Inside D.C. entertainment

The strange development of DCmud

March 15, 2011 - 07:00 AM
Text size Decrease Increase

Some home-for-sale pitches from Franklin Schneider, perhaps D.C.'s only documented expert on creative unemployment, meaninglesss sex, and local gold-prospecting:

• "If I'd had access to a TV room like this as a teenager, I could've gotten waaaaay more girls pregnant."

• "The master suite is massive, and has a fantastic park view; if the apocalypse hits and civilization disintegrates, whoever lives in this house will have access to prime urban hunting grounds."

• "If I was the agent for this property, I would silently lead prospective buyers through each room, up to the decks, down to the parking garage, and then, at the conclusion of this tour, grab them by the shoulders and shake them violently while screaming, 'WHAT MORE COULD YOU POSSIBLY WANT!?' But then that's why I'm not a real estate agent."

Clearly. But Schneider does write about real estate for DCmud, a blog run by a real estate agency. So, DCmud, what the heck are you thinking?

"He's absolutely unorthodox," says Ken Johnson, who edits DCmud and founded, a real-estate and real-estate-marketing agency, about Schneider. "But then again, so are we. We try to be not sanctimonious." Real estate, Johnson says, "is just not interesting enough" without a little voice.

Schneider was surprised when I asked him about his work for the site (actual quote, from an e-mail: "fuuuuuuuck!!!!...what are you, in the market for a waterfront condo???") but says he's freelancing at DCmud "to tide me over until my next book advance, and it was the only job posting on craigslist that didn't require me to physically report to an office."

The gig does, however, require him to visit homes for sale, and Johnson thinks enough of Schneider's impressions from these forays into the straight world that one of his descriptions greeted visitors to the homepage this past Friday morning. That would be this one, for Capitol Overlook Phase III/IV: "It's a dramatic space; for the first time ever, I didn't feel foolish wearing sunglasses indoors."

Whatever his reasons, Schneider's the latest person at the end of a conga line of journalists who weren't previously interested in the nuts and bolts of Washington-area development into a DCmud byline.

Take, for instance, current staff writer Melissa McCart, who writes about food and used to teach high school English in McLean. "Food writing doesn't pay," she says, citing a freelance market clogged with enthusiasts. "To be salaried and get benefits and get paid more than I do for food writing is quite nice."

McCart works full-time for DCmud, coming into its redbrick townhouse headquarters on Rhode Island Ave. NW every morning. Her output at DCmud feeds its readers' insatiable need for news on the latest JBG moves, but she also has found a way to drill down on restaurant comings and goings — not just what restos are moving into such and such a space, but why the space is drawing or shedding tenants. "It's certainly changed the way I think about restaurant reporting," she says.

Shaun Courtney also found a DCmud job on Craigslist. She graduated from American in 2006, worked as a paralegal and on a political campaign, and then started blogging about doings on Capitol Hill. Johnson, she says, "sort of taught me everything about real estate," firing an obsession that followed her to her current gig as editor of Georgetown Patch, where she gets to cover other topics that interest her like local politics, though she says she still goes to Georgetown meetings about development whenever possible.

Like others I talked to, Courtney describes Johnson as a terrific editor. "DCmud is different from other blogs," says Sarah Krouse, who reports on real estate for the Washington Business Journal. Krouse started working at DCmud when she was a sophomore at George Washington University. Johnson, she says, made her into a "real estate nerd," but she says the more valuable training was in reporting. "DCmud makes the phone calls, and that's what put me in touch with the Business Journal," she says.

Johnson never worked in journalism. "I was editor of law review in law school, which is much, much worse." he says. He says DCmud operates as a "loss leader" for, though it's not a house organ. "We try really hard not to self-promote," he says. "We have 40 real estate agents, and they would rather see their projects" on the site, he says. "But the only way to keep an audience is to be non-self-promoting."

Normally in a piece like this, I'd turn here to criticism of the site. But I was unable to root anything juicy out. "I think it's a pretty good source," says Geoff Hatchard, the self-directed local media critic known online as IMGoph. "They're quick to correct errors," he says.

"It's very clear that because they're connected to a real estate agency it's obviously pro-development," he says. "As long as you understand that bias going in it's a great source."

Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert: "By being industry oriented, they can bring in more money to pay journalists, and I have heard that it's an opportunity for some people, especially new journalism grads, to get a paying job and build experience. The flip side of being industry focused is that it's very focused on just reporting on the buildings, not necessarily on the broader context or on things like reviewing them or talking about the bad with the good."

"I think they've done a very good job over the years covering the kind of minutiae of upcoming residential development from the standpoint of zoning and what's on tap," says Mark Wellborn, the editor of UrbanTurf, another area real-estate blog.

Won't anyone sling a little DCmud here? Brooks Butler Hays, who says he got laid off from DCmud in January ("It seemed like a mix of poor finances and poor chemistry," he says), says Johnson nixed his attempts to expand the site's focus: "I tried to make sweeping generalizations about trends every so often, but those were shot down by my editor."

Hays cites a piece about Big Bear Cafe's liquor license as one of his favorite clips. "Yeah it’s not a typical development story," he says. "It also wasn’t necessarily breaking news." He enjoyed it nonetheless, he says, because he found it a "little more exciting than regurgitating condo numbers and square footage."

But such quotidian facts are what keep DCmud's audience coming back. The site sells advertising, but not much, Johnson says, so it doesn't have a dedicated publisher. "We haven't been successful in keeping someone in that position. If we never make a penny on it, it will be OK, because, honestly, it's informative for us, our agents like it, and we get a lot of positive feedback on it. Whatever happens with it we'll keep it going," he says.

Johnson asks me if I have any ideas about how a website can make money. I tell him the record is pretty clear that I don't (evidence: 1, 2) but mention that the Washington Post Company owns Kaplan, a business model that's somewhat analogous to his — support journalism with something that can actually be sold. "If the Post can’t figure it out, I don’t feel so stupid after all," he says.

Read More: