OPINION: Did a Left Progressive Bias Kill a Local Philly Newspaper?

Nickels: A new era for a local publication that had never before been overtly political came to an end in September.

In the fall of 2014, two young Temple journalism grads took over a weekly community newspaper in Fishtown and relaunched it as the Spirit of the Riverwards. It was a new era for a local publication that had never been overtly political, at least not in a way that it would become in the coming months. The transformation would take a while —
enough time for locals to feel comfortable with the new ownership and continue reading as if nothing had changed.

The newspaper covered the Riverwards — Kensington, Bridesburg, Northern Liberties, Port Richmond, and Fishtown —
traditionally blue-collar and pro-union but mildly socially conservative areas where Caitlyn Jenner, Black Lives Matter, and political correctness are not taken seriously. While old stereotypes rightfully point to Riverwards residents as once having racist and homophobic tendencies, there was always a generous “live and let live” attitude here that the stereotypes never allowed outsiders to see.

The (new) Spirit, to which I was a freelance contributor, knew its audience for a time. But then, like the abrupt entry of a home invader, variations of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “chauvinists, sexists, misogynists” chant began to creep into its pages. Here, at last, was an indication of the paper’s new editorial compass.

I experienced this firsthand when I wrote a column about my experiences with fortune-tellers in Italy and used the word “gypsies” to describe them. The term was unacceptable, I was informed, because it is offensive to some. This small red flag was annoying, but since I liked the editors I went with the change. It was when it was decided to rebrand the newspaper as “hyperlocal” that my antennae really went up.

Hyperlocal of course, is another way to say “local on steroids.” The paper also planned to expand into other city neighborhoods. These expansion plans to me seemed premature, like a parent sending an accomplished child off to college before she had completed middle school.

The new hyperlocal content came like a series of hurricane hits: features on drum circles, the Fillmore, witchcraft, a mantra meditation lounge, and how local bloggers celebrate comics and geek culture. In-depth pieces about clubs like The Barbary and Johnny Brenda’s, and an astrology page filled with hyperlocal advice (as opposed to predictive), such as what music groups to listen to. There were a lot of fantastic articles, too, so the paper became a curious blend of esoteric millennial junk and good stuff, though not enough of the latter. And while the Spirit made a cursory attempt to be fair to the police, it went overboard in one report on police protests, in which a reporter wrote: “One officer appeared nervous and had extended his baton and held it across his crotch.”

There were features like one criticizing Stu Bykofsky’s defense of the Mummers when it came to free speech, and several long ones on Islam that bordered on lecturing the unenlightened locals on so-called Islamophobia. The Spirit had become, by default, a scolding missionary arm of the DNC.

I observed the editorial transformation of the paper with dismay, and soon noticed that copies were not disappearing so quickly from local outlets. It didn’t help when the paper’s distribution guy suddenly stopped delivering the paper, forcing the editor to do it himself. Apparently there were money problems, but why? Had the publishers gone in over their heads with their expansion plans? Were advertisers picking up on the editorial changes that I was noticing and withdrawing ads?

The Spirit closed its doors forever in September. Asked for comment, co-owner Matthew Albasi said in an email: “Money was, of course, an issue, but not the only factor in closing the paper. New opportunities, family health issues, and a retail and services market in flux all contributed. We covered what we did because we thought it was right and so we could be proud of our work.”

The statement on the paper’s Facebook page announcing the closure advised loyal readers to keep questioning authority. Well, question authority all you want, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get an answer.

Thom Nickels is a journalist and author of 11 books, including Philadelphia Architecture, Spore, and Literary Philadelphia. He was awarded the Philadelphia AIA 2005 Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He’s written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, New Oxford Review, and many other publications.