A Q&A with Don Russell, New Editor-in-Chief of Philly Weekly

The man better known as Joe Sixpack talks to us about his new role as editor-in-chief of PW and a slew of other publications.

Don Russell - Joe Sixpack - photo of him holding a beer

Photo via joesixpack.net

Earlier this week, Broad Street Media announced it had been purchased by Donnelly Distribution, an advertising and circular company in New Jersey. Donnelly’s purchased gave them a chain of community newspapers in Philadelphia and the suburbs, including the Northeast Times, the South Philly Review and the Fishtown Star. It also bought Philadelphia Weekly, the remaining alt-weekly in town.

At the time of the announcement, Donnelly Distribution also announced it had installed a new editor-in-chief of all its publications: Don Russell. Best known as beer columnist Joe Sixpack, he recently announced he’d be taking his column away from the Daily News and to the Weekly and its sister publications. Before taking a buyout at the DN in 2005, he was a longtime reporter for the tabloid pub.

Philadelphia magazine chatted with Russell about the future of PW and the other papers. This interview has been lightly edited for style and condensed.

Why did you decide to return to full-time journalism after a decade doing freelancing and beer work?
Well, in the midst of Donnelly’s negotiations, they immediately knew they needed a new editor over here, or needed an editor for all the publications. They reached out to me. I wasn’t even aware of the sale until I got a call.

I was completely happy working out of my home and writing there, drinking beer, sitting around in my shorts and living that kind of life. In addition to my writing, I was also working part-time as a Executive Director of the Garden State Craft Brewer’s Guild at the time, as well. I put together a pretty good variety of work that was beer and/or writing-related. Before that I had been doing Philly Beer Week, but I left the Daily News in 2005 full-time. I took a buyout then. So for the last 10 ½ years or so, that was my career: Writing and doing life as a beer drinker.

Primarily, I was interested in the opportunity to get a chance to run a large news organization. It’s small at the moment. It’s growing. Ultimately, the idea here is to put together a fairly sizable group of newspapers that I’ll be managing and directing. I imagine that plays well to my ego, I guess. But more importantly, it’s a great opportunity for me as a journalist.

I’ve spent all my life in newspapers. I’ve been in newspapers for 40 years. The first time I met my editorial staff, I told them that … I was at the other end of the table [when a new editor came in]. Whenever a new editor came in, I was the other guy looking at a new editor come in and so this is a first-time opportunity for me.

Have you already hit the ground running?
Yeah, we have. One of the things with Rich [Donnelly, who owns Donnelly Distribution] is he moves really, really quickly. I’m astounded at how fast this came together. First of all, the deal itself came together and we’re already moving forward with some of the plans. The first thing we’re focusing on is Philadelphia Weekly. I’m not necessarily sure if it’s the flagship of the organization, but it’s certainly the one that’s best known in the city. My aim is to restore that as an important alternative news voice in Philadelphia. So, that’s what we’re working on first.

There’s gonna be a new look to the paper ultimately. I hope Philadelphia gives us a chance. Hopefully, it’s going to become a larger newspaper. We’ll have more writers, reporters in time. It’s going to take a little bit to get there. It’s not easy to reverse where it is right now. But that is definitely my number one priority, restoring that.

The other big important part of this whole thing is within this network — essentially we’re talking about three community newspapers: The Northeast Times, the Star, and the South Philly Review, as well as all these other smaller papers in the suburbs. Those three city newspapers are going to retain their unique look at their own communities. They’ll be unique publications, but I’ll be able to take talent from all those newspapers and, sort of, trade off stories and photographs. Even though they’re part of one group, they’ve never been treated as one group of newspapers. Almost certainly we’ll be working in a single newsroom, although I like reporters who are out on the street so I imagine I won’t see a whole lot of them. But all my editors, we’ll be working together to make this all happen as a unified product.

What does Donnelly Distribution bring to the newspapers?
Rich has been around for awhile. He started this company in the 1970s. He basically distributes circulars in the city. This is not something that as editor-in-chief I’m involved in, but ultimately the idea is that Donnelly Distribution can handle some of the distribution of the newspapers and also provide some of the advertising content.

Is it strange to be taking your Joe Sixpack column out of the Daily News after so long?
Yeah, it is really weird. I still do love the Daily News. It was a hard decision. My editors were really upset but also very supportive when they knew what was happening. I guess I’m a city guy and, to me, the Daily News is an ultimate city paper.

As a journalist it was a great fit for me, and it was a great fit for Joe Sixpack. I really see a lot of potential for these community papers because they’re much closer to their readership. The reporters and editors at these papers really know what they’re covering. And I kind of think Joe Sixpack’s success has always been he’s been of the people, and he’s been able to relate to people – and I apologize referring to him in the third person – but that’s always been my strength as a columnist is that i sit in bars, I listen to people. Ultimately, I think it’s a great fit for Joe Sixpack.

I liked in your farewell note that you mentioned the other Daily News “superheroes” like Millennium Man, Hydro Cop, the Phantom Rider…
Joe Sixpack grew out of that. He lasted as long any of them. There was that heyday of the Daily News where we weren’t afraid to do something completely goofy and have fun with it.

I see less and less of that in journalism these days because let’s face it, it’s a tough business. It really is. I hope that at these newspapers that are part of Broad Street Media, we’re bringing fun back. I know that’s the one thing I’ve heard from editorial and even advertising here and elsewhere is that the last couple years have been an era of retrenchment here. Lots of people left for whatever reason. Now we’re almost starting anew to rebuild these papers, and there’s a lot of eager optimism here, and it is fun. That’s absolutely one of the reasons I’m excited to do this job. I really do look forward to it being fun.

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