Philadelphia Weekly, the city’s last alternative weekly, announced a fund-raising campaign to test switching to a conservative ideology by the end of the year.
But the outlet isn’t committing quite yet. The alt-weekly’s management says it will only make this change if Philadelphians donate at least $5,900 to its Kickstarter, a number chairman and publisher Dan McDonough Jr. said would indicate the work would have an audience.
“Being ‘alt’ in 2020 is different than it was years ago,” the campaign reads. “Conservatives are the ones who no longer have a voice — especially here in Philly.”
If this shift happens, current editor-in-chief Kerith Gabriel wrote in a column Wednesday that he will step down from his role. McDonough said he asked Gabriel, a former Daily News sports reporter, to stay on as the “chief antagonist.” In his column, Gabriel called this offer “intriguing" and said, “Pointing out what is amiss in these diatribes isn’t a bad thing"
“I want us to be the kind of place where all voices are heard," McDonough said. "And my relationship with Kerith is strong enough that he can gut-punch us and we can still remain close.”
If Philly Weekly makes this change, McDonough said it will continue to focus on local, Philadelphia issues. It will still publish its calendar section and arts and entertainment pieces and publish wide-ranging points of view in the Voices in Our City section. The main change, McDonough said, is “a shift in the focus of our cover stories.”
The fund-raising campaign’s purpose, McDonough said, is to discover if Philadelphians have an appetite for a conservative alt weekly. "We’re not only looking at the dollar amount, but the number of those contributing. That will tell us a lot about how sustainable this move could be.”
Print media across the country are struggling as advertising revenue plummets, especially during the coronavirus epidemic. McDonough said testing this change is both an editorial and financial decision.
“Financially, we have to stand out from the pack to both readers and advertisers to thrive," McDonough wrote. "Lately, our journalism looks pretty much like everybody else’s journalism. That isn’t ‘alternative’ at all, and we don’t stand out.”
Philadelphia Weekly began as the Welcomat in 1971, before rebranding in 1995. The current Kickstarter described the publication as one “for the people who called Philly home and didn’t have a voice — against city hall, against whomever …” When McDonough bought Philly Weekly in 2018, it was the outlet’s second sale in three years. McDonough’s twitter bio simply says “American Capitalist.”
Alt-weeklies may be seen as traditionally having a liberal ideology, but John Heaston, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia board president, said, “It’s never been a thing for us that you’re progressive or conservative."
“Alternatives," he said, "have been defined by doing the stories that weren’t told, speaking truth to power and going deeper.”
Though it isn’t unusual for outlets to seek fund-raising from readers, Heaston said he has never seen anything like this.
The Kickstarter campaign included certain packages depending on the donation amount, allowing donors to spend up to between $400 and at least $1,250 for top-tier rewards, like the ability to be a columnist, the chance to “take over” Philly Weekly’s Instagram and credit in Philly Weekly’s masthead and the “About Us” page. (It is not common practice for news media to offer people a chance to “buy” a column, a place on the masthead, or a chance to run social media pages.)
This announcement came as a surprise to recent freelancers and upset former staffers who described the change as disappointing.
“When you do journalism you’re supposed to write the truth. You’re not supposed to be like ‘If we raise 5,900 bucks we’ll be conservative,'" said former Philly Weekly writer Dan McQuade, who is now a multimedia editor at Defector. “It makes me worry. If you can be bought that easily, then why should I trust anything that the publication has to say?”
When managing editor Alan Bauer didn’t approve Jason N. Peters' recent pitch, the freelancer said he first thought he had done something wrong. But last Friday, Bauer told him they were “on hold for approving future stories.”
Now Peters, 25, thinks Tuesday’s announcement is why. He said this alt-weekly gave him his “first shot” at journalism and he feels “blinded” by this potential move. He said he wouldn’t write for them again.
Others took to Twitter to criticize the alt-weekly’s announcement. The extensive social media backlash led the outlet to respond after 9 p.m. Tuesday to further explain its “shift in philosophy.”
“We’re not going to wave the flag for @realDonaldTrump, drop our support for LGBTQ, BIPOC, the marginalized or disenfranchised or rename the paper “QAnon Weekly,” the account said in a Twitter thread. “Second, here’s what we will do: Publish stories about Philadelphia issues written by Philadelphia writers, but take a different approach than local mainstream media by focusing on the matters and voices who often are underreported or not reported at all.”
This possible switch by Philly Weekly would not be seen as competition to Albert Eisenberg, a founder of Broad + Liberty, a news media outlet launched a year ago that publishes conservative viewpoints, and one he describes as “sharing stories and voices that are shut out otherwise from other outlets."
He welcomes more media outlets in the city that aim to fill what he sees as a gap in coverage.
“Our goal is to improve civic dialogue and better cover the stories that exist, and this media ecosystem is very fast-moving and very unstable,” said Eisenberg, a Philadelphia-based political consultant and former communications director for the Philadelphia Republican Party, who has contributed to The Inquirer. "So we welcome more people taking a crack at it.
“It’s sad and more than a little desperate,” said Tim Whitaker, a longtime former editor of Philly Weekly, and now executive director of the nonprofit Mighty Writers. “Alt newspapers have been disappearing for years, but I think it should have had a dignified death, not a reinvention into something that doesn’t make any sense, in a city where there is no audience for it.”