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.

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.”