One full year into running what he calls an alt-alt-weekly, Pittsburgh Current publisher and editor Charlie Deitch says he’s not motivated by trying to put his former employer, the Pittsburgh City Paper, out of business.
But if only one alt-weekly can survive in Pittsburgh, Deitch certainly hopes to make his the one that doesn’t go under.
“The market’s going to dictate what happens,” Deitch tells me. “All I can do is do my best to make sure it’s not me. And maybe we’ll both be here a long time. I’m fine with that, too. … Just let the products speak for themselves. Let’s just, you know, go head to head.”
Deitch and I sat down to talk shortly after Pittsburgh Current’s first anniversary. A lot of people have questioned how Pittsburgh could have two alt-weekly newspapers, and I wanted to know how he has been making it work.
As he puts it, Deitch did not leave City Paper of his own choosing. He now admits that as editor of the weekly newspaper, he acted insubordinately. As was widely reported, he insisted on writing about conservative state lawmaker Daryl Metcalfe after he says the newspaper’s owners at the Butler Eagle told him to stop.
But there was other stuff too, he says, like his insistence on running the Dan Savage sex advice column with all of its unadulterated racy bits along with making other news judgments that the owners didn’t like. The Butler Eagle denied Deitch’s claim for unemployment, saying he was fired for cause; Deitch challenged the claim but ultimately lost.
“In my hearing for my unemployment, which was denied, they said I was insubordinate,” he says. “And you know what? I was. I was really freaking insubordinate. I was. And that had gone on for about a year, 18 months.”
Now, Deitch has no one to mouth back to but himself.
“There were a few times the first month or two where somebody would ask to do something, and I’m like, Well, I gotta check on that,” he says. “And like, I don’t have to check. I am the check on that.”
Deitch and Bethany Ruhe, the City Paper’s former marketing director, started Pittsburgh Current a little over a year ago, with their first edition hitting newsstands July 11, 2018. The following month, they put out two newspapers, and they’ve been on a biweekly schedule since.
The owners scored a couple of wins early with local syndication rights to columns by writer Dan Savage (who offered it to them at no cost) and former Post-Gazette cartoonist Rob Rogers.
The idea of starting a print newspaper at a time when others are closing seems like a bad business decision, but Deitch says he remains committed to the medium — and that Pittsburgh Current has managed to keep paying its bills.
“I can’t imagine ever not having a print publication, and a lot of people, of course, think I’m a lunatic for doing that,” he says. “But I believe that. I am one of the believers that print is coming back.”
Pittsburgh Current started out with a Kickstarter campaign that brought in about $21,000, he says. They have been generating revenues since from ad sales, and the newspaper has one minority partner in Google employee Robert Malkin, who owns eight percent of the company. Deitch declines to say how much Malkin paid for his share of the company or how the owners valued their startup.
“We’re not exactly hand-to-mouth every issue,” he says. “It’s at the point where we don’t have a war chest but it’s getting easier. It’s getting a whole lot easier than it was.”
Pittsburgh Current distributes 20,000 copies every two weeks, and it seeks to add five to 10 new locations each time the newspaper goes out. Right now they say they have 400 locations.
The Post-Gazette has a contract to print Pittsburgh Current. Deitch joked that since the PG has cut back its own printing to five days, his is the only Pittsburgh newspaper that comes out on Tuesdays in the city.
Pittsburgh Current has nine full-time employees, with editorial salaries ranging from $27,000 to $31,000 a year and no benefits. Ad sales reps work on a 25 percent commission and they rank among the newspaper’s highest-paid employees.
The newspaper started out trying to pay freelancers 25 cents per word but had to cut back; Deitch says he rarely pays someone less than $100 for a story, and that an in-depth article of 1,500 to 2,000 words is worth $300 to $400.
Deitch says he and Ruhe have not been taking a salary but they cover their expenses and take out money when needed, like when Deitch owed his property taxes.
The newspaper operates out of a rented Beechview storefront. Inside, desks purchased from the Beaver Area School District sit in a row along one wall. Other items came from Trib Total Media: Pittsburgh Current bought 15 old newspaper boxes for $25 each and repainted them black and gold.
Deitch sits in the left rear corner of the room at a desk with scattered papers, a coffee mug and superhero dolls. In the other corner, the staff has set up a small stage with wooden pallets on the walls, a rug on the floor and a couch. They record music concerts that get live-streamed on Facebook and turned into a podcast.
Several things make Pittsburgh Current an alternative alt-weekly, Deitch tells me.
While the newspaper focuses on fact-based reporting, it comes at the world from a strong liberal perspective. It treats as fact issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights, a women’s control over her own reproductive health decisions and that marijuana smoking does not lead to abusing harder drugs.
“I just sort of refuse to pretend that I don’t have other knowledge in my head, or that my reporters pretend that they don’t have other knowledge in their heads,” Deitch says. “… It’s hard to pretend that there are valid issues on the other side if that makes sense.”
Pittsburgh Current has also focused on digital content such as its still-forming podcast network. The newspaper typically sells advertising for the podcasts and then shares the revenue with the host.
Deitch hosts one show, and former WDVE radio broadcaster Jim Krenn hosts another. Recently, it announced a new monthly podcast by locally-based porn star Michele James.
“Print will always always be number one here,” Deitch says. “But we like the podcasting and the digital; it’s like 1A.”
As for the controversy with his former bosses, Deitch says he does not have any particular animosity toward City Paper or any of his former bosses. He just likes working for himself.
“It’s nice to have that freedom,” he says. “It’s nice to know, and I’m not ragging on any other print publication in town, but I know how our sausage is being made. Like, I know how we’re making the sausage. I know how we’re reporting.”
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at [email protected].