Back in the early 1800s, a French writer toured the embryonic United States, just a few decades after independence. It fell to this foreigner, Alexis de Tocqueville, to define the foundations of our country in his ever-fresh travelogue, “Democracy in America.”
As James MacGregor appeared over the rise of the steps at the Georgetown Four Seasons, seemingly scripted for J. J. Abrams’ latest saga, I wondered whether I was looking at a modern-day Tocqueville, a new foreigner in a crisp blue suit come to tell the tale of the emerging Washington, D.C.
Once-challenged neighborhoods like Shaw, NoMa and even Petworth (although more slowly) are at the forefront of what seems like the overnight birth of a new city, filled with entrepreneurs and young adults – not just passing through as they scratch the itch to dabble in politics, but planting roots and building careers.
It is a town where start-ups like 1776 and WeWork expand, it seems, as quickly as developers can throw up new buildings, and where whole neighborhoods along the Anacostia and the Southwest Waterfront are not so much gentrifying as metamorphosing.
And here to make sense of it all is James MacGregor, the 40ish father of two who hails from Toronto and comes via stints in America’s heartland (Louisville) and, for the last dozen years, in the start-up meccas of San Jose and San Francisco.
He’s come east to tell a great tale. One of growth and resurgence.
“Get 100 miles outside D.C. and everyone will tell you that D.C. is only about political gridlock and politics. But actually it is not. That might be the federal government, but the business community is engaged in getting stuff done.”
Not a bad party line for someone who has been in D.C. for about six months. But his D.C. boosterism is just getting started. He dismisses comparisons between the Silicon start-up land he just left. “Everybody seems to want to be the next Silicon Valley. There is a lot of stuff there that makes Silicon Valley what it is. It is a thing to strive towards, but, if that is the end goal, that is not going to work.”
Instead, what MacGregor sees is a story that is just starting to unfold, built on a number of industries. And he is here to make sure it gets told, because MacGregor is the new publisher of the Washington Business Journal.
He inherited the job from Alex Orfinger, the long time WBJ publisher who moved down the hall to take on broader duties for the WBJ parent company (owner of 40 print titles and a bunch more online, nationwide).
And MacGregor thinks there is a better story to tell in D.C. than on the other coast.
“It’s actually hard to cover the tech giants like Facebook or Google. So to really cover them you cover others things, like real estate deals.”
And that, he believes, is the heart of any business story, the people and the deals, mostly in real estate. And if it is about people and deals, MacGregor thinks D.C. offers a far richer story than the West Coast. MacGregor’s journalistic mantra: follow those two and you have a road map for what is happening. He has spent much of the first six months just getting to know both.
“When you eat out as much as I have to, you have to police what you eat,” MacGregor offers as he orders three eggs and grilled tomatoes, hold the toast.
The WBJ currently has a staff of 43, with about half devoted to editorial coverage for a paper that has circulation of 16,000 and 2 million hits, with a quarter of those unique visitors to the website in March. As publications go, that is rather modest, but you won’t hear MacGregor singing print’s swan song.
“Digital actually made us do print better, to make it more engaging for the reader. It does not have to be a race to a bottom. In fact we have spent a lot in redesign and improved the quality of the paper. We made investments across all platforms.”
Rather than the traditional competition, what worries MacGregor is the competition he can’t see, the challenges coming around the corner, that individual blogger whose posts about tech or health or one of the other emerging business hubs in town suddenly catch fire, build a following and take WBJ’s audience away.
The real challenge, MacGregor says, is that the barriers to entry are now so low that serious competition can emerge overnight out of nowhere. Partly in preparation for that, MacGregor believes the WBJ needs to leverage its unique position.
Currently, he sees a false separation between Maryland, Virginia and the District. MacGregor describes the Journal’s duty as being to foster a sense that “a rising tide will lift all regional boats.”
To that end, he believes the Journal needs to lead the conversation about what is important to local businesses. Thus, a third leg of the Journal strategy: holding breakfast sessions and other events across the region, focusing on growth, real estate and development and the challenges in each jurisdiction.
“If we do it right, we are going to get to the end of the year and there will be four things across all of these jurisdictions that are really important to business. And we can know what they are and perhaps how to tackle them.”
Add to those breakfasts, the panel discussions, which he hopes are not only events for those who attend but will generate news and stories that the Journal can then repackage (along with revenue). WBJ is averaging about 30 events a year.
So MacGregor’s WBJ is not going to be a passive chronicler. He intends to make it a force to enhance, encourage and facilitate development and business growth. It is almost planting the seeds of the stories the Journal will get to reap later.
He smiles as he recalls exactly that role, how he heard from people who wanted to start companies and used the Journal’s Power 100 list to call people up, get advice, then exploit those connections to establish thriving businesses of their own.
MacGregor is still in the honeymoon phase with his new city. But he says that the final decision to come to Washington was not really his.
After hearing about the job, he and his wife came to check out D.C. They arrived for one of those glorious fall weeks, a Destination DC-kind of trip, he recounts. They toured around as the leaves were changing, looked at some neighborhoods and tasted D.C.’s growing wealth of great restaurants, getting around on Capital Bikeshare bikes.
MacGregor had been to D.C. sporadically. He knew the great story brewing here and the strength of the publication Orfinger had built. At their final dinner, when Orfinger asked what they thought, it was MacGregor’s wife who answered for both of them: “Sign us up. We are in!”
And so MacGregor blazed the family’s trail to D.C., with his wife and two young children joining him at the end of the school year.
Now he will have two families to watch grow: his own and that of his newly adopted home.