Before quitting his job as editor of Washington City Paper last week, Howard Witt had gone into a funk. According to one insider, he first started acting pissed off in September, when he began to receive men’s magazines and CDs—weird, suggestive things he never asked for. Then, after a few staffers criticized a cover story he wrote, he stopped talking to many colleagues altogether. Witt’s boss urged him to make peace, but he stayed in his office, reading magazines and surfing the Web. According to the source, “He had noticeably given up on the paper.”
Says another insider, “He was not suited for that position, and he realized it early in the game. He was unhappy, and that unhappiness permeated the entire editorial staff.”
Last week, Witt got his ticket to ride. At a staff meeting, he announced he was leaving, but did not say where he would go. Jim Romenesko broke the news of Witt’s resignation on his Web site November 8, and the next day, The Washington Post reported that Witt had landed a choice job covering the State Department for the Chicago Tribune.
What didn’t get reported is that Witt owes a debt to the terrorists, who helped him get the job, in a way. Since 1999, John Diamond had been covering both the Pentagon and the State Department for the Tribune, while other major papers had someone on each beat. After September 11, the absence of a full-time Pentagon reporter became glaring, and the Tribune eventually assigned Diamond to the Pentagon and hired Witt to cover State.
Witt also got a boost from the old boys’ network. He started at the Tribune 19 years ago as a foreign correspondent and rose to head the newspaper’s Web site from 1997 to 1999. One year and two short-lived dotcom jobs later, he landed at City Paper, and now Witt has been rehired by his former bosses, Tribune managing editor James O’Shea and George de Lama, deputy managing editor for foreign and national news.
So why did he quit? Witt did not return calls for comment. Jane Levine, who is chief operating officer of City Paper and publisher of the Chicago Reader, says Witt got a good offer, but “if he was riding high and loving it here, he would not have left.” Asked to evaluate his product, she said, “I was pleased with the paper he made.”
Some staffers felt Witt and the alternative City Paper were a “bad fit” from the start, and in October 2000, this column reported that many felt the only solution was for him to be fired or quit. But Witt has his defenders. Sports columnist Dave McKenna says he found Witt “smart, funny, and, on a professional level, way more than capable.” Says Richard Byrne, whom Witt hired to be his associate editor last year, “Howard’s been a tremendous mentor and friend to me, so I’m not happy to see him go.” Byrne has been named interim editor.
City Paper is fat for an alt-weekly, and in the past year, staffers won many awards. But past editors Jack Shafer and David Carr ran a legendary boot camp for literary journalists, sending their protégés off to Harper’s, Wired, The Washington Post, Salon, Talk, and Time. Theirs were tough acts to follow, and indeed, WAMU Radio political commentator Mark Plotkin says he only knew Witt by his absence. “I go to a lot of functions,” says the D.C. pundit, “and I don’t know anybody who’s ever met the guy.” Whereas Shafer and Carr were always out and about, trying to “talk to you and engage you,” Witt seemed to lack the curiosity that is essential for the job, Plotkin says.
At the office, insiders say, Witt was patient and gave writers free rein, but he was not the ass-kissing, ass-kicking mentor they were used to; and he never succeeded in managing the personalities on the staff. At least one staffer found Witt thin-skinned. “If there’s any conflict or challenge to his judgment, he can’t handle it,” says this source. “He’s totally insecure.” Byrne dismissed the rap against Witt’s personality as “a red herring,” saying editors should be judged only “by the quality of the paper they put out.”
But the content had deteriorated, too, says Plotkin. In the past, the paper “covered city politics in a smart-ass, engaging, clever way,” examining major personalities and issues, such as the debate over statehood for D.C. Instead, Witt’s paper has dwelled on “quirky minutiae.” According to Plotkin, Witt’s biggest mistake was to underestimate the influence of Loose Lips, a long-standing political column. Witt inherited popular Loose Lips columnist Erik Wemple, but last fall, Wemple became dissatisfied and quit. Then Witt’s handpicked replacement, Jonetta Rose Barras, quit in August, citing disagreements with Witt, and the column suddenly disappeared. Plotkin says Witt “obviously pissed off two very important and widely read people, and then gave us no explanation. It’s a damning indictment.”
Another black hole in Witt’s tenure is the media column, which disappeared in June 2000 with the departure of David Carr. When Carr was writing Paper Trail, Plotkin says, the column could be “clever, funny, acerbic, even rancid” at times. People expected the same this September, when the column resumed under a new name (Press Corpse) and a new writer (Byrne). But Byrne has concentrated on analysis, offering no scoops or reportage. Plotkin calls him a “pale imitation” of Carr.
Byrne says the loss of Loose Lips is “an obvious gap, but it’s a very hard position to fill. I’m going to try to fill it.” He insists that under Witt, City Paper was as good as it ever was, and successfully carried out its mandate to cover local government, touching on the statehood debate “numerous times.” To those who crave media gossip, Byrne says, “I judge media on contents and results.”
Some staffers are still reeling from last week’s surprise denouement. One says they always thought Witt would make things so miserable that many people would leave, allowing the editor to hire his own people. Instead, his secret enemies drove him out, earning themselves a reputation as petty and manipulative. But that might be a bad rap. According to one observer of the staff, “They never struck me as a group of back-stabbing bandits . . . bent on tearing down anybody who tries to impose order.” Levine points out that in the wake of Witt’s resignation, staffers “are not running around kicking up their heels. They have a good attitude about making it work.”
But one observer predicts that, given the culture of alternatives, any newcomer can expect the same kind of hazing—or “ritual shit storm”—that attended Witt’s arrival, in which case the best move is to ferret out troublemakers and get rid of them.
Others say it might be prudent to hire a familiar face, just as Si Newhouse tapped New Yorker staff writer David Remnick to stabilize the magazine after the departure of Tina Brown. And sure enough, Byrne and Wemple say they have applied for the job.
Levine says she is “confident that Byrne and the current staff can put out the paper for several months,” giving the owners time to review every applicant. But some “great candidates” have already declared themselves, she says, so “we have a very high bar.”