In the wake of the 2016 election, many media organizations began to wonder if their locations in coastal elite cities kept them from better understanding the rest of the country. Some even began hiring reporters in the Midwest, while pundits based outside New York and Los Angeles clamored to move not just the media, but also government jobs into the proverbial Rust Belt. The thinking went that job creation plus exposure to the real world would make the Rust Belt happier and the elite-led media more understanding.
But it seems like market forces, rather than affirmative action, is shifting media into new cities, and Philadelphia should move quickly to take advantage of this trend.
Last month, Food & Wine magazine announced it was moving from New York to Birmingham, Alabama, and the relocation is being seen by some as a bellwether of things to come. As digital production allows for employees to be based remotely, New York’s high rents and salaries make less and less sense. Could this be Philly’s chance to lure media back to the city?
Philly has long touted its past as a manufacturing hub, but has given itself less credit as the cradle of the country’s publishing industry. That statue of a young Ben Franklin at the printing press seems to be the only reminder that Philly once dominated in publishing, hosting once-famous publishers such as Lippincott and brands such as the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal. While the city still holds on to some medical publishers, it’s been about 50 years since Philly could lay claim to having a vibrant media industry.
But just a few years ago the American Bible Society moved its 300 jobs and 100,000 square feet of office space to Old City. TimeOut is about to launch a new Philly edition, signaling a belief there is a genuine market for content and advertisers here. The new and heftily endowed Lenfest Institute seems to be finally ready to dole out some serious dough to media outlets. And New York’s subway situation is so bad that a 90-minute Amtrak to Midtown is starting to look a lot better than having staff rely on the G train to get to work.
Philadelphia is poised to capture three new segments of media: those wanting a taste of the “real world” in their reporting, those who need to be on the Acela corridor but not necessarily in New York anymore, and nonprofit media seeking start-up funds.
To put it crassly, we’re the closest Rust Belt city to New York. Want to better understand why Donald Trump got elected? You merely need to go to the Northeast which voted deep red last November. Want to see the opioid problem? Take a quick subway ride to Kensington. I know this sounds smug, but I also know firsthand how moving from New York to Philly offers a new perspective on the problems of no-growth communities around the country; I moved from New York to run a media organization in Philly, and the experience profoundly changed my understanding of American society and made me ashamed of the provincial and superficial perspective of most media in New York.
It’s here that I’ve lived in a neighborhood strewn with vacant houses and lots, seen dozens of my elected officials charged with corruption, worried about lead in my water and backyard, and had a police officer point a gun at me. I also was able to live like a queen on a five-figure salary for most of my professional life, reveled in (until recently) undervalued real estate, got to eat better than my friends in Brooklyn while bringing my own wine to restaurants and could run or bike in the country’s largest municipal park. The narrative of cities like Philly—both struggling and astoundingly vibrant—is far more common than the media has us believe and it would do our whole country good if more storytellers came to their articles and podcasts from this vantage.
But if not for Philly’s authenticity, media outlets should move here because we could help improve their balance sheets. Now that advertising for online media is largely automated, blog posts don’t require in-person interviews and people tend to use Slack rather than knock on a co-worker’s cube wall, why should media continue to pay an average of more than $72 per square foot on rent in Manhattan? Philly’s market tops out at about $24 per square foot. Likewise, media’s generally low salaries go further here. See above note about living like a queen on a 5-figure income.
I recently spoke with Trevor Kaufman, CEO of Piano, a company that helps publishers build and monetize their audiences. He has opened an office in Philadelphia and is in the process of moving with his family from New York. Given the work that Piano does, Kaufman needed an office somewhere on the East Coast (many of Piano’s clients are in Europe, plus they have two offices across the pond), but didn’t feel the pros of New York outweighed its cons, particularly from the standpoint of hiring talent and competition.
He notes that companies like Google, Facebook, Conde Nast and others could outspend him on recruiting talent, and growing his company didn’t make it any easier. “I was orders of magnitude away from being able to compete. It didn’t get any better when I had 25 or 40 people,” Kauffman says. Meanwhile, after searching for a good location on the East Coast, Kaufman found Philly to have numerous assets: “so many colleges and universities”, “millennials”, “fifth-largest city,” “very low cost of living”, “beautiful suburbs,” a “light industrial” aesthetic. More importantly, others in the Philly tech scene welcomed Piano as a newcomer, whereas in New York he was met with sharp elbows.
“New York is so miserable and Philly is so close. More people are figuring this out,” he says.
While this is true, and Philly may have recently reached all sorts of new tipping points lately, those of us who have been here long enough to remember the infamous “fifth borough” article and thought this city would be swimming in New York expats by now have a right to be skeptical that common sense and the market will be enough to fill this city with media entrepreneurs.
Luckily, we also now have the Lenfest Institute, a $20-million-plus philanthropy dedicated to journalism. While it should and will distribute money to existing Philly institutions and new local startups, imagine if the Institute envisioned itself as not just an incubator for media, but as a recruiter. While a Philadelphia focus is implicit in the Institute’s work, no programs, not even the “entrepreneur in residence” one, requires grantees to live here.
What if the Institute helped media organizations achieve their shared goal of financially sustainable journalism by helping reporters, editors and even entire media organizations, move here? The timing is great: thousands of journalists have been in Philly in the past two years for the Pope, DNC and NFL events. They have seen what a great city this is, felt how close it is to New York and DC, and probably also seen how they might better cover poverty and its concomitant issues if they lived here.
But nothing will happen if the city doesn’t step up its game to actively recruit businesses here. The Lenfest Institute is a start, but we need the Chamber of Commerce and the Department of Commerce to spearhead an effort to target companies that could make the move, show office space, connect newer entrepreneurs with thriving established local media (i.e., Comcast, Rodale), and shop around success stories like Piano and the American Bible Society to prove that such a move can be beneficial.
While media industry might not seem like the greatest boon to the economy, it does bring with it a few other advantages. The skills involved in media—from storytelling to visual representation, from setting trends to critical analysis— are ones that overlap well with other industries, making it less specialized than many meds, tech or energy jobs, and potentially opening up opportunities for many un- or under-employed Philadelphians. Media could also contribute to a vibrant, fun city in the same way that, say, the music industry in Nashville or the fashion industry in New York or film industry in Los Angeles does. (If you wonder why our population growth rate is so slow compared to our region’s GDP, consider Philly’s need for this kind of creative industry.)
But finally, we need to continue to look beyond meds and eds for industries and jobs. The city has made attempts to lure tech and energy companies and jobs to Philly, but stepped back from putting real skin in the game to make these viable industries here. More than any particular incentive, the city’s commitment to growing a cluster might be enough to lure some media companies looking for a better alternative than New York, or for that matter, Birmingham. Really, despite it’s having a foodie mag in town, let’s not let Birmingham eat our (much-celebrated) lunch.
Diana Lind, a Citizen board member, is Managing Director of the Penn Fels Policy Research Initiative.Header Photo: Wikimedia