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On the Ground: From West Philly to the Northeast to South Philly, local newspapers endure and evolve

Jim Smiley, left, and Bob Smiley of the Frankford Gazette

The Parkside Journal

Michael Burch and Jasmine Bullock of the Parkside Journal

West Philly Local is online only

Villevillakula in Chestnut Hill

The print media landscape in Philadelphia looks pretty grim. The two daily newspapers are struggling, their page counts and workforces dwindling. The Philadelphia City Paper was abruptly shut down this fall, while Philadelphia Weekly is a glossily rendered shadow of an alternative weekly. A handful of startup news websites and niche publications are trying to fill the gap in local coverage, but many are still fighting to define themselves.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia's neighborhoods have historically been served by a vast constellation of hyper local newspapers. These modest pubs kept residents up to date on the news relevant to their blocks and communities. At one point, the Northeast had at least three weekly papers. The Northwestern neighborhoods of Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill all boasted their own little publications, as did other middle class neighborhoods such as Olney and West Oak Lane. 

Many of these papers have suffered the same fate as their daily and alt weekly counterparts. (And their potential web-based rivals such as Patch.com and Everyblock have stumbled.) The Northeast News Gleaner went out of business after the Great Recession, as did the Mt. Airy Times and the Germantown Courier

But there is hope. Some local institutions are hanging on, notably the Spirit of the Riverwards, the Chestnut Hill Local, and the papers owned by Broad Street Media (which include the Northeast Times and the South Philly Review). Newer digital entrants like Passyunk Post and the West Philly Local have found an audience

Other outlets -- including the Parkside Journal and the Frankford Gazette -- have found new ways to produce a print edition, ensuring that older and lower income residents can still access it. Many Philadelphians still don't have the Internet at home -- about 36 percent according to a March analysis from the Philadelphia Inquirer. (The paper found that high poverty rates are directly linked to lower access to broadband.)

hyperlocal model has its challenges: the ad revenue available online is just as skimpy for the Chestnut Hill Local as it is for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Fortunately these outlets do have one advantage: People still thirst for neighborhood news. 

The Legacy Publication

The Chestnut Hill Local was established in 1957 as the newspaper wing of the Chestnut Hill Community Association. In the beginning it was run by a mostly-female volunteer staff. That gender trend continued after staff writers were hired, because, as David Contosta writes in his history of Chestnut Hill, "The pay was so low that only married women whose husbands made good salaries could afford to work on the Local." 

Over the years, the topics covered by the paper have ranged from editorials about national or international issues to articles covering the anxieties of neighborhood residents all too aware of the ritzy neighborhood's liminal position. In the 1980s, the Local became the scene of heated battles over secession from the city -- a sizeable minority of association members wanted to join Montgomery County. Today articles run the gamut from passionate op-eds to coverage of youth sports to the sales of especially notable properties, like the famed Vanna Venturi house that was recently put on the market. 

The Local's circulation peaked at around 10,000 in the late 1990s -- that's one paper for every man, woman and child in the neighborhood. Today, the circulation is between 6,000 and 7,000, while the page count ranges from 52 to 40. The website gets about 25,000 unique hits per month. The staff is twelve strong, only a slight downgrade from its late '90s heyday. The number of editorial staffers (five; including one part-timer) remains the same.

"We are subject to the same things that are effecting news everywhere, but we are such a niche publication that we haven't felt the same kind of losses," explains Editor-in-Chief Pete Mazzaccaro. "We are seeing slow declines in [classified and print ad revenue] and in print circulation. In 2015, it's hard to imagine those numbers going up. We're getting a lot of eyeballs online, but we haven't sorted out most optimal way to monetize that. We sell some ads, but pennies on the dollar to what we do in print." 

According to Mazzaccaro, the Chestnut Hill Local is not losing money and has never laid anyone off due to a shortage of funds. (The shrinking staff is a result of a few expired positions on the administrative side.) The paper is still owned by the Community Association, so there is no need to keep shareholders happy. Mazzaccaro considers eventually turning the operation into a 501©3 and applying for grants, but it's an idea that doesn't seem necessary quite yet.

The Chestnut Hill Local is pretty lonely in the Northwest. The only other paper still kicking around is The Independent Voice (a consolidation of the Germantown Chronicle and Mt. Airy Independent), a biweekly publication helmed by perennial political candidate Jim Foster. Indeed, there is no other comparable paper in the city that manages as well as the Local, but Mazzaccaro isn't sure that success can be easily emulated. The publication caters to the third wealthiest neighborhood in the city after all -- Chestnut Hill boasts a thriving main street and a plentitude of local businesses that want to advertise. 

"You have a better chance of doing that here because, frankly, people have the money to support it," he argues. "They are really well educated, affluent, and supportive of a media outlet dedicated to their neighborhood."

The Former Newsletter

The Parkside Journal is as different from the Chestnut Hill Local as could be. It began as a newsletter that Michael Burch, founder and publisher, wrote for two blocks of Viola Street, a quiet little residential span running parallel between Girard and Parkside Avenues. Burch grew up in the neighborhood, moved back to take care of his parents, and then decided to stay. He started writing the Viola Street newsletter in 2008. The folks on surrounding blocks started expressing appreciation for his work and wishing he'd expand the focus. 

