Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
Philadelphia City Paper, remembered.
Philadelphia City Paper will cease to exist on October 8, according to Wednesday’s announcement by Broad Street Media, the new owner of what it describes as the publication's "intellectual property." It was only after that article (which resembles a press release) was posted online at one of the company's outlets that City Paper's editorial staff actually found out—not by hearing from anyone in charge, but from a flood of texts from friends and requests for comment from other media outlets.
The end always seemed around the corner during my roughly four years at City Paper, where I was a staff reporter until this spring. The page count had long since shrunk into the mid-double digits. Last summer, we were sold to the company that owns Metro, a free daily newspaper that in depth, style, and frequency of publication was our antithesis. Now Metro has turned over the paper to Broad Street Media, where it will be absorbed by the long-ago-eviscerated Philadelphia Weekly. I have no idea what that means except that City Paper editorial staff has been laid off, and that alarmingly, according to a post by my former colleagues, they expect the paper's web archives will "vanish along with us."
Philadelphia, the country's fifth largest city, is experiencing a renaissance of sorts at the hands of urban-inclined millennials, and boasts vibrant music and arts communities. Meanwhile, its school system struggles through permanent crisis, more than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line, young men gun each other down on the streets, and police and prison guards are the subject of a steady stream of allegations of abuse and malfeasance.
The city's best platform to navigate this brave new Philadelphia, highlighting new artists, exploring the complexity of neighborhood change, and fighting tough causes and sometimes winning them, is gone.
A news staff of two to three reporters punched well above its weight, beating the city's dailies with frequency—especially, in recent years, on criminal justice issues. I'm a news person with a barely pedestrian appreciation of art. But I know that many people only encountered my reporting on the way to a guide to late-night eating or our wall-to-wall coverage of the Fringe Festival.
It's the end of a paper with features about people who self-castrate or a performance artist who throws street-party celebrations for sanitation workers, then advocates for them at City Council; where a young reporter (me) listened in on sex workers personally paying for their ads in the office next door.
Alt-weeklies, a staple of local arts and critical news, continue down a horrible death spiral that no one seems willing or able to stop. Classified revenues evaporated into the Craigslist ether, the free-spending record industry went into decline, sex work listings moved from our back pages onto the Internet. And reader habits have changed too, as former Washington City Paper editor Jack Shafer wrote in 2013: "The smartphone trumps the alt-weekly as a boredom killer."
The Boston Phoenix closed in 2013. The Village Voice is a faint echo of its former self. Only a few weeklies, like the Chicago Reader, march forward into this scary future with anything resembling strength.
We were scrappy and annoying. But we mattered.
My former colleague Isaiah Thompson, now at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and WGBH in Boston, undertook a major investigation into Philadelphia's civil asset forfeiture system. His work helped spur a major federal lawsuit and also widespread coverage of the practice on a national scale. Holly Otterbein, now at Philadelphia magazine, uncovered how state money was used to fund anti-abortion activists. Emily Guendelsberger, whose prose will always beat mine and whose last name I always have to Google to spell right, wrote an incredible and unprecedented exposé of Uber after spending weeks as a driver.
There were opportunities for collaboration, and to tell stories that mattered with a human face. Drew Lazor, our former food editor, sat down with me in an elementary school cafeteria to taste-test school lunches for a story about how much they sucked and how student activists wanted to make them better. Photographer Neal Santos and I spent weeks visiting bars to document a multi-racial, working-class pool league where a guy with a white pride tattoo could somehow get along okay with black and Latino people. Ryan Briggs, a man with a loud voice and keen analytic mind who is now at Philly.com, worked with me on an expose of a mostly unknown broken-windows enforcement program.
City Paper is where I started my career as a reporter, covering misguided education reform schemes and budget cuts, abusive cops and prison guards, and the travails and missteps of the local dailies. It's where Samantha Melamed, now at the Inquirer, helped me learn to productively and lovingly argue with an editor who is deeply invested in a story's nuances.
On the national level, progressive media like The Nation and Mother Jones have found ways to survive the industry tumult. And there are new outlets, too. Indeed, outsider reporting on national and global issues is more available than ever before. In some part, that's because caring people with resources decided that those publications were important to protect. It's less sexy than Snowden, but local outlets are where so much original reporting on gross injustice actually happens on the ground. They are still waiting for a savior. It doesn't seem like they can save themselves.
When Metro took over last year, no one on the editorial staff was excited. I was particularly worried about their dress code: "a 'business casual' policy with a 'dress to the event' approach as a guiding principal." But I got a waiver for my jean shorts. And we all preferred Metro ownership to annihilation. Whatever plan they had for City Paper apparently didn't work.
Alt-weeklies have long served as farm teams with deep benches for the larger publications they often pillory. Village Voice veteran Tom Robbins, whose Marshall Project investigations of prison guard brutality have been published on the front page of The New York Times, is one notable example. The late and inimitable David Carr, longtime editor of Washington City Paper, where he mentored The Atlantic's towering Ta-Nehisi Coates, is another.
As Boston Phoenix alum Susan Orlean put it in the New Yorker, "I attended the University of Michigan, but I got my real education at alternative newsweeklies. That’s where I learned to write, to report, and to think of myself as a journalist; that’s where I grew up."
Washington City Paper, Coates recalled after Carr's death, "made arguments every week: big, profane, arrogant arguments. And to this it married a kind of immediacy communicated through reporting, direct quotations, and vividly rendered scenes. And it did at this at incredible length—in 1996, the minimum City Paper cover story was 5,000 words. I read a lot of these words when I was supposed to be doing other things—like studying literature or working a job. I was obsessed with the words in that paper. The words were not organized like any readings I’d ever seen. Maybe I could learn to use words in that same fashion."
And he did. As have so many others, and to many ends. Deesha Dyer, who used to write about hip hop for Philadelphia City Paper, is now the White House social secretary.
As Orlean put it, alt-weekly reporters have "the conviction that we were doing something a little better than what was being done at conventional newspapers. In many cases, that arrogance was unearned, but the sense of mission and adventure was real… For the longest time, when journalism students would ask me how to get started as writers, I would tell them to go to work for an alternative newsweekly. Better than graduate school, in my opinion, I’d say, and more fun than a conventional job at a conventional publication. Now, as the ranks of alternative newsweeklies thin out, I’m not sure what I’ll tell them."
I don't know either.
In Philadelphia, City Paper alums have often moved on to local publications rather than jumping to a national outlet. I think that's a reflection not just of the paper but of Philadelphia, a fiercely proud and bruised big city stuck between New York and D.C. At City Paper, we believed our city was made up of people and stories of tremendous importance.
As Isaiah Thompson put it in a cheerfully expletive-ridden last-minute speech (recorded for posterity) on his last day in 2012, "seriously, City Paper is a great fucking paper. And I am more acutely aware right now than ever that there's a lot of fucking fancy ideas out there and there's not a lot of people who can fucking put the nose to the grindstone and put out a good arts section, a good food section, good music section, and a fucking top rate news section...We kick everyone's ass in this city… and we should be fucking proud every week of that paper. Fucking… fuck them, keep going man. That's what I say about that."