymous!

I Was a Member of Advertorials Anonymous!

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.

Restaurant Finder postcards were a successful promotion item. Venues kept asking for more.

Restaurant Finder postcards were a successful promotion item. Venues kept asking for more.

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.”

Vlogging became a thing and I already had a spiffy miniDV camera.

Vlogging became a thing and I already had a spiffy miniDV camera.

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.”

"Fool's names and fool's faces always seen in public places." --My Mom.

“Fool’s names and fool’s faces always seen in public places.” –My Mom.

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.

I Dared Click On Facebook Scam Ads.

For a few days last week, almost my entire Facebook newsfeed was taken over by a series of similar ads, sometimes identical except for the name of the advertiser. Indeed, there were more of these ads than posts from my friends. All of the ads offered musical instruments for sale and claimed–in the same slightly off language–that the companies were poorly run, going out of business, and thus many guitars and drumsets could be had for amazingly low, low prices.

Say goodbye to the old factory. And your money.

Say goodbye to the old factory. And your money.

For instance, a Taylor 818e DLX electro acoustic guitar could be yours (or mine!) for just $96. This model sells at Guitar Center for $3,499. The $97 “special offer” Fender American Precision bass retails for $1,499. Likewise, the $94 “special offer” Gibson Les Paul Classic T will set you back $1,950 in any real music store. You won’t find such deals even on eBay.

I don't want to pay, I want to bang on my fake drum all day.

I don’t want to pay, I want to bang on my fake drum all day.

The names of the sites you were invited to click were odd, too: pxfresh.com, babalunsa.com, jiaodm.com, encarcha.com, and mutjean.com. Double-checking two others — eurekahub.info and colorpalette.vip found they had disappeared. The happy-sounding site winwinlook.com that advertised complete Alesis electronic drum sets for $84.99 (actual retail $579) is now offering golf club sets for $45 (actual retail $349). And if you hoped to pick up a Gretsch drum set for $120 (a $600-$4,000 value) at montyme.com, you’re too late, site’s gone.

More like poor management at Facebook?

More like poor management at Facebook?


The sites that remain as of Aug. 10, 2021, all look alike, using the same bland template with a grid of photos of high-end guitars and a Paypal logo. (There’s lots of chatter from 2020 on a Paypal message board from people who fell for the scam.)
Lookalike sites come and go as scams are discovered.

Lookalike sites come and go as scams are discovered.

The sites these ads all link to look alike because an ICANN lookup of domain registration finds that they’re all from China. Jiaodm.com is registered by eName Technology Co., Ltd, the “#1 domain name marketplace in China and the preferred platform for all Chinese domain investors.” Encharcha.com was registered through PocketDomain.com, which is located in Room 747, 7/F, Star House, 3 Salisbury Road Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Mutjean.com is registered through Alibaba Cloud Computing, Beijing.

So, yeah. We know the Chinese can make things cheaply. But not this cheap.

We also know that Facebook has issues with disinformation and scams.

Ode to the Uptown

On March 13, 2020, America woke to the horrible news–no, not that horrible news, the news that the fabled Uptown Theater was closing. In fact, it was already closed. In the middle of everything else going wrong, this hits me hard.

A 1936 Art Deco palace, the Uptown building is still owned by the Pedas family; brothers, Ted and Jim ran the equally-cherished Circle Theater, which they built into a local powerhouse chain of 22 theaters, including the Uptown. So, while the landlord is sympathetic to the public’s outcry, that is no guarantee that the place will come back.

Indeed, Josh Levin, who rescued the plucky West End Cinema from the Cineplex Odeon chain (which had gobbled up Circle Theaters and was then gobbled up by current Uptown owner AMC Theaters) before having to give in to market realities, posted a thoughtfully pessimistic analysis on Facebook, delineating the many obstacles standing in the way of reopening the Uptown as a successful movie venue:

It’s a single-screen theater
Needs equipment, seating, and concession upgrades
It’s a single-screen theater
Probably needs to become a community nonprofit
It’s a single-screen theater
Probably needs a liquor license
It’s a single-screen theater
Repeat

Yeah, that single screen is 70-feet-by-40-feet, but apparently watching movies on your phone is a thing. Still, there is a Change.org petition going around to try to save the place. I signed.

And with so many memories wrapped up in that theater, I made this video appreciation. Enjoy.