In 2013, he published the first edition of the quarterly Parkside Journal. It was only four pages long. Today it usually runs about 15 page. Pretty much all of the five contributors were raised in West Philadelphia and all live there now. They all have full-time jobs elsewhere. 

"It's definitely passion project," says Burch. "It has to be because everyone is working. We're all close friends, all very community minded, and we're all pretty dedicated to getting it out." 

The Journal's print circulation is 4,000 every quarter, with free copies available in public libraries throughout the neighborhoods west of the Schuylkill and in a few supermarkets, including the ShopRite on 52nd Street.The paper breaks even and sometimes makes a small profit from the ad revenue generated in its pages; advertisers include neighborhood institutions like the Shofuso Japanese House and the Please Touch Museum

The paper covers human interest stories and fun neighborhood happenings, but also gets into heavier issues. Some of their most commented on articles have addressed school closures in the area and the controversy surrounding a methadone clinic that residents claim is disrupting street life. The journal is there for more quotidian matters too, like alternations to a SEPTA bus schedule or changing library hours. For the area's many elderly (about a sixth of the population is cover 65) and low income residents, the Journal provides information that might not be found elsewhere. 

"I do believe that our residents are going to have much greater value from a print paper than just an online service," argues Burch. "We have a greater number of seniors in our community. Print has been to our advantage. [Our circulation] has been going steadily up from issue to issue. So for our community that works."

Online Only

Meanwhile, the West Philly Local, another emergent hyper local publication, publishes exclusively online. Co-owners Mike Lyons and Julija Kulneva are married and moved to Philadelphia together in 2009. Both have backgrounds in journalism and, upon arriving, realized the serious lack of coverage of their neighborhood and its surrounding blocks. 

"There was nothing like it around and we needed information," recalls Lyons. "We have a child, so we were wondering what was going on in the neighborhood. We just started it as kind of a scratch-our-own-itch kind of thing."

West Philly Local serves as an events calendar of sorts, giving residents a heads up about festivals and plays in Cedar Park, Walnut Hill and Kingsessing. Lost dogs and cats make frequent appearances on the site. Restaurant and other small business openings and closings are given fair play, too, though the stories that get the most page views are about education, development and crime. There can be dozens of comments in threads below entries on these topics. 

The site's unique visits per month have doubled in the past two years to about 50,000. The publication features advertisements from an array of small businesses. Revenue generated by those online ads covers the costs of site maintenance and pays for freelancers, marketing expenses and a small profit for Lyons and Kulneva. But despite this success, online ad revenue simply doesn't allow for enough money to fund a staff. The West Philly Local team is basically the same size as when it started. 

"I am the only person who is involved 100 percent with the site," explains Kulneva. "Mike is a professor at St. Joseph's University and he's also a part-time editor and writer for West Philly Local. I write articles and do pretty much everything else, including ad sales. Our current plan is to generate enough ad sales to support sustainability of the website and the business in general."

A Chatroom Ends Up in Print

Back in 1998, Bob Smiley began writing about Frankford via a Yahoo news group, collecting about a half dozen loyal readers. Six years later, when he retired from his 34-year career at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, his son Jim suggested he start blogging. In May of 2007 Smiley did just that, at first simply aggregating content from elsewhere. Then in 2008, he began attending and covering community meetings, and reporting on other stories from Frankford. 

In 2011, the City of Philadelphia's PhillyRising Collaborative contacted him about funding a print edition. The first issue of the Frankford Gazette came out in July of that year. 

"They had done focus groups and that was one thing the community wanted to see," recalls Smiley. "It has to be accessible to them. Many people in Frankford are not connected to the internet or prefer not to get their information that way. On the other hand, most do have cell phones. My son has optimized the website to make it mobile-device friendly."

In late 2012, the HMO Health Partners Plans offered to sponsor the print edition of the Frankford Gazette; they now print 1,000 copies a month. In addition to utilizing the usual social media tools, the paper sends out text blasts about upcoming community meetings, block parties and other notable events in the neighborhood. Smiley also features human interest stories to leaven the steady drumbeat of unflattering news about the neighborhood. Residents feel that most news published about Frankford is negative -- often is connected to drugs or crime -- so Smiley tries to avoid those topics. 

Beyond its monthly print circulation, the Gazette gets about 2,400 unique page views per month. Smiley is the only person who regularly writes for the paper (it is run out of his home office). There are a few community contributors as well, and Jim helps with the technical side of things. The only advertisements are from Philadelphia government agencies and local nonprofits. 

"Frankford is one of the poorest areas in the city and that's a problem because we have no real business corridor," says Smiley. "To get advertising revenue, you need local people -- the mom and pops. If you walk Frankford Avenue, you aren't going to see a lot. In the long run, with Jefferson Hospital moving in, we could use a couple benefactors in that way. Or until we see gentrification. That could help us bring up advertising revenue."

JAKE BLUMGART is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter

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On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.
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