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.

City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly, the city's two alternative weekly newspapers.

They were tiny and ugly and brave. They believed in things and got sued.

The Welcomat made the first real mark, in 1971. It was a weekly paper with awkward fonts, owned by three eccentric sisters who loved nothing better than an argument. But the Welcomat didn’t start to land like a bomb on the doorsteps of Center City until a man named Dan Rottenberg took over as editor, in 1981. Rottenberg didn’t have any money to hire reporters, so he let the readers write the paper. They would write letters and unsolicited manuscripts, stuff them into envelopes, and send them to Rottenberg, and Rottenberg, a lean bulldog of a former Wall Street Journal reporter, would edit the letters, type them up and publish them in the Welcomat: letters about race and racism, gay rights, Israel, Frank Rizzo, AIDS.

Rottenberg, who used to work in Chicago, was a combative character who had been profoundly affected in 1968 when the Chicago cops beat the shit out of anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention and the daily newspapers in that city parroted the mayor’s propaganda. Rottenberg had come to believe that the only way to improve the existing media was to embarrass them from the outside. A vibrant alternative media could accomplish that in two ways: one, by critiquing the dailies’ coverage; and two, by covering the stories that the dailies overlooked. The fact that people sued the Welcomat right and left said to Rottenberg that he was doing a good job, that he was having an impact. Rizzo sued. This guy named Earl Stout sued—he was the head of the blue-collar municipal union, and represented by Dick Sprague, the most fearsome libel lawyer in town. Rottenberg fought the suits and won them. One day there was a mass walkout at Overbrook High School over something an Overbrook teacher had written in the Welcomat. (Specifically, the teacher said his students were stupid.) Another day, the gay-rights group ACT UP invaded Rottenberg’s office, incensed about an article on AIDS. There were countless advertiser boycotts. It was all a normal part of life at the Welcomat.

Meanwhile, half a city away, in Germantown, a charismatic Penn graduate student named Bruce Schimmel was putting together a competing paper, the soon-to-be-called City Paper, with friends and colleagues—former­ Vietnam­ War protesters, rock-and-roll freaks, an urban-gardening guru from Oklahoma, a feminist film reviewer. Schimmel had met them while writing articles about contemporary dance for the monthly newspaper of WXPN-FM, the public radio station at Penn. Their newsroom was the 350-square-foot first-floor former drugstore beneath Schimmel’s house—a noisy, joyous place that attracted boarders, Penn professors, young wannabe journalists who didn’t mind writing for free, and thieves. (“I bought a big dog to keep the thieves out,” Schimmel later wrote, “which contracted a disease, and barfed and shitted itself to a horrible death.”) On production days, Schimmel and friends used to cut rows of type with X-Acto knives and wax them, pasting them down by column; to deal with the deadline stress, Schimmel alternated between smoking pot and glugging NyQuil.

His goal with the City Paper was nothing less than to transform the culture of Philadelphia—to feed the counterculture into the mainstream by publishing articles “that we could really use as a solid foundation for action,” Schimmel recalls. He got a huge boost in 1993, when Howard Altman, an investigative journalist with rumpled clothes and a prickly beard, took over as the City Paper’s news editor. The first thing Altman did was send a reporter out to dig through the trash of three people: the head of the Philly Mafia, the head of the city’s recycling program, and Mayor Ed Rendell. The reporter came back with three piles of trash. Altman then recruited an archaeologist to examine the piles without knowing whose trash was whose. It turned out there was stuff in the recycling guy’s trash that should have been recycled. The Mafia don’s trash was full of fancy Italian food. Rendell’s was full of Slim-Fast cans.

Altman knew it sounded cheesy, but he thought sometimes about how he was working in the same city where, 200 years before, another weekly newspaper editor, Benjamin Franklin, had helped to invent the country. He took that legacy seriously. Soon enough, Altman was getting sued, too, thanks to his investigations of then-state senator Vince Fumo, at the time the most powerful man in Pennsylvania. (He’s now in federal prison for defrauding taxpayers and others of more than $2 million.) Altman’s reporters Scott Farmelant and Noel Weyrich became two of the first in the city to peel back the layers of the corrupt Fumo empire. One morning, an intimidating man showed up at Altman’s door, scaring his wife and warning him to stop printing the stories. Fumo also sent countless threatening letters through his lawyer, Dick Sprague, and eventually sued for libel. But the City Paper didn’t back down. Altman remembers one deposition where Sprague asked him to explain why he used the word “freakin’” in one of his anti-Fumo columns.