The Problem With Regulations

So the current zeitgeist has caused even me to descend to the depths of politics. Here, I explain the problem with the debate over regulations, which is that ugly word “regulations.” In fact, government regulations are meant to safeguard and protect the public. So, instead of bemoaning having to follow instructions, be thankful that your safety is a concern of our elected officials. Well, some of them. #resist

The Wonder of It All

batman v superman2

Firstly, this is not an anti-Wonder Woman rant. I like Wonder Woman just fine. Nor an anti-feminist rant. “I’m With Her,” and all that. Oh, it is a rant, to be sure. A rant about bullshit marketing. Which, I know, too easy, but still…

As the picture above indicates, this is a rant about the movie Batman v Superman, which I am on record here as despising. As crass and inhuman as that film is, not surprisingly, so, too, is the marketing a cynical ploy. Which, again, a redundant and easy complaint about marketing, but fight we must.

My ire is raised because for some reason Wonder Woman is given front-and-center position on the Blu-ray and on the store rack. Remember, the movie is titled (foolishly) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, not Wonder Woman and Batman and Superman: Some Kind of Insane Three-Way. Of course, that movie I would watch, at least for a while. Wonder Woman, portrayed with universally-praised panache by Gal Gadot, was only in the two-and-a-half hour slogfest for a total of seven minutes. Seven minutes! A credit to the actress that she can command such reviews from so little screen time. And a discredit to the rest of the film that a bit player can steal the show, which remember features two of the most iconic characters in the history of the world.

The reason Wonder Woman was in the film, and the only reason she is heavily featured on all the packaging and posters, is that Warner Bros. is also making a Wonder Woman film. Probably several. It’s cross-promotion, don’t you know.

batman v superman

But it’s so blatant, so in-your-face, so shameless, that it just defeats its own purpose. What the campaign is saying is, “Hey, you didn’t really like this movie, but you did like this one character, so here you go, she’s in the movie, remember? Please buy this disc because there might be more of her on the DVD extras.”

Sticking your IP into everything just because you can is a filthy business.

If this is your best play, Warner Bros., why not go all the way. Warners is also making another Ben Affleck film, The Accountant. Let’s add Wonder Woman to that. Here’s the synopsis, wherein Affleck plays

“a math savant with more affinity for numbers than people. Behind the cover of a small-town CPA office, he works as a freelance accountant for some of the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations. With the Treasury Department’s Crime Enforcement Division, run by Ray King (J.K. Simmons), starting to close in, Christian takes on a legitimate client: a state-of-the-art robotics company where an accounting clerk (Anna Kendrick) has discovered a discrepancy involving millions of dollars. But as Christian uncooks the books and gets closer to the truth, it is the body count that starts to rise.”

Could probably use Diana Prince and her invisible plane, right?

But why stop there? Let’s add Wonder Woman (or Batman, or Superman, or the Flash, or…) to other upcoming Warner Bros. features!

Warners is making a new Tomb Raider. Another Scooby Doo. Another Jungle Book. Another King Kong movie, Kong: Skull Island. Yet another Godzilla movie, and a King Kong vs Godzilla movie!

Wonder Woman vs. Lara Croft on Skull Island: Dawn of Mowgli. A Scooby Doo Adventure!

Jeez. I take it all back. Warner Bros. should just stop making movies.

Batman v Superman v Bullshit

The film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was so scorned by critics (a lousy 28% on Rotten Tomatoes) that the Warner Bros. marketing team has been reduced to dredging up what positive quotes they can find from the most random people on social media: a guy from Pakistan, an Irish dude who mostly tweets about football (i.e., soccer), and even a grandmother on Facebook.

In the time-honored movie-marketing ploy of plucking a few words out of context from a review to suggest that the critic actually enjoyed the movie, the Warners team has been posting the following graphics to Twitter. To be fair, the fans seem to have actually enjoyed the movie (the Rotten Tomatoes audience score is an inexplicable 69%). But is the opinion of someone with less than 200 followers on Twitter of any use? Yeah, yeah, democratization of the Internet, end of the gatekeepers, blah blah. But seriously, Twitter user @ceepascual‘s money quote, “Literally every scene with @galgadot in it took my breath away,” is just a guy ogling a pretty lady. Progress!

I have been retweeting these desperate memes right back at Warners, with snarky comments, to no effect.

There is an entire wing of the Nuttycombe Archives filled with Silver Age Superman and Batman comic books, a treasure trove that I adore. I was such a Batman purist that when I watched the Adam West Batman show on TV in the ’60s, I despised it. Why so unserious? As a kid, I did not understand camp. I’ve evolved.

But the approach to adapting comic book characters for film and television (and, indeed, in comic books) has swung so far in the other direction that I was about to write my own screed against this current climate of morose, sociopathic superhero movies, filled with what Wesley Morris in the New York Times termed “lugubrious solemnity and generic philosophizing.” But here’s the Austin American-Statesman‘s Joe Gross summing up better than I the problem with BvSDoJ. Spoiler alert: He compares it, unfavorably, to a garbage fire.

