DC’s Local Media and the Business World

“We are friendly, but we are not your friend,” starts veteran local DC journalist Tom Sherwood, kicking off a breakfast event co-hosted by the Federal City Council, the 2030 Group and Eaglebank. A good reporter’s job is to uncover the truth from all angles for the public. What they write doesn’t always sit comfortably with funders or owners. Nor is journalism always a profitable business. The event featured the media’s role in the region’s future economic growth, as well as the sometimes testy relationship between media and the world of business.

On the panel was a diverse set of media perspectives, from owners like FC2 Trustees Mark Ein (Washington City Paper) and Cathy Merrill Williams (Washingtonian) to ground reporters like Ally Schweitzer (WAMU) and Jon Banister (Bisnow), and from publishers like Peter Abrahams (Washington Business Journal) to columnists like Colby King (Washington Post).

There are plenty of examples where media and the business world have collaborated to do great things for our city. Phil Graham, owner of the Washington Post, called for the creation of the Federal City Council in the 1950s. Robert McCartney’s reporting on Metro’s problems at the Washington Post helped spur the creation of FC2’s MetroNow coalition, which then helped secure more dedicated funding for Metro. But Colby King pointed out that sometimes the media-business relationship can be too cozy, harming the interests of more marginal communities.

Now that the media’s traditional business model is in flux, its relationship with civic-minded business people may be more essential. Local media may have to rely more on philanthropy. Mark Ein stepped in to purchase the Washington City Paper not as an investment, but because he thought journalism served a critical public service. It was a civic obligation more than a business decision.

But there are still ways for local media to be profitable. Cathy Merrill Williams says the Washingtonian has found a profitable niche, focusing on helping readers get the best out of living in the region and learn how the city works. The Business Journal’s profitable niche is in giving ad buyers a targeted way to reach the business community. They are also data-savvy, carefully monitoring which stories are getting more clicks.

Nevertheless, there are fewer reporters on the local DC government beat. It may be because those stories aren’t getting as many clicks and there isn’t as much money in writing them. Hopefully DC’s media will find a way to keep the local beats running.