Readers of the Dupont Current in early March found a nice little scoop when they grabbed their paper at their front stoops. A zoning panel, wrote reporter Ian Thoms, had ruled that the soon-to-open Harris Teeter supermarket in Adams Morgan could sell alcohol, despite challenges from a community group.
Locals who didnâ€™t come across the paper version of the Dupont Current might have had some trouble getting the news. The story was a few days late getting up on the Web because the person responsible for posting that weekâ€™s paper on currentnewspapers.com fell sick.
And when it did go virtual, it fell into the Currentâ€™s archives, a place where you can find pdfs of back issues if you try hard enough. To read Thomsâ€™ story, you had to click on a pdf of the first part of the March 5 edition. Then you had to click on another pdf containing the part of the article that comes after the jump. Then you had to scroll and, well, you get the idea.
So the Current isnâ€™t the most tech-savvy publication around. It just happens to be among the most prosperous.
Headquartered in the basement of a MacArthur Boulevard office building, the Current is actually several weekly papersâ€”the Georgetown Current, the Dupont Current, the Foggy Bottom Current, and the Northwest Current (two editions)â€”with a combined circulation of about 60,000 in the Districtâ€™s most affluent communities. (The company added another, VOICE of the Hill, in the mid-â€™00s.) Thatâ€™s double the total circulation of about 30,000 a decade ago.
Other vital signs follow suit: The Currentâ€™s advertising volume has gone up, on average, about 15 percent a year over the past eight years, helped along by merchants as varied as Bloomingdaleâ€™s and College Hunks Hauling Junk. Editorial staff stands just shy of 10 full-timersâ€”thatâ€™s up from less than three in the early â€™90s, when Publisher and Editor Davis Kennedy bought the outfit.
Kennedy, 69, is a veteran of community newspapers in this region, having previously owned the Gazette papers in Maryland and a chunk of an Alexandria community paper. He isnâ€™t revealing any trade secrets when he says how the Current has joined the ranks of other publications that have beaten industry trends. â€śLocal, local, local,â€ť he says.
The Current papers are like a homeownerâ€™s survival guide that hits the streets for free every Wednesday. The coverage runs down the latest in libraries, waterfront parks, new businesses, liquor-license disputes, zoning spats, parking, politics, and that controversial deck that Mr. Jones is building on the back of his Wesley Heights estate. None of its local competitorsâ€”not the Washington Post, not the Examiner, not the Washington City Paperâ€”has the Currentâ€™s appetite or attention span for the nitty-gritty of neighborhood politics. In fact, itâ€™s hard to find a community throwdown thatâ€™s too insular for the Current. â€śIt depends onâ€¦whether we think a particular dispute will resonate with neighbors,â€ť says Managing Editor Chris Kain.
Though the Current blankets the stories that arouse passion in urbanitesâ€”think dog parks and nightclub regulationâ€”its news coverage emits nary a whiff of bias. Itâ€™s got to be one of the greatest feats in modern journalismâ€”that is, to cover the Districtâ€™s most petty and tendentious NIMBY activists for decades without ever making fun of them. Says Kennedy: â€śI can think of one [Current] reporter who had an agenda, but you couldnâ€™t tell it from the stories.â€ť
And like any proud community pub, the Current comes up with some really awful headlines: â€śPlanning commission analysis creates stirâ€ť; â€śFormer embassyâ€™s designation sparks battle.â€ť
Penny Pagano, a Palisades activist and former staffer on the D.C. Council, is among the weeklyâ€™s faithful. â€śIt comes to my house, but I would pick it up anyway,â€ť she says.
The Current gets all of this done in part because it doesnâ€™t mess around with the Web. Thereâ€™s no Current blog with a title like â€śThe Northwesternerâ€ť; thereâ€™s no video of that contentious advisory neighborhood commission meeting in which the irate activist tells his opponents to move to the â€™burbs; thereâ€™s no interactive online feature that duplicates the Currentâ€™s exhaustive election guide; thereâ€™s no â€śRelated Contentâ€ť box that enables the paperâ€™s readers to track all the previous articles on the Harris Teeter fight.
Minimal Web content means minimal Web meetings. The paperâ€™s editorial staff busies itself with newsgathering, period. Internet presence, notes Kennedy, â€śis a major investment. How much revenue comes in from that versus the cost?â€ť
Adds Kain: â€śThe need for as many reporters as possible is tremendous.â€ť
If anyone can afford to dis the Web, itâ€™s a strong community paper. Immersion coverage of the P Street upgrade, the local Safewayâ€™s beer-and-wine license, and other such issues constitutes something of an editorial monopoly for the Currentâ€”there arenâ€™t scores of alternative sources for this swath of news. So the Current doesnâ€™t have to contend with the commodity-news blues of national dailies, which produce often interchangeable stories on Iraq, the economy, and presidential politics.
Yet the resulting Web void invites new players. â€śTheyâ€™re going to have competitors on the Web, and itâ€™s easier to start something on the Web without having to print anything,â€ť says Mark Potts, who writes on recoveringjournalist.com and consults on Internet news sites. â€śSomebody whoâ€™s got a real good formula for a local Web siteâ€”itâ€™s going to be like Wal-Mart coming in.â€ť
Or perhaps the Washington Post coming in. Last summer, washingtonpost.com opened a grand experiment in â€śhyperlocalâ€ť Web reporting by launching a site focusing on Loudoun County. Visit loudounextra.com and youâ€™ll find a site that feels a lot like a virtual Current newspaper. â€śBoard Faces Hard Choice on Property Tax Rate,â€ť reads one of the headlines. Other news items focus on schools, crime, high school sports, and other topics that matter only to those with a Loudoun ZIP code.
In addition to bringing a community news sensibility, loudounextra.com piles on with stuff that really glistens on the Web. Talk about event calendarsâ€”this one has everything. Aficionados of spoken word performances, just to take an extreme example, can use loudounextra.com to scan for all scheduled events in the county on any given day. (Truth be told, there are precious few.)
Rob Curley, who has spearheaded washingtonpost.comâ€™s hyperlocal project, sees a sustained future for smart print products but cautions against ignoring the Web. â€śAt any time the tables can turn,â€ť he says. â€śIf someone else does exactly the same thing [as a community paper] and starts delivering it via Internet and cell phone, it can change.â€ť
Now washingtonpost.comâ€™s hyperlocal bus is headed eastward. Itâ€™s working on a Fairfax edition, which means that D.C. can be only so far behind. Pump â€śdistrictextra.comâ€ť into a domain name search and up comes Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive.
The prospect doesnâ€™t exactly terrify Kennedy, who admits that he hasnâ€™t taken a look at loudounextra.com. â€śBut I probably should,â€ť he says.
His nonchalance isnâ€™t baseless. News consumers already see the Current as a hyperlocal product whose staff knows the community landscape better than any interlopers. The 38-year-old Kain, for instance, is a brilliant and detail-oriented editor who regularly puts in 12-hour days. He has spent his entire professional career at the Current. â€śI think he comes in seven days a week,â€ť says longtime reporter Charles Bermpohl. â€śItâ€™s like his car is always there.â€ť
Nor can the Post cherry-pick the most affluent D.C. communities to cover, as has the Current. As the cityâ€™s paper of record, itâ€™ll have to do its hyperlocal thing evenly across all city quadrants, a manpower challenge that could well prevent it from siphoning readers from strong community publications.
Says Kennedy: â€śWeâ€™ll wait and see if they spread it out.â€ť