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On September 21, 12 editorial staffers from Washington City Paper convened in a secret room at 2390 Champlain Street, their headquarters in Adams Morgan. The goal: to put editor in chief Howard Witt on trial in front of Jane Levine. Levine is chief operating officer of City Paper and publisher of Chicago Reader, two of the country’s more prominent alternative weeklies.
Just four months into Witt’s tenure, the verdict is in. Many staffers believe his style of editing and management is so unsuited to City Paper that the only solution is for him to be fired or quit. At the meeting, the general manager was in tears to see her staff so unhappy, but Levine didn’t blink, according to eyewitnesses. One source characterized Levine’s reaction as “Shove off.”
While the staff raged, Witt sat alone in the newsroom, as if adrift on the open sea. A colleague had informed him of the meeting, but for days afterward, he carried on business as usual, and seemed unaware of the complaints at an editorial meeting a week later. When I asked him about the situation on September 29, he said, “I don’t think it’s a crisis. This is the first time I’m hearing that my ouster was demanded.”
“He’s in over his head,” scoffs one source. “He’s not even good enough to be controversial,” says another. “We are a small office,” says a third. “Having an editor with a presence and a vision shapes how we do our job every day. The feeling now is that we are running alone.”
Witt is not a cruel tyrant, as was Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, and no one has challenged him publicly, as did Bligh’s lieutenant, Fletcher Christian. But Witt is battling rebellious insiders who have talked to the Voice, asking to remain anonymous. Their sentiments are echoed by two writers who resigned because of Witt.
Witt and City Paper are “a bad fit,” according to former staff writer Stephanie Mencimer, who took a $22,000 pay cut to work at The Washington Monthly. (Mencimer is married to City Paper columnist Erik Wemple, who was a candidate for Witt’s job. Wemple declined to comment.)
Witt is also blamed for the loss of freelance columnist and arts writer Arion Berger, a contributor to L.A. Weekly. Last month, Berger stopped writing for City Paper because Witt would not greenlight her proposed TV column unless she provided samples. “He’s created an adversarial relationship between himself and his editors and writers,” says Berger, “and all we want to do is write for the paper we love.”
Granted, Witt is being trashed after only four months on the job. But at the heart of the case against him is his failure to win over the editors and writers who are the lifeblood of the institution. While the Voice‘s stock-in-trade is identity politics, City Paper‘s typical cover story is a 7500-word literary feature. For years, young writers have flocked to Champlain Street, expecting to be schooled in the long narrative form. Past editors in chief Jack Shafer and David Carr were aggressive and skeptical mentors, and their protégés graduated to Harper’s, Wired, Salon, Talk, and Time. City Paper alum Katherine Boo won a Pulitzer for The Washington Post this year.
At 40, Witt is no slouch. During his 17 years at the Chicago Tribune, he rose from foreign correspondent to manage the paper’s Web site. A twist of fate brought him to D.C.: In September 1999, Witt became webmaster for Brill’s Content, only to be squeezed out in January. Last spring, when Carr jumped to Inside.com, Slate‘s David Plotz was the people’s favorite to replace him—until Plotz withdrew. Enter Witt.
Last week, Levine defended Witt for the same reasons she hired him. “He had breathtakingly beautiful clips that showed an understanding of how to tell a story,” she told me. “He’s got a great journalistic sense and he totally gets the kinds of stories we want to do.” Like some landlocked shipowner who can’t see her crew running amok, Levine denies any mutiny on Champlain Street. “It’s the bumps you run into in this kind of transition,” she says, “but the bumps are probably worse because we’ve had such strong editors in the past.”
Indeed, Carr and Shafer attracted a cult following, thanks to their swashbuckling and ability to schmooze. By contrast, Witt says he is “not ever going to be gregarious” like Carr. He says, “That’s not the only effective editor type,” though he can see why the staff thinks “that helps with the influence of the paper.” (Carr declined to comment, as did Shafer, now deputy editor of Slate.)
Could this be an extreme case of hazing? Remembering how people hated Carr his first year, the staff made a special effort for Witt, offering him advice and contacts. But it seems he took their good faith for granted. At the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention last June, one source says, Witt was “nowhere to be found.” He did not read old stories or cultivate veteran staffers, and when one editor held a dinner party for Witt, the guest of honor was an hour and a half late. By July, he had made several off-color remarks that some considered offensive enough to report to the general manager. (Witt says, “There were a couple of incidents in which people misunderstood things that I said. I’ve had to adapt to an acutely sensitive newsroom.”)
The social faux pas might have been forgiven if they had not been compounded by what some sources dub poor editorial judgment. For example, when food columnist Brett Anderson got the owner of a pizza shop on the record making disparaging comments about his black customers, Witt objected because publishing the language would offend readers and hurt the man’s business. Given that the quotes were on tape, former arts editor Bradford McKee wanted to run them and prevailed. (Anderson and McKee declined to comment. Witt says, “If I’m being criticized for raising questions, then fuck it!”)
Mark Plotkin, a political commentator for WAMU Radio, enjoys reading City Paper under Witt, but says he misses the media column, “Paper Trail,” which was previously penned by Shafer and Carr. Witt says, “I’m not presumptuous enough to march into a new city and pronounce about the media.” Witt turned it over to senior editor Michael Schaffer, but Schaffer only wrote a few columns, and has not filed for weeks. Plotkin says, “If the present editor can’t do it or doesn’t feel comfortable, he should get someone else to do it.” (Schaffer, who was a candidate for Witt’s job, declined to comment.)
Perhaps the worst rap against Witt is his light edits. When he does edit provocative pieces, says one source, “his mind-set is to make them dumber or to defang them.” More often, he barely changes a word. As a result, some writers are now finding others to edit their stories before showing them to Witt. “I impose myself to the extent that it’s necessary,” says Witt. “My inclination is to let the writer write the story.”
If this trend continues, sources predict dire consequences. The paper could degenerate into a pile of unedited copy, which one source calls “the hallmark of bad alternative journalism.” If the owners “let the quality slide,” says this source, “they’re going to open themselves up to competition.”
Faced with the prospect of more staff jumping ship, Levine is sanguine, calling turnover a “normal part” of any transition. She says it is “not inherent” in City Paper‘s mission that it be a training ground for new talent. “It could be a place where we hire seasoned writers.”
Last Friday, Levine was back in D.C. After urging those who were in the office to start this week with a “clean slate,” she left Witt at the mercy of a staff that would rather keelhaul than forgive him.
“Clearly some people here don’t like my style as an editor,” says Witt. “Some like it just fine. Those who choose to join me rather than fight me will get to be part of the great paper that I’ve only just started to create.”