As Philadelphia City Paper closes, a campaign springs up to keep its archives public

Photo: Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Flickr Creative Commons; Treatment: CJR

“If it bleeds it leads,” the old saying goes. For alt-weekly lovers and fans of good journalism in general, “Philadelphia City Paper to Cease Publication” was that type of story—a stab in the heart as another publication bit the dust. 

A company called Broad Street Media, which owns the competing Philadelphia Weekly, announced Sept. 30 that it had “ac­quired the in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­erty rights” to City Paper, and would promptly be shutting it down. The final print edition goes out today. City Paper staff soon published word of their own impending unemployment—and elegies and remembrances for the paper started to roll in.

Almost immediately, something else happened too: Staff, alumni, readers, and other journalists began to focus on the fate of City Paper’s digital and print archives, emphasizing that they be preserved in a way that is accessible to the public. That issue hasn’t been resolved yet. But after a week, the effort has at least made the paper’s new owners more aware of the civic value of that “intellectual property.” And the people behind the campaign are, for the moment, cautiously optimistic that City Paper will have an afterlife.

“Our intention is to keep [the archives] open to the public,” Perry Corsetti, the publisher of Broad Street Media, said in a phone interview this week. “The public will have access. Once they are finished with the final paper, we’ll discuss how to do it. It will be available to the public. There’s a lot of valuable history and stuff.”

Those comments came after a confusing few days in which it was often hard to pin down who held the rights to what, or what the ultimate goals were. Broad Street’s initial press release said City Paper’s website would be “consolidated” with Philadelphia Weekly’s. Concerns that that meant the digital record would disappear were sparked by a City Paper blog post—which later disappeared, and then reappeared in revised form—in which staff members said they feared the web archives would “vanish along with us.”

Those concerns were only heightened two days later, when Philly.com reported that Temple University Libraries hoped to acquire the full print and digital archives, but Broad Street didn’t want to part with them. “These are valuable and we would actually want to keep them,” Corsetti was quoted as saying.

That got City Paper alumni like Dan Denvir going. On Twitter, he desperately worked to raise awareness of the situation, tweeting at other journalists and putting out pleas for people to contact Corsetti.

“News doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Denvir said when I spoke with him. “We frequently had impact, and if our stories vanish from the Internet forever, I’m worried that long term impact will be undermined.”

Now a writer for The Atlantic’s CityLab site, Denvir did criminal justice and education reporting in Philadelphia—work that has recently led to the prosecution of one police officer for perjury, and a prison guard being forced to resign. When we spoke, he was especially concerned his long piece on William Smith, currently sentenced to die in a Pennsylvania prison, might disappear. “His case exemplified the human cost of near elimination of sentence commutation. And I’m still very hopeful that Tom Wolf, the new Pennsylvania governor, will take a more humane approach to commuting life sentences, and allow people like Smith not to die in prison,” Denvir said. If the profile were to disappear, he said, “I feel that eliminates a piece of leverage he has to help make that happen.”

Testimonials to the importance of the archives also came from other sources. Helen Gym is a community activist and Democratic nominee for at-large member of the Philadelphia City Council.* To her, City Paper’s closing “is a huge loss to the city for its investigative field. They pursued the stories others can’t pursue, and didn’t.”

“What I loved most was the professional culture,” Gym told me. “They knew and attracted the kind of talented reporters with passion and chops—civil asset forfeiture, and documenting challenges on education reforms.”

Typically, Gym says, she might see just one or two lines show up in daily story that offered perspective. “With the City Paper, we knew there would be context, because they invested so much, they were able to unpack and analyze things to shine a light and enlighten people and recast issues. It’s not just any paper—it’s City Paper. It’s stunning to me that it wouldn’t be preserved. It’s an extensive history [that is] incredibly valuable to the public as historical record. You’re not going to find those things anywhere else.” (It would be hard to say the same about the current incarnation of Philadelphia Weekly, which not long ago put an ad for an e-cigarette on the cover.)

The Latino-focused publication AL DÍA News, meanwhile, ran “A case for City Paper’s archives.” “For the last year, I have been trying to report on the politics of Philadelphia’s Latino community. There’s a long history and I have a learning curve,” wrote Max Marin. “City Paper’s archives have filled in some crucial gaps.”

By the time that column appeared, on Monday, the outlook was becoming a bit brighter. The same day, City Paper ran an interview with Darwin Oordt, CEO of Broad Street Media. The archives were the main subject. “I would like to see them remain public,” Oordt told senior staff writer Emily Guendelsberger. “I think we’ll find out who gives the people the best availability, who’s going to really be a good steward of those archives.”

The Temple library remains interested. Bruce Schimmel, City Paper’s founder, has a copy of every print edition published from 1981-1996, and says he plans to give them to Temple. Margery Sly, the director of special collections, told me the library had reached out to Broad Street Media about acquiring the rest of the archive, but had not connected yet.

“We’ve been collecting Philadelphia’s history and counter-culture materials since the 1960s,” Sly said. “We make them available to the public. We’re the archives to the Inquirer, and to the Evening Bulletin. It’s a natural addition.”

It’s not clear yet what will happen. But it does seem clear that the public discussion has made an impression on management at Broad Street Media.

“To be 100 percent honest with you, when we first got it, I didn’t realize the value of the archive and how the public used it,” Corsetti said when I followed up with him Wednesday. “They’re getting the last paper out today, and at that point we’ll meet with whoever does the web thing. I haven’t discussed it with anyone. We will put it out there. We’re not selling it to make money. That’s not the intention I have today. Are we going to say to Temple, ‘Hey, give us a million dollars?’ No. We just need to determine the best way to handle this. We’ll discuss it internally.”

His comments about becoming newly aware of the public value of the archives reminded me of something Denvir told me when we spoke. 

“I doubt the new owners have a sadistic intent to destroy the archives,” he had said. “But a little public pressure could help remind them of how important preserving decades of Philadelphia news and arts writing is to people in the city.”

Even if the archives are preserved for the public, of course, the loss of the journalism City Paper would have done in the future is a blow.

“My heart is broken, but everyone else’s too,” Lil Swanson, City Paper’s editor in chief, said as she prepared to put the final issue to bed. “We’ve all given everything we can to this paper. But the marketplace will not sustain this.”

* Correction: The original version of this sentence incorrectly describes Helen Gym’s standing as a candidate for City Council.

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Valerie Vande Panne is an award-winning independent journalist, currently based in Boston. Her work has appeared in the Boston Phoenix, The Daily Beast, Mashable, and Salon, among other publications. She is a former editor of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times. Follow her on Twitter @asktheduchess.