With less than a month until David Carr skips out to work for Powerful Media, people are wondering who will be the new editor of Washington City Paper. Two insiders at the D.C. weekly have applied: senior editor Michael Schaffer and Loose Lips columnist Erik Wemple. Friends nominated Tom Watson, enterprise editor at Talk, but Watson, who left D.C. a year ago, isn’t looking for a new job. That leaves Slate’s Washington bureau chief, David Plotz, who many dub the best choice for the job.
“David is the teats on the cow,” says Slate deputy editor Jack Shafer. “He’s it! He’s it!” Shafer, himself the editor of City Paper until 1995, praises Plotz as a “gorgeous writer” and “fine editor” with “great people skills and a great imagination.” Another editor describes the candidate as “very sharp” and “fair-minded.”
Plotz grew up in D.C., attended St. Albans and Harvard, and got his first writing job at City Paper in 1993, on the basis of a senior thesis on Marion Barry. Shafer says the “well-written” thesis showed that Plotz “cared about the city and knew where the bodies were buried.” Plotz rose to senior editor before moving to Slate, which gave him stock options and a global platform. Now 30, he looks to be this year’s It Boy. He’s married to Washington Post staff writer Hanna Rosin. His 1999 Harper‘s story about the South Carolina gambling industry is a National Magazine Award finalist. Clara Jeffery, a Harper‘s senior editor and City Paper alum, calls Plotz a “perfect choice” because “having lived in D.C. all his life, he’s very attuned” to the city and the changes it’s been through. Unlike the Post, Jeffery says, City Paper excels at covering the real city, the one with “an amazing cultural history” and “people who don’t work for the government.”
Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), credits City Paper for its unrivaled listings and for its role as a “watchdog of the Post.” (Last week, in his media column, Carr attributed the Post’s “craven ass-kissing” of MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor to the fact that one of his company’s board members is also a tech exec at the Washington Post Company.) Says Karpel, “I don’t know of anyone who speaks with greater moral authority than David Carr.”
Besides Carr and Shafer, others have used the City Paper as a stepping-stone, including Eddie Dean (a contributing editor at Talk), Patrick Symmes (author of Chasing Che and a Harper‘s contributing editor), Bill Gifford (a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine), Jake Tapper (a Salon writer), Alex Heard (a Wired editor), and Liza Mundy and Katherine Boo (both writers on staff at the Post). But the top job is not just about mentoring young blood, warns one insider; it also involves “crash-and-burn journalism” with a “big staff and a lot of headaches.” The choice for Plotz is whether to “put copy through a meat grinder” for three to five years or stay “on track for being a big magazine writer.”
Plotz does not have the job yet. City Paper is owned by the same company as the Chicago Reader, whose publisher, Jane Levine, is still casting the net. She will travel to D.C. the second week in April and interview six to 12 candidates, who have been asked to submit written critiques. Michael Schaffer, City Paper‘s senior editor, has been tapped as interim editor, which means the search could go on for months.
Chicago Reader managers typically take a long time to ponder every decision. “When I quit,” recalls Jack Shafer, “I gave them two months’ notice, and they still hadn’t picked anybody by the time I left.” Says Levine, “My goal is to have the person hired, if not in place, by the time of the AAN convention at the end of May.”
Levine explains, “We’re not looking for David Carr Two”—meaning the new editor does not have to be a “great line editor,” a “great schmoozer,” a veteran of the alt-press, or a media critic. And like Carr, who was previously editor of an alt-weekly in Minneapolis, the candidate does not have to be a Washington native, she says. Given that Carr “managed to dive into the city and learn it and revel in it so much and so fast, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
Instead, Levine says, “We’re looking for a great editor who has a strong vision of what City Paper should be.” The ideal candidate will have a “range of experience,” but won’t have been “around the block too many times.” Mr. or Ms. Right will be willing to make a five-year commitment, know how to “present a story,” and be “fabulously ethical, both journalistically and interpersonally.” Above all, the new editor has to be “somebody we want to work with. That’s the heartbreaker about David’s leaving. We all love working with David.”
Asked about former City Paper employee David Plotz, Levine says, “I loved working with him. He’s very smart.”
Press v. Press
About two months ago, New York Press publisher Michael O’Hara discovered a Web site that struck him as disturbingly similar to that of his own paper. Located at www.newyorkpress.net, the site bills itself as “NEW YORK PRESS (TM). The online guide to New York media.” When O’Hara did some “digging” and found out the site is maintained by a Brooklyn resident named James Ledbetter, no one at the Press believed it. “The response from our folks here was, ‘Oh, no. He’d never do something like this,’ ” says O’Hara. “We’d always had a cordial relationship.” (Ledbetter used to write Press Clips for the Voice, which made him a natural Press target.)
Ledbetter’s site features original press criticism and links to other New York media outlets. A link to the Press is conspicuously missing, but the name “New York Press” appears frequently in his column, sometimes as many as seven times on a page. Ledbetter says when he launched the site, no one had registered “New York Press” as a trademark, so he filed an application and began using the name (the “TM” indicates that the application is pending).
The site, which attracts “several thousand unique visitors” a month, has been up for seven months. But the Press has been in business 13 years. Despite the obvious dis, Ledbetter denies trading on the weekly’s name and claims “New York Press” is more descriptive of his site than of that paper.
But Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher litigator Andrew Rotstein disagrees. On behalf of the Press, Rotstein sent Ledbetter a bullying cease-and-desist letter dated March 15. “Mr. Ledbetter has unfairly and consciously and in bad faith tried to exploit our name,” says Rotstein, who suggests Ledbetter could just as well use a domain name like “gothammedia” or “knickerbockerpress” for his site. Rotstein’s letter demands that Ledbetter stop using the name, abandon his trademark application, and surrender all rights to the name forever—or face costly litigation. At press time, Ledbetter had not responded, choosing instead to tell the story first to New York magazine and then to Press Clips.
Asked when he plans to initiate a lawsuit, Rotstein says, “Stay tuned.”