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Can an alt-weekly newspaper survive in 2018?

Mark Ein, the new owner of the alternative Washington City Paper, has a plan.

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Washington City Paper owner Mark Ein Larry French / Getty Images for The Jefferson Awards Foundation

As advertising revenue has bled out of media and into the pockets of tech giants, the business prospects for local newspapers have become decidedly dour. But with the right ownership and the right focus, Washington City Paper owner Mark Ein says, local media can still succeed.

Ein — the founder and CEO of investment firm VentureHouse — bought the weekly alternative paper in late 2017. Although he maintains a policy of not interfering in the outlet’s editorial decisions, he is talking with some of its famous editorial alumni, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jake Tapper and Recode’s Kara Swisher, about how its business should survive.

“It’s an iconic paper, it’s been around since 1981,” Ein said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “It’s an important part of the fabric of D.C. It has an incredible alumni network, but also today, an amazing number of people who write for the Post have passed through the City Paper.”

Ein, who grew up in the D.C. area and returned there after stints in California and New York, believes he can add value to the paper because he’s a local — something that cannot be said of many local papers and TV stations that are now owned by faraway national corporations.

“Any local community needs strong local journalism, and I think local ownership is helpful,” he said. “Having someone who really cares about the community makes a real difference. I’d say my conviction for it only grew in the last five years. That’s why when it came back [up for sale] in the fall, I jumped at it.”

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On the new podcast, Ein explained why he sees events and live entertainment as a “gigantic opportunity” for the Washington City Paper, citing its long-running history as a definitive directory of things to do around town.

“If you look in our paper — you look at the Kennedy Center, the 9:30 Club, the Anthem — there is no single better way to see every show that’s coming to town in those venues than picking up the back page of the City Paper,” he said. “There’s no digital equivalent. That’s why they give us the money they do, because it actually does sell tickets.”

Arts organizations currently provide about 80 percent of the paper’s advertising revenue, Ein said. But there’s another audience that buys twice as many tickets in town — sports fans — so he hopes to attract ad money from that side of the aisle by adding a sports section that will cover “the behind-the-scenes-story of the athletes and the teams.”

But even as some things change, others will stay the same, including the City Paper’s political column Loose Lips, which gained a reputation for being snarky before the internet monopolized snark.

“We are the ones who will hold people’s feet to the fire, especially local politicians,” Ein said. “When I was thinking of buying it, a very prominent person in town came over to me and said ‘I heard you’re thinking of buying the City Paper.’ I said, ‘I’m thinking about it,’ and they said, ‘Well, are you going to kill Loose Lips?’”

“And I said, ‘Well now that you’ve said that, I’m definitely not going to,’” Ein added. “I’m not making editorial decisions, but we’re not.”

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