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COVER STORYMarch 3-9, 2006

Brown v. Board of Washingtonian

The struggle to integrate the newsroom of D.C.’s city mag

By John Metcalfe and Erik Wemple

SIDEBAR
Who's the Washington City Paper to complain about newsroom diversity?
By Huan Hsu

It was a story that no local media outlet could ignore. The 1990 Census showed D.C. undergoing a massive racial makeover, with Hispanics leaping in number by 85 percent. The city’s titular magazine, the Washingtonian, knew that somehow, some way, the Hispanic boom affected its proprietary demographic.

In due time, a story appeared. “The Nanny Generation,” which ran on the cover in March 1995, featured a photograph of a smiling Hispanic-looking woman protectively positioned behind a young boy. “Teens look back at the good and the bad of being raised by a nanny,” read the headline. “Plus—how to find the right child care.”

Weeks later, stacks of the issue were still sitting at the news stands.

“It was one of the worst-selling covers, and [the publisher] was angry about it,” says Chuck Conconi, the magazine’s former editor at large. Conconi blames the poor sales on poor news judgment, saying the story wasn’t what the Washingtonian’s audience was interested in. And how: Years later, the publication was still smarting from the nanny flop. One former intern, who requests anonymity for fear of burning a bridge, says the magazine’s brass brought up the Hispanic cover story in a meeting on what and what not to cover. “There was also a general understanding…[that] the issue sold horribly and that they learned a lesson from that,” says the intern.

The past decade has seen a return to the Washingtonian’s tried-and-true brand of quirky coverage—stuff so marketable it’s repeated every few years. There are politicians photographed in comical poses, ruminations on cats vs. dogs, and updates on Chris Matthews’ whereabouts and latest on-air flirtation. But recently, there have been indications that the region’s best chronicler of ultra-soothing spas is once again thinking of taking on the burning race issue.

National Editor Harry Jaffe delivered the first punch in the Washingtonian’s one-two as a fighter for equality in his December Washington Buzz column. In this ballsy piece, he tied the Washington Post to the whipping post for promoting ambitious white guy Robert McCartney to Metro’s assistant-managing-editor slot, instead of popular Hispanic City Editor Gabe Escobar.

“The Gabe Escobar affair once again raises this question at the Washington Post: Is there a glass ceiling for minority journalists?” wrote Jaffe. “A related question: Does the Post have a hard time holding on to talented Hispanic reporters and editors?” Jaffe pulled out his Windex in a later column and buffed that supposed glass ceiling, reporting that Escobar had left for the Pew Hispanic Center (which made a little dent in the paper’s roughly 23.5 percent nonwhite newsroom staff).

After going after the Post on its retention of Hispanics, the Washingtonian showed the city’s other periodicals how hiring should be done. On the Contributors page of its January issue, the mag ran a photo of its diverse accounting staff. The group included a woman from Mexico City who speaks three languages, a D.C. man who grew up in Nigeria, a Ukrainian native who lives in racially mixed Adams Morgan, and a white woman and white guy. The implication of racial harmony was driven home in a caption that said the “magazine’s accounting staff reflects the city’s international flavor.”

Readers can only assume that, in its new focus on diversity issues, the Washingtonian is saving the most pertinent story for last: the diversity of its own newsroom.

Here’s a good spin for such a story. In a city that’s about 60 percent black, the newsroom of the Washingtonian is full of minorities, from white Editor Jack Limpert and pale-skinned Senior Editor Sherri Dalphonse to approaching-beige Editor-at-Large Garrett Graff to the appropriately named Lifestyle Editor Leslie Milk. In fact, the Washingtonian’s commitment to this version of diversity is so strong that you’ll be hard-pressed to find even a swatch of D.C.’s signature skintone within the newsroom. Nor are there many traces of the Hispanic, Asian, or other ethnicities that supposedly provide the rest of the city’s “flavor.” (For the skinny on Washington City Paper’s own newsroom, see the sidebar below.)

