Mike DeBonis on Life at The Post and His Must-Read List

by Borderstan.com August 10, 2011 at 11:00 am 3,985 2 Comments

Mike DeBonis, Luis Gomez Photos, Borderstan

Washington Post columnist Mike DeBonis in front of  Capital Manor Cooperative on W Street NW. (Luis Gomez Photos)

By Michelle Lancaster. You can follow her and let her know your news on Twitter @MichLancaster.

The streets of Borderstan are rich with journalistic talent – and we’ve got you covered for insider scoop; from our January interview with  Julie Mason of Politico (formerly of Washington Examiner) to our June interview with Harry Jaffe of the Washington Examiner and Washingtonian….we get you the work story, personal story, Borderstan story and everything in between.

… And now, I’m pleased to welcome our latest addition: Mike DeBonis, Washington Post reporter who covers local politics and government (DeBonis came from Washington City Paper.) DeBonis’ unbiased coverage of local politics and the inner-workings of the City Council over the past four years has earned him the reputation as the tough but fair reporter who leaves no stone unturned.

In addition to his day-to-day Post deadlines, DeBonis blogs on all things D.C. You can check out his breaking news and musings at District of DeBonis. As you’ll read below, DeBonis has strong ties to his current job, local journalism, the streets of Borderstan and the glory that is Fast Gourmet. 

Profiles like DeBonis’ are part of our ongoing series featuring “Borderstan-grown” people of interest.  For others we have featured, check out interviews with featured personality Shi-Queeta-Lee and novelist Joe Flood.

Borderstan: Thanks for agreeing to be the one who answers the questions instead of asking them. Tell us about your move to D.C. — when did you arrive and what brought you here?

DeBonis: I will have lived in D.C. 11 years later this month. I moved here in 2000 to attend Georgetown University. At the time, I thought I was going to be big into politics. Then, I realized I didn’t really care for my fellow students who were also going big into politics. I ended up a Russian major, but mostly I worked on the weekly newspaper. I started freelancing for Washington City Paper while a student and when they offered me a job just before my last semester, I decided to graduate early and take it because it was the only thing I was qualified to do anyway.

Borderstan: We hear you are a recent transplant to Borderstan. Where else have you lived in D.C. and why did you move to the ‘hood?

DeBonis: After college, I lived in a house in Mount Pleasant for three years with my old college roommates, until 2007. It was great, and had one of them not gotten married, hell, we might still be living together. But our split-up happened at just the right time. My friend Ryan Grim (once my intern and now Washington bureau chief for Huffington Post) told me about an available unit at Capital Manor Cooperative on the 1400 block of W Street NW, and it fit my life and my budget. It’s been a wonderful place to live, and it’s been great to be a part of a diverse community trying to make affordable housing into reality. I’ve been honored to be elected to the CMC board twice now.

Borderstan: You work at the Washington Post in an interesting time in journalism and, in particular, the paper’s history. There are those who have said the Post’s heavy stock portfolio in certain companies has impacted editorial coverage; there have been senior staff departures and other layoffs. Are these real and noticeable in the newsroom? How have you handled the change and whispered criticism of the paper?

DeBonis: Having only been at the Post for a year, I can’t say I’ve seen the worst of the changes. I know the Post newsroom is filled with hardworking, immensely talented people, but there’s no denying there are fewer reporters than there once were and a lot less institutional knowledge, and we could use more — just like any newsroom could.

It’s still, in my biased estimation, a great American newspaper, and will remain so for a long time. In terms of criticism of the paper, well, haters gonna hate. Newspapers are powerful institutions, and it’s understandable and healthy for people to question their motives and conduct. I can tell you with great certainty that the Post’s business interests have never infringed on my reporting or that of anyone I know.

Borderstan: Questions on journalism tend to be all gloom and doom. Since we just went negative, what can you tell us that may surprise people about the Post these days? What makes you proud to be on their masthead?

DeBonis: Well, I am far down the food chain from the masthead. But as I said before, the people are freakin’ incredible. The reporting and writing and editing talent is astoundingly good. My colleagues in D.C. politics, for instance, Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig are both just unbelievably good reporters.

