Mark Ein bucks alt-weekly trend



Washington City Paper was bought last month by local Jewish businessman Mark Ein, a move that has those in the industry hopeful for the weekly paper’s future. (Screenshot of Washington City Paper website)

Washington City Paper has been through five owners in twice as many years. But with the newest owner, Jewish businessman and philanthropist Mark Ein — he purchased the paper last month — it comes under local control for the first time since the alternative weekly was founded in 1981.

With his purchase, Ein, 53, bucks the trend for alt-weeklies, which have moved toward corporate — or at least consolidated — ownership, according to Jason Zaragoza, executive director of the Washington-based Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

“If there’s a strong sense of local pride, that’s something a lot of our papers can speak to, especially if the owner is local,” Zaragoza said.

Before a deal was struck, City Paper staffers were faced with a 40 percent salary cut at the end of 2017 if a buyer could not be found. With Ein, majority owner of the venture capital firm Venturehouse Group, tennis organization Washington Kastles and the Falls Church security group Kastle Systems, industry insiders are optimistic about Washington City Paper’s future.

Ein did not respond to requests for an interview, but his earlier comments show a desire to take the Jeff Bezos approach. The Amazon CEO bought the Washington Post in 2013 and gave it an infusion of cash without taking a day-to-day editorial role; that has resulted in a robust newspaper that topped 1 million digital subscribers last year.

Mark Ein (Photo by Joshua T. Rey)

“My decision to do this, with full awareness of the challenges and headwinds that all newspapers face, was driven by a deep belief that good, responsible, and high-quality journalism has never been more important than it is today,” Ein said in a letter to City Paper readers.

Ein looked at buying City Paper five years ago, before it was purchased by Nashville-based SouthComm. But the timing and price weren’t right, he told Washington Business Journal. This time, he’s put together two advisory groups to help ensure the paper’s success. One group is composed of City Paper alums, including noted journalists Jake Tapper, Ta-Nehesi Coates and Kate Boo. The second group, Friends of Washington City Paper, includes local business names like celebrity chef José Andrés, former Washington Mayor Tony Williams, Monumental Sports CEO Ted Leonsis and Seth Hurwitz, the chairman of I.M.P., a concert promotion company that includes 9:30 Club, The Anthem and Merriweather Post Pavilion.

“Mark’s a really good guy and sincerely intended and one of the few people I trust to say ‘I’m in’ from the get-go,” Hurwitz said.

Hurwitz is not sure what role he’ll play, but said he’s happy to invest in a local institution. And he believes Ein will be good for the paper.

“You can mark my words: print is not dead,” Hurwitz said. “I didn’t do this to make money. I think there’s a responsibility for people in the community to support things they think are important. It’s part of D.C. I don’t want to see it disappear.”

This sentiment seems to hold for Ein as well, who told Washingtonian he sees his purchase of City Paper as one of his “community investments,” not a business or for-profit one. His advisers have some ideas about “alternate revenue streams,” he said. But he also told Washington Business Journal that the paper will need to stand on its own eventually. It doesn’t need to “make tons of money,” he said, but at least be financially independent.

Many of those in his business advisory group have been covered in one way or another by City Paper in the past — both favorably and unfavorably. The danger in the group would be if members had any influence in editorial decisions, said Zaragoza, but Ein has said — and Hurwitz reinforced — that will not be the case.

The editorial influence of these members will be “zero,” Ein told Washington Business Journal. “Starting with me. That was ground rule number one, and everyone understands that.”

And both groups could actually have a propping-up effect, along with what is hopefully an infusion of money, said Michael Schaffer, who was the editor of City Paper from 2010 to 2012 and is current editor of Washingtonian.

“Setting that up is giving people some confidence,” he said. He also pointed out that members of the group, especially the respected City Paper alums, have no incentive to stick around if they feel something unethical is happening.

The paper has been in “dire financial straits” for a while, he added. “They have some breathing room now.”

Schaffer, like others, believes Ein’s ownership could mark a positive turning point for the paper.

“It was a major voice in Washington politics and arts and culture,” said Schaffer, who began working at City Paper as a staff writer in 1996. “And it was also a place where myself — and a lot of other people — got their start in journalism. I think a publication like that can have a really intimate relationship with its city.”

Alternative media play an important part in the journalism landscape, said Schaffer and Zaragoza. These publications were among the first to give space for minority voices and write about under-covered communities and neighborhoods. They frequently have a more sarcastic or playful voice as opposed to the traditional newspaper style, which allows them to speak to diverse audiences and bring issues important to those communities to the forefront.

All eyes will be on Washington City Paper with wishes for its success, Zaragoza said. Not that papers will necessarily be able to replicate it, he added. Washington is a unique market and there’s not going to be a Mark Ein in every city. But every alt-weekly that succeeds is a win — for the industry, but most importantly for the city, he said.

“This will be a change and a change for the positive, I think,” he said. “This really does seem to be a good fit.”

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