The Washingtonian employs a couple of minorities in support-level newsroom positions: There is a black receptionist and a black librarian/mailman. Cathy Elbo, the magazine’s online producer, is Asian-American. There is one contributing editor who is Asian-American and another who is black, but contributing editors aren’t in full-time positions and generally don’t contribute much.

The Washingtonian’s editorial division has been majority-white-owned and -operated for a good long time. Conconi doesn’t recall seeing any minority editors or reporters at the magazine during his 14 years of service. (The 67-year-old retired last year and now works as a senior counselor for Qorvis Communications.) “I used to joke that my entire staff when I was running the front of the magazine was Jewish,” he says. “There is that kind of diversity there.” A black researcher was hired in 2004, but she no longer works there.

Current and former staff recall a few other minorities who took up jobs at the Washingtonian but no longer work there. The no-doubt-partial list includes Burma-born Wendy Law-Yone Seagrave, who worked there as an associate editor in 1976, Ericka Miller and Debra Green, two black assistant editors in the ’80s, and Rosetta DeBerardinis, a black contributing editor who covered fashion in the ’80s.

“I had a pleasant experience,” DeBerardinis says, in a newsroom that was “more like a bank atmosphere or a white males’ club.” She thinks she was the first African-American in editorial—at least, that’s what people told her, joking that she should wear a button to that effect—and says she had a warm reception. “I remember, like, the first week I was there someone in the advertising department walked up to me, put his arms around me, and said, ‘You people play good basketball.’ ”

DeBerardinis’ sources weren’t always so accepting. “I went to interview someone at the Watergate, and they were kind of surprised that I was from the Washingtonian,” she says. DeBerardinis waited politely for an interview while her interviewee called her employer “and said, ‘There’s a skinny black girl here who says she works for you.’ ”

There is a place at the Washingtonian where editorial diversity is assured, maybe even contained. That’s the intern desk. According to editor Limpert, the magazine has taken on a great number of minority editorial interns in just the last five years: eight Asian-Americans, six African-Americans, and two Hispanics. “The interns are all young and sort of, like, diverse and hip,” says former intern Aileen Torres, who is Filipino.

Editors mine the intern desk for its cultural riches. Melanie Priddy, for example, got an assignment for a black-operated medical spa in Friendship Heights. “Now, I didn’t come up with the story idea for that,” she says. “But they did call me and ask me to go in and get a facial because I was African-American, and I assume they probably didn’t have a lot of other African-American former interns or freelancers to call upon and do the job.”

Likewise, editors encouraged an Indian intern to write a story about her parents’ prearranged marriage, and asked an Asian intern for story ideas relating to the area’s Asian-American community. “I never really wanted to be the Asian to report the Asian issues,” says the intern, who requested anonymity, “so I wouldn’t want to say I jumped at the opportunity to write that kind of story.”

The diverse intern program provides a great platform for viewing the monumental chalkiness of the Washingtonian’s masthead:

• Torres, 2002 intern: “They had, let me rememberÉmostly Caucasians,” she says. “There would really only be one [other minority], probably, which was the other Asian [intern].”

• Eleanor Stables, 2003 intern: “When I was there on the editorial staff, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any [minorities]. I’m about positive of that,” says Stables, who is white. “In terms of diversity, there’s one editor there—she’s considered someone with a disability. I forget what it is—it has something to do with her arm.”

• Priddy, 2003 intern and 2004 freelancer: “I’m sure it’s not something they tried to do,” she says, “but generally there aren’t a lot of people of any minority status that write or work for that paper in any way.”

The magazine that purports to be Washington has a newsroom that looks as if it were plucked from some Midwest burg—like Appleton, Wis., 91.5 percent white, where editor Limpert hails from. So how on Earth has Appleton taken root in a big-city newsroom?