A lot of folks think we just “get” some scoops because we’re the Post and we have the biggest megaphone. That happens on occasion, sure, where say a nonprofit will give us an early look at a report. But the vast majority of those stories are shoe leather through and through. Nikita’s reporting on the Fenty and Gray administrations in particular is so good because her sources are so good and she’s always working them.

Borderstan: One last ‘state of journalism’ question, but this time we want to know what news you consume rather than what you write. What’s your ‘can’t miss’ columnist in D.C? The blog you read every day? Local news?

DeBonis: I read Dave McKenna’s Cheap Seats column in Washington City Paper every week, no matter what. He’s a friend and the best columnist I know, no offense to my colleagues at the Post. In terms of city politics, it’s hard to beat Colby King. He’s led a remarkable life and his columns just drill right into the heart of city issues. And, speaking of haters gonna hate, I am in awe of Courtland Milloy and his ability to get people simultaneous riled into fury and reacting and thinking and writing about their city. That’s the mark of a great columnist.

In terms of what local news I read every day, I read it all. Seriously. I have 50+ Google alerts, dozens of feeds in my reader, I’m following nearly 800 people on Twitter: Seriously, if you write something about the city, there is a 98 percent likelihood I will read it. It would be hard for me to namecheck all the people who do great work. But let me say Borderstan is really a model for what a great neighborhood blog should be.

Borderstan: We’ll admit it — we offered you up like a sacrificial lamb to Harry Jaffe in his interview. He said you were a terrific reporter, then called you captive of the soft-headed set. It is only fair to give you an equal shot. What’s your take on Harry’s perspective in his columns?

DeBonis: I love Harry. The book he co-wrote with Tom Sherwood, Dream City, remains required reading, and his Examiner column is provocative. Sometimes he provokes some groans, I admit. With regard to the cops stuff, I just found some of his columns regarding police staffing to be simplistic. Call me soft-headed if you want, but I tend to rigorously question anyone’s claims and assumptions in our political world, whether it’s the police department, the police union, council members, chief financial officers, et al.

Borderstan: In covering local politics, you have had ample material for some, ah, colorful pieces and commentary lately. What is the headline/story you have had to write in the last year that most depressed you? What was the most hopeful or inspiring?

DeBonis: I try not to get depressed about what going on. I was fairly shocked by the allegations against Harry Thomas Jr. of Ward 5, that he used about $400,000 in money meant for youth program for his personal benefit. He has settled a civil case filed by the city without admitting guilt, and we’re all still watching to see if and when he will face criminal charges. It was actually inspiring that the city’s own attorney general was able to uncover that and put officials on notice that shenanigans will not be tolerated.

Borderstan: If we were running for an ANC seat or a City Council seat, what would we have to do to get your endorsement?

DeBonis: Sorry, I don’t do endorsements any more! I’m glad I don’t. When I wrote Loose Lips for City Paper, it was the least favorite part of my job.

Borderstan: One last serious question: What piece of time-honored political advice would you give to our troubled City Council?

DeBonis: Return my calls!

Borderstan: You enjoy a certain luxury, as a columnist, to express opinions. We ask you treat this in a similar manner: What’s the best drink, best bar, best gallery or theater, best place to get a cup of coffee, best place get brunch, best takeout and best ‘date night’ dinner? No holding back!

DeBonis: Okay, here goes: Best bar is Saloon (at least while Tune Inn rebuilds). As far as best drink, I’m a shot-and-beer kinda guy, but I love good beer, and whatever Commy’s pouring works for me. For coffee, I’m just tickled that Peregrine has opened a few blocks away.

A hand-poured cup at their Eastern Market shop is a Saturday morning tradition for me and my girlfriend, who lives on the Hill. Best takeout is, no question, the Milanesa sammich at Fast Gourmet, and it would be even if it wasn’t 50 yards from my front door. Perfect date night dinner for me and the lady is pretty much a Borderstan cliche: Burgers at Saint-Ex and a bottle of wine.


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