“What does ‘freakin’’ mean?” Sprague asked. “Does that mean ‘fucking’?”

“No,” Altman said, “it’s the City Paper. If I wanted to use ‘fucking,’ I’d use ‘fucking.’ This is freakin’, as in, this lawsuit is freakin’ ridiculous.”

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.

Their names are Anthony Clifton and Milton L. Rock. Clifton is in his mid-60s. Rock is in his 90s. They either declined to comment for this story (Clifton) or didn’t return multiple phone calls (Rock and his son, Robert Rock).

Clifton: owner, Review Publishing, corporate parent of the Philadelphia Weekly and the South Philly Review. British by birth. Sharp dresser, crisp speaker. Married to Catherine Roberts, the firstborn daughter of one of the richest and most powerful men in the city—Ralph J. Roberts, the founding CEO of Comcast. Author, under the pseudonym “Archer Swift,” of a work of fiction, BIGPOX, about fundamentalist terrorists who penetrate the White House and release a killer virus that spreads throughout the country. “I thought he was James Bond” was the first impression of one of his employees.

Rock: owner, City Paper. Chairman, MLR Holdings LLC, which owns Directors & Boards and Family Business magazines, as well as other properties unknown. Raised in North Philly. Air Force veteran. PhD in psychology. Male-pattern bald. Benefactor, the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Curtis Institute of Music. Father of Robert Rock, president of MLR Holdings, who once criticized “the inequitable distribution of wealth” in America in a Directors & Boards column.

It’s hard to know what either of these guys is really thinking about the future of the media and how their weeklies fit into it. They’re not visible public advocates for their publications. They’re not out at lunches at the Palm. Rupert Murdoch is on Twitter; they aren’t. Clifton’s office is on a different floor from the rest of the Weekly staff; people there run into him from time to time in the elevator, share some awkward small talk, note with amusement his charming British accent, and then he’s gone. Rock’s office isn’t even in the same building as the City Paper. Asked how the City Paper fits in with the other properties in the Rock portfolio, City Paper publisher Nancy Stuski laughs and says, “It doesn’t.” Stuski says what everyone else says about the Rocks, which is also what everyone says about Clifton: They are “hands-off” owners. They trust their staff to do the job.

This is nice, of course, in the sense that Milton Rock isn’t one of those owners who stick their thumbs in journalists’ stories. But it’s also kind of frustrating, because, well, what gives? What’s his strategy? Why does he own the City Paper, anyway? He and his son bought it from Bruce Schimmel in 1996, for $4 million, back when the Rocks also owned a chain of suburban newspapers; annexing the City Paper created a natural synergy. But when the Rocks later sold the suburban papers to the Journal Register Company, the Journal Register was “informed that the [City Paper] was not for sale,” according to a 2001 City Paper story.

So why has Milton Rock kept the paper in his portfolio ever since? Is it just a number on the balance sheet of a family of consummate businessmen? (The Rocks are businessmen who advise other businessmen on how to be better businessmen. In 1972, when Bob Rock was heading off to Harvard Business School, Milton wrote him a letter, later published in Family Business magazine: “The image of a businessman in our society is not held high by many people, and yet he has been through all history and will be in the future the most important agent in our society.”) “We are often told how much our owners feel pride in having a paper that’s been here for 30 years,” says Theresa Everline, the City Paper’s editor in chief. If this is it, then—pride in ownership of an iconic Philadelphia brand—there’s little incentive for Milton Rock to sell the paper. He’s wealthy enough to keep it in a glass cupboard and look at it admiringly from time to time. This is a recipe for stasis.

The question of why is more answerable for Anthony Clifton. Here’s one version of the story—Clifton’s own. He told it to the Inquirer in 2005, in a rare interview timed to the publication of BIGPOX. According to Clifton, “I was one of God knows how many Englishmen who was raised in a British boarding school for eight years, went to college, and was basically reared like an animal in a laboratory to be the all-time organization man.” But then he came to Philly and started working for Comcast, where he learned how to think like an American-style entrepreneur. Inspired by “a lot of gray-haired men who were very young in thought,” Clifton started casting around for a business to buy. In 1987 he took out a bank loan and bought the Weekly’s forerunner, the Welcomat, along with the South Philly Review.

