Sommer Mathis: Telling DC’s Story
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 scoops; 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, which prompted an interview with Mike DeBonis with the Washington Post by way of the Washington City Paper.
Sommer Mathis is our latest profile of journalists in our midst, although to limit Mathis to ‘journalist’ barely covers her curriculum vitae. She currently serves as editor at Atlantic Cities, a new venture launched by the magazine, The Atlantic. During her career in DC, Mathis has spearheaded digital media strategies, commanded online newsrooms and written and/or edited about damn near everything you care about in DC.
Read about her take on the future of journalism, how DC compares to other cities of the world, the dirt behind TBD (yes, sorry, we still care) and the best patio drinking in Borderstan.
These profiles 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: Lots of exciting things are going on for you — Atlantic Cities has just launched and you are at the editor’s desk. What can you tell us about the new venture?
Mathis: We’re still just getting our feet wet, but I’m having a blast. Our aim is to be a go-to source for the urbanism nerds of the world, while at the same time offering up a steady stream of cities-related content that any intellectually curious reader would find of interest. There’s a number of features we plan to roll out over the next couple of months that I’m really excited about, so stay tuned.
Borderstan: Atlantic Cities in DC launched at almost the same time as HuffPost DC. Since Atlantic Cities aims to tell the story of cities, rather than just one city in particular, do you see them as a competitor or a possible source for content?
Mathis: I’m happy for Mike Grass and the team he’s put together at HuffPo, and any new source of local DC news is of course always going to be of interest to me. But they really aren’t a competitor. The Altantic Cities isn’t trying to do local content in that same way. Our focus is much broader. We want to be a hub of conversation on the topic of the future of cities, both nationally and globally. But certainly, I have an eye on any locally focused, city-based news outlet that might be a good source for those kinds of ideas.
Borderstan: Now that you are looking at cities from a broader perspective, how do you think the story and evolution of DC compares to other cities? Are we more like a Detroit or an Austin or another city altogether?
Mathis: DC has changed so much even in the short time since I moved here seven years ago. I don’t think there’s much of a parallel to Austin, which is unique in terms of its blend of musical and artistic and academic communities. And Detroit, despite all the optimism coming out of its downtown core these days, has a long way to go before it could even come close to the story of DC’s transformation.
Frankly, I’m not sure DC can really compare to the story of any other city over the last decade. On the aggregate, we’ve been able to ride out the worst of the recession thanks to growth in the federal government, but at the same time a lot of District residents have been left behind. And our status as a federal colony creates roadblocks that no other city anywhere has to deal with. Even Mexico City has more autonomy than we do.
Borderstan: Now, let’s backtrack. You’ve had a variety of positions at a variety of outlets in DC. What brought you to the city and how long have you been here?
Mathis: Well, like I said, I’ve been here about seven years now. I first moved here to take a job working for a boutique documentary film company that specializes in stories about non-violent conflict, very serious, PBS-type stuff. I was looking for a way out of Los Angeles after spending a few years working in the entertainment side of the television business. L.A., as it turned out, was not my town. DC feels more like home.
Borderstan: You were at DCist for more than three years, but the subsequent editorial positions have been shorter in duration. Is there an explanation for the more frequent changes, or is this just the evolution of journalism and your career arc?
Mathis: Well my time running DCist was incredibly fulfilling, but when I left for TBD it was because I couldn’t imagine an innovative, digital-first, well-funded local news outlet launching in DC and not being a part of it. That, obviously, didn’t work out for those of us involved. Immediately after we all got laid off, Washingtonian offered me a wonderful opportunity to turn around their digital strategy, and of course I jumped at it. I really enjoyed my short time there, it’s such a warm, supportive work environment filled with amazing people whom I already miss. I could have happily stayed there for years. But then Bob Cohn at The Atlantic had to swoop in and offer me my dream job. I couldn’t pass it up.
Borderstan: The demise of TBD.com was a bit of a surprise, it seemed, to both writers and readers. Can you tell us a little bit about your understanding of the ‘business case’ for shuttering the operation? What went right and what went wrong?
Mathis: Ha, are people still interested in this? The basic story hasn’t really changed: There was just zero effort from the top to get the team at WJLA/ABC7 on board with what TBD had been aiming to be. That failure created all kinds of tension between two newsrooms that were theoretically supposed to be working together. When I look back at it now, we were doomed before we began.
