A December 30 Washington Post editorial titled “D.C. needs more bike lanes, and fast” prompted eruptions of pleasant surprise among people who, correctly or not, had grown to think of the paper’s editorial board as a body out of touch with the priorities of DC progressives. Its endorsements for DC races last fall were a good example of why the Post’s editorials reliably drive that set of local nerds bonkers: One of the people it endorsed was David Krucoff, a Republican who favors returning DC to Maryland and who opposes the District’s plan to install protected bike lanes along Connecticut Avenue.
The bike-lane editorial was written by Erik Wemple, who has reported on the news media for the Post’s opinion section since 2011. He and others—the Post wouldn’t tell me their names—will write editorials about local matters for the board now that Jo-Ann Armao, who became something of a synecdoche for the Post’s opinion operation to DC obsessives—has retired. David Shipley, who replaced Fred Hiatt as opinions honcho after Hiatt’s death in 2021, asked Wemple to try the new role.
Wemple, the former editor of Washington City Paper and the regional news site TBD, still plans to write about the press for the Post. I have known and worked with Wemple for years (see the disclosures at the bottom of this post). We talked about his new gig anyway.
Washingtonian: Erik, hello. How did you come to write editorials about local matters?
Erik Wemple: Just before David Shipley came on board, he rang me up in August and said, Would I be willing to think about occasionally pitching in on local editorial since I had covered the city at City Paper? And my first response was: “Sure, if you think that would help the organization.”
You’ve still managed to keep an eye on local news while you have been writing and reporting pieces about the news media.
Yes, as a layman. I cannot claim that I have been the voracious news hound that you need to be to do it day in and day out. So it’s required a reimmersion of sorts. Some of the old faces are still around, but mostly, it’s a new tableau on the local front, on the DC politics front. So familiarity with DC over the long haul has been helpful, but when you have to write a precise editorial about DC in the year 2022 or 2023, the historical familiarity only gets you to a certain point. You’ve got to make the calls and read the documents.
Do you think that that historical familiarity with matters such as, say, the ANC system, has colored your work now? How hard is it to start fresh?
I was an ANC commissioner for less than one term because I resigned to work at City Paper as a senior editor. I forgot exactly what year that was—’95, ’96 sort of timeframe. Somehow the the ANC made it through to the end of that term without me. [Laughs.] As a journalist, you could never ever say, “I know this,” because you don’t know. You’ve got to bone up, you’ve got to call people, you’ve got to read the reports, you’ve got to read all the coverage that’s been done. Whether it’s in the Post or AMU, DCist, District Dig.
I will say this, too, it’s a collaborative aspect of work at the Post that I have not known for 12 years. I mean, the Erik Wemple Blog is possibly the most accurate title for a vertical at the Post that you could possibly ever have, because it was just pretty much me! But here, I’m actively working with other people. That’s not to say that I don’t get edited with the media stuff—I do. Honestly, before this, I averaged like five meetings a year at the Post.
And now you have meetings to decide assignments?
It’s just their regular editorial meeting where we go over stuff, and discuss substance and policy and the world and the District. They’re just a weekly thing, but it’s a completely different approach to generating content that I haven’t been doing because it’s basically the Erik Wemple Blog. In the early years, like 2011, 2012, there was a time when we as bloggers at the Post pretty much sent our copy to the copy desk. And since then, since the decline of the blog ethos, there have been more layers of editing instituted. But still, the degree of deliberation and care that goes into the creation of an editorial is more rigorous, or it’s more collaborative, I would say.
It sounds like you’re approaching this as a reporting gig as much as an opinionating gig.
It’s always been my impression that people who write editorials, whether it’s the New York Post, or the New York Times or wherever, do a lot more reporting than other journalists give them credit for. They’re calling people. They’re interviewing people. They’re talking to stakeholders all the time. And, you know, they’re not just writing exclusively off of news reports. And so yes, I do a lot of prowling around, which I do for the media stuff, too. I mean, that’s what we do. And that’s why the calling and the typing, calling, typing, emailing and typing, that’s all fun.
Will the editorials continue to be unsigned? Would you prefer to have your name affixed to a piece of your writing?
I’m fine with this. It’s kind of fascinating, you know? You write something and then people aren’t piling on you on Twitter! [Laughs.] I mean, look, you’re still sending it out to the public. It still has your writing style and your reporting. It’s still a collaborative operation here with editors. It’s not as though my boss asked me to sell closed-cell foam insulation to new residential markets; he’s asking me to do journalism.
Obviously, the unsigned thing is new terrain for me. But I’ve been doing it for a month and I’m still happy. I think there’s a reason why there’s this history of newspapers doing stuff in the institutional voices—because a group of people get together and they decide what’s a good position. There may be disagreements or debates in getting there. But once it’s there, this is this is the considered opinion of this place. I know that there’s obviously a great degree of debate over, in this age of powerful opinion on social media, whether it’s still relevant, but I think it is.
A frequent gripe I heard about your predecessor, Jo-Ann Armao, was that she lived in Maryland but wrote endorsements for the District of Columbia. Is that a complaint you consider to be legitimate?
