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 didnât 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 weekâs paper on currentnewspapers.com fell sick.
And when it did go virtual, it fell into the Currentâs 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 isnât 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 papersâthe Georgetown Current, the Dupont Current, the Foggy Bottom Current, and the Northwest Current (two editions)âwith a combined circulation of about 60,000 in the Districtâs most affluent communities. (The company added another, VOICE of the Hill, in the mid-â00s.) Thatâs double the total circulation of about 30,000 a decade ago.
Other vital signs follow suit: The Currentâs advertising volume has gone up, on average, about 15 percent a year over the past eight years, helped along by merchants as varied as Bloomingdaleâs and College Hunks Hauling Junk. Editorial staff stands just shy of 10 full-timersâthatâs up from less than three in the early â90s, 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 isnât revealing any trade secrets when he says how the Current has joined the ranks of other publications that have beaten industry trends. âLocal, local, local,â he says.
The Current papers are like a homeownerâs 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 competitorsânot the Washington Post, not the Examiner, not the Washington City Paperâhas the Currentâs appetite or attention span for the nitty-gritty of neighborhood politics. In fact, itâs hard to find a community throwdown thatâs too insular for the Current. âIt depends onâŚwhether we think a particular dispute will resonate with neighbors,â says Managing Editor Chris Kain.
Though the Current blankets the stories that arouse passion in urbanitesâthink dog parks and nightclub regulationâits news coverage emits nary a whiff of bias. Itâs got to be one of the greatest feats in modern journalismâthat is, to cover the Districtâs most petty and tendentious NIMBY activists for decades without ever making fun of them. Says Kennedy: âI can think of one [Current] reporter who had an agenda, but you couldnât tell it from the stories.â
And like any proud community pub, the Current comes up with some really awful headlines: âPlanning commission analysis creates stirâ; âFormer embassyâs designation sparks battle.â
Penny Pagano, a Palisades activist and former staffer on the D.C. Council, is among the weeklyâs faithful. âIt comes to my house, but I would pick it up anyway,â she says.
The Current gets all of this done in part because it doesnât mess around with the Web. Thereâs no Current blog with a title like âThe Northwesternerâ; thereâs no video of that contentious advisory neighborhood commission meeting in which the irate activist tells his opponents to move to the âburbs; thereâs no interactive online feature that duplicates the Currentâs exhaustive election guide; thereâs no âRelated Contentâ box that enables the paperâs readers to track all the previous articles on the Harris Teeter fight.
Minimal Web content means minimal Web meetings. The paperâs editorial staff busies itself with newsgathering, period. Internet presence, notes Kennedy, âis a major investment. How much revenue comes in from that versus the cost?â
Adds Kain: âThe need for as many reporters as possible is tremendous.â
If anyone can afford to dis the Web, itâs a strong community paper. Immersion coverage of the P Street upgrade, the local Safewayâs beer-and-wine license, and other such issues constitutes something of an editorial monopoly for the Currentâthere arenât scores of alternative sources for this swath of news. So the Current doesnât 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. âTheyâre going to have competitors on the Web, and itâs easier to start something on the Web without having to print anything,â says Mark Potts, who writes on recoveringjournalist.com and consults on Internet news sites. âSomebody whoâs got a real good formula for a local Web siteâitâs going to be like Wal-Mart coming in.â
Or perhaps the Washington Post coming in. Last summer, washingtonpost.com opened a grand experiment in âhyperlocalâ Web reporting by launching a site focusing on Loudoun County. Visit loudounextra.com and youâll find a site that feels a lot like a virtual Current newspaper. âBoard Faces Hard Choice on Property Tax Rate,â 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 calendarsâthis 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.comâs hyperlocal project, sees a sustained future for smart print products but cautions against ignoring the Web. âAt any time the tables can turn,â he says. âIf someone else does exactly the same thing [as a community paper] and starts delivering it via Internet and cell phone, it can change.â
Now washingtonpost.comâs hyperlocal bus is headed eastward. Itâs working on a Fairfax edition, which means that D.C. can be only so far behind. Pump âdistrictextra.comâ into a domain name search and up comes Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive.
The prospect doesnât exactly terrify Kennedy, who admits that he hasnât taken a look at loudounextra.com. âBut I probably should,â he says.
His nonchalance isnât 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. âI think he comes in seven days a week,â says longtime reporter Charles Bermpohl. âItâs like his car is always there.â
Nor can the Post cherry-pick the most affluent D.C. communities to cover, as has the Current. As the cityâs paper of record, itâll 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: âWeâll wait and see if they spread it out.â