Frankford Gazette's Father-Son Team Restores Faith in Print
Northeast Philadelphia native Bob Smiley rode the El to work at the Federal Reserve for more than 30 years. During that time working in operations at the bustling Center City financial center, Smiley admits he probably knew only about 15 people there.
Since retiring, Smiley’s persona has undergone something of a transformation. Having kept to himself for most of his entire career, the 67 year-old now finds people stopping him on the street, to tell him “I read that.” As the face of the Frankford Gazette
, an independent, upstart newspaper looking to fill a news void in this historic and vital section of the Northeast and present a more balanced narrative than is depicted in mainstream media, Smiley and his son Jim have become ambassadors and watchdogs.
“Jimmy used to say we weren’t journalists, because we had no clue what we were doing,” says Bob Smiley. “But at some point we accepted the fact that whether we were good or not, we were journalists, and we accepted that burden.”
That burden doesn’t include a paid staff or budget, but produced the Gazette’s biggest milestone this week, as it printed its largest run of newspapers (1,000) thanks to a new sponsor, Center City-based KidzPartners
, which is making the paper’s entire printing possible. The Frankford CDC
helped make the connection for the Smileys, more than tripling their current circulation. While the rest of the industry is printing less, the Gazette needs to print more if it hopes to connect with as many residents as possible in digitally challenged Frankford.
And that is definitely the hope.
“The driving mission of the Frankford Gazette is to get people to civic meetings. You can’t have a soapbox without people listening to us,” says Jim Smiley, who works as a programmer for the Chapter 13 Standing Trustee in Philadelphia in Center City. Last month he was in San Francisco for the annual Online News Association conference.
“Once we started printing, everybody wanted (a copy). That’s where my father started making a lot of contacts.”
Defending, Then Representing
Bob Smiley started making waves about a decade ago when he was fed up with how Frankford was being portrayed on the evening news and in the Daily News. Smiley grew up in Bridesburg but had family in Frankford and moved there for good around 1970 when he got out of the Air Force. He was “pissed off” that crime stories would lead with the location being in Frankford, and that positive stories buried, omitted or mistook the Frankford location.
That led Smiley to create a Yahoo Group that called out such occurrences and also kept tabs on key Frankford goings-on. After a few years and a modest following, one of those followers had a message for Smiley: “Start blogging. People don’t do these emails anymore.” The message was from Jim Smiley, and father took the advice. After a few months, it was evident that the format change was working and people were reading. That’s when father and son bought the domain name and the Frankford Gazette was born in the summer of 2007.
Bob Smiley set up a Blogger account and continued posting as he had the past several years. While he freely admits that his son is the man behind the Gazette’s technology and innovation, it is dad who was always fiddling with tech toys. From the early 1980s, the Smileys had some form of home computing system, from their Timex Sinclair through the Commodore 64. Bob Smiley even wrote a payroll program for his wife’s business (it had to be stored on a cassette). Jim Smiley had a computer in his room before he had a TV.
“My parents were always huge into leveraging technology,” says Jim Smiley, 34, who moved from Northern Liberties and bought a home with his wife three blocks from his parents. “I think a lot of people are good with technology but don’t really go anywhere with it. Even though it wasn’t dad’s day job, he was always interested, trying to use it for any purpose, whether it was photography or accounting.”
Indeed, the Smileys were putting technology to work in Frankford. While Bob Smiley didn’t do much reporting the first year or so, he eventually started going to civic meetings or any other important Frankford events. He began feeding stories to the Northeast Times. Before long, the Gazette had its own events calendar, a staple of any local, community-focused publication. Then in 2008 came the Home of the Week feature, which proved especially popular among non-Frankforders.
Stepping In and Making a Difference
As the Gazette beefed up its content, local media in and around Frankford continued to pull away from the neighborhood that many consider the Northeast’s heartbeat. In late 2008, the News Gleaner, which once called Frankford home and bore its name in its masthead, ceased operations along with the Northeast Breeze. That left the weekly Northeast Times, which doesn’t deliver in Frankford, and all-online Neastphilly.com as the lone news sources in a big coverage area. Frankford, the Smileys believe, deserves more local news coverage.
Like many community-focused publications, the Gazette is building a stable of content contributors, including Friends of Overington Park, the Frankford Garden Club, Northeast EPIC stakeholders, and the Frankford High School Junior ROTC. There’s also a few unnamed sources, staples of any media operation.
Bringing all these entities, among others, into the same weekly fold on the Gazette’s site and printed pages also serves a higher purpose than just filling space.
“The thing about Frankford is everyone’s out there in their own little pod, and now we’re seeing people come together in a much more organized way,” Bob Smiley says. “I think this point of communication has helped.”
And how. For example, at the Northwood Civic Association meeting a couple Tuesdays ago, someone asked how to find out details about future meetings. The answer? The Gazette has it all online. Those details, as simple as they may seem, have made the paper’s impact felt through a number of important stories.
One was the Gazette’s constant, yearlong coverage of the fallout from a murder at a nuisance bar at 4691 Hawthorne St. in Frankford helped empower the community to shut the place down, which eventually happened
. The Gazette also used its recent innovation – text blasts – to keep residents informed of upcoming meetings when someone bought the old bar in the last year to make sure it stayed shuttered.
“That was a moral victory for the community because those people put up with so much crap from that location for years,” says Bob Smiley.
Both Smileys agree that no matter what happens, it’s important that the Gazette exists. They’d like to add more contributors and interns, and more advertisers would be nice, too. While both have their own specific roles, it is worth noting that both are learning as they go, making their venture even more impressive. Most father-son adventures involve the boy taking after the man, or the dad sharing in the little guy’s newfound passion.
In this case, Bob and Jim Smiley are feeling their way through a totally new experience, one that also happens to be of vital importance to the community they love.
“For us to do the Frankford Gazette, we’re contributing to an institution and we’re on the forefront, and it’s totally by accident,” says Jim Smiley.
Says Bob Smiley: “It was unusual how it happened. He wasn’t looking in this direction and neither was I.
“I’m happy it happened.”
JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.