From Alden Leonard. Contact him at alden[AT]borderstan.com and follow him @aldenleonard on Twitter.
Here at “Borderstan People,” we like to profile local movers and shakers who are spicing up the neighborhood in a variety of ways. Recently, we caught up with journalist Erik Wemple to catch his beat.
Currently a media critic at The Washington Post, Wemple formerly served as editor of the Washington City Paper and did a stint with with the short-lived TBD.com. In this interview, Wemple discusses everything from trying to keep up with today’s fast-paced and integrative field of journalism, to Borderstan coffee shops and safety tips.
Borderstan: Where did you grow up?
Wemple: I grew up in Schenectady, New York a few hours north of New York City on the New York State Thruway.
Borderstan: What got you interested in politics and/or the media?
Wemple: I think my interest in politics and media came from my father, who served nine terms in the New York State Assembly. He very much enjoyed “working” the media. And I’ve just always had a knack for writing and reporting.
Borderstan: How did you get your start as a journalist? What does a “typical” day entail? What recommendations or tips do you have for journalists getting their start?
Wemple: I worked my way in to journalism slowly, beginning decades ago when I edited a newsletter on federal export regulations. It was a lot of work – a lot of reporting, a lot of meetings in dingy federal office settings, a lot of calling around to industry types and asking precisely what were their problems and priorities were. Never underestimate the corporate confusion over U.S. re-export controls.
Then I started freelancing for Washington City Paper and the InTowner, among others. I really began to get into it, and I got a job at City Paper, eventually becoming the publication’s editor. After eight years, I caught on with TBD and hired the staff there. From there I moved to the Post. It’s really not a very compelling career story, to be honest.
Borderstan: You’ve been in roles from editor to blogger. What has been the most rewarding, memorable, or challenging?
Wemple: It’s tough to attach a superlative, but this current gig is plenty challenging. The challenge is to have something to say about media-related news stuff, as well as to do conceptual stuff and quirky fare. Keeping things fresh is a handful. Thank god there’s cable TV out there – without it, there’d be a fodder deficit.
TBD.com was also quite a challenge, needless to say. We were charged with trying to launch a profitable local, web-only news site from scratch, and we failed (though we didn’t have a lot of time to succeed). That said, I really loved working on the project. The lesson from it, and it’s a pretty narrow one, is that any organization that tries to knit together a traditional TV news operation with a news site driven by print folks has a lot of managing ahead of it.
Both media cultures have their strengths, but they also have sharp incompatibilities. And I’m not talking only about the different personalities of the folks who do TV and those who do print. A good TV story needs, first and foremost, visuals, something that most print journalists think about secondarily, tertiarily, or not at all. Usually not at all.
In this vein, it’s hard for me to compare working for the Washington Post to TBD.com/WJLA, which I’m frequently asked to do. Both are media organizations, and right there the comparisons stop.
Borderstan: How has journalism’s shift to the online environment changed the profession, and how have you adapted to these changes?
Wemple: Journalism’s shift to the online environment has changed every aspect of the profession. I’ve adapted to these changes by scrambling, quite frankly. Scrambling to keep pace with the social media imperative. Scrambling to understand search, scrambling to figure out why my embed code didn’t work, scrambling to figure out why the copy desk says it can’t get access to the post I just filed, scrambling to appreciate why “via” is such a key component of a good tweet, scrambling to watch three cable news channels at virtually the same time and gauge Twitter feedback at the same time, scrambling to nail interviews via phone, e-mail, DM and FB, all at the same time. Just scrambling.
Borderstan: It seems your interest in politics brought you to DC, but what brought you specifically to Borderstan? When did you come here, and what about the neighborhood caused you to stay?
Wemple: I bought a two-bedroom at the corner of 15th and O Streets NW in 1991 for a song. The neighborhood attracted me because at the time I was concerned about my environmental impact on the world; I wanted to live where I wouldn’t need a car too much, where I could commune with others who felt the same way about the planet. And that is all a total lie.
In truth, I moved to Borderstan because it was close to work, and the apartment was better than other places I’d looked at. The environs at the time were a bit dicey, though I had no idea about the degree. For instance, 15th and O taught me to look fixedly at the mirror when I brush my teeth. That’s because one night, as I was brushing, I was gazing through the back window, which overlooked what was then an empty and open lot on O Street NW between 15th and 16th Streets.
Everything looked pretty quiet, though I noticed a Subaru station wagon that was wiggling a bit down there. A little squinting brought into focus a little flagrante delicto inside the Subaru, which I’d prefer to have missed. As I’d later discover, that lot and other spots in the vicinity were popular refuges for fellows who’d cruised nearby blocks for prostitutes.
Worse were the smash-and-grabs. I had a 1986 Honda Accord – nothing sexy, but still a target for monthly break-ins, even though I learned early never to leave anything in it. No matter. One time, I hopped in the car ready to go to a friend’s place and she didn’t start – didn’t even turn over. I checked things out and found that someone had stolen my battery. On my way back from the 14th Street Trak Auto, trapezoids burning from the weight of my new battery, it hit me: The thief wasn’t after the old battery; the thief was after the replacement battery. Determined not to fall prey to such a scam, I took to parking the car miles away, on an unregulated street in Ward 3. I’d run or ride my bike to fetch it.
Now to answer the question of why I’ve stayed: Because I don’t do change that well. Once I’m in a place, it’s hard to move me. Someone recently told me that she’s “so done with DC” I believe that, but I have no idea what that feels like. They say people have trouble imagining their deaths, but I see mine as falling flat on my face on a piece of concrete between 12th and 18th Streets NW, south of Florida and north of Massachusetts. Hopefully not too soon.
Borderstan: What are some of your favorite Borderstan spots for drinks, coffee, dinner, to get a good book or have a meeting?
Wemple: I’ve got two young kids who aren’t quite ready for swillfests at Stoney’s and don’t have the palates to appreciate the flatbreads at Birch & Barley, so my hanging out at neighborhood joints is limited. That said, I’ll put in a good word for Java House. It predates the boom in the neighborhood and has a feel consistent with its age. It’s just a nice space with nice ownership and nice clientele. Peter Rosenstein and his crew are always there talking civics; my family and I go on Wednesday mornings each week. It’s always a good time.
Borderstan: Anything else you would like to share with the readers of Borderstan about your life or work?
Some safety tips: Watch yourself at the intersections of the bike lines on 15th Street. People tend to be preoccupied by auto traffic and may step off the curb, ignoring a cyclist who is just about to clip you. I hector my kids to watch out for the cyclists, because they whisk by very fast.
Another hotspot is the southwest corner of 16th and Q, right there in front of the PETA offices. I’ve seen a car plow right into the sidewalk there, because it had swerved to get clear of a car turning left from 16th southbound onto Q Street east. When waiting at that intersection, get behind a tree or light post.