On Feb. 1, in its debut issue, the Washington Examiner splashed this headline across its tabloid front: “‘Stop the violence; stop the shooting.’” The story detailed a movement to end the spate of killings that claimed the lives of 24 D.C. children in 2004. Along with subsequent crime stories, the piece signaled the Examiner’s commitment to covering life in some of the District’s African-American communities.
The Examiner, however, won’t deliver to them.
As a free newspaper, the Examiner maintains a distribution hierarchy for the demographics it most covets. It places its product in newspaper boxes within reach of readers it would like to have; it positions hawkers at Metro stops and other hot spots for readers it prizes; and it arranges home delivery for readers it must have.
And if you’re a D.C. resident who gets the Examiner with your bathrobe and morning coffee, you’re in all likelihood white and very rich, according to a Dept. of Media survey. If you fall into certain other race or income categories, you may have to go hunting for your copy: Black and poor? Try a Metro stop or busy intersection. Black and rich? Cross your fingers or check dcexaminer.com. White and poor? Umm, you live in Prince William County.
The Examiner cops to choosing readers on the basis of income and age. According to a company fact sheet, the Examiner aims to snare a “preferred audience without the waste.” “Preferred,” here, means relatively young—between 25 and 54—and rich—living in households pulling in more than $75,000 per year. But there are other, undisclosed criteria as well, according to Examiner Publisher James McDonald. “This is a developing new model, and I don’t think it’s pragmatic to give out our business plan,” says McDonald.
With a robust local-news section and mostly wire copy for national and international news, the Examiner reads like a cross between blurb-o-rama straphanger tabs such as the Washington Post Co.’s Express and a traditional multi-section newspaper. The concept comes courtesy of Washington Examiner owner Philip Anschutz, a Denver billionaire who also owns the San Francisco Examiner and harbors ambitions of a nationwide news empire. The local Examiner, which comes out six times per week, is the successor of the Journal newspapers and thus shares their suburban focus. Of 260,000 copies printed daily, about 50,000 land in the District, according to McDonald.
Figuring out where those D.C. editions wind up is grist for investigative journalism. Locals have complained of difficulties finding the paper. “I haven’t managed to grab a copy before they’re all gone,” says Philip Spalding, who lives near U Street NW. The Examiner’s street boxes certainly put the drama back into newspaper hunting. Some seem to be always empty, some have the current edition, and some have the previous day’s edition. The paper has 1,500 boxes spread across the region, says McDonald, who admits that uneven service is “entirely possible.”
Chaos on the home-delivery front is completely “entirely possible.” One upper Northwest resident earlier this week reported that he’d received the Examiner’s special every-other-day service. And even those who do get the paper report difficulties with how they get it. “The papers were lying right in the middle of the sidewalk. I saw it in the gutter,” says Amy McVey, who lives in American University Park. “Maybe they could try to at least get it in people’s yards.”
To demystify the Examiner’s D.C. home-delivery patterns, Dept. of Media called 274 advisory neighborhood commissioners and received responses from 119. The question, in each case, was straightforward: Have you received home delivery of the Washington Examiner? To supplement the data, Dept. of Media interviewed scores of other residents and conducted several field trips to District neighborhoods.
According to the survey, majority-black neighborhoods are lucky to get even spotty service. The paper’s red plastic missives tend to land in exclusively white neighborhoods, with a some exceptions here and there. (Cleveland Park, for instance, doesn’t seem to be included.) The survey results overlap closely with U.S. Department of the Census data on race in D.C. (See accompanying maps.)
At one point or another, the Examiner’s home service has hit most of the ritzy, white neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park, such as Palisades, Tenleytown, and Cathedral Heights. McDonald says that the delivery now covers, essentially, “Northwest.” East of the park, long-since-gentrified Dupont Circle—especially its northern reaches—claims some delivered editions. Capitol Hill, too, is getting home delivery, with the usual pitfalls. “I don’t think it’s come every day,” says Capitol Hill resident Rich Shea.
Capitol Hill delivery patterns reflect the Examiner’s dogmatic approach to demographics. In the tony blocks close to the Capitol, you can see red-sleeved bags everywhere. But as you proceed due east from the Capitol past 13th Street SE, the landscape changes. As well-kept granite stoops yield to turf-covered porches and sagging front decks and white dog walkers give way to black pedestrians, the Examiner suddenly becomes a scarce commodity. McDonald declines to comment on just where the paper’s delivery boundaries lie. “Race is not a [delivery] criteria. I want the paper available to everyone.”
