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.
Don’t get mad at me, I’m just reporting what TBD found when they analyzed Capital Bikeshare‘s demographic data. The data indicates most Bikeshare cyclists have no helmets, are mostly white and are in their mid-30s. If you take that and compare it to a Washington City Paper piece that evaluated if there was truth beyond the stereotype, you may see an archetype emerge.
Then again, the majority of rental cyclists are women, which doesn’t match up with the perceived gender gap. So while there may be something to the idea that all Bikeshare-ers are of Courtland Milloy’s “myopic little twit” category, it’s far from an accurate portrayal of the cyclist population.
Cheers to Capital Bikeshare for their amazing numbers, and to enduring political correctness.
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.
From Michelle Lancaster. Got news for Michelle? Send her an email.
We’re leading with world news and not a local item, so go ahead and pull a Snyder and sue me. The events unfolding in Egypt are something you absolutely need to know about, particularly since today may be the largest turn out in Tahrir Square. Get up to date with this Voice of America article.
Shakeups Here in DC: WJLA Takes Over Operations of TBD
The Washington Post teased the news on Twitter and then announced that WJLA-Channel 7 would be immediately taking over operations of TBD.com on Thursday. The move seems to indicate a return to the old school, as previous names and identities will be returned to the television station, WJLA will get its own website and TBD.com will remain as is. Be on the lookout for more chatter and potential fallout as the story evolves. Allbritton Communications owns WJLA, News Channel 8 (now called TBD TV), TBD.com and Politico as well as some out-of-town media outlets.
More winter weather is underway or on the way. Where to go for weather news — especially closings, delays and reschedulings?
- Several of the major news outlets in the area provide good weather coverage: The Washington Post, TBD.com and News Channel 8/TBD (28 on local Comcast) all provide good local weather coverage.
- But when it comes to comprehensive, updated lists closings, delays and reschedulings, I always go with WTOP Radio’s website: www.wtop.com. They list schools, government (of various types, D.C., federal, states) as well as events and meetings.
Sunday Concert at Church of the Holy City on 16th St.
The Church of the Holy City at 1611 16th St. NW (at Corcoran) NW is holding a Christmas concert this Sunday, Dec. 12 at 3:30 pm. Reception follows. Selections include Nutcracker favorites; flute and organ music with Gilda Kornhauser and Mila Naoumova; and The Holy Event: Integration of Old Masters paintings and music. Admission is free, but donations welcome to benefit the Tower Restoration Fund.
Who Murdered Robert Wone?
Indeed, who did murder Robert Wone? We don’t know and we may never know (although there are certainly deeply held suspicions, aren’t there?). The three defendants charged with obstruction of justice in the murder case — all were residents of the house where Wone was murdered — were cleared on June 29 by a judge in a bench trial.
Wone’s widow then filed a wrongful death suit against the three men. The editors at Who Murdered Robert Wone? have the details on latest developments in the civil suit. The case has not yet gone to trial.
Wone was murdered on the night of Aug. 6, 2009 at 1509 Swann St. NW. No one has ever been charged with his murder.
Got a Holiday Sweater Ugly Enough for TV?
Don’t know about you, but I have an aversion to sweaters with ducks, poinsettias, Christmas Trees and glitter. Any one of these is an automatic ugly sweater winner for me. TBD.com, in conjuction with News Channel 8/TBD is holding an ugly holiday sweater contest: “Enter by sending your photo to [email protected], by attaching it to our submission form, or by showing off your photo on Twitter (mention @TBD so we see it!) by noon on Dec. 17.”
The finalists will be subjected to an audience vote between Dec. 20 and Dec. 22. The winning sweater will be “worn by a TBD staffer in an on-air fashion show. It’s a whole bonus layer of embarrassment!” says TBD. In fact, the winning sweater will be worn on the air on Dec. 23 from 5 am to 9 am by TBD meteorologist Brian van de Graaff.
Update at 9:30 am Wednesday: Dcist reports that police are seeking leads on a car in yesterday’s shooting: “Police are still looking for a white 2001 Buick with D.C. tags which was around U Street or leaving the area yesterday, just before or after the shooting at 12:30 p.m. Those with information about that car should call police at 202-727-9099, text at 50411, or leave a tip anonymously at 1-888-919-CRIME. The investigation is still open and police are looking for at least one other person.” ###
Update at 8:45 am Wednesday: The Washington Post reports that a 21-year-old man was taken into custody Thursday evening in connection with the shooting at 11th and U Streets yesterday; no word yet on whether he has been charged. ###
Update at 6 am Wednesday: It is still unclear whether Jamal Coates died from bullet wounds or the car crash… the incident appears to be gang related… TBD.com reports that police are “searching for a light-colored, older model Crown Victoria as part of their investigation and encouraged anyone who sees one to alert them.” ###
Update at 10:35 pm Tuesday: TBD.com reports that 21-year-old Jamal Coates died today after being shot at 11th and U Streets NW. MPD confirmed to Borderstan around 2:25 pm that two people were shot and one person is dead in the U Street shooting and auto accident that occurred around 12:30 pm today. Coates was part of a funeral procession for 24-year-old Ashley McRae. The Metro entrance at 13th and U NW is closed. It is believed the incident may be gang related. ###
TBD.com is reporting a shooting at 11th and U Streets NW that occurred during a funeral procession at around 12:30 pm. A car flipped over in U Street and several people were seen exiting the car. Read the full story at TBD.com.
The first report came via a police alert, which reported the shooting as happening at 13th and U Streets NW.
SHOOTING_1227 HOURS_13TH & U ST NW_LOF B/M, 25-30 YRS, LONG DREADS, WHITE SHIRT, DARK JEANS WEARING A WHITE BELT. L/S TOWARDS FLORIDA AVE. NW DO NOT TAKE ACTION CALL 911 W/EVENT #20100534329. Sent on: 09/28 12:42.
THURSDAY UPDATE from TBD.com: “The driver has been identified by police as 23-year-old Chamica Adams of Mitchellville, MD, according to ABC 7. She was charged with aggravated assault and DWI.”
A driver crashed her car into the front of Keren Restaurant around 8:30 pm Thursday at 1780 Florida Avenue, the intersection of 18th and Florida Avenue NW. Local resident Dylan More sent these photographs to Borderstan around 9:30 pm.
TBD.com has the story: “Two young women were seriously injured tonight when a car jumped the curb and drove into Keren Restaurant near 18th Street and Florida Avenue NW in Adams Morgan. Around 8:30 p.m. the driver of a white Dodge Caliber lost control of her car and slammed into the restaurant, destroying the entire storefront. Two women in their twenties who may have been on the sidewalk at the time of the crash were taken to the hospital, one in critical condition and the other in serious condition, according to D.C. fire department spokesman Pete Piringer.”
Get the full story from TBD.com.
TBD.com is a new venture from Allbritton Communications (Politico, News Channel 8, WJLA-ABC 7). The web-based news operation will have a staff estimated at 50 people, but will also be a news aggregator that brings in other sources of information, i.e., blogs. The idea is to create hyper-local news content for readers depending on where they live.
Mathis is not the first high-profile local journalist-blogger-editor hire by TBD.com. Earlier this spring the new venture hired Washington City Paper Erik Wemple as site editor.