SCENE: Oscar’s, a crowded happy hour. In the big rectangular booth in the back, their regular spot, sit two 36-page issues of PHILADELPHIA CITY PAPER, nursing tall lagers and surrounded by empty shot glasses. The waitress, DEE, shoots them a sympathetic look as she drops off another round.
CITY PAPER: Hey, man.
CP: I’m genderless.
CITY PAPER: Well … hey. Can we talk about this?
CP: I don’t fucking want to.
CITY PAPER: Well, our only other option is to sit here and keep drinking.
Another silence. CP takes a long drink, slams the glass down, and turns to face CITY PAPER.
CP: Fine, fuck it. What do you want to talk about?
CITY PAPER: I … [SIGHS.] I just can’t believe we’re being shut down. What the hell happened?
CP: Well, Metro bought us last year, then Philly Weekly‘s parent company Broad Street Media bought us last week, then we found out this week is our last issue
CITY PAPER, impatient: We don’t need to go through that again. But … how the hell did we get here? We used to be a hundred and fifty pages a week! We broke some huge-ass stories. Civil forfeiture? Us. Chris Hulmes? Us. Uber? Us.
CP: I don’t want to
CITY PAPER: That weird fucking island?
CP, explosively: God, masturbate much? Who cares? Nobody! Nobody cares.
The two again sit in silence. CITY PAPER notices a woman across the room at a table by herself, reading a novel and sipping chardonnay. It is magazine writer SUSAN ORLEAN.
CITY PAPER, whispering: Holy shit, is that Susan Orlean? Like, Susan Orlean from the New Yorker? Meryl-Streep-played-her Susan Orlean?
CP, wearily: I don’t know, maybe?
CITY PAPER, waving: HEY! HEY, ARE YOU SUSAN ORLEAN? IF YOU’RE SUSAN ORLEAN, YOU SHOULD COME HANG OUT WITH US!
ORLEAN, perplexed, walks over.
CITY PAPER: Hey, huge fans! So, you love alt-weeklies, right?
CP (aside): Oh my god, don’t do this…
CITY PAPER: You’ve written a bunch of stuff about how you came up through alt-weeklies in the late ’80s and early ’90s, right?
CP tries to melt into the seat.
CITY PAPER: Are you aware that … we are alt-weeklies?
ORLEAN: Oh, yeah?
CITY PAPER: We’re closing on Thursday, you should definitely have a drink with us and talk about the good old days.
ORLEAN smiles and slides into the booth, to CP‘s surprise.
ORLEAN: Working at an alt-weekly was absolutely essential to me becoming the writer I am now.
CITY PAPER: Oh, yeah? How so?
ORLEAN: Well, daily newspapers are about chasing news and being current. Alternative newsweeklies had the luxury to pick and choose their stories, because they weren’t mandated to cover every single thing. I would never have had a chance to do that if I were working in a newsroom as a young reporter. And more importantly, I had no experience, so I never would have gotten a job at a daily anyway!
CP: Hey, me neither!
ORLEAN: Yeah back then, the daily papers of both cities where I worked rarely hired from the weeklies; they, I think, felt people there didn’t have the training to do daily reporting, because so many of us didn’t come out of journalism.
Inquirer columnist and City Paper alum MIKE NEWALL waves from across the room.
CITY PAPER: Happened to that guy.
ORLEAN: Yeah, I think one day newspapers got smart and realized they might as well do some of what alt-weeklies were doing, pick up some of that slack and some of that advertising. And they began hiring people out of those papers. I think they realized, ‘This is basically like not having to do the training ourselves, then we can pluck people when they’re ready.’
NEWALL comes over with a tray of shots.
CITY PAPER: Hey, thanks. Want to reminisce with us and our good friend Susan Orlean?
NEWALL, taking a seat: Man, I remember some of our issues were a hundred pages long. We were breaking records! It was a fun, fun, fun time. A marvelous place. A marvelous time.
CP: Ugh, never mind shut up, Newall.
A long silence.
CP: I’m sorry, man, I didn’t mean that. This just… it just hurts so much.
NEWALL: It hurts, it hurts a lot. There are so many great voices on all these platforms, but are we still getting those 3,000-word take-outs on those platforms? Is there a place where people are letting it rip? A city without a weekly it’s a sad thing.
CP: Well, it’s not like there’s not going to be an alt-weekly
CITY PAPER, interrupting: But how the hell did this happen? Was it us? Is it alt-weeklies in general? Everything was so clear in the ’90s. Do we even make sense in 2015?
ORLEAN: Each time the technology for delivering information changes, there’s a huge change. I think back in the day advertisers were drawn to alt-weeklies because they had a younger demographic, but I’m just not sure younger people read newspapers anymore.
