Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath will step down at the end of the summer, telling his staff the publication needs to evolve and the company should hire a replacement who isn’t “a middle-aged white guy.”
His departure — which he described in a memo to employees as partly a personal decision and partly an attempt to bring about change — comes amid the national reckoning over systemic racism that has gripped the nation since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. It followed a newsroom-wide teleconference last week about diversity at the magazine after tweets from former senior editor Fabiola Cineas called out the company’s inaction on improving diversity.
“I’ve given almost every ounce of energy I have to this job for the last decade, and at the moment I’m not sure I have enough in my tank to do the job as well as it needs to be done,” McGrath, 56, wrote in a message to staffers on Monday. “But I also have in my head the column that our colleague Ernest Owens wrote last week, noting that real change in our world will only come about when some power is redistributed.”
On Tuesday, the magazine’s editorial staff called on its parent company, Metrocorp, to enact a plan to hire and retain employees of color, diversify leadership, audit past coverage, and represent black Philadelphians in coverage, among other steps.
The magazine “has not taken sufficient action as a publication to combat systemic racism at large, or racism on our own staff, which has resulted in Black staffers facing microaggressions on a frequent basis,” said their memo, which was signed by a group of 26 staffers representing the entire editorial department and some contributors. The Inquirer obtained a copy of the memo. “We also believe Philly Mag has not represented the diversity of the city for which it is named.”
In response, Metrocorp executives said they would accelerate efforts to prioritize diversity and create an inclusive workplace. CEO Nick Fischer scheduled an employee meeting next week to discuss the company’s plans.
Upon his departure, McGrath will join a growing list of media executives — including Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski and the New York Times’ editorial page editor — who have left their posts since the national protests over Floyd’s death began and prompted reckonings in newsrooms.
McGrath arrived at Philadelphia Magazine in 2003 and was named editor-in-chief in 2010, a position he has held since, save for a nine-month period in 2016. Since 2016, he has also been chief content and strategy officer for Metrocorp, which publishes both Philadelphia Magazine and Boston Magazine.
He was in charge when the magazine stirred outrage with a 2013 cover story titled “Being White in Philly” that was widely denounced as racist, and then again in 2015 when it ran a cover image without any black students on a guide to city schools. Both times, after community criticism, McGrath pledged to diversify the magazine’s staff.
Cineas, the former senior editor, who is black, said Tuesday that after her June 11 tweet thread about the magazine’s lack of diversity, she heard from more than a dozen current or former staffers, interns, or fellows who said they had had similar frustrations but had often been afraid to speak up.
In the virtual meeting Thursday after Cineas’ tweets, McGrath “acknowledged that the magazine has a racist history and has not taken the necessary steps to remedy that fact,” the editorial staffers wrote in their memo.
Cineas, 29, who joined the magazine in 2016, said it could be an uncomfortable environment for black employees, who felt responsible for reading content before publication “to make sure what was written wasn’t racist,” because “the editors who were higher up often did not have the kind of context they needed to be able to write or talk about issues related to the black community."
Of the magazine’s full-time editorial employees, two are black, according to current and former workers. Two other black employees recently left the publication. Cineas said she did not depart because of newsroom diversity issues. The other, Cierra Williams, 24, cited race issues at the magazine as the reason she left last week for a new job. In an interview Tuesday, she said she had complained to human resources about incidents, but she didn’t know whether McGrath had been informed.
McGrath said he had no knowledge of complaints by Williams. He also cited her resignation letter to him — which he shared with The Inquirer — in which Williams wrote that she had “enjoyed the experience of working in the newsroom.”
In his resignation memo, McGrath told staffers he should have done more to improve diversity at the magazine, which has traditionally seemed targeted toward a Main Line audience and whose roughly 99,000 print subscribers have an average household income of $194,000. But he said the editorial team had done more than other departments to increase diversity and said Metrocorp must address it as a company-wide issue, urging the board to commit to “deep and meaningful” change in the company’s racial diversity.
Still, the magazine had made some strides, including a fellowship program with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, said Owens, a contributor to the magazine. He pointed to the magazine’s Black Lives Matter statement on Instagram, posted June 2, in which the company said it stood against racism, acknowledged past failures, and would actively work to amplify black voices.
“I have the utmost respect for Tom in acknowledging that he has to make this change,” said Owens, who said he’d had several conversations with McGrath about his role in recent weeks. “He was a thoughtful man. This was already on his mind.”
McGrath said criticism of the magazine’s record on diversity was fair and that he supported the staffers’ recommendations.
“I’m proud of the steps that we did take and I think the magazine has become more diverse in its staff and its coverage in the last several years,” he said in an interview. “But it’s clear there’s more we could have done and there’s much more that the magazine needs to do.”