High spirits reign at the birth of Washington's newest newspaper

Washington's newest newspaper is housed one flight up on P Street, in a mustard-colored town house. Over the doorbell has been plastered a prototype of its front page. ''Ted Plots Late Entry'' reads the mock cover story, with its looming color photo of Senator Kennedy.

The scheduled debut today of the Washington Weekly has been eagerly awaited in this city where journalism is a cottage industry employing over 2,000 people with ''pencil skills,'' as TV news moguls sometimes refer to writers.

The prototype looks like a cross between the Village Voice and New York magazine. ''It's so new,'' its editor Jeff Stein tells me amid the countdown toward launch, ''that we have no Xerox machine yet. I get the feeling sometimes I'm screwing the wings on while we're going down the runway. But then I never started a paper before.''

For starters, Mr. Stein has bagged some of the best bylines in town: columnist Nicholas von Hoffman as political editor, Taylor Branch (former Washington editor of Harper's), authors Laurence Leamer and Dan Moldea, Art Levine (contributing editor of the Washington Monthly), and Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Rossellini.

Stein himself is a seasoned Washington journalist who has written for Esquire , the Washington Post, Mother Jones, Saturday Review, New York, and the Village Voice.

He says, ''We want to be the paper of unconventional wisdom - this town is full of 'the conventional wisdom' (a favorite Washington phrase of sonorous columnists). There is conventional liberal wisdom and conventional conservative wisdom, so one of the first writers I set out to recruit was conservative Ke-vin Phillips, because he's a very provocative thinker. We want to be the paper of unconventional wisdom that will have people from both the left and the right mad at us or happy at us.''

The Washington Weekly is backed by two of the crown princes of publishing, Mortimer Zuckerman, who publishes The Atlantic, and Martin Peretz, publisher of the New Republic.

Peretz owns about one-quarter of the Washington Weekly, says Stein, and has been ''a magnificent supporter of us all along. Their (the New Republic's) business staff acted as our business staff all through the pre-launch period.''

But, with these credits acknowledged, Stein is quick to point out, ''It's really Joan Bingham's paper.'' Bingham, president of the paper, is a prominent Georgetown activist and patron. Zuckerman has a minority interest in the paper, smaller than Peretz's.

During my visit, Joan Bingham is sitting in a back office plotting the paper's future. A brunette with a quiet but determined voice, she explains reluctantly that the paper's running cost is about $100,000 a month and it's financed for three years.

Washington Weekly has an editorial staff of seven, a business staff of 10, plus an art director and assistant.

In fact, it sounds and looks a little like the controversial counterculture newspaper in Joan Micklin Silver's film of a few years back, ''Between the Lines.'' Stein leads the way into the small city room (half a dozen desks) that he is so proud of. There is a wall poster of Jack Webb at the phone in the movie ''-30-,'' a Newsweek cover of the late John Lennon, some rabid New York Post headlines, piles of copy stacked like pancakes on the desks, and in a corner an eternal flame burning under the staff coffee pot.

As we talk, the phone rings frequently for Stein, who at one point kids a writer on the other end: ''Call and say 'I'm a joinalist and I need to know now, ' and don't give me any guff!'' Stein leans back at his desk, just under a surreal orange graphic of an Underwood typewriter. He is a lively guy in a light blue summer suit, tattersall shirt, and blue tie. Occasionally he absent-mindedly edits his curly brown hair or mustache with one hand. His eyes are such an ingenuous blue that it's a surprise to learn he served as a case officer in Army intelligence in Vietnam.

Born in Philadelphia, Stein grew up in Hingham, Mass., as ''a member of the 'American Graffiti' generation,'' earned his BA from Boston University at night school, then an MA in Asian studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Apart from his career as a successful free-lance writer, he has been Washington editor of Progressive magazine, news director of a Long Island radio station, daily contributor to National Public Radio's ''All Things Considered,'' and a staff member of the Washington newspaper Newsworks.

''We're not posing as an alternative newspaper outside the system and throwing bricks at it,'' Stein explains. ''Quite the opposite. We are insiders who know how the system works.

