'We're Going To Make It, I Think'

July 30, 2020

You’ve probably read about the dire situation for alt-weeklies during the pandemic. Many of them have either stopped printing and gone online only, or have closed altogether. 

The Pittsburgh City Paper, the alt-weekly in the Steel City, has not had to resort to those measures — yet. And as editor-in-chief Lisa Cunningham puts it: “We’re going to make it, I think.” 

Taking the finances out of the picture for a minute, and the City Paper has had an incredible year. The paper has been applauded for its coverage of the pandemic, the unrest following the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing implosion within the newsroom of the longtime newspaper of record in Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette (full disclosure: I used to work at the PG).

By all accounts, this should be a banner year for the City Paper. But the financial situation can’t be ignored. The covid-19 crisis decimated local events, restaurants and music venues -- and in turn decimated the CP’s advertising dollars. That has led to furloughs and unfilled positions, a reduction in weekly printed pages and the ever-present threat of full-on layoffs.

But Cunningham, ad director Jasmine Hughes and director of operations Kevin Shepherd have kept the ship from sinking by getting a PPP loan, a small Google grant, a Pittsburgh Media Partnership tech grant, and by creating some new alternative revenue sources. 

For example:

They started a membership campaign in March, even though it wasn’t supposed to officially launch until later in the year. (For example, a recurring membership of $20 per month would cover the cost of the City Paper's email newsletter for a week, and you'll also get a photo print and a bunch of swag.) 

They’ve started to sell merchandise, including coloring books, cookbooks and t-shirts. 

The “Over-The-Top Completely Ridiculous Yinzerrific Coloring Book” was a collaboration with 35 local artists, with 50 percent of proceeds split among those who helped draw the scenes for the book.

The “J’eet Jet” cookbook features 50 recipes from locals restauranteurs and others, with a portion of the proceeds going to the 412 Food Rescue nonprofit group in Pittsburgh. (Oh, by the way, you’ll be able to pick up the coloring book and the cookbook together for a special price in early August if you’re so inclined.)

As you can see from these partnerships, the City Paper is trying to help the community as much as it is trying to save itself.

“Our long-time goal is to help our community out, and that’s what we do with our stories, too,” said Cunningham, who has worked for the City Paper for more than 20 years. “That’s our mission — to always try to amplify the voices in our community.

“What’s been really special is that some of the artists I reached out to (for the coloring book) said they wanted to donate the proceeds they’re making back to us. That’s incredible.”

The love and support from the community and the City Paper’s longtime readers has made these painful last few months somewhat easier to deal with. 

“The only thing that keeps us going is getting the feedback from the community,” Cunningham said. “I told all of the writers to keep a folder and get a boost from it. It means everything. It really does mean the world.”

Because of the excellent community coverage the City Paper has done, especially recently by the likes of news editor Ryan Deto, the staff has been put in an interesting position — Cunningham said they’re now receiving more tips than ever, but because of staff reductions they’re not able to follow up on all of them.

“It’s a lot of pressure, too,” she said. “It’s harder now with things that are going on with the Post-Gazette. We’re getting more pitches than ever before. People are coming to us with harder news stories. But we have less staff than we’ve ever had before.

“What do we do? We don’t have the staff or the page count. So we pass on some stories to other media outlets in town that we trust. That says a lot about Pittsburgh’s media relationships and why it’s so important to keep places like the Post-Gazette and PublicSource and WESA and The Incline and not have them shut down. We’re not going to be the paper of record. We’re an alt-weekly.”

Cunningham said the future of alt-weeklies will be up for discussion at the industry’s annual conference  (now virtual) in September. There will be horror stories, of course, and there will be stories of hope like the one playing out in Pittsburgh.

“I think the City Paper can survive,” Cunningham said. “I do.”