Updated 1:35 p.m.
A Kickstarter is underway for former City Paper editor Charlie Deitch’s new media venture, a website and paper he promises will be Pittsburgh-centric and defined by the same take-no-prisoners journalistic style he claims got him fired from his last job.
That campaign, “The Pittsburgh Current Alt-Monthly: Phase One Funding,” went live Tuesday and in 24 hours raised about $1,500. Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing approach means it has to raise its goal of $15,000 by July 2 or the project receives no funding.
Once operational, Deitch said the Pittsburgh Current will consist of a monthly printed publication and a website with a more frequent publishing schedule. He plans for the first issue to drop on July 11 and for the website to go live sometime in the next 10 days. He expects the print publication will increase to twice-monthly and, eventually, weekly.
The print product will be free of charge and, according to Deitch, “free of outside influence.” That last part is as much a mission statement for Pittsburgh Current as it is an explanation for how Deitch arrived here: a 46-year-old, longtime news editor entering the publishing field for the first time in his decades-long journalism career.
Deitch worked at Pittsburgh City Paper for 13 years, four of those as its editor, before he said he was fired last month after refusing an edict from ownership to soften coverage of Butler County-based state lawmaker Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican.
A representative for City Paper’s ownership company, Butler Media, denied Deitch’s firing had anything to do with his coverage of Metcalfe in a statement to the Post-Gazette.
The launch of Pittsburgh Current’s Kickstarter comes at a time of heightened sensitivity to such issues nationwide but also in Pittsburgh, where the Post-Gazette has found itself repeatedly under fire over its approach to covering President Donald Trump, the reddening of its editorial page and unprinted Rob Rogers cartoons.
Deitch was on hand at a Sunday rally in support of Rogers where Deitch addressed the crowd and took the opportunity to plug his new venture, while also touting the need for a bottom-up media model and a Fourth Estate free of undue corporate influence.
In speaking with The Incline on Tuesday, Deitch said the timing of all this and the launch of Pittsburgh Current’s fundraising campaign was coincidental, but he insists that the issues at the Post-Gazette and City Paper highlight the need for a revised approach and a greater measure of autonomy.
“I’m 46 and if I think things can be done differently and better then why should I wait for someone else to figure out what to do? I should put it on the line and go for it and that’s what we’re doing now,” he said.
For the record: Pittsburgh Current will sell ads. In fact, the $15,000 Kickstarter campaign is seed money to allow it time to get ad sales underway. Deitch said the print product will be free, there will be no paywall on the website, and longterm funding could include a membership program or another round of fundraising.
“Our plan, too, is to get out there and fight for those print dollars and digital ad dollars,” he said, adding that he thinks there is enough of both to go around.
“I don’t think print is dead. I think what you’ve seen is a thinning of the herd. And I think we’re positioned — we come in with no history, no background, no debt, no encumbrances, and I think people still want to read print,” he said. “I don’t expect all of us to survive. The best products will survive.”
But launching a print-focused alt-monthly or alt-weekly in 2018 isn’t without its hurdles, as any casual observer of the media business can gather.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute of Media Studies, said alt-weeklies face many of the same hurdles as legacy print outlets and a few of their own. Some of this, he explained, boils down to their ad base being more niche and more entertainment- or nightlife-driven than others. It also comes down to advertisers being better able than ever before to connect with customers in other ways.
“There are a lot of different places you can find out where to eat in Pittsburgh and where the offers are. The bar scene is similar,” Edmonds said, adding, “In their glory day alt-weeklies served a particular audience, and they had some particularly well-matched ad clients, but I think that’s eroded a lot.”
Average circulation for the top 20 U.S. alt-weekly papers was just over 55,000 in 2017, a 10 percent decline from 2016 and a 36 percent decline from 2012, according to Pew Research Center.
Jack Shafer, media critic for Politico, has written frankly depressing accounts of the alt-weekly ecosystem or, as he has put it, “the alt-weekly sunset,” saying the most reliable advertisers for these publications — record shops, bookstores and brick-and-mortar purveyors of esoterica — have gone the way of the dinosaur.
Echoing Edmonds, Shafer wrote for Politico in 2017, “Once the untouchable authority for what to do in the city, the alt-weeklies were long ago eclipsed by the mobile phone.”
But Shafer also said the relevance of alt-weeklies still lies in their unique editorial content, counter-culture appeal and a sometimes “worthy combination of news, investigations, commentary, essays and critical writing.”
It’s also a matter of the market. “The richest alt-week soil seems to be in places where there is less intense competition from other media organizations, such as Portland and Denver, for example,” Shafer told The Incline on Tuesday. “As you know, the alt-weeklies have had tough times in NY and Boston where former giants, the [Village] Voice and [The] Phoenix, have fallen.”
Deitch, however, is convinced there’s an opening in Pittsburgh, though he doesn’t think there’s room for two alt-weeklies and says “ultimately readers will decide who stays.” He’s convinced there’s an audience here for something new. For now, his Pittsburgh Current experiment is dependent on donations from those people — prospective readers and supporters.
“A few associates-slash-friends who believe in what I’m doing put some cash in,” Deitch added. He said he preferred not to identify them or their contributions, but called those contributions informal and a small piece of the overall picture, adding, “the bulk of our funding is going to come from ad sales and Kickstarter.”
Pittsburgh Current’s coverage will follow the traditional alternative newspaper model of “arts, news, music, entertainment and pop culture. […] We have a lot of reader interaction stuff, too. It’s not all going to be politics and news,” he said.
Another feature, Deitch added, is “that sharp tongue and the unapologetic editorial stance that I feel a lot of alt-weeklies have gotten away from in recent years.”
The Current will have an office space in the business district of an as-yet-undisclosed Pittsburgh neighborhood with a public-facing storefront. The print product will also be locally produced, he vowed.
“We want people to be involved and people of all backgrounds to have a voice in this,” Deitch added.
He has a handful of people signed on to help make this a reality. They include former City Paper Marketing Director Bethany Ruhe, who’s leading marketing and sales for Pittsburgh Current now.
“Teaming up with Charlie to create the Current was a very easy decision,” Ruhe said in a message to The Incline. “I’ve now seen first-hand the negative impact conservative ownership has on the free press. Charlie is the perfect person to lead this new publication, and I’m incredibly proud to be a part of it.” Deitch said both he and Ruhe have put in personal money to help get the venture off the ground.
Deitch also said local freelancer Kim Lyons is helping with social media; Jeff Rose, publisher of Local Pittsburgh, a quarterly print publication, is also helping spread the word; and a bench of freelancers have assignments pending.
Deitch himself will be not only Pittsburgh Current’s publisher but also editor and a writer for the publication and his voice will certainly be a feature. This time, he said, without fear of repercussion.
“I’ve always felt that an independent press is vital to this country, but number two an independent press should be able to operate and cover operating costs because of the content they provide and not favors they do,” he said.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct language around Deitch’s thoughts on whether there’s room for more than one alt-weekly in Pittsburgh. He does not believe there is.