Limpert’s not quite sure himself. “i wish the minority numbers were better—i think we have to do better finding good minority candidates for the intern program,” he e-mails. “let me add that i connected with lance pettiford, one of our art directors, and an african-american, by going out to howard university and taking part in a journalism conference there. so we’re trying, and hope to do better.”

With its bleaching syndrome a mystery, one can only wonder how the Washingtonian has weathered nearly four decades of Census fluctuations to remain among the whitest magazines not regularly publishing features on the Confederate flag.

Older white people writing fluff about the region has snagged publisher Philip Merrill one of the most affluent audiences anywhere, as the Washingtonian’s “Quick Guide to Demographics” proves. About 87 percent of subscribers own homes; the mean household income is $185,800. Seventy-one percent of subscribers have traveled abroad in the last three years; 73 percent drink spring or mineral water; 66 percent shop at Crate & Barrel. Well over two-thirds of subscribers live in Maryland or Virginia. “The other city magazines are jealous as hell,” says Conconi.

The financially fecund folks—of all colors—who subscribe to the Washingtonian appreciate a D.C. magazine that doesn’t obsess too much with, you know, D.C. A cover on Marion Barry didn’t spark much interest (neither did one on Ted Kennedy, for that matter). Rather, the mag’s loyal readers have paid to maintain a notion of the city as a fun and exotic place to visit, perhaps for a day trip involving a manicure, a museum show, and a quick exit before the freaks come out at night. Thus the emphasis on lists—ostensibly the cream of the crop of Washington’s cultural bounty—that suburbanites can explore on weekend junkets.

Devotion to its well-heeled suburban audience has allowed the Washingtonian to pull off some real journalistic coups. Back in the day, that meant cover stories such as 1977’s “The Joy of Idleness,” 1978’s “If Parents Only Knew What It’s Like to Be Young, Rich, and Bored,” 1982’s “If We’re So Rich, Why Don’t We Have Any Money?” and 1985’s “The Perils of Being Rich.” More recently, however, the editorial desk has pursued the concerns of being rich through something known in the industry as a “news lens.”

Always-pertinent disability issues, for example, surface in 2000’s “Riding High,” which relates the wonders of hippotherapy. (“A real live horse is more fun than a clinic environment.”) The city’s troubled school system was explored in 1998 in “Paradise Lost,” an article about the private academy that graduated an astronaut. (“At St. Albans, Washington’s establishment school, tradition counted and civility was the rule. Then the board decided to fire the headmaster, and all hell broke loose.”) And minority issues tend to pop up every so often in starchy copy such as “Washingtonians of the Year” or “Everybody Loves Placido” (Domingo, that is, for those who weren’t invited to the Spanish maestro’s Ken Cen birthday bash).

The mag’s classic piece “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” printed in 1997, proves that the Limpert gang could use a Hispanic ombudsman. The unfortunate item rounded up odd or homicidal Hispanic characters, including Lorena Bobbitt and Marv Albert’s lover, and stumbled from the gate by posing this vexing question: “What does it mean that so many of Washington’s femme fatales have been Latins?”

Thus goes the standard Washingtonian defense on diversity: We don’t have it, but we cover it. “I write about black cops and white cops,” says Jaffe. “I write about Asians; I write about Hispanics. I try to practice diversity in my own stories.” And when the magazine raps on other institutions, such as the Post, for failing on the diversity front, it doesn’t feel compelled to issue any disclosures about its own makeup. “We’re a magazine; we’re a magazine,” says Jaffe. “We have a tiny staff.…It’d be like comparing an auto shop to General Motors.”

The magazine’s prevailing view on diversity is likely to stick around as long as its current staffers continue shuffling in and out of their L Street NW offices. That could mean decades. The Washingtonian is, in the words of the grizzled tavern keeper, “full up.”