We had an experienced digital advertising director who was pushed out the door before we even launched, due to similar tensions between her team and the existing TV ad sales people at WJLA and Channel 8. Those TV folks were great at selling WJLA, but didn’t know how to sell TBD. And then the editorial team at WJLA just never bought in to what we were doing. They didn’t think we had compatible audiences.
They didn’t want to promote our site on their newscasts. They (and I’d venture, understandably) resented that we had control over how their stories were presented online. TBD’s editorial team wasn’t super interested in WJLA’s TV news packages, which didn’t do well with the audience we were trying to build. And at the end of the day, TBD was brand new and needed time before it could make a profit, while WJLA is the flagship earner in the Albritton media empire. From an immediate, ledger book perspective, gutting TBD was the obvious choice. Whether it was the right choice I suppose will be judged by where WJLA is five, 10 years from now.
Borderstan: What do you think the future is for local media? Is there a model or format that you think has the most promise, or has been under-utilized?
Mathis: I obviously think digital is the future. There will come a day when the people who still watch local TV news as their main source of information will all be gone, and the winners will be the ones who planned the best for that shift. The thing that people miss when they talk about “models” of local news is that good reporting is good reporting, no matter what format it’s in.
And digital is just a better format in terms of its immediacy, its ability to adapt quickly, get information out there as fast as possible, and make corrections right away. Newspapers weren’t invented because everyone was just dying for a recap of yesterday’s news. Newspapers were invented because that was the best technology we had at the time. Now we have something better.
Borderstan: You’ve covered everything from City Council rumor mongering to who was downing pints at the Irish Times to gentrification and development fights to budget issues. With such a large beat, what stories have been the most rewarding to report? The ones that surprised you most (either that people wanted to know about it, or what the reporting uncovered)?
Mathis: I think I’ll object to being accused of rumor mongering! But to answer what I think is your question, my favorite stories are almost always the inevitable battles that emerge from the ground level of communities and neighborhoods. The passion that’s involved in conflicts between neighbors just can’t compare to the tired political squabbles that come out of Congress.
One of my favorite stories from my time at TBD was about a small wooden locker that had been cemented into the sidewalk on H Street NE, and that no one wanted to claim responsibility for. There were people who were up in arms about this weird little box.
Borderstan: In all that time, you’ve probably encountered stories that made you want to go forget it all over a few pints. What are your picks for the best places in the city to get inspired for a story, shrug off a hard day or toast a new venture with friends? Where are the bars the rest of the journalists head to after work?
Mathis: I always seem to end up back at Fox & Hounds on 17th Street. The staff is awesome, the mixed drinks are strong and cheap, they have the best juke box in the city, and if you sit on the patio, the odds of seeing someone you know walk by are extremely high. Other crucial spots: Dodge City, especially now that their patio is open, and of course, the Black Cat’s Red Room. I also love The Pug on H Street NE. It feels like exactly what a bar should be.
Borderstan: Top 5 time! On Atlantic Cities, you do a feature called ‘Why I love my city’. Can you give us a Top 5 or Top 10 list on why you love DC?
Mathis: Compactness, smarts, transportation, beauty and energy.
- Compactness. All the people in DC who I love are just a short walk or bike ride away. After spending five years trapped in my car in Los Angeles, running into people on the street is basically my favorite thing ever.
- Smarts. Almost never do I end up trapped in a conversation in DC with someone who’s a total idiot. Not every city is so crammed full of brilliant people.
- Transportation. I sold my car four years ago and I’ve never regretted it. Between the Metro, the bus, bike-share, abundant taxis, and Zipcar, I never feel like I don’t have a good option.
- Beauty. Do people who haven’t spent time in DC know how pretty it is? Between the tulips that magically pop up on my block every spring and the breadth of architectural styles we have going for us, there are just so many streets that charm me.
- Energy. The main thing I’ve come to appreciate about this city’s culture since I arrived is how involved everyone is. People will try to tell you residents here aren’t invested in the city itself, but I’ve seen just the opposite. Whether it’s showing up to argue about a speed bump or a farmer’s market, or putting together a happy hour to benefit a favorite charity, or just being completely absorbed by work they’re passionate about, there are very few lazy people living here. It’s a source of inspiration.