A New York media operator with deep-pocketed partners sees business opportunity in Philadelphia politics and the state-government dramas of Harrisburg.
Tom Allon, who runs City&StateNY, its daily newsletters, weekly magazine and public-policy events, has hired David Alpher, publisher of the Jewish Exponent, and Greg Salisbury, the Exponent's managing editor, to set up a group covering government and politics from City Hall to the state Capitol.
Why Pennsylvania? "It's good for business" - the political-news business - when budget fights are as partisan, dramatic and lengthy as they are here, Allon says.
Alpher and Salisbury are winding down their work for the Exponent, which last year outsourced its reporting to Maryland-based Mid-Atlantic Media. Salisbury told me he's eager to start up City&StatePA.
Allon, former head of Manhattan Publishing and the West Side Spirit weekly, which his group sold in 2013, is partners with New York media adviser Steve Farbman, who was part of the management group that sold National Law Publishing Co. to investment bankers for $200 million way back in the 1990s.
Investors in City&State also include Michael Steinhardt, the retired hedge-fund manager and Jewish-philanthropy angel. "He wants returns, like any smart investor," Allon tells me. "We've been profitable. We expect to be more profitable. He's always been a fan of good journalism."
Who reads this stuff, between campaigns?
"Their daily First Read newsletter, with the daily schedule, is basically required reading for anyone with a stake in civic life," says David Galarza, communications specialist at the Civil Service Employees Association, a New York public-sector labor union.
The print magazine started in 2005 as a Manhattan monthly. It added an Albany staff (and eventually expanded to weekly publication) after Gov. Andrew Cuomo "told us, 'All the money's up here,' " Allon says.
He's proud of his group's coverage of stories including New York State's Moreland anti-corruption commission (shut down by Cuomo) and an investigation of the left-leading Working Families Party by founding editor Edward-Isaac Dovere, now at Politico, the national political website.
City&StateNY employs about 30, including an affiliate that covers nonprofits and another that focuses on corporate-social responsibility efforts. Allon plans to hire 10 this spring in Pennsylvania, doubling to 20 by mid-2018.
In New York, the group sends out 35,000 FirstRead Insider online newsletters free every morning, then 1,500 afternoon updates (subscriptions cost $99/year.) "We do a lot of original content, but also a lot of aggregation and curation," Allon says.
In Philadelphia, plans call for a "daily news compilation," a monthly magazine promising "creative and in-depth looks at the top stories," and "thoughtful and balanced" coverage of "Pennsylvania's rich and passionate political landscape.
As I reported in December, Allon has been in talks with former Philadelphia City Councilman James Tayoun about purchasing Tayoun's Public Record, a 15-person weekly that focuses on city and state government and politics. But the two publishers have not announced a deal.
"We welcome them. There's so much interest in politics now, we don't mind sharing the wealth," Tayoun told me last week. The Public Record claims 6,000-plus weekly subscribers, plus 50,000 to 70,000 online hits a week.
Allon is pals with Jared Kushner, the New York Observer publisher and New Jersey real estate heir (and a son-in-law of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump), who publishes the PolitickerNJ website.
Now a registered Democrat, Allon ran for mayor of New York as a Liberal Party-affiliated Republican in 2013, following the trail used more successfully by Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. He learned a few things in his abortive campaign, he says: "Fund raising sucks, I'm a pretty good debater, and once you get the bug, it's hard to get rid of it."
Does Philadelphia, does Pennsylvania, need more political coverage?
"First I've heard of this," says consultant Larry Ceisler, an owner of PoliticsPA, which he proprietarily calls "the premier political news website in the commonwealth."
Adds Ceisler: "Obviously, with the cutbacks in traditional media, we have seen the desire for political news grow at PoliticsPA." He calls his own site "the go-to source for elected officials, influential leaders, as well as those with an interest in public affairs," and claims audience and revenues are rising. "It is not surprising that another group would want to try to enter the space. I only wonder what took so long."
There are political stories and patrons to spare, Allon insists: "Reporting brings sunlight, and that helps good government."