Here are some of the film studio’s sad attempts to lure you into the theater, and the new social media cineastes who inspired them:

bvs1

Source: https://instagram.com/nic_ferazzoli

bvs2

Source: https://instagram.com/gabrielqueirox

bvs3

Source: http://twitter.com/ceepascual

bvs4

Source: https://www.facebook.com/SuniyehNabeel

bvs5

“@ohsnapitsgingee” seems to have disappeared from Twitter.

bvs7

Source: https://twitter.com/JohnnyCrua

bvs8

Source: https://instagram.com/kms_fotografie

bvs9

Source: https://www.facebook.com/kathy.gummere.1

bvs10

Source: https://twitter.com/TriangleSpidey

bvs13

Source: https://twitter.com/Themysciran

Peak Bullshit: Getting Herky With Jerky

People, we have reached Peak Bullshit. I present to you this package of Jack Link’s Small Batch Handcrafted* Beef Jerky.

Several things about that: One, “small batch.” Along with “artisinal,” a term of increasing ubiquity and decreasing meaning, if any there ever was. For instance, an entire shopping rack of something professing to be of limited quantity found prominently displayed in one of the largest grocery chains in the country seems a bit of a stretch vis-a-vis small batchness. Further calling this notion of limited availability into question, the company, Jack Links, claims to be the “leading U.S. meat snack brand.” And you know how Americans love their meat snacks. Small batches will just not do.

But “handcrafted”? Before one pictures a lone yet rugged country farm hand tenderly stroking and pulling his sweet tendrils of beef flesh (or whatever; I’ve just made myself ill), please note the asterisk. Which is to say, the product immediately runs away from its own ad claim. However, trying to find the companion asterisk for the expected disclaimer proved suspiciously difficult. But when it was finally found — in nearly invisible ink almost off the package — there was only more confusion: “*Authentically prepared and hand selected.”

What the what? How does one claim relate to the other? An asterisk traditionally means to look for more information or a caveat. Aren’t all foods, nay, all products, authentically prepared? What does authenticity mean when we’re talking about beef jerky? Or is hand selection what qualifies the handcraft boast? Is to merely select something to also craft it? Meaning, somewhere in the factory a hand was involved? Pulled a lever, pointed a finger, flipped a bird? Who knows? Again, picture that lone, loving farm boy craftsman surrounded by his cherished shards of meat. Ah, can you smell the America?

And teriyaki flavor? Jack Links corporate PR says this small handcrafted batch “celebrates the brand’s rich heritage.” The company was founded in the north woods of Wisconsin in the 1880s, while Japan was barely coming out of its seclusion. Where, please, is this longstanding Wisconsin/Japanese flavored-jerky tradition? I’m generally a fan of the teriyaki, but this jerky flavor, however achieved, was not entirely apparent.

But is there really a market for upscale beef jerky? Or, to put it in the current lingo: Are there opportunities in the jerky space?

Perhaps so. My cat likes it.

Washington Post Free For All Watch

My Saturday morning breakfast ritual is to turn to the Free for All page in the back of the A section of the Washington Post and fill up on righteous indignation along with my English muffins. Free for All is an entire newspaper page devoted to letters to the editor, almost all of them ranting about the many failures of the daily paper. I call it the Grumpy Old Man page, though women are equally represented among the aggrieved.

As a grumpy old man, my name has appeared on the Free For All page with sad regularity. I rose to defend the honor of Alfred E Neuman, nit-picked sloppy illustration for a design story in the Local Living section, and complained about bicycle regulations, among other vitally important issues. That level of pedantry is not out of place on Free for All. Basically, the editors are damned if they do and damned if they don’t on any and every topic.

Thus, I am something of an expert at spotting what will get a rise out of Post readers. One of the most common types of Free for All letter is the complaint about what does or doesn’t appear on A1. In this inaugural post for the series, I will predict next week’s Free for All. You will surely be reading something along the lines of this:

Dear Editor,

What possessed you to waste precious space on the front page of the newspaper with what is for all intents and purposes an advertisement for a Hollywood movie? [“For real-life Alexander, the days are pretty good,” A1, Oct. 11.] Even to the point of using not one but two stills from the film as illustration!

How very nice for Alexander Viorst that his mother wrote a book about him (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), and that it has now been turned into a big-budget Steve Carell movie. But such stories, if they must appear at all, should be relegated to the Style section and not the front page of what used to be a great national newspaper.

Grumpy Old Man, Silver Spring

P.S.: You also misspelled the name of the movie’s co-star. It is Jennifer Garner, not Gardner. She is the wife of Ben Affleck, Mrs. Batman, for heaven’s sake!