Q&A with Ryan Deto about the role of Pittsburgh City Paper in the region’s curent crisis

Local media outlets are essential to the work we do on this blog. Chief among those has been the Pittsburgh City Paper, a relationship that has had ups and downs over the years. I’ve been through the tenure of four editors, countless staff and beat reporters, and other staff as well as multiple publishers. I’ve received two awards through their readers poll.  I’ve argued with all of them – some more than others, but I’ve also appreciated their role in the local media landscape. They matter, the paper matters.  My brief toe-dip into the world of columnist has given me a whole new perspective on the world of alt-weeklies. 

Pittsburgh City Paper recently launched a new membership campaign inviting us to support their work. I jumped in right away with a monthly sustaining donation. I submitted a quote for their membership drive page – I’m listed right after Gisele Baretto Fetterman. And I decided to flip the script and invite Senior Writer Ryan Deto to be interviewed by me. He agreed and here is that official Q&A.

Take a browse of some of the coverage I’ve had in the CP over the years.

Your Name: Ryan Deto
Your Pronouns: he/him
Your Affiliation with the Pgh City Paper: Senior Writer

How do you describe your identity?  Cis white male

Print is still critical during the pandemic because there are still a good amount of readers who don’t use or have access to the internet for information. We want to be able to reach all members of our community, and we have heard from readers how thankful they are that we are still printing an issue.

Ryan Deto Pittsburgh City Paper
Ryan Deto via Twitter

Bring us up to speed on recent life at the Pgh City Paper before the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s recently new? Pittsburgh City Paper aims to amplify the voices of the communities we serve, and we pride ourselves on being a leading alternative source since 1991. We’re a small group, but working for City Paper — especially in the past few years, has really been like working with a family. Our reporters also live in the city, so we don’t only write about issues facing our readers, we’re covering issues that hit home for us, too. We love this city, and we hope our product reflects this.

Pittsburgh City Paper been publishing a weekly print product for nearly 30 years. We also doubled our online coverage last year, publishing new material online daily at least five times a week, which earned us our highest page views ever; and, our social media presence has grown substantially over the years too. We also print four magazines throughout the year: Taste, Newcomers Guide, City Guide, and a Holiday Guide. And, in the past few years, our sales and marketing team has also branched out to produce our own events as well, including our recent Cocktail Shake-Off, highlight some of the city’s best bartenders.

City Paper is all of these things, but none of these things without our readers, so at the heart of it: Pittsburgh City paper is really all of us.

City Paper, like many businesses under the pandemic, has shifted gears dramatically. Our coverage has focused a lot on breaking news and providing articles that serve as community resources during the coronavirus closures, like where to order take-out, what does the governor’s stay-at-home order means, etc.

Moving forward, we hope to continue to break news and keep readers informed, but also recapture our alternative spirit as media companies adjust. We still are going to cover coronavirus, but hope to get some stories out there that other publications wouldn’t normally share. Just last night, we posted a story on a local couple who got married on their porch during quarantine.

The economic disruption of the pandemic has already been felt by alt-weeklies and other independent media. One outcome has been the launch of a membership campaign to keep the CP operational. Tell us about that effort. Generating ad revenue for print and local publications has been a struggle for a while, and Pittsburgh City Paper is no different. But when the coronavirus closures hit, basically all of the businesses that usually turn to CP for ads (arts events, plays, restaurants, music venues) had to temporarily close down and no longer had a reason, or funds, to advertise. As a result, we lost a majority of our ads in less than a week — ads we rely on to fund our newsroom and publish all of our products for free.

We had already been working on a membership campaign to launch later this year, but after the pandemic caused us to lose such a substantial amount of advertising revenue, we moved up the start date of the campaign and made the hard decision to admit weakness and ask community members and businesses that aren’t struggling to contribute. It’s imperative that we raise significant funds so that we don’t have to make staff cuts or stop printing the paper every week.

Why is a print newspaper so critical?  Print is still critical during the pandemic because there are still a good amount of readers who don’t use or have access to the internet for information. We want to be able to reach all members of our community, and we have heard from readers how thankful they are that we are still printing an issue.

What role will the CP fill with regard to news coverage of the pandemic that we can’t find via other outlets?  Mostly the same role we filled before, which is telling stories that are unafraid to call out powerful entities. I recently wrote about how a worker at Pittsburgh’s Whole Foods was struggling to obtain emergency paid-time off, even though he had several vulnerabilities that make it more dangerous for him if he is diagnosed with COVID-19. We’re also sharing stories of community outreach. We just published stories on a local nonprofit giving away toys and a mental-health advocacy group launching a free weekly mental health and wellness program.

