Why I’m Protesting the Pittsburgh City Paper ‘Best of Pittsburgh’ Reader’s Poll

It is rare enough to receive acknowledgement, much less awards, for blogging. Even more rare are awards when like me, you are well past the average blog expiration date (2.5-3 years.)

When I became the first person ever to be voted “Best Blogger” in the City Paper Readers Poll in 2016, I was absolutely shocked and caught off guard. The very first person to win this category was a queer disabled fat feminist middle-aged white woman? It seemed absolutely revolutionary.  Pittsburgh City Paper Best of PGH Winner 2016

The City Paper has been part of my entire adult Pittsburgh life. After a ten-year span spent hither and yon, I returned to the City in 1997 to attend grad school and build my life here. I read the paper every week. When it went digital, I shared links with anyone I could. When Ledcat and I began dating, we spent many lovely afternoon in some local queer friendly coffeehouse or similar space, both reading the CP.

The newspaper spoke to us. Not every story was relevant or terrific, but overall the paper captured an important perspective of life in Pittsburgh that no one else seemed to notice. It was absolutely political because of the intense coverage of our region’s arts and cultural scene, not in spite of it. No other media outlet had anything resembling a “LGBT” beat, but the City Paper not only had assigned someone to this role but also used the GLAAD Media Guide when covering LGBTQ stories.

When long-time editor Chris Potter left to go to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and then WESA where he now spearheads political coverage, I was sad for us while glad for him. Charlie Deitch picked up the reigns. The paper changed as you would expect, but it wasn’t just a new person at the helm.

In 2016, the Butler Eagle media team bought the City Paper from Steel City Media. The Butler folks publish the Butler Eagle, the Cranberry Eagle, and own a few related printing type businesses. I was dismayed because Butler is not a bastion of progressive anything. I was pretty sure they would strip the editorial section if they didn’t turn it to the extreme right. I hoped I was wrong.

The paper changed with even more ads filling the screens and pages. Content was still alt-weekly type material. I noticed staff changes that worried me, especially the departures of assistant editor Al Hoff and news editor Rebecca Addison in 2018.

Then we learned about Charlie – editor Charlie Deitch had been fired, allegedly for his refusal to stop scrutinizing local state representative from Butler County, Daryl Metcalfe.

I’m sure there is more to the story, but I don’t doubt for a minute that Metcalfe would use his influence to silence critics. We had to endure years of the rightwing vanity project, the Tribune-Review. We wail and gnash our teeth at the horrorshow that’s become the Post-Gazette editorial department. Local TV media has sunk to new lows of gotcha journalism. Even WESA 90.5 (NPR) dumped its daily local talk radio show for more national programming.

Cue the 2018 Best of Pittsburgh Reader’s Poll. The initial nomination round took place before Deitch’s departure. As a loyal alumnus, I’ve tried to support this project which is of course a marketing gimmick. But marketing revenue pays the bills to keep the editorial department rolling. After winning one year, I removed myself from contention in that category because it is annoying to see the same people win, year after year, in these contests. I realized the restaurants need the business and will buy advertising, but that’s not true for the local writers, performance artists and spaces like The Warhol. The contest itself does not allow for the truly best of Pittsburgh to shine through, instead encouraging some of our more base characteristics to emerge. The idea that there could be a ‘Best Activist’ is ample demonstration with what’s wrong in that mind-set.

However, this is where opportunity to make our voices heard arises – the paper’s largest marketing effort of the year. Can you imagine the impact of an organized bypass of this contest on the marketing revenue and the message that would send?

Some finalists, like local writer and blogger, Jason Vrabel have removed themselves from content for the award.

A real struggle is underway over who says what about this city and region. It’s shaping our future and altering our past. I’m co-writing a book with Jamar Thrasher that tells the history of several Pittsburgh neighborhoods. But Jamar and I are not the “authors” of that history—it’s a people’s history, told through unfiltered interviews, through their eyes and with their words. We’re not in agreement with some of those words, but they’ll stand as-is. It’s THEIR history, and we believe it deserves a place alongside every other interpretation of this city and its neighborhoods. This alone will not solve the problem, but it’s one small step we can take.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to follow my instincts. I’m not going to TELL you “I love this city so hard,” as others have done, and then do this city harm. I’ll increase my efforts to support writers, even where I don’t care for their employers, to the best of my ability. I’ll continue to support the people and neighborhoods that are most vulnerable. That is something we can all do, no matter what our profession, trades or skills may be.

Not an easy decision to make. I am not in contention and I have my award, so who am I to tell anyone to pull their name, to strike a blow? I can’t even return my award. Here’s where I would insert a photo of my plaque, but the CP marketing folks misplaced it so I actually don’t have the physical award. So no Instagram moment as I toss it into the river or the recycling bin, etc.

A lot of terrific people are nominated and they deserve so much acknowledgement. But I also believe that even if every single queer person nominated won their category and filled up the second and third places, even if that happened – it would not offset the harm done to the LGBTQ community when they fired Deitch because of Metcalfe’s influence. Metcalfe should not have that influence. The City Paper should not erode its editorial content to become a knock-off glossy magazine. No one should fall for the line that focusing on arts and culture is apolitical.

So I’m not going to promote anyone in any category. It is your decision to cast a vote or not, it is your decision to leave your name on the ballot or not. It is your decision to patronize the winners or not.  (I still think if you’ve won in the past, create room for others and if you are uber Pittsburgh famous like the Mayor or Rick Sebak, step aside, but that’s for different reasons.)

I will keep reading the City Paper (and the Post-Gazette and the Trib online edition) because it is important to pay attention. I won’t ever again buy advertising (I actually did, if you can believe it.) I’ll keep mentioning that people voted for me (ME!) during the inaugural year of the Best Local Blogger category.

What I decided to do is to replace my award button my blog with a symbol of protest, designed by my friend Feargal as a reminder of what is transpiring in local media. How long will it remain up? I don’t know.

I guess you may have to pay attention, too?