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RIP, Washington Examiner: Why Washington Still Needs its Own Tabloid

Today is the last day of publication for the daily Washington Examiner. And with it, it may be time for a bunch of us Washingtonians to let go of a dream we’ve held on to through all sorts of changing media moments: That Washington would develop its own indigenous tabloid.

A free paper owned by the right-wing Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, The Examiner launched eight years ago. And despite an array of financial incentives that must have pointed in the other direction, it devoted a larger-than-necessary chunk of its meager resources to meat-and-potatoes coverage of local news subjects like transportation, where it frequently broke big stories. True, the Examiner never quite fit the old-fashioned model of the hard-boiled tabloid with the audience of devoted blue-collar locals. All the same, the commuters who grabbed copies from one of the guys who’d hand them out at Metro entrances easily recognized some basic parts of the recipe: The blaring front-page wood (“RATS RUN WILD IN CITY OFFICE,” announced a piece about rodent complaints), the lurid caper chronicles (“COCAINE SOUP BUST AT BWI,” about someone caught smuggling drugs in powdered mix), and the mediocre puns (after a surprise 2010 earthquake, the Examiner’s cover, perhaps predictably, shouted “ALL SHOOK UP.”)

Of course, there was an obsession with crime: A feature urging people to identify fugitives netted dozens of people and earned the far-right paper readers in poor parts of town. (It was the Examiner’s bad luck that its run coincided with low crime rates and a decline in attendant crime hysteria.) And naturally, there was a far-right editorial page mix (Michael Barone, Michelle Malkin, R. Emmett Tyrrell). A bit more impressively, the Examiner also waded into hot-button local subjects to strike a populist—if frequently quite wrong—stance: The city’s bike-sharing program has been a favorite topic, perhaps because a new bike lane disrupted traffic right outside the newspaper’s offices, or perhaps just because piously unmotorized young Washingtonians make such an inviting target. And in good tabloid form, there was some creative use of adjacencies: The headline “MOTORISTS FUMING AS BICYCLISTS PACK ROADS” sat right atop a picture of a gun-toting Libyan rioter. Look closely and you can tell they’re separate stories. From a distance, not so much.

Courtesy of the Examiner

Plenty of publications in Washington—including one I used to edit—are printed on tabloid-form newsprint. And at least one of them behaves sort of like one. Politico’s print edition—for the small number of people who read it on that platform—is in fact tabloid-sized. Its focus on daily squabbles, its exhaustive attention to the people its tribe of readers consider to be celebrities, and its tendency to leave the chin-stroking contextualization to others also speak to the tabloid tradition. Like all tabloids, the paper frequently gets accused of being dumb; unlike most of them, it also frequently get accused of being too cozy with the swells that streetwise writers for ordinary tabloids would eagerly knock from pedestals. But the essence of the best tabloids is that they seem to embody a place, and Politico does that magnificently. Unfortunately for hometown Washington, though, the place in question is more a virtual, psychic sphere, the mindspace shared by people in The Game. Many, even most, of those people happen to live in the Washington area. But it’s different.

An essential aspect of the Washingtonian condition is this anxiety about place. Plenty of natives—like me!—feel like we understand our city on some fundamental level. But I suspect we represent a smaller percentage of the regional population than in many other places. Ten years ago, Washington City Paper ran a great piece about the phrase “sleepy southern town.” It’s a phrase you hear a lot here, usually from someone who uses it to describe the Washington they moved to way back when—a town that has been replaced by the supposedly sophisticated, cosmopolitan capital of the present. No matter when “the present” happens to be: It turns out people have been using some version of this construction since the 19th century. The term thus gives short shrift to how frequently Washington changed in the old days even as it overstates the awesomeness of the place now. Yet the sentiment’s ubiquity, I think, points to the lack of a shared idea about what the place is, other than the place we live. We osmotically pick up the company-town resident’s understanding of the company, but not the town.

A true-blue hometown tabloid—the kind that wages war against local villains (thereby bonding readers into a community arrayed against said villain) or trades gossip about local worthies (thereby implicating readers in their affairs) or splashes details of sex and murder across its pulpy pages (thereby helping readers form the sort of mental map to the city that’s inaccessible to visitors)—helps forge this kind of community, one ignoble front page at a time. The Examiner was a surprisingly decent paper in some ways, and a pretty lousy paper in lots of others. But next week, when it transforms into yet another opinion-centric outlet focused on the federal game, I’ll miss it all the same. 

This post originally misspelled Michelle Malkin's name

Michael Schaffer is editorial director of The New Republic. Follow @michaelschaffer on Twitter.