At a recent press conference broadcast on Facebook live with audio only I realized I could pick out your voice, as well as Chris Potter (WESA FM), and Jon Delano (KDKA TV) as you pressed for answers. That felt comforting and assuring, a level of intimacy that might not be possible in large media markets. How do these interpersonal relationships with journalists shape news coverage? Is that unique to Pittsburgh?  I don’t think it is unique to Pittsburgh, but it is really strong here. I think these relationships are important so that Pittsburgh journalists are collaborating to tell the best stories, not competing with each other to tell the same story.

Moving forward, we hope to continue to break news and keep readers informed, but also recapture our alternative spirit as media companies adjust. We still are going to cover coronavirus, but hope to get some stories out there that other publications wouldn’t normally share.

How can the public best connect with CP staff to suggest COVID-19 related stories, tips, etc?  People can email me at rsdeto@gmail.com or City Paper at info@pghcitypaper.com or my editor Lisa Cunningham at lcunning@pghcitypaper.com.

Over 30 years, the City Paper has been the stomping grounds for some of the most well-known journalists in this market and beyond. Who are some of the CP alumni that you look up to and/or read regularly. And why?  Rich Lord, Brentin Mock, Chris Potter, Ashley Murray, Bill O’Driscoll, the list goes on really. All of these journalists are extremely professional (much more than I am, lol), and their coverage is nuanced and deep. Pittsburgh and the U.S. media market would be a much worse place without them. I was even lucky enough to work with Ashley and Bill for some time.

How does that longevity contribute to the City Paper’s credibility and capacity to support Pittsburgh right now?  I think people recognize CP as a place that will tell stories others don’t, and since we have been around so long, they can count on us to be that alternative voice. It’s an important role, and I am glad readers still see the value in it.

How will your focus on food, arts, & culture continue through the pandemic? What does that coverage contribute to our lives in a world where most of these resources are off-limits?  A lot of it is lifting up the food, arts, and culture institutions that are stepping up and doing great things during the pandemic. Maggies’s Farm Rum made hand-sanitizer and donated it to the city. Groups are organizing mutual-aid and fundraisers for artists and out-of-work bartenders and service workers. Culture groups are moving to online streaming shows. We will continue to highlight these things.

From my perspective, advertising highlighting take-out options would be invaluable. I really want to support local businesses that are trying to stay open as well as doing things like paying their employees who can’t work. I’d also like to see advertisements about the innovative at-home services and programs I can access. As a weekly paper with a sizeable online presence, how is the City Paper positioned to offer flexible advertising information and opportunities? 

From CP Advertising Director Jasmine Huges:

We offer flexibility on creative and changes on all digital advertising options so ads can be updated with the most current information, and we offer ad creation at no additional charge. This allows for all of these businesses that are continuously evolving with the news to keep their message most up-to-date. As for our digital options, they are placed into three categories: website, newsletter, and social. For our website, we can offer banner ads and sponsored content, newsletters offer banner placement or a listing in Thursday’s CP Rundown newsletter, and we can offer boosts on social and instagram story takeovers. We invite anyone to email us to discuss how we can help them spread their message to customers.

With regard to the membership campaign, what are the goals in terms of funds raised and the number of members? 

From CP Advertising Director Jasmine Huges:

For the membership campaign, we started the program hoping to see some immediate support to help us continue to keep a full staff and put out our print product during the pandemic, and we have seen an overwhelming initial response now at 438 members.  Now that we are seeing the support that is out there for the City Paper, we are only now starting to think about goals. The main short-term goal is just to keep us going, get the issues out to even more people, expand the circle of reach; when we find a new way to expand reach, we hope to then see an increase in membership. For April, we will work to sustain the traction and keep momentum to 75% of what we did in our first month and then move forward from there. We’ve also launched a Business Membership Campaign for larger businesses who are not financially hurt by this pandemic. (Packages include the ability to donate ad space to a nonprofit of their choosing, so they can help another business out at the same time.) And we want to be really clear to all of our readers: We are not asking anyone who has lost income due to this pandemic to give financially if they’re unable to at this time.

How are you keeping the workplace safe for your team?  The vast majority of our staff is working from home for the foreseeable future. As long as we are still printing, a very small percentage of necessary workers are coming in at least two days a week to finalize the print product. Other than that, we are pretty much quarantined, even though the media is exempted from the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Anything else you’d like to share? Just that I love this job and I love the City Paper. I think it provides a crucial role in Pittsburgh. We often write about topics that other media companies don’t, including problems and labor issues that other media companies are going through. It would be tragic for any city to lose an alt-weekly. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Where can readers find City Paper on social media? 

@PGHCityPaper on Twitter, @PittsburghCityPaper on Facebook, pghcitypaper on instagram. And people can also follow me at @RyanDeto on Twitter.


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