The Continued Decline of the Alt-Weekly

What the death of the iconic City Paper means to Philadelphia.
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What the death of the iconic City Paper means to Philadelphia.
(Photo: Jake Blumgart)

(Photo: Jake Blumgart)

It's been a little over a week since the news broke that the intellectual property rights to Philadelphia City Paper had been purchased by Broad Street Media, a small local media conglomerate that owns the city's other alt-weekly, Philadelphia Weekly. The staff only learned that their publication, and their jobs, would soon cease to exist after other journalists started calling them for information. City Paper's last issue ran yesterday, leaving the nation's fifth largest city without one of its primary engines of in-depth investigative and analytical reporting.

While City Paper's circulation has been slipping for years, and its Web traffic is below many of its competitors (although not Philly Weekly), its demise is cause for serious concern among its devoted fans. "Now that City Paper is going, we're fucked," says Larry Krasner, a longtime civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia. "City Paper was in many ways ahead of the rest on the coverage. Sometimes they became the news because they uncovered corruption and perjury to the public, and that forced the hand of the DA."

The general sentiment about the importance of the City Paper is widely shared, if not always so bluntly put. City Paper provided the room and the security for reporters to pursue lengthy, contentious, and meticulously researched articles. In Philadelphia's deeply dysfunctional media market, there simply aren't many other outlets that will provide a writer the latitude to figure out which neighborhood beef started an internecine Strawberry Mansion gang war, or to reveal the quiet power of the unelected head of Center City's business improvement district, or to explain the complex roots of the city's famous Mummers Parade and its racially charged history.

For those not already in the know, it's easy to get lost in the rat-a-tat pieces on what this charter school advocate said, or how that union representative responded.

There is a remaining alt-weekly in the city, Philadelphia Weekly, but it gave up on hard news coverage some time ago, slumping into its current status as a joyless, if flashily colored, events calendar. The daily newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, soldier on, but both have shrunk dramatically, and are under a hiring freeze. (Full disclosure: I wrote periodically for the City Paper, and I contribute a weekly column on cultural happenings for the Inquirer.) In any case, daily coverage does not often allow room for much context. For those not already in the know, it's easy to get lost in the rat-a-tat pieces on what this charter school advocate said, or how that union representative responded.

"I'm not saying the reporting in the Daily News or the Inquirer is bad, but it was seldom as in-depth," Krasner says. "City Paper was certainly edgier and more open to some of the unthinkable truths about the justice system."

Philadelphia can be a confusing place for the uninitiated, with its bizarre little political fiefdoms, checkerboard of tightly knit neighborhoods, and immense systemic inequities wrought by capital flight, residential segregation, and Pennsylvania's deeply flawed education funding system. City Paper served as a guide through this thicket of history, injustice, and pride. It isn't clear what, if anything, will take its place.

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Like all alternative weeklies, signs of City Paper's ill health have been evident for a long time. In its heyday, the paper enjoyed a staff of up to 15, and a page count that regularly ran upwards of 150. The ascendancy of the Internet began robbing the paper of its central financial pillars—concerts, clubs, and sex-work advertisements. That process was only accelerated by the Great Recession. The damage was masked for a year while 2008 campaign ads filled the paper, but after Obama's victory the paper's size immediately shrunk. City Paper never recovered. The final issue published Thursday was only 36 pages long. The staff by that point: seven.

In terms of print numbers, both the city's alt-weeklies have been sinking fast. In 2013, City Paper had a circulation of 69,973 papers, a decline of 3.4 percent over the previous year, while the Weekly had a decline of 13.1 percent (putting them at 71,923). In 2014, City Paper dropped off the list of top 20 largest alternative weeklies.

This lamentable state of affairs is common across bigger markets. A contributing factor may be that Americans seem to take their local newspapers for granted. A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center found that newspapers were typically the most relied upon source for local news. Yet 69 percent of respondents also claimed their ability to keep up with local happenings would remain unchanged if those same publications went away.

"I think the alts were part of the early trend of this renewed appreciation of urbanism."

The top 20 alternative weeklies in the nation have seen their annual print circulation, which is still responsible for the great majority of revenues, drop every year since the Great Recession. In 2013 they fell by six percent, and then another six percent in 2014. But it's not so grim everywhere. In mid-level markets like Denver, Boise, and Charleston, alternative weeklies are often the only publications left with the infrastructure to support in-depth investigative reporting. The latest issue of the Burlington, Vermont, alternative weekly, Seven Days, was 96 pages long (plus a 28-page classified section). The smaller markets have even seen a few new entrants to the industry, like Triad City Beat in Greensboro, Iowa City's Little Village, and the Tuscan Edge.

"I think that mid-sized markets like ours are faring a little better business-wise than some of the really big cities," says Jeffrey Billman, executive editor of Indy Week, the alternative weekly for North Carolina's Research Triangle, and a former editor at the Philly City Paper. "Raleigh and Durham are both well positioned because they are growing fast, increasingly affluent, and people still read things. It's not going to be easy and I don't think there will ever be a return to 2005–06, but I think we have a good sustainable approach here."

But Philadelphia exists in a liminal zone, a metropolis enmeshed in a megalopolis, penned in by the two largest media markets in the nation. Although the city is 1.5 million and growing, the media landscape is anemic. There is nothing to compare to the embarrassment of riches enjoyed by New York, where high-quality local platforms like Gothamist and Capital New York continue to thrive. The only publication that seems to be growing into the void left by the alt-weeklies is Philadelphia magazine, which just launched a new vertical this year called Citified (a kind of local Wonkblog).

Brian Howard, who worked on and off at City Paper for over 15 years, is now the deputy editor at Philadelphia. The print magazine has long targeted a suburban audience, but as Philadelphia's core revitalizes and the population begins to grow for the first time in 60 years, Philadelphia's focus has turned increasingly toward more urban issues. That has resulted in the magazine absorbing many former alt-weekly staff writers, tapping their deep knowledge of the city to produce more thought-provoking work. While City Paper is dead, its legacy lives on.

"I think the alts in general were part of the early trend of this renewed appreciation of urbanism," Howard says. "There was always this idea that what happened in the city was important and what happened to the people who lived here was important, as important as the people who were going back to their homes in the 'burbs."

Those journalists who have spent their lives trying to make Philly a better place would certainly agree.

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