CP, glaring at nearby table of young people: Yeah, I mean every time we do a survey of our readership, we find that they’re in their 40s and 50s. Our audience sort of aged in parallel with us.
CITY PAPER: This city always needed a voice like ours. Who else was going to write 5,000 words about Rick Santorum except us or PW, in their better days? The Inky sure wasn’t.
NEWALL looks a little put out.
CITY PAPER: No, dude, I didn’t mean it like that. That column you wrote was really nice, and the two dailies had, what, ten stories about us?
CP: That’s my question, though! Who cares about this aside from journalists who worked at alt-weeklies? I feel like the last time anyone really cared about an alt-weekly closing was the San Francisco Bay Guardian last year, and that’s just because they were one of the first they were founded in, what, like,1966?
A thin man with spiky blonde hair, STEVEN T. JONES, approaches the table.
JONES: Hey, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation I’m Steven T. Jones; up until last October, I was the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
CITY PAPER: No way! How are you doing, man?
JONES: Kind of heartbroken, still.
CITY PAPER: We feel you. I always wondered about how the competition for ads in a town with two alt-weeklies shook out for you guys, because that’s sort of the situation we’re in.
CP: We were in.
JONES: That’s a long story … but it put the two papers into a death spiral; it really devalued the advertising in the local market. We eventually had to sell ourselves to a Canadian-based ownership group … eight months later, that company bought the SF Weekly, too, so we found ourselves in the strange situation of shacking up with our biggest competitor. The handwriting was on the wall at that point.
CP: Wow, deja vu.
CITY PAPER: Can we buy you a drink?
DEE appears to take the new arrivals’ orders and JONES pulls up a chair at the back booth.
CP: So, what, was it the Internet? I think this might be happening because we sucked at the Internet? But that’s the thing, I don’t think we really sucked at the Internet our numbers had been going up and up this year. It’s so hard to tell with that stuff. I dunno, what was the deal with you?
JONES: For us, I think everybody saw that the Internet was the future, so we began to aggressively do more stuff online. Eventually, about half of our readers were online and we were spending about half of our time on online stuff. But 90 percent of our revenue was still coming from the print side. And I think media companies in general and alt-weeklies in particular are still trying to figure out how to make that contradiction work.
CP: I mean, that was the case with us, too, I think.
JONES: I think the problems the weeklies are experiencing right now are a microcosm of what the media in general is facing right now. It’s made more difficult by the fact that alt-weeklies have traditionally been willing to challenge the economically powerful, and it’s difficult to challenge the economically powerful and still get them to pay your paychecks.
CP: ...I KNOW, RIGHT?
JONES: I’ve always been aware of that paradox. I was paid for years, and decades, to try to bring down the capitalist system it was only a matter of time before the capitalists caught onto me.
DEE returns with whiskey shots. Everyone but ORLEAN, still sipping chardonnay, throws one back. CITY PAPER notices former Philadelphia Weekly owner and publisher ANTHONY CLIFTON approaching the jukebox.
CITY PAPER, slurred: Well, look who it is.
CP: Oh, shut up he doesn’t even own P-Dubs anymore, he sold it to Broad Street Media in February.
CITY PAPER: Oh, right, now I remember. I guess we were in the same boat all along, right? [Shouts.] Hey, Anthony! Cliffie! How’s it going? Come sit with us!
“Sloop John B” begins to play as CLIFTON approaches the back booth.
CITY PAPER: So, we were just hanging out with our good friend Susan Orlean and discussing whether alt-weeklies make sense anymore. Join us?
NEWALL and JONES look slightly put out. CLIFTON takes a seat.
CITY PAPER, oblivious: You owned P-Dubs for like two decades, you’ve probably got some thoughts about alt-weeklies on the Internet.
CLIFTON, thinking for a second: I can’t see how a single or small group of localized free weeklies can make it with digital revenue, because they simply can’t generate the volume necessary … Digital is a wonderful thing for consumers but bad for owner-operators it’s just not a revenue generator at the moment.
CP: But how much of that was competition? Were we both hamstrung by Philly having two alt-weeklies?
CLIFTON: Well, I don’t own the place anymore, so perhaps …
CLIFTON waves to a table where PERRY CORSETTI, publisher of Broad Street Media, and YGGERS MORTENSEN, CEO of Metro US, are having a drink after finalizing the deal that gave Broad Street Media ownership of both Philadelphia Weekly and City Paper. They walk over, wary.
CITY PAPER, to CORSETTI: No, no, seriously, we’re not mad. It doesn’t matter anymore. We were just wondering now that our dumb rivalry is over, was P-Dubs in as bad shape as we were?
CORSETTI: Revenues in 2015 are much lower than they were two years ago I would imagine in both papers, without looking at numbers in front of me. But just looking at the papers, and what they produce page-count and ad-wise, it’s much lower this year than it’s been in previous years. I don’t have access to City Paper’s information.
