Why Is Developer JBG Publishing a Vanity Newspaper?
The Wydown has just run out of copies of D/City when I stop in on a recent afternoon. “They disappear fast,” says Chad McCracken, co-proprietor of the 14th Street NW coffee shop, which opened in June.
At the Coffee Bar at 12th and S streets NW, the supply of D/City has also been exhausted. “People read them,” says general manager Samantha Pounder. “Or at least they look at the pictures.”
The pictures certainly grab the attention of a customer waiting for a pour-over coffee to drip. D/City, a free tabloid distributed to some 50 cafes and shops and a few street boxes in the U Street/Logan Circle/Shaw area, is plastered with attractive color photos of attractive colorful people, nearly all in their 20s or 30s and looking very urban-chic.
A stamp-style emblem on the paper’s cover calls it a “14th and Shaw Washington DC Neighborhood Report.” There’s not much in the way of hard-hitting reporting—the “What’s Happening” news section highlights the likes of a new muffin shop—but there are a few handy features, like a map of local places to eat, drink, and shop and brief profiles of a few local artists and VIPs.
The latest edition, the quarterly’s sixth since it launched in the summer of 2012, calls itself “The Secret Issue,” full of black boxes that are ostensibly redactions but don’t really redact anything. (They don’t appear to obscure any actual words.) “Can you keep a secret?” reads the top of the front page. “How about dozens of them?”
The paper has a secret of its own. Although it’s not mentioned anywhere in its 12 glossy pages, D/City is produced by the JBG Companies, the Bethesda-based developer that owns much of the neighborhood the paper serves.
D/City’s Facebook page, with 1,973 likes, describes itself as “What’s New. What’s Now. What’s Next. // Lifestyle, Fashion, Food & Drink,” again without JBG’s name or logo appearing anywhere. Nor is there any sign of the developer on D/City’s Twitter feed (“Street Paper on all things style // 14th & U + Shaw,” 859 followers) or its Instagram (“What’s New, What’s Now, What’s Next in Washington, DC,” 1,758 followers) or Pinterest (“D/CITY is here to introduce you to the coolest people, places, and more,” 42 followers) pages.
JBG spokesman Matthew Blocher confirms that JBG is behind the publication, which is written, designed, and printed by the D.C. marketing firm Design Army. “We just thought that we’re committed to the neighborhood, and this is what we hope is a valuable and enjoyable resource for residents and people who live and work in the neighborhood,” he says.
JBG isn’t the only real-estate company that’s put out a publication. The late DCMud, a website that covered local development news, was published by DCRE Real Estate. District Source, a real-estate news site whose sole reporter is a DCMud alumna, is funded by Lindsay Reishman Real Estate. But both of these publications are explicit about their backers, and they feature much more in the way of real news than D/City does.
JBG’s publication is more about creating buzz for the U Street corridor and its businesses. It’s an area in which JBG has invested heavily. The company recently completed the massive mixed-use Louis at 14th (home to the Wydown), at the corner of 14th and U. It owns much of the block directly to the east, where it’s planning a 165-unit apartment building with a revamped Rite Aid pharmacy and other retail. Then there’s the Atlantic Plumbing site at 8th and V (future home of 310 apartments and a movie theater) and a companion building across the street, the 245-apartment Shay complex at 9th and Florida, the adjacent Hatton condos, and half of the site two blocks to the north that’ll soon feature residences and a supermarket. That’s all within a four-block radius.
D/City clearly isn’t aimed at longtime D.C. residents, who are unlikely to be impressed by tips of such “hidden treasures” as Velvet Lounge, DC9, and that “gem many people don’t know about unless they live nearby,” Meridian Hill Park. Instead, the intended audience appears to be 20-something professionals with disposable income who are new to the city and might want to live in a U Street–area building where studio apartments rent for more than $2,000 a month—the type of building that, more likely than not, was built by JBG.
It’s possible to imagine a well-heeled newcomer picking up D/City, reading about the charms of the U Street corridor and then deciding to look into living in the neighborhood. He or she might start a search with the four buildings under construction that are advertised on the back of D/City: the Shay, the two Atlantic Plumbing buildings, and the Hatton—all, of course, JBG properties. (There are no other ads, besides frequent pitches for D/City’s social media accounts.)
Might that newcomer be upset to learn that the publication that’s just steered him or her to an apartment was actually put out by that apartment’s owner? Blocher doesn’t think so.
“Do I worry about it?” he asks. “No. We hope that people find it a valuable resource and an interesting read.”
There’s nothing underhanded about D/City, Blocher argues, because it shares stories of real people. “None of the content is disingenuous, because you will never see a profile of JBG as a company,” he says. Instead, there are just “subtle references to the development projects we’ve got coming.”
The venues that carry D/City sometimes seem as puzzled by the paper as readers might be. Asked how the stacks of D/City get to the Coffee Bar, Pounder says “a woman” brings them, but she has no idea who that woman is. Jonas Singer, co-owner of the Blind Dog Cafe, says in an email, “Honestly, I think they just dropped it off one day last fall,” although he notes that he’s since collaborated with JBG on other projects and finds the company “awesome.”
Readers familiar with the U Street area might be able to figure out on their own that JBG has something to do with D/City. After all, the “D/City” branding is all over both The Shay and JBG’s 13th and U project, and dcitystyle.com does have a small JBG logo at the bottom. But given that JBG isn’t making an effort to hide its association with D/City, it’s all the more curious that it doesn’t simply put that disclaimer in the paper. Blocher says it’s left off intentionally because the paper is “not designed as an advertising vehicle.”
So what is it exactly? It may not explicitly promote JBG, “subtle references” aside. But it does little other than promote the neighborhood that JBG’s made its epicenter. And if that succeeds even the slightest bit in enticing people to pay the rents at JBG-built properties—at the Louis, up to $2,629 for a studio, $3,959 for a one-bedroom, and $9,624 for a two-bedroom—then it’s the best advertising the company could hope for.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery