Black & White and Dead All Over? The “Darth Vader of Journalism” Strikes Back

In the fall of 2007, I was asked to interview Norman Mailer at a Free Library book event. At the cocktail reception beforehand, I found myself huddled in conversation with the legendary author. He was, by now, a kindly old man, unsteady on his feet. I peppered Mailer with questions: We talked about the march on the Pentagon in 1967 that was the setting of his greatest book, Armies of The Night, a stinging critique of establishment journalism. He was charming and self-deprecating. There was little of that rebellious, pugnacious spirit that had come to be his calling card. Until, that is, we segued to the subject of newspapers, which were increasingly imperiled. In the Sixties, Mailer had founded the Village Voice because something new was desperately needed. He wanted to know: Where was today’s journalistic disruption?

“They get what they deserve,” he spat out. “When was the last time you read something in a newspaper — even in the vaunted New York Times — that made you think? America is allergic to ideas, and that’s not unrelated to the principal failing of journalism: It’s as if they don’t see it as their mission to publish anything interesting or stimulating or challenging. So I say, let them go. Good riddance.”

Read more »

Going Geek: The Start-Ups

MyYearBook Begun by siblings Catherine and Dave Cook in 2005, when they were 15 and 16 (they’re now 20 and 21), the New Hope company has raised $16.9 million from First Round Capital and Norwest Venture Partners.

Lifepages does actual yearbooks—online versions of official college and high-school editions. It’s close to signing major schools.   

Invite Media is a marketplace for online display ads, working with seed capital from First Round and Genacast.

ClickEquations, which helps companies market through search engines, was founded by a former fund manager for Safeguard-affiliated Internet Capital Group.

The guys from OpenHatch, a site where programmers show off their work, moved from Atlanta to headquarters at 47th and Baltimore in West Philly for the food trucks, claims co-founder Asheesh Laroia, 24.   

PackLate, a website that matches owners of resort rental properties with vacation travelers, started this year with a bang, nabbing $685,000 in funding from a trio of local firms.   

Digital mapping company Azavea has done just fine for 10 years without a dime of outside funding, says CEO Robert Cheetham, 41. Profitable, with $2.2 million in revenues and a staff of 28 at 12th and Callowhill (seriously!), the firm produces terrific websites for locating things on maps, including local projects for and the Committee of Seventy.   

PlaySay, based here but launched with angel funding from Japan, creates iPod-based foreign-language-learning apps. Founder Ryan Meinzer, 26, says he uses only native speakers to prepare the lessons—he gets foreign exchange students to intern for free.   

 Notehall, born in 2008, is an online swapping post for college class notes. (Is that legal?) The company uprooted from Tucson to Manayunk after participating in the DreamIt program. Its latest funds are from local entrepreneur-turned-angel Gabriel Weinberg, 30.   

Founded by marketer Yasmine Mustafa, 28, 123LinkIt makes it easy to link advertising to words in your blog, so you can make some $ as your readers click.   

Music genius Greg Wilder, 37, went to IndyHall with software he’d concocted to analyze recorded music. The code jockeys there optimized the software, making it a viable product. Then Wilder hooked up with IndyHall member David Frigeri, 40, an experienced business exec. Now Orpheus Media Research has a magical product and is targeting the commercial music industry.

Going Geek: The Scenesters

Independents Hall

Mike Worth Philadelphia has a video-game industry? Yeah, a bit of one, especially now that Worth, 36, has helped organize and promote it through the year-old VGI Philly alliance. “Philadelphia’s got everything it needs to be a massive video-game hub—it just needs to have all the pieces connect,” says Worth, an Emmy-winning composer whose Space Whale Studios in Bryn Mawr is developing an action-puzzle game, Return All Robots!, for the Xbox. Worth says the city has an awesome breeder system for game developers: Drexel’s video-game design program is now ranked third in the country, and Penn has a unique graduate program in game-making. The region also has a quiet core of successful companies, like Bristol-based AMI Entertainment, a huge maker of those touch-screen poker games you see in dive bars worldwide.

Blake Jennelle It’s almost impossible to attend a technology or entrepreneurship event in the city without seeing Jennelle, 27, a Bucks County native and Harvard grad who returned to Philadelphia in 2005 wondering if he was the only person crazy enough to start a dot-com here. With a few local entrepreneurs, he organized a happy-hour meet-up and optimistically named it Philly Start-Up Leaders. Last year, PSL held 30 events and claimed 500 members, who share advice and even make deals. “More than anything else, start-up entrepreneurs need each other,” says Jennelle, who functions as a cheerleader and conduit. When it looked as if Fast Company magazine was going to ignore Philly in its series on where to start a company, “We made a lot of noise,” he says, and got the city in.

Roz Duffy Bucks County native Duffy, 33, who works at a Web design firm in Old City by day, has been a spark behind some of the hippest tech and cultural events in the city: BarCamp Philly, begun in November 2008, is an ad hoc “unconference” where attendees are the ones who give presentations; Refresh Philly is a roving monthly lecture series on mostly tech-related topics. Now Duffy is working to bring to town a local version of the acclaimed international TED Conference, at which brilliant speakers give talks on technology, science, art and politics. TEDxPhilly is planned for this fall. “Over three years, so much has happened,” Duffy says. “I’ve come in contact with so many people who are fired up.”

Geoff DiMasi & Alex Hillman DiMasi, 39, and Hillman, 26, deserve legitimate credit for the geekening of Philly. In 2007, they opened Independents Hall, a shared space in Old City where programmers, designers and other freelancers work and collaborate. IndyHall members get desk space and a place to hang, but more importantly, they interact. Most tech projects—say, creating an app to sell for the iPad—aren’t one-man jobs, and IndyHall’s ace code-writers, designers and other digital pros have hooked up to create profitable one-off projects as well as start-up companies like Orpheus Media Research. Hillman says the talent in the room means “for any project, I could dynamically form a sort of super-team.” Look out, X-Men.

