In 2005, finances were still pretty flush at the weekly papers, as demonstrated by the story of a man named Brian McManus. He arrived in Philly that year from Houston, where he had worked as a line cook and played guitar in a band called the Fatal Flying Guilloteens. On the side, he wrote music and nightlife stories for the Houston Press, and they were vivid enough to land him the music-editor job at the Philadelphia Weekly. When McManus asked the Weekly’s then-editor-in-chief, Tim Whitaker, what his budget would be to pay for freelance stories, Whitaker waved him off: “Don’t worry about that.” McManus would have all the money he needed.
Soon after McManus moved into his new office, he posed for a picture along with the paper’s 11 other full-time editorial staffers. It was like a “before” photo of a city soon to be devastated by an earthquake. In 2007 and 2008, the housing bubble popped, and the Weekly’s real estate ads, long the paper’s mainstay, leaked away. Staffers would do a double take when they picked up the paper, thinking a section was missing. Anthony Clifton quietly tried to sell the paper through a New York investment bank, but didn’t find any takers. As the company began to lay people off, and others left of their own accord, McManus marked up the picture, putting an X through the face of each departed staffer with black marker. He hung the picture on his door; after a time, McManus’s was the only face of the 12 without an X. (Whitaker was fired in 2008, a year after the Weekly was named “Best Weekly Newspaper in the State” by two separate journalism organizations.)
Since 2008, the Weekly has eliminated a number of positions, and several employees are now doing multiple jobs. The managing editor is also the calendar editor and film editor; the senior editor is also the Web editor. At the time he was interviewed for this story, McManus was serving as both the music editor and the food editor. He was doing the best he could, but the situation was more than a little nuts—like asking the pilot of the plane to also serve drinks to the passengers and demonstrate the safety features of the Boeing 747. And McManus’s formerly unlimited music budget? It was down to $100 a week. He was writing a lot more of the copy himself, which only stretched him thinner. He was paying the CD-review guy in free CDs. In mid-May, McManus gave notice at the paper, and by the time you read this, he’ll have X-ed himself out of that picture. The last man standing is standing no more.
The situation is similar at the City Paper. In a coffee shop around the corner from the City Paper’s Old City office, Everline, a waifish former freelance writer in her late 30s, lays out the scope of her editorial operation. She has a full-time editorial staff of eight, down from around 15 a decade ago. The arts editor is also the copy chief, and the Web editor is also the food editor. There’s a lively news blog, “Naked City,” and a popular food blog, “Meal Ticket.” “So, that’s the paper,” Everline says. “That’s what we’ve got. For the amount of space that we have”—her shoulder dips apologetically—“we’re trying to do the best with it.”
It’s actually remarkable how often Everline’s “tiny-ass news department” (as one of her reporters, Isaiah Thompson, refers to it) is able to break big stories. Last year, the City Paper’s Daniel Denvir was first to report on former schools chief Arlene Ackerman’s taxpayer-funded PR war room. More recently, to illustrate a story about the consequences of state cuts in Medicaid, Denvir found a 63-year-old man living with no teeth because Medicaid wouldn’t pay for his dentures. (This is sort of the platonic ideal of a harrowing alt-weekly-style anecdote: “Eating is a challenge,” Denvir deadpanned.) And Thompson is a natural storyteller who regularly jams C4 into the cracks in the dailies’ reporting.
In 2010, for instance, Thompson happened to see a short item in the Daily News about a man who was tasered and shot dead by police while behaving erratically and holding a meat cleaver. Thompson was interested in how the police deal with the mentally ill, so he went and knocked on a couple of doors in North Philadelphia. And that’s when a larger story began to open up to him—a story that conflicted with the official version of events. Thompson found four eyewitnesses who said that Harry Bennett, the mentally ill man with the cleaver, had been pointing the knife at himself, not at police. Thompson also discovered that when the police entered Bennett’s house to arrest him, they “did not exit the building immediately,” as he wrote in the City Paper:
When they did, they emerged dragging Bennett, according to four separate eyewitness accounts, by the ankles. In chilling, identical detail, neighbors describe watching as Philadelphia police officers pulled Bennett, bloodied but still presumably alive, through the doorway and to the sidewalk, face down—his head bouncing on each concrete step to the bottom, where he was thrown onto a gurney, and taken away.
The tale of Harry Bennett disturbed Isaiah Thompson, but what really bothered him was the larger implication, the meta-story between the lines. “It really kills me when I see a story that isn’t reported well enough,” he says. “And sometimes it’s by me.” The pile of stories he wants to pursue is larger than the pile he can finish. He’s one guy in a tiny-ass news department, and if he hadn’t gone up there to North Philly, pretty much on a whim, no one would have.
This is why the weeklies still matter, and why it would be nice if at least one of them survived for another five or 10 years, although this seems unlikely. If one goes bankrupt, it will certainly clear space for the other, but the owners both seem to have enough money to keep the papers operating on starvation diets indefinitely, as their audience continues to erode. So it’s hard to imagine a survival scenario that doesn’t involve a merger—yet the owners have made it clear they don’t want to merge.
It’s okay, as a journalist, to feel sentimental about journalism—to feel that it’s important, vital. It is, after all, the truth, regardless of what the market thinks. But it’s also impossible to live in America and watch what’s happening to the media without realizing that sentiment is one hell of a powerful drug. The problem with Milton Rock and Anthony Clifton isn’t that they don’t care; it’s that they care just enough to be paralyzed—to lean back and do nothing and watch their papers, their brands, their properties, bleed. What the weeklies need is some sort of creative destruction, owners who are thinking clearly and not taking hits from the nostalgia crack pipe. They need the kind of people who don’t exist in the Philadelphia media anymore: men and women who don’t give a fuck.