Michael Grass is the founding editor of The Huffington Post’s local DC edition, covering local news, arts and events in the nation’s capital and surrounding suburbs. He’s worked for Roll Call newspaper on Capitol Hill, The Washington Post’s Express, The New York Observer, and Washington City Paper among other media organizations. In 2004, he co-founded DCist.com, bringing together the original group of volunteer contributors for what’s grown into one of the DC’s area top local news destinations. In a town that is known for its ephemeral culture, Michael’s roots run deep. His family has been in DC since the 1860s, giving him a unique perspective to the city. We sat down with Michael to talk about online media and some of DC’s own idiosyncrasies and unique delights.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Your ties to D.C. go back quite a bit, don’t they?
I move 1’s an 0’s across the digital ethos for The Huffington Post, where I edit the local DC, Maryland and Virginia homepage.
I’ve worked for most of the past decade at established and start-up media properties in the DC area. I’ve worked on developing some really great online news projects over the years. I co-founded DCist.com in 2004 when DC’s blogging community was very small. I’ve held editing positions at Roll Call, The Washington Post Express and Washington City Paper. And I always have some sort of side project going, too.
Although I grew up in Michigan, my father’s family has been in the District of Columbia since the 1860s. DC had always been a second home to me growing up because of my family roots here. When I moved to DC after college a decade ago, it already felt like home. HuffPost’s DC bureau is on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, just down the street from the house my grandfather grew up in. Today, Kinkead’s restaurant is there. If you know the Brewmaster’s Castle near Dupont Circle, my great-great grandfather did much of the interior woodcarving in that mansion, which is open to the public. My ancestors carved wood, I help carve the Internet.
What sets Huffington Post apart from other media outlets? What is the secret to its success?
The Huffington Post is an incredibly socially engaged community. It’s not really a secret, but one key to HuffPost’s success has been the ability to adapt how it delivers news and commentary to different readers who sometimes consume information in very different ways. HuffPost isn’t just a news website, it’s a platform to discuss, discover and drive the conversation. Now there are international editions of HuffPost in Spain, France, Canada and Great Britain. But HuffPost can also be incredibly local. And in the DC area, that’s where I’ve been able to help out. The success of HuffPost has been its ability to change and be a driving force.
What do you love about our fair city? What about D.C. still surprises you?
I use ZipCar occasionally, so I live mostly a car-free diet. And I like it that DC is a place where I don’t need to spend money on a car payment, parking citations or gas. For all the bellyaching about Metro, we’re incredibly fortunate to have a good rail and bus network.
Neighborhoods are largely walkable. Transit connects the places that matter. For all the planning and foresight that went into our transportation infrastructure, I’m still surprised by what was left out or unconnected. And I’m still surprised that some people refuse to ride the bus. Technology has removed much of the guesswork that sometimes comes with public transit.
The last decade has seen so much change in DC. Where do you see us headed in the next decade?
There’s certainly been a lot of change in DC. Just look at how places like 14th Street, U Street, and H Street have developed in the previous ten years. Neighborhoods have been transformed in the city and in the suburbs. Plenty of new people have settled in the nation’s capital. There’s so much new energy and so many new ideas. We’ve really shattered the image that we’re a one-company town.
But much of our success is still tied to the federal government and the business of government. With tighter federal purse strings in the years ahead, we’re being pushed to diversify our economy more. We have no choice in the matter. In the next 10 years, the big question will be whether the success we’ve achieved can be maintained and evolve. I think we can continue to transform and innovate.
The DC area has built some solid foundations, a place where new ideas, concepts, businesses and enterprises can experiment and thrive. D.C.’s local politics may just be the most entertaining in the country.
We are the city of Marion Barry after all. Why do you think that this is the case?
Entertaining, yes. But much of what’s been going on in the DC government isn’t funny. But DC isn’t the only place that’s had corrupt elements. (I’m looking at you, Chicago.) What does make DC unique is that we’re not a city and not a state. DC’s local elected politicians can’t climb very high because we’re not a state. It’s not like they can run for U.S. Senate or governor. This has created a local political structure dominated by established players who have few options for growth or advancement. Local DC political culture can stew way too long in its own juices. This particular setup can prevent a healthy political climate from forming. But it can be fun to observe, for sure.
Will DC ever become a state? And what are some of the benefits of becoming a state?
Many people dream of statehood. Will we get it? I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful that we’ll someday achieve full and equal representation in Congress like other Americans. Maybe it won’t be traditional statehood, but it would be an arrangement that gives DC residents more control over their local affairs and a voice in Congress. And that would be something that benefits both DC residents and Congress.
We are known as a city of lawyers and government contractors. What else is there that people should know about DC?
We should be known as a place that attracts highly educated people. That’s a trait that is found across many professions in the DC area. But we’re much more than just a place for government. Our creative and knowledge sector is diverse, energetic, innovative, and international. Yes, we’re the nation’s capital. But we’re also much more than that.
DC is also known as a transient place. People come, they work and then they leave. Why is that and what can be done to ensure people stay in the city?
That’s been a dynamic that’s been going on for generations. Capitals of nations can be like that. But other places are like that, too. We’re just especially good at hosting a transient culture. We’ve come off a decade of incredible growth and change across the region. Overall, more people are moving to the DC area. We have to plan for that growth and make that growth sustainable.
DC can be a very expensive place. It can be incredibly expensive for young professionals, new families, and those who have been here for generations. Across the region, we have to diversify the local economy and create a place where people have the ability to stay long term. Fortunately, the DC area already offers many compelling reasons to stay and grow.
It’s been noted that we may be the only city in America with a surplus of jobs. Why is it hard for us to attract talent?
It depends on what industry you’re talking about. DC certainly excels in attracting top talent in many areas. But just because there are jobs doesn’t mean we’re drawing the right kind of talent in all areas. DC has a reputation of being an all-work-all-the-time type of town, but a lot of people are starting to want a better work-life balance. There are certain professions and some businesses that tend to thrive in a more relaxed setting and I think DC is slowly chipping away at its obsession with work. It’s okay to relax and recharge.
If you had the power to do so, what one thing would you fix in D.C.
If I could snap my fingers, I would have a new crosstown Metro line built to untangle the Orange and Blue lines through downtown. While that would help connect places like Georgetown Union Station and H Street in DC, it would also help the entire region.