A case for the City Paper archives
The Philly media landscape will lose one its family members this week, and we might not have much to remember it by in the days that follow.
If you haven’t heard by now, City Paper will cease its 34-year print run on Thursday, October 8, following a recent buyout by Broad Street Media LLC.
The announcement hit some in the windpipe last week — not least of all the staff members, who heard the news through the grapevine. The editorial team immediately published their own eulogy, which has since been removed from City Paper’s website without comment. Salt in the wounds, staffers learned that the paper’s 34-years of archived reportage may disappear from the internet just as its orange honor boxes will be pulled from the streets.
Funeral preparations are underway.
In lieu of flowers and donations, former City Paper journalists who now work for larger outlets penned elegies and retrospectives of their teeth-cutting years at the alt-weekly. Meanwhile, there’s some drama surrounding the will. What happens to the decades of hard work?
Temple University Libraries is about to close a deal with the paper’s founder, Bruce Schimmel, to obtain print and digital materials from 1981 to 1996. Margery Sly, director of Temple libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, says that Temple is “...still clarifying rights ownership for those early years, but there are no concerns about transfer of the physical files themselves.”
That leaves Broad Street Media with the "intellectual rights" of the remaining years. Temple asked BSL publisher Perry Corsetti, but he reportedly declined. He told the Inquirer last week that the materials are “valuable” and he would want to keep them.
Others have already expounded on City Paper’s well-known investigations of the civil forfeiture system, state-funded anti-abortion organizations, and the public education crisis. There’s obvious merit in its coverage of police brutality and rampant deed theft. There’s a lot to commend about a local news outlet that would support one of its reporters to go undercover as an Uber driver.
There are also the less glamorous coves in the City Paper archives that are of equal public value.
For the last year, I have been trying to report on the politics of Philadelphia’s Latino community. There’s a long history and I have a learning curve. Not even AL DÍA’s 22-year archive, most of which is offline and Spanish-only, can tell it in one fell swoop. City Paper’s archives have filled in some crucial gaps. In the mid-90s, Howald Altman broke the story of Medicaid fraud in a Latino mental health clinic in the barrio. The story lead to a state investigation that then put several people behind bars. One could argue that it also brought about greater scrutiny of the problematic mental health system that disproportionately affects Latino neighborhoods in North Philadelphia. And to its credit, City Paper has tried to keep abreast of this beat and the parties involved.
It will be a sad day when these hyperlinks no longer work. But even sadder is that, as of Thursday, Philadelphia will have one less paper that concerns itself with the neighborhoods of color that suffer most from crime, poverty and corruption. And whether it’s boxing in the Badlands or murder in Strawberry Mansion or urban farming in Kensington, these communities deserve the ink poured out for them.
Lillian Swanson, City Paper’s current editor-in-chief, says the paper was traditionally geared toward the 25-to-35 millennial audience. But two years ago when Swanson took the helm, she was surprised to meet avid readers in their 50s and 60s. So, in her own mind at least, she changed the target audience: “It’s for people who are young in spirit, who love the city for all its good and all its bad.”
In the last few years, Swanson says she has tried to continue the paper’s history of reporting the un- and under-reported.
“This paper has a long history of being the first paper to write about people and give them their first ink,” she told AL DÍA in a phone interview Friday. “As far as minority communities, those voices were always important.”
More recently, Josh Kruger covered a protest about the Black Lives Matter movement in Philly. Other media outlets came for some quick photos and quotes, but Kruger stuck around long enough to catch the rift between the different activists group. Swanson said the article was praised for getting at “the meat” of what was going on.
There are little things, too. City Paper gave in-depth coverage to Puentes de Salud, a medical clinic for undocumented immigrants that opened on South Street in April. Swanson takes pride in having been one of the few outlets to tell the story. Remembering stories like this — and wondering what will happen to them in the days to come — is part of what makes City Paper’s goodbye difficult for so many.
“What’s gone on here the last couple of days has been very hard on all of us,” Swanson said. “But I’ve been a journalist for forty years, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I still believe in it.”
As of Monday morning, Temple Library has not heard back from Broad Street Media in response to the library’s expression of interest in City Paper’s paper and digital archives.
“Honestly, I think that story is still evolving,” Swanson said Friday. “Those archives are incredibly important. But I don’t think the game is over yet, if it is a game.”