The Death (and Life) of the Philadelphia Weekly and Philadelphia City Paper

As the internet continues to strangle print, City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly are in a fight to the death to be the city’s go-to alternative weekly—and it just might kill them both.

They burned beautifully for a long time, the City Paper and the Welcomat, later renamed the Philadelphia Weekly. Through the ’90s and most of the 2000s, they both did important, groundbreaking work and cultivated a series of talented writers who hadn’t come to journalism via the usual path. Line cooks and guitarists, labor organizers, wayward lit majors, cross-country bicyclists … they were people who happened to have an eye for a story and an ability to write muscular sentences, but who would have been instantly tossed by security if they’d tried to enter 400 North Broad Street, the white-stone headquarters of the Inquirer and Daily News. And although this wasn’t necessarily in the original plan, the weekly papers also made money. Actually, a lot of money. By speaking truth to power with a swagger and an in-your-faceness that the mainstream press couldn’t match, they attracted a hip young audience that they were able to sell to advertisers—local businesses that couldn’t reach young people any other way. An “alt-weekly” newspaper created its own financial ecosystem; “alt” copy lured “alt” ads. Railing against the establishment wasn’t just a fun thing to do; it was an effective business model. Bruce Schimmel had launched the City Paper with $33,000 left to him by his grandfather, never expecting to make a dime. He ended up a multimillionaire.

That’s all over now. The Internet has destroyed the model. Classifieds and sex ads, long the weeklies’ bread and butter, are much more easily accessed on the Web, and the weeklies haven’t kept pace with the online economy. They still exist as print products, but like the city’s two daily newspapers, which have traversed much the same arc in the past five years—panic, layoffs, Do More With Less—they’re pale copies of their former­ selves. As recently as six or seven years ago, issues of both papers were regularly between 100 and 120 pages thick; the March 22nd issue of the City Paper weighed in at a mere 64 pages, including six pages of sex ads. The same week’s issue of the Weekly was even smaller: 56 pages, including six pages of sheriff’s sale listings. In some ways, the weeklies are actually worse off than the dailies, because old people still read print newspapers, but young people don’t read newspapers of any kind anymore. As the boyfriend of a young Weekly intern recently told an editor there, holding up his iPhone, “If I can’t read it on this, I don’t fuckin’ read it.”

It seems pretty obvious that there won’t be two print weeklies in Philadelphia for much longer. For one to survive, the other has to die—or agree to merge. Either way, something drastic has to happen. But right now, there’s an eerie sort of stalemate. The two papers are limping along, losing pages and advertisers and staffers, shadowboxing with each other for a prize that may not even exist anymore.­ It’s sad, because the weeklies used to mean something to this city and to the outsized personalities who dominated them. Today, they’re owned by two secretive corporate suits, rich men who are as establishment as you can get—the sort of people the alt-weeklies made their reputations taking down.

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  • Same could be said for Jimmy John’s and Subway. If they joined forces? Look out world.

  • rwblake

    Well, city paper also gained a lot of money from advertisement for prostitutes (escorts). I say good riddance to it, it is a vile thing to make money from sex trafficking.

  • Good article in PhillyMag (did I just say that?) that captures some of the fun of starting the City Paper. Reminds me of what PhillyCAM is today

  • As I sit here in my 18th century Weimar,Germany villa culling what I wrote for Bruce Schimmel and Dan Rottenberg in the ’80s and ’90s, your pocket history of Philly alternative journalism is a dazzle!Thirty years (1952-82)of Academe had begun to bore me to death:the same old, same old ,semester after semester when Gil Spencer and DAVID boldt let me Op Ed for the major papers. New, every day! Pfui on a tenured professor ship! When my mother died in 1982 I send the Beaver dean my resignation on Walt Whitman’s Birthday and headed for San Francisco to complete a romance that had started when I avoided the Hypercolonial hysteria by accepting a visting professorship in 75-76 in Santa Rosa. I had just started a gig for Bruce Schimmel on local art as EYE 95, which I replicated for the San Francisco Independent as EYE 5, one interstate being as good as another!I have never rued a minute of my new and precarious professorless profession as a roving,raving reporter. When I returned in the mid 80’s to Philly, I started “Hazard at Large” at the Welcomat until I disappeared into Europe in the 90s where I have elated ever since. I especially thank Dan Rottenberg for defending my freedom when I was falsely accused of homophobia and anti-Semitism, disgracefully libelous charges. as look back, alternate journalism beats Phdeification hands down! Patrick D. Hazard,Sefengasse 10, Weimar 99423. (Goethe lived at Seifengasse 1 200 years ago!

  • Novoman

    Excellent read.A great Philly insight.

  • judethom

    The article about AIDS was the Thom Nickels Welcomat column, Different Strokes.

    It wouldn’t have taken too much research to “discover that.”

  • Mike McGettigan

    One fairly major omission here: “Meanwhile, half a city away, in Germantown, a charismatic Penn graduate student named Bruce Schimmel was putting together a competing paper…” Any history of the Philadelphia City Paper must include its founding editor, who gave it a heart–Chris Hill. His accomplishments and ability to gather writers to work on a broken shoestring were extraordinary. He also hired me to be a columnist–based on one letter to the editor–but nobody’s perfect!