Here’s another version of the story: Clifton was given the papers as a family hand-me-down, and the real mover and shaker behind the deal wasn’t Clifton but his father-in-law, Ralph Roberts. According to Dan Rottenberg, part-time editor of the paper at the time, Susan Seiderman—one of the three sisters—“thought that Ralph Roberts was buying the papers.” Rottenberg himself couldn’t figure it out. What would a big-time cable TV titan want with these tiny papers?

But as soon as Roberts installed Clifton as CEO of the newspapers, something dawned on Rottenberg. It had been an open secret for some time that Roberts was grooming his son, Brian, to take over as Comcast’s next CEO. But to do that, he’d have to pass over Clifton. Ralph’s solution (or so it seemed to Rottenberg) was ingenious: By setting Clifton up in the newspaper industry, he found a gracious way to remove his son-in-law from Comcast, thus clearing the way for his son.

Either way, Clifton set out to leave his mark on the Welcomat. He thought the paper, with its dated design and anarchic far-left vibe, was stuck in the past—before he owned it, he used to throw it in the trash when it arrived on his doorstep—and in 1992, he brought in a brusque, energetic new publisher who agreed with him. Michael Cohen had worked on the business side of alt weeklies in Baltimore and New York City; he knew what cutting-edge papers were doing and how they were doing it, and he got to work transforming the Welcomat into something that looked more like other weekly papers around the country. He hired reporters to write about film and music and investigate the powerful. He bought used newspaper boxes in bulk from a junk lot in New York, painted them yellow, slapped on stickers that said PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY—the paper’s new name—and then went out into the city carrying yards of metal chains in the back of a truck, personally tying hundreds of boxes to hundreds of traffic lights.

In the span of a few years, circulation skyrocketed, and page counts tripled. The company was growing, and Clifton occasionally spoke to other papers about possible acquisitions. At some point in the early ’90s, when Bruce Schimmel still owned the City Paper, Clifton asked him out for coffee—they had never really talked before—and the two sat on a park bench in Rittenhouse Square. “We just kind of chatted,” Schimmel recalls. “But there was never at any point any talk of merging. I certainly wasn’t interested in selling my paper to him. I like competition.”

All along, although each paper officially pretended that the other one didn’t exist, the weeklies had nurtured a spirited rivalry; one week, when Rottenberg was still editing the Welcomat, he wrote an editorial mocking the City Paper staffers as “yuppie storm troopers” (which was strange, because of the two papers, it was the City Paper that boasted the younger, less yuppified readership). But despite the divergent histories and self-images of the two papers, they were evolving into very similar sorts of beasts, which is why some reporters and editors started to wonder if the two papers should merge.

The logic was the same then as it is today. A combined paper would have obvious advantages in the marketplace: more pages, a larger staff, a higher circulation, and a better shot at competing with other media in Philly for advertisers and news scoops. And there’s nothing about the structure of the two Philadelphia papers that would seem to make them incompatible. The staffs are very similar, comprised of the same smart young urbanites; there’s been plenty of staff-swapping. As for the papers themselves, after decades of co-evolution, they’re so similar in look and feel as to be indistinguishable. Readers tend to seek out their favorite ­writers—strong individual voices, like popular Weekly columnist Tara Murtha—and forget where that voice is coming from; employees at the Weekly say they’re forever being complimented on that great story in the City Paper, and vice versa. Theresa Everline, the editor-in-chief of the City Paper, says readers sometimes have a hard time telling the difference unless they know which syndicated sex-advice column is in which paper: “It’s, ‘Are you the one with Savage Love or I Love You I Hate You?”

In the mid-2000’s, the Weekly’s Anthony Clifton tried to engage the City Paper in merger talks, meeting with Paul Curci, then the City Paper’s publisher. Curci, an exquisitely poised man with a degree in painting from the Tyler School of Art, was one of those eager young people who had knocked on the door of Bruce Schimmel’s Mount Airy home back in the ’80s, wondering if they could lend a hand. He’d been with the paper ever since. According to Curci, the idea of a merger “was a nonstarter.” When asked why, Curci purses his lips, stifling a laugh. “There was some disagreement,” he says, “over which was the stronger brand.”

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.

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