CITY PAPER, to MORTENSEN: I know we weren’t doing great, but we weren’t doing that bad, were we? I mean, you bought us a year ago you wouldn’t have done that if it didn’t make sense to do it, right?
MORTENSEN, looking down: …We ensured that you were not closed down a year ago.
CITY PAPER: Wait, really? I … thought we were doing OK.
MORTENSEN: You didn’t notice? I mean, come on, the paper has gone dramatically down in number of pages… So.
CITY PAPER: Oh. [Stares into beer.]
CP: This business sucks.
ANDY VAN DE VOORDE, executive associate editor of Voice Media Group, turns around from a nearby table.
VAN DE VOORDE: Hey I loved, loved doing what I did, and still do. Papers, to some degree, come and go. This is a tough business, not a business for the faint of heart. Its somewhat unfortunate timing in your case, but the sun will come up tomorrow. In the case of Philadelphia, I think everyone expected some kind of consolidation of the two weeklies at some point.
CP, glaring: Yeah, thanks, buddy. Thats great to hear. Why dont you turn that chair right back around, or maybe you have some Jeff Jarvis tweets you’d like to read? Maybe some tips on branding to share?
CITY PAPER: Shut up, youre drunk. [To VAN DE VOORDE.] Sorry, we’re being closed; my friend is a little bitter. It sometimes feels like it was all pointless.
VAN DE VOORDE: Look what we do is important. When we do it right, it makes the cities we live in a better place. Its okay to believe that. It doesnt make you an asshole. The people who say it isnt important are assholes.
VAN DE VOORDE shrugs and returns to his conversation.
CP, turning back to MORTENSEN: But, seriously, Yggers what do you think? You’ve run an alt-weekly for a year now do we make sense anymore?
MORTENSEN: I think what an alternative weekly covers the investigative journalism, what’s going on inside a city I think that is highly relevant. Getting the economy of scale enough to run a newspaper I have to say I doubt it, I really do. [He sighs.] Between you and me, you know, I have a great level of respect for City Paper, and what you’ve achieved and what you stand for, and I personally hate the fact that we … that it came out like this.
MORTENSEN excuses himself to catch the train back to New York; CORSETTI exits with him. Another silence falls over the back booth.
CP: Well, there’s always the Chronicle…
CP spots LOUIS BLACK, editor in chief of the Austin Chronicle, on his way back from the bathroom.
CITY PAPER, a bit slurred: You guys youuuuu guyyyyyys! You’re the great alt hope! You’re still over a hundred pages on the regular because of South by Southwest, right? Everybody wants to be you.
BLACK: …No, South By is a separate business. It was started under the Chronicle years ago, but very early on it was spun off as a separate business. Nick [Barbaro, publisher of the Chronicle] and I are partners in that business, and we’re the sole owners of the Chronicle. At this point, Nick and I are subsidizing the paper.
CITY PAPER, sagging: But … we thought you guys had cracked the code.
BLACK: Everybody is under that impression. … This has been a very bad year for us. We’re probably still one of the strongest, but it costs more to put out a paper with the size staff that we have.
BLACK gestures over to a table where a couple dozen people and a 125-page issue of THE AUSTIN CHRONICLE sit having beers. They lift their glasses as BLACK rejoins them.
CP: Oh, god dammit. Seriously?
The back booth falls into morose silence.
CP, very drunk: We tried so hard to do a good job. All we ever wanted was to do a good job.
ORLEAN: Yeah, but advertisers don’t look at publications and think, ‘Wow, I really think they do a great job with their feature writing, let’s advertise.’ Alt-weeklies were always funded by a very specific thing they delivered an audience that maybe wasn’t otherwise available to advertisers. That was quite a lucrative market at that moment, and maybe if the Internet hadn’t evolved, that would have continued being true. But it’s just not anymore.
CLIFTON: It’s not.
JONES: It’s not.
ORLEAN: If you can’t pay for something, unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how well you do it, or how much of a need you believe the world has for it. The bottom line is still: ‘Can you pay to print your newspaper?’
CITY PAPER: I guess …
CP: I guess we can’t.
CITY PAPER and CP fall to the table, lifeless. Kanye’s “Runaway” begins to play on the jukebox. The patrons of Oscar’s raise their glasses in unison, then rise and file out of the bar. DEE bustles around clearing tables in the empty bar. As she gets around to the back booth, she picks up two newspapers somebody left and tosses them into the trash.
– FIN –
[Note: City Paper’s two staff writers, Jerry Iannelli and Emily Guendelsberger, interviewed everyone in this story. The quotes are real, and we maintained the general context in which they were given. The scenario is, obviously, not real. But you probably got that part.]