“I would’ve loved to have had a position at the Washingtonian. It was something I asked about when I left,” says former intern Priddy, who’s 31 and living in Los Angeles. “But there just seemed to be no place for anyone, me or anyone otherwise.” All the seats were occupied by veterans who had sent down tap roots years ago and weren’t budging. “Everybody there had been there for, like, 20 years,” says former intern Stables. “I mean, I’m not joking.”

According to the magazine’s Web site, the top three editors under Limpert—Sherri Dalphonse, Ken DeCell, and Larry Van Dyne—have been on the payroll, respectively, since 1986, 1982, and at least 1980. Wine and Food Editor Robert Shoffner has been writing for the Washingtonian for more than 20 years, and Arts Editor Susan Davidson is virtually part of the office architecture, having joined the staff in 1977. Limpert has been editor since 1969.

“There’s no place else to go for a lot of them. I hate to say that,” says Conconi. “If you want to write magazine journalism, well, that’s about the only game in town.” According to Contributing Editor Howard Means, it’s “a stagnation problem, not necessarily a white-newsroom problem.…It doesn’t pay extraordinarily well, but it’s not heavy lifting. In my own case, Jack was always good about giving me time off to do books.”

Newsroom stability yields a charitable explanation for the Washingtonian’s whiteness. Yes, the mag has a bad record on minority promotions. But at the same time, it has a bad record on editorial promotions all around—for minorities, for Caucasians, for people of inscrutable heritage, for Pultizer Prize–winners of all colors. In short, for everyone who’s not already on the masthead.

The logjam has recently budged just a touch. Limpert recently put a young blogger on staff and hired a middle-aged dining editor, spurring the departure of the golden-aged one below him. Those who have worked in the newsroom describe it as an easy, fun place to be.

Hanging out in this collegial environment is a short-lived benefit for most Washingtonian interns. They come in, bang their heads on the hardened crust of editorial, and in a few months are gone. This appears to be especially true of minority interns. A City Paper examination of bound library issues reveals that at least five former interns have ascended to the heaven of a permanent position on the Washingtonian’s current masthead. None are people who could comfortably be called minorities (unless we want to get into how various European cultures get no respect).

That’s not to say it’s never happened. There was the aforementioned researcher, Jamie Watson, who pole-vaulted the razor-wire-topped wall that protects the newsroom from interlopers in 2004. Watson, now 25, joined the staff after attending the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and serving a few months as intern. She says she was perfectly comfortable in the pigment-deprived environment; her stint in a George Washington University dorm prepared her for future employment at high-end city magazines. “I was the only African-American on my floor,” she says. “And there was about 30 people on that floor.”

Watson’s duties included checking facts, supervising interns, and writing a small column about luxury-home sales for the back of the magazine. Not a great burden. Nevertheless, Watson got married and left before a promised office was made available, and now edits at a book-publishing company in Virginia Beach. “For the time, it was fine,” she says of the job.

Washingtonian readers probably won’t find a new crop of Watsons on the masthead anytime soon. Minority recruitment, after all, is best addressed when a publication isn’t preoccupied with saving its white ass. In recent years, three newly minted and aggressively marketed Washingtonian clones have recently swept into D.C., along with the upper-crusty Washington Examiner. That amounts to a lot of nibbling at the ’toni’s tony ad base. “I think the Washingtonian is coming under a great deal of pressure,” says Conconi. “They’re saying it’s just a lot of light froth. Well, it may be.…But in the end, it’s a pressure on a magazine that has had dominance and has had the city all to itself.”

Indeed, the magazine now must share minority-intern prospects with its competitors, as well.

A more complete integration of the Washingtonian newsroom could come from any number of places. More public employment listings might help, for instance. So would the sudden enrichment of the area’s minority classes, which would leave many ethnic folks idle, fabulous, and wanting to chronicle it all. Whatever happens—if it happens—one thing’s nearly certain: It will be a Caucasian who writes it up.

“I would never say that [the whiteness] was intentional,” says Priddy, “but the person who will continue to write about diversity issues around there will be Harry Jaffe, and it won’t be anyone African-American.” CP