David McKenna now realizes he missed the memo. During his stay at city paper, he saw an “incredible honor roll” of people come in, work at the paper for a few years, then move on. McKenna stayed for 26 years.
“I never had a goal,” he says. “In my life, I’ve never had a goal and I’ve met every single one… But having a chronicle in city paper seemed so beyond and cooler than anything I ever thought I could do, so I never had a reason to leave. I could write whatever I wanted. Like, what’s better than that? »
McKenna, the paper’s former editor and famous sports columnist, often turned to his obsessions and stories that other media didn’t cover. This is how he approached his weekly sports column, Cheap Seats, and his reports. Even now, all these years later, McKenna is still emotional talking about the end ElginBaylor, a DC native and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame who was the subject of many of his articles. A self-proclaimed “Obsessive Baylorhe calls Baylor, who died at age 86 in March 2021, one of the “most influential and underrated athletes in American history.”
McKenna was not deterred by other publications’ lack of zeal for these stories. They played an important role in the history of the city.
“I’ve always been obsessed with DC’s sports, cultural, and racial histories,” McKenna says. “Even though I was from Falls Church, DC was my hometown, and when I had a sports column I had to come up with something every week and I realized the most undercovered topics in Washington sports were the incredible local athletes of the 1950s who happen to be black.
McKenna joined city paper on January 6, 1986, as an art trainee for the then art publisher Alona Wartofsky, and wrote music lists for two years with no money. At the time, he was a substitute teacher and lived in a group home with police officers in Chevy Chase. The rent was $250 per month. McKenna immersed himself in the city, and whenever he wanted to know what bands were playing in town, he picked up a copy of city paper. ” Everything on city paper it felt so ‘urban’ and cool to me, and I was ‘suburban’, and so I wanted to be a part of it,” McKenna says.
He finally found the courage to return some of the Best of DC and City Lights picks that appeared in the press. But the story that gave McKenna confidence as city paper writer – and who caught the attention of the publisher at the time Jack Shafer– was about a local politician and notorious sports heckler Robin Ficker. Shafer put it on the cover, with the caption “Tell that Ficker to shut up.”
Shafer thought very little of McKenna at first. He says McKenna mostly showed up at the office to “hit girls” and that he “seemed like a completely frivolous person.” Ficker’s story changed his mind. “I realized with this story that I was a moron and Dave was a genius,” Shafer says. “He probably had all those skills all the time, but because there’s not enough time to assess everyone’s talent, I overlooked him.”
McKenna, for one, says Shafer, “was really intimidating, but he made you want to be a part of it. You could tell he cared more about the story than you. But that was what the young people needed. I think he was fantastic.
Eventually, Shafer asked McKenna to write a football column called Skins Heads, which became Cheap Seats when David Carr became editor in the mid-1990s. McKenna went from writing about 10 columns a year to writing one every week. While it began as a football chronicle, McKenna fondly recalls the stories he worked on outside of major league sports. He wrote about Baylor and Gary May, the one-armed sports star who shut down Baylor in high school. (“It was then that Mays, playing for Armstrong Tech, temporarily reduced Elgin Baylor to mortal status,” McKenna wrote in a 2010 column.) He covered the University of Maryland. Tamir Bonmana local Orthodox Jewish high school basketball star dubbed “Jewish Jordan” by Sports Illustrated. He reported on Ronnie Franklinthe jockey who rode the horse that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1979, and Franklin’s struggles with drugs later in his career.
McKenna didn’t need a press box to find stories. Even when he was covering games in person, as he did during Dan SnyderDuring his first season as the hometown NFL team owner in 1999, he found the experience to be “antithetical to having a good story”. (Snyder sadly sued McKenna and city paper in 2011 on a cover story listing many of Snyder’s controversies and failures.)
“That’s the fucking worst,” McKenna says of local NFL game coverage from the press box. “Because whatever you get, 75 people or 100 or more are exposed to exactly what you get. And then they get the same meal, the same press releases. … My diary was not going to come out for four days [on Thursday]so it didn’t help me at all to go there, and I found it disgusting.”
Like McKenna, Huan Hsu found sports stories outside of the mainstream lens to be more interesting. Hsu first wrote for city paper in January 2004—an artistic report on the author Mike Tidwell-while studying for his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at George Mason University. When an editor position opened up, Leonard Roberge, then an art editor, encouraged Hsu to apply for the position. twenties joined city paper in the middle of the last year of his program. To city paperHsu has found a niche in sports and education coverage.
“I’ve played a lot of sports and I’ve always been more sports-oriented, so it was easier for me to understand local sports than, say, local politics,” says Hsu, who is now in charge of journalism course in Amsterdam. University college in the Netherlands. “There was kind of an accessibility dimension to it, and I think the journalism that I consumed the most growing up was probably sports journalism.”
Several of Hsu’s features appeared on the cover of city paper. Hsu, who worked briefly as a Division III collegiate tennis coach at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, after college, wrote about Trevor Spracklin and his experience competing on the lower echelons of professional tennis and at a local professional tennis tournament. He also wrote a profile on the former American University cross-country and track coach. Matt Centrowitz and another on Darren Harpera skateboarder from Southeast DC
Hsu left city paper in 2007, but the brief experience left a lasting impression on him. Each year, he orders copies of the New York Times for his students to read during the first week of class. It’s often the first time they’ve owned or read a real print copy of the newspaper, says Hsu. He still remembers his enthusiasm as he purchased several copies of the print edition of city paper whenever he had a cover story in the newspaper.
“I love paper, paper,” Hsu says. “So to keep it, to see my name printed, permanently – I mean, it’s also great to post stuff online, but it’s so fleeting, and it’s like it’s a document , it was so permanent. It was a great feeling. It was super awesome.
For McKenna, printed paper provided the routine. When he lived in Mount Pleasant, he waited every Thursday to pick up a copy from Heller’s Bakery. “It’s one of life’s little pleasures,” says McKenna. “Having something to look forward to is the key to warding off depression, even something as small as the Thursday edition of the city paper.”
matt terl has similar vivid memories. As a student at the University of Maryland, he would go to the Closet of Comics comic book store in College Park and pick up a copy of city paper every week, and that’s what he read over lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. McKenna profiled Terl in 2008 when he was the official blogger for the Washington Commanders, and Terl later wrote a weekly sports column for city paper called clear view.
“The impression made a huge difference,” says Terl. “I did freelance blogging in the 2000s when such a thing was kind of what anyone who was too wordy did. And it was a way to get your words across. But a side effect of that, for me, was that it totally devalued online publishing. But being printed was something I couldn’t fake. It was something I couldn’t do myself, and it certainly had a significant impact.
Steve Cavendishthe city paper editor from June 2015 to July 2016, hired Terl to bring back a more regular sports presence to the paper following McKenna’s departure in December 2011.
“We are not an official newspaper,” he says. “But what we are is a newspaper of vital interests. And it could take a lot of different directions, but our work at city paper always had to be vital to people who lived in DC and lived for DC”
McKenna, Hsu, and Terl all found stories unique to DC. They searched in places that others had overlooked. They covered sports stories that otherwise would not have been told. They wrote to an audience that cared about the city.
“I tried to tell stories,” McKenna says. “It’s the same as city paper was known for anything, whether it was politics or just city life, the side of town that other newspapers didn’t cover. Just search for the stories, and the stories will always be there, no matter what medium you use.
Mitch Ryals contributed to this report.