Going Geek: The Funders

First Round Capital
The Conshohocken seed-capital firm, founded in 2004 by Josh Kopelman, 39, and Howard Morgan, 64 (in part with Kopelman’s proceeds from selling to eBay for north of $300 million), last year spread its funding over 25 deals, handing $500,000 or so each to young companies that haven’t raised that kind of cash before. It’s an approach that makes sense in today’s economy-class economy, and it works for the Philadelphia market, where we tend to have bootstrap start-ups, not spin-offs by rich Intel or Microsoft expats. Partner Chris Fralic, 47, thinks all the tech buzz around here is potentially good for the firm’s business. “It’s a better support system,” he says. “It helps aspiring entrepreneurs see how it’s done and see they’re not alone.”

SeventySix Capital
The Safeguard Scientifics campus in Wayne during the dot-com era was a tightly knit community of funds and start-ups that fed off one another. Now former Safeguard execs are dispersed. Rob McCord, 51, became Pennsylvania Treasurer. Garrett Melby, 45, formed Good Company Ventures. Wayne Kimmel’s Eastern Technology Fund was based on Safeguard’s campus. Now it’s independent and called SeventySix Capital. “Relationships are still critical,” Kimmel, 40, says. “But because of new social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter, you’re able to develop more relationships.” With $50 million under management, -SeventySix invests $2 million or less in emerging companies. It’s backing social-gaming developer Ryzing and is part of the troika of local firms funding travel start-up PackLate.

Genacast Ventures & Comcast Interactive Capital
After helping to build and sell two online advertising start-ups (ad server Tacoda went to AOL for a reported $275 million in 2007), Dresher resident Gil Beyda, 47, decided to take his winnings and dabble. He formed Genacast in partnership with Comcast Interactive Capital. Both are based in the Comcast building, but while CIC typically plunks down $2 million to $20 million per deal, mostly on companies with strategic benefit to Comcast, Genacast targets four or five seed-stage deals a year in the $250,000-to-$750,000 range. “Where the later-stage fund may go to conferences, we go to meet-ups,” Beyda says. “They go to the Capital Grille, we go to a diner.”

DreamIt Ventures
DreamIt sounds like a make-a-wish fantasy camp for entrepreneurs, and in a way, it is. The angel investors behind the firm (started in 2008 by Mike Levinson, 49, David Bookspan, 52, and Steve Welch, 33, who’d made money with their own start-ups) assemble an annual fund of about $500,000, mixing their money with input from organizations like Ben Franklin Technology Partners. Each year, DreamIt invites 10 to 15 fledglings to participate in a summer-long boot camp, with each getting $15,000 to $25,000, shared space in the University City Science Center, and three months of advice from experienced mentors. Graduates of the program don’t all survive, but most are ready to explain themselves to bigger-ticket investors. “We don’t think the returns from this are going to take us to another level of personal wealth,” Levinson says. “We’re trying to help drive the region as a viable tech center.”

Good Company Ventures
Based at the Navy Yard and spearheaded by former Safeguard Scientifics executive Garrett Melby, Good Company uses a similar summer-camp model, focused on companies with a social mission in addition to a profit motive.

Features: Who Really Runs This Town?: Burying Lincoln Steffens

In the spring of 1903, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens checked into the St. James Hotel, located at 13th and Walnut streets. At the time, Steffens was writing a series of pieces for McClure’s magazine detailing big-city graft and political corruption throughout the United States. He had just come from Pittsburgh; what he found in this city, however, would make his prior sojourns pale in comparison. His piece about Philadelphia would ultimately be published in July, and its title instantly caused a stir, here and throughout the nation. It’s a headline that has been cited time and again in the past year and a half as the federal corruption probe of City Hall unfolded. In “Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented,” which would run in his 1904 collection of articles The Shame of the Cities, Steffens wrote: “Philadelphia is proud. Good people there defend corruption and boast of their machine.”

It’s a century later, and Steffens is long dead and buried. But with every indictment of a public official, with every story of low-level graft or voting shenanigans or just plain public chutzpah, Steffens’s “corrupt and contented” indictment gets trotted out. When you really dig into his story of Philadelphia a century ago, Steffens’s analysis still holds. If he arrived on the scene today, he’d nod: Not much has changed.   

As Steffens would recount in his 1931 autobiography, the St. James’s proprietor, J.C. Reynolds, introduced him to the culture of Philadelphia civic life. Reynolds told him — almost boastingly — of how apparatchiks of the local Republican machine had used thugs and gangsters to offset legitimate votes in the last election; not only were sham votes cast for candidates handpicked by shadowy political bosses, but the “ring” (or machine) pols registered these “gangster” voters under such names as Ben Franklin and George Washington — just for the ironic kick. Steffens detected something different in this city, something about the nonchalant way such chicanery was viewed. “The novelty was the attitude of this hotel man and of other good citizens of Philadelphia toward their notorious, insulting, cynical political and business crooks,” he wrote. “He and his kind did nothing about it. ‘There is nothing to be done,’ the hotel man said. ‘We have tried reforms over and over again; we have striven to beat this game; and we never got anywhere.’ The reformers I saw took much the same view.”

Our would-be reformers and earnest pundits, such as they are, now laudably talk of ethics legislation amid calls for heightened civic leadership. That is as it should be. But this is also true: No reform or new era of leadership can take place in Philadelphia without a change in the culture of our public life, without a conscious shift in attitude. Ironically, the way we change the culture is to do the one thing no reformer or pundit wants to do: Instead of wallowing in a 100-year-old indictment, we need to finally bury, once and for all, Lincoln Steffens.