''We're in a post-Vietnam society, where problems loom large. . . , but (people) aren't saying 'Burn it down' anymore. They're saying: 'Let's put our minds together and see if we can come up with a good solution.' And that will be the stance of this paper also. While we'll celebrate the good things about Washington, socially, politically, culturally, we will be critical also. But we'll do it in such a way as to find solutions, not to condemn. . . .''

Washington Weekly will also reflect Stein's orientation: ''I am a political junkie and am intensely interested in foreign affairs, foreign policy, national security. So when I develop cover stories they will have an emphasis on reporting. They could very well be national stories, but we take a local angle. Teddy Kennedy is a political figure to us. Members of Congress, because they live in the Washington area, become in a way our local aldermen. . . .''

The line between local and national coverage becomes blurred, Stein points out. ''We're doing a long, in-depth feature on the World Bank and how it operates. What would you call that - a local story? Everyone covers the World Bank here, but no one has really gone in and spent time there and said what is this subculture, this huge institution in Washington, how it relates to us locally.''

Stein also plans to emphasize profiles - lots of them - and investigative journalism. He says his ideal investigative story is William Grieder's controversial interview on Reaganomics (''The Education of David Stockman'') in the December 1981 Atlantic.

At this point feature editor Margaret Carlson, who has just strolled in, adds that the World Bank has a terrific cafeteria. Carlson, the author of a consumer best seller, ''How to Get Your Car Fixed Without Getting Gypped,'' is a lawyer, former Ralph Naderite and ex-editor of the Legal Times of Washington. (Her 10 -year-old daughter will be reviewing children's movies.) Her laundry list of upcoming features includes ''Book Party Chic: Pigging Out on the Literary Circuit''; ''Company Kids - When Mommy and Daddy Are Spies''; ''Renting Beachside Houses''; ''Who Killed Folk Music,'' by Mary Travers; ''Washington Behind Closed Doors - Private Clubs.''

Washington Weekly also will feature a series of insider columns on the capital's favorite subjects, like these: ''Scoop'' (the media), ''Cloakrooms'' (Capitol Hill), ''Briefcases'' (lawyers and lobbyists), ''Money Talks'' (personal finance and business), ''Sporting Life,'' and ''The Art Crowd'' (galleries, shows, and openings).

Stein has targeted the weekly to appeal to ''the people whose lives, interests, and values are not in large part reflected in the daily and other press here. The Washington Post and the rest of the press, he says, ''rightfully . . . concentrate on the top rungs of power - the congressmen, senators, the White House, secretary of state - and we're interested, but we're even more interested in the aides to the senator or congressman, the junior lawyer, not the senior partner. So we want to adopt a point of view that's a little bit 'Upstairs, Downstairs.' We want to become the paper for those who contribute a great deal to the city but whose lives are not generally reflected in the press here.''

The prototype for the new magazine, which weighs in at 40 tabloid-style pages , is done in black and white with a color cover, centerfold calendar, and some ads in color. Washington Weekly will sell for 50 cents a copy. Thanks to publisher James Glassman's insistence on market surveys, says Stein, they've concentrated on direct mail advertising, which is necessary for a circulation base to attract advertisers in Washington. He says they have 20,000 paid subscribers ''before launch.''

''Success?'' says Stein, '' - I don't mean to be mushy, but I think it's, first, obvious things like circulation and advertising. But the easiest and quickest way to build circulation and advertising would be to run nothing but ' 50 Great Restaurants' on the cover of every other issue or 'Great Picnic Spots' or 'How to Get Rich Fast' or 'Secret Lives of Washington Lawyers.'

''But I want to challenge those people who say you can't do quality journalism and make it sell. On the other hand, we'd like to be thought of here as people who care about the city and have fun. People will have fun reading us. . . .''

The word is out, and subscription requests have come in from expatriate Washingtonians stationed from Mauritania to Peking to Chad. Washington Weekly also plans to ''show the flag'' by being on newsstands in Paris, London, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Its editor sees it as unique, a trend-setter. ''People will say when any newspaper is started after us, 'Oh, is your newspaper going to be something like the Washington Weekly?' '' says Stein, beaming like a proud papa.

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