I don’t think you need to be a resident to consider what’s best for the city; I think you need to care about the city. Whenever you do endorsements, some people will hate your endorsements. Obviously those of us who live in the city, we don’t have proper voting representation [in Congress]. When Marion Barry visited City Paper, I forgot when this was, it was like, in the ’90s, the first question he had for everyone, he went around the room, “Do you live in DC, you live in DC, you live in the District?” I do think that you can capably write about a jurisdiction and care about the jurisdiction in which you don’t reside. I have lived in DC since I came down here in 1987. So maybe I have the reverse problem.
That you care too much?
Well, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe that’s dumb? I love this city. You know, we as national media reporters almost to down to the person have been saying how important local news coverage is, right? I would be the greatest hypocrite on Earth if I write another column from my media perspective talking about the importance of local news and tell my boss to go take a hike when he asked me to write local editorials. It’s journalism. And I’m happy to do it.
Are there particular aspects of life in this area that you’re interested in reporting on in this role?
My son has been a real transit nerd, and it’s rubbed off on me. So I care a lot about the trains, I care a lot about the buses, I care a lot about the bikes, and the pedestrians, and safety, and especially in communities that have not been served well by all of those things. So I’m hoping to bring a little bit of that. The politics of DC have always fascinated me. So I’ll be excited to to do the politics. Housing, too is a really big deal. I wrote something about affordable housing. And I just think it’s just like, the enormous issue, whether a region like this can come together to make sure that the people who are working their asses off in this region can afford to live here and not have to commute three hours each way every morning and evening. But I’m very much at the beginning here.
Do you hope to be able to revisit any of your previous obsessions in covering the District? The C&O Canal, perhaps?
You know, there’s a universe of things that I might do if I were in charge, and I have some very smart bosses who can steer me away from my dumb ideas. So I don’t think that I will be landing on those obsessions. I don’t think that I’m going to be, in the coming days, trying to go to David Shipley and saying, “Look at these Fuego/Frio videos.”
I was going to ask whether there might be a video component to this role.
As far as I know, no. Look, I will never ever bail on Fuego/Frio. I continue to believe in it as a mold-breaking way of covering the media. You know, too often we get involved in our cute little arguments about what’s so great about this. And at some point, you just gotta say “Fuego!” and at other points you just gotta say, “Frio!” You’ve got to make a choice. But I’m not so sure that the audience is broad enough for it.
Perhaps the audience has grown more selective. We talked briefly about endorsements. Will the Post continue to make endorsements under your watch?
That is way above my pay grade. Obviously, the elections are just over. My response has to be a complete punt on that, because I just don’t know, haven’t talked about it, and it’s not my call.
How will you divide your time between this local work and your media work?
This is new turf for me. Over the first several weeks, I really tried to hunker down and get a handle on the local stuff. I do have confidence that as time goes on, I’ll be able to pull this off. I just handed in a media item about the New York Times. Then next week, I’ll be handing in an editorial. It’s two streams flowing all the time.
I just want to make sure I understand you: Do you do you anticipate publishing fewer media pieces?
Yeah, I think that over the course of a year, my count may go down. But I also think that there might be more enterprise stuff that I do. If there’s just like a breaking something, like, someone says something really ethically dumb on cable news, I might sit that one out and work on a tip.
What did you think of Jo-Ann Armao’s work as the lead writer of DC editorials?
Well, it’s the editorial board that signs off on the opinions. There’s a reason why they’re unsigned, and that is because they are the considered opinion of the group. So I sort of have to take issue with the premise of the question. You know, it’s not as if Jo-Ann was a columnist for the Post; she was an editorial board writer who covered education and DC affairs. And I thought that the DC editorials were well-written and well-reasoned. That doesn’t mean that I agree with every single one of them. I agree with some or a lot of them.
I have a 2012 quote here from Armao about her work that I thought was fascinating. She told Harry Jaffe, “If something is fundamentally wrong, I don’t have to pay phony homage to something that is not true.”
I would have to read the full story, but I’m guessing what she’s talking about there is that she doesn’t feel like she has to heed the old school bothsidesism that many establishment newsrooms have forced down the throats of their reporters. Shipley is a big believer in making sure that our opinion content grapples with the very best arguments from the other side and that you represent it accurately and fully without snark. So I do think that editorials are a place to get away from bothsidesism. I think use columns are a good place, I think news coverage is also a good place. I think both-sides is a fading doctrine. But yeah, I think that Post Opinions, the blogs and the editorials and the op-eds, all try to speak the truth. But I do think that it’s really important to be fair, and represent the very best argument of the other side.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Disclosures: Wemple hired me as Washington City Paper’s managing editor in 2006, inaugurating my career in DC-area journalism, and later hired me at TBD. We’re friends and see each other socially from time to time. I have sought his advice on several home-improvement projects. I wrote a few jokes for the Fuego/Frio series. His wife is also a friend. His son installed a new hard drive in my oldest son’s laptop, and I recommend his work. There’s almost certainly other stuff I’m forgetting.