The Examiner’s delivery folks appear to save their best work for Georgetown. In recent days, the neighborhood of multi-million-dollar homes and A-List names has been blanketed by the Examiner. “It’s landing on my door,” says former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee. “I read the first one and I read others.”
Although Bradlee may have passed the ideal age of an Examiner reader—he’s 83—the legendary Postie and his neighbors meet the income requirements. According to the 2000 census, 46 percent of the households in Bradlee’s census tract earned more than $100,000 in 1999; 4 percent of its residents are black. Cathedral Heights, another Examiner destination, has a $100,000-plus household income rating of 63 percent; it also has a black population of 4 percent.
Poll respondents and fieldwork revealed a scarcity of plastic sleeves in well-to-do black areas. For instance, Crestwood, a community just east of Rock Creek Park, is 62 percent black, and 45 percent of its households bring in more than $100,000, according to the 2000 census. Yet midmorning searches of the neighborhood on two consecutive days failed to produce a single copy of the Examiner. Ward 4 Councilmember and media hound Adrian Fenty lives in Crestwood and would love to have the paper at his front door every morning. “I didn’t even know they were doing home delivery. This is the first I’ve heard of them doing home delivery,” says Fenty.
The predominantly black Penn Branch-Dupont Park area of Southeast, too, is a vibrant place, with 24 percent of households exceeding $100,000 in annual income. Its lawns and walkways bear no sign of the paper’s outreach. “I haven’t received it, not here,” says Barbara D. Morgan, president of the Dupont Park Civic Association, who says the Examiner’s distribution scheme amounts to discrimination.
The Examiner does cater to Shepherd Park, a majority-black neighborhood where 46 percent of households exceed $100,000 in annual income. On a recent morning, Dept. of Media found an Examiner deliveryman chucking papers onto stoops while chatting on his cell phone.
“We have growth planned and have targeted areas,” says McDonald. “I would ask that people judge us not only by what we do in the first week but over the course of time.”
As the Examiner broadens its delivery routes, perhaps it’ll someday reach Crestwood and Penn Branch. However, it may take longer before home delivery visits east-of-the-river communities such as Congress Heights. “I guess they figure the people out here don’t read, which we do,” says Mary Cuthbert, who lives on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
The Examiner has been running a puzzling feature in its editorial section titled “Too Tough for TV,” a column of jokes riffing on the news. These aren’t just any old jokes, though. In the Examiner’s own words, they are “Rejected jokes of the late-night comics.” On the day that the Examiner debuted, Editorial Page Editor David Mastio predicted that the feature would be his section’s most popular and said that the jokes were leftovers from monologues from the previous two or three days.
Why a paper would want to run jokes that can’t even make the cut for late-night tube is a good question. A sample: “Last week, a New Hampshire judge resigned after being accused of groping five women at a conference on sexual assault. In a related story, former President Clinton was seen enjoying a bowl of soup.”
The other question is how the Examiner gets hold of these not-quite-knee-slappers. Dept. of Media called reps for all of the networks’ late-night comics—Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Carson Daly, Jimmy Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson—to find out their policies on releasing jokes. Although Ferguson’s flack did not respond by press time, all the other shows insisted they never release unused material. “We don’t release jokes that don’t air on the show. Sorry,” wrote O’Brien rep Marc Liepis over e-mail.
The apparent embargo on releasing shitty jokes raises the possibility that Examiner jokesters send in their material and wait for it to get rejected, then they publish it. Mastio says there’s no such trickery involved. “These jokes do not originate with us,” he says.
OK, so where do they come from? “Let me tell you that they are the rejected jokes of the late-night comics, and how we get them is our own business,” says Mastio. Pressed to bring a little transparency to his nascent editorial product, he replies, “You know what? These are jokes.”
But Mastio did offer one clue to the column’s genesis in his Editorial Page testimonial: “Too Tough is the brainchild of Mike Long, who is both a comedian and a Washington speechwriter.”
Long takes credit for the concept but denies that he makes up the jokes himself. “I don’t even know how to submit jokes to late-night TV,” he says. And if he knows how to filch the rejects, he’s keeping mum. “That’s really something I can’t talk about. I’m flattered that you’re curious,” he says.
—Erik Wemple and Jeff Horwitz