When I meet up with Russ Smith at his unassuming Falls Road cottage-cum-office, the season’s first storm is raging with pride and gale-force winds. As rain thrashes at the windows and his two sleepy employees patter around downstairs, Smith spouts off on the irrelevance of print dailies, how he nearly flunked out of Johns Hopkins in the 70s, and why he’s no longer invited to Vanity Fair’s celebrations of the rich and elite.
Smith is 55-going-on 21, with a smirk and a perpetually dismissive attitude toward the middle-aged crowd. Once the founder and owner of City Paper, Smith now claims no affiliation with the “alternative” weekly and insists he hardly reads it these days.
“[City Paper] is edited by a bunch of 40 year olds trying to seem young. When you’re 45, you can’t go to a show at the Copycat on a weeknight and stay out until 3 a.m. and drink beer with the band, because you’ve got to get up in the morning to drive your kid to school,” Smith says. “You’ve got responsibilities, plus your body just can’t take it anymore. It’s ‘trying-too-hard’ journalism.”
Which is why the oldest regular contributor for SpliceToday — aside from Smith himself — is 28. Most of his
writers are 21, and some are still in their teens. Smith admits to looking to his own teenaged sons for tips on
“I asked [my 18-year old] if he picked up City Paper the other week,” Smith recalls. “He started laughing and said ‘Hey dad, it’s so cool that you started it and everything — but that’s an old person’s publication.’”
So what’s relevant? Does the future of journalism — and arts and culture, for that matter — belong to kids who still use fake I.D.s?
Absolutely, according to Smith.
“In the last couple of years, people my age or older have started crying into their beers about what’s happening to the industry. But it’s not their industry anymore.”
Smith says that when he was running the New York Press in the 90s — another “vintage” behemoth to his name — he had no qualms about letting the young writers treat the paper as a stepping stone.
“The whole idea was that you couldn’t afford to pay shit, but you gave exposure to writers you thought had talent but who couldn’t get into the door of the New York Times,” Smith says. “I’m risking immodesty here but a lot of well-known people started at the Press: we worked with Bill Monahan [Academy
Award-winning screenwriter of The Departed] and he would turn in these 20,000 word articles to hone down. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it — now he’s a millionaire living in Hollywood.”
Smith ticks off other famed former “kid contributors”: authors Dave Eggers and Amy Sohn, plus New York Times cultural news editor Sam Sifton, just to name a few. “We took chances on people,” Smith sighs now, a hairsbreadth away from “back in the day” rhetoric. But at the root of this nostalgia may be the memories of his own past risks, and the uncertainty that they would ever pay off.
During late nights at Hopkins in the 70s, as his peers were pledging fraternities or “dicking around on their parents’ dime,” Smith would break into the headquarters of the undergraduate newspaper The News-Letter — he was Chief at the time — to create his own paper, the rag that would go on to become City Paper and sell for $4 million a decade later.
How did this untrained college student juggle three jobs, two newspapers and academics? By the skin of his teeth, it seems.
Smith graduated a semester late, still scraping for the bare minimum of course credits. City Paper was born in May 1977, on what would have been his graduation day.
“That following fall was rough: back then Hopkins only allowed you two Ds on your transcript, and I had long since used up my allotment.” Smith says he would have quit school altogether had it not been for his mother, who was sick at the time and “would have been very upset with me.”
When Smith sold the paper a decade later and moved to New York, he picked up the moniker “Mugger” and a new abrasive attitude along with it.
What’s with the nickname?, I ask.
He had been struggling with a name for his column, a diatribe on “food, politics, sports and whatever else sprung to mind,” when his brother almost fell victim to a robbery in TriBeCa.
“This guy held a gun to his head and my brother batted him away with a briefcase and ran — but then he tripped and ended up in the hospital anyway, with a staff infection on his leg,” he says. “When I went to see him the next day I was like, hey, what do you think about Mugger as a name for my column?”
What soon followed was “something that made people say, ‘whoa, this guy’s an asshole,’ or ‘this is cool’ — it was meant to provoke,” Smith recounts.
And provoke, it did. Smith admits that the column didn’t exactly serve to widen his social circle. He recalls being at a “media fraternity party” and running into New Yorker editor Adam Moss, who he had just
slammed in the column.
“[Moss] said ‘Hey Russ, I really like the New York Press — why do you keep killing me in print?’ I said, ‘It’s nothing personal — I just think your magazine sucks.’ And it was a little awkward.”
Smith says that was his last media party for a while, as he preferred to hang out with his Press staffers. “We worked hard and then we’d go to a bar and drink and continue to think about the magazine — that was a lot more fun,” he says. “I used to cousel my writers. I’d tell them ‘I can’t tell you who to hang out with when you’re not at work, but my advice is to stay away from journalists.’”
This seemed a mutual agreement, as he stopped being invited to ‘big-wig’ parties shortly thereafter.
“One of the reasons I’ve never gotten work at glossy magazines is because people still dislike me. That’s fair enough. Esquire or GQ, they’re awful but they pay well. They wouldn’t touch someone like me,” Smith recalls with a smile and not a hint of regret.
As the lunch hour ends and Smith walks me to the door, he glares at the rainy vista. “I hate cold weather,” he says. “I prefer heat and humidity. Summer is perfect.”
Then why not move to someplace more temperature, California or Florida? Smith shakes his head. “I couldn’t do it. I just keep coming back to Baltimore.”