Q&A with Pgh City Paper Editor-in-Chief About the ‘Best of Pittsburgh’ Reader’s Poll: Pandemic Edition

Lisa Cunningham Pittsburgh City Paper
Photo: Jared Wickerham

I am not being coy or exaggerating when I say that being voted “Best Local Blogger” in the Pittsburgh City Paper Reader’s Poll in 2016 was transformative for me. It was the first year for the category and I had no idea I had even been nominated. I accused the City paper staffer who called me of trying to punk me and immediately called someone at the CP whom I personally knew to confirm it was for real, for true.

The award didn’t change my world – no book deals, no promotional opportunities – but it changed me. 46 year old white cisgender disabled queer lady bloggers who write about politics are not exactly garnering all of the awards or high-profile moments. We just … don’t.  But once I was someone who did win an award from my neighbors, I reframed my perspective. Then I won a national award in 2019 and then the City Paper award again in 2019, as well.

When the polls opened for 2020, I was curious how things would shake out. People have more time to vote and recruit supporters’ votes. But we also don’t have concerts, readings, bars (at this point) or other venues to engage. I had the chance to talk with CP Editor in Chief Lisa Cunningham about the ‘Best of Pittsburgh’ poll; pandemic version.

Her responses also changed the way I look at this tool.

2020 Reader’s Poll nominations

Nominations: Wed., June 24 – Wed., July 22
Voting: Wed., Aug. 5 – Wed., Sept. 2


Your Name: Lisa Cunningham
Your Pronouns: she / her / hers
Your Role with the City Paper: Editor in chief

Please summarize the history of the Best of Pittsburgh awards for our readers who may not be familiar. Best of Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh City Paper’s annual readers’ poll, where readers choose their favorites in a variety of categories broken into four sections: Culture and Nightlife, Food and Drink, Goods and Services, and People and Places. It’s been a staple of al-tweeklies around the country for as long as I’ve been a part of City Paper, which means this year is my 23rd Best Of issue.

There are two phases to the poll: a nomination phase and a “finalist” phase where the top ten nominated entrants move to a final vote. Why do you use this process instead of a simple open one-round of nominating/voting? Honestly, this was a decision made a few years ago when I was left out of the decision-making process.I liked the old-school way myself, probably mostly because it was what I was used to for so long, but I think the decision was probably two-fold. City Paper joined lots of other alt-weeklies and switched platforms to one called Second Street, which 1.) breathed a little new life into the Best Of system by giving readers the chance to turn the nominations into a second multiple-choice round, and 2.) gave a new opportunity for more revenue opportunities for the sales department, as the entire voting process was lengthened and they could now sell ads on the nomination pages as well.

How does your readers’ poll stand out amidst a sea of other “best of pittsburgh” polls? Cities all over the country, not just Pittsburgh, have Best Of polls, so these are not something that are unique to Pittsburgh. But I do take pride in saying that we worked really hard this year to make improvements after listening to feedback from readers last year, and I hope that makes it stand out as one that cares about the community it serves. We updated a lot of our music categories in our Culture and Nightlife Section, and added in more diverse categories throughout and poll, including Best Black-Owned Restaurant and Best LGBTQ-Owned Business, among others.

To be honest, I’m aware of a lot of the other local Best Of contests in town, but I don’t read them, and I am 99% sure they don’t read ours, because there is only so much “Best of” content one person can take! So I can’t really compare ours to theirs. But if I had to guess, I would say ours is probably the more down-to-earth, high five, “Can I get a hell yeah?!” version. Best of Pittsburgh used to drive me crazy, but in the last couple of years, I’ve learned to find ways to have more fun with it. With the new categories we’ve added, I’m actually really, really looking forward to finding out the winners because I think we’re going to see some new faces this year.

A lot of people take this very seriously, an affirmation of their work and creativity as well as a tool to attract new customers. I see businesses proudly displaying their wins and often run into individuals who are incredibly invested in trying to win the title. How does this resonate with the role of the City Paper in Pittsburgh? Honestly, I think businesses and individuals should be proud. We’re not a pay-to-play publication. People are winning because people are actually taking the time to vote for them because they appreciate them and that means something. It’s a big reason why I do take this issue seriously, and don’t make decisions about it lightly. Sure, it’s a revenue maker, but it also does make winners feel good and it’s also our most picked up issue of the entire year, so readers love it too. And I have to admit, I still get a thrill when I go into a restaurant and look up and see a Best of Pittsburgh plaque I designed from 15 years ago hanging on a wall.

As I scroll through the current nomination (nomination phase ends July 21), I see several names that are not in the proper category. For example, podcasts listed as blogs. Bloggers nominated in the blog site category. Or corporate website widgets listed as blogs (nope!) Overall, what level of screening do you use to keep the playing field accurate, fair and balanced? This year is going to be the most difficult one we’ve ever faced because our Best of Pittsburgh nomination phase was launched right after we had to furlough a large part of our staff, including our events and marketing coordinator who had been taking the lead on this project and who we are all very much missing. Right now, there is only one person screening the entire Best of Pittsburgh nomination list and they are doing the best job they can do considering the circumstances. The entire staff will be stepping in and helping screen everything when the nominations get narrowed down to the final 10 before we move on to the voting stage.

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I have to admit I’m a reader who sighs when I see the same winners, year after year. As a winner myself, I opted out the following year and after I won a second time, I’ve decided to pull myself from contention in that category permanently. It just feels disproportionate and a bit like gatekeeping that keeps small breakfast diners unable to stand a chance against Eat n Park or for Pittsburgh based creators with international followings to overwhelm a truly local artist. Is greed too strong a word? Why not have winners take a year off to create room for others?  I’ve heard from others who want themselves pulled from the poll because they want others to be given a shot, and I think that’s amazing because I also want small businesses recognized and given the spotlight and the awards. But I’m also torn because I think it’s also amazing to see legacy restaurants be able to showcase themselves as the “Best XXXX Restaurant for 10 years” in their front window. And I also think it’s pretty cool for people to be able to look back at a certain year, “Hey, what was the best xxxxx in Pittsburgh in 2011?” and then look at our website at our best of list (which I’ve actually done) and check it out. In some ways, I think our Best of Pittsburgh lists serve as a public record, and if we start editing out winners the readers chose, are we changing that? I don’t have all the answers. Maybe next year, we could consider two winners for each — a legacy and an up-and-coming winner? I’m trying to figure out some of this stuff as I go, but I’m hoping that I’ve made some improvements this year, and hopefully next year, we’ll make even more. I’m also always open to suggestions for the future.

Best of Pitsburgh City Paper Reader's Poll

You’ve said “Pittsburgh loves what PIttsburgh loves” which is true in terms of our nostalgic fondness for Mr. Rogers and Isaly’s and the Steel Curtain, but also feels out of touch with the realities that some Pittsburghers seems to love white cisgender heterosexual Central Catholic alumni running everything. People are on the streets every day right now, demanding systemic and institutional change. How does celebrating banks, lawyers, and car dealers align with an alt-weekly perspective that is on those same streets covering the stories? As I mentioned earlier, in non-pandemic times, the Best of Pittsburgh issue is the one issue that brings in our highest source of revenue for the entire year. Yes, the sales department is going to try to sell an ad to people who readers vote for. But no one has to buy an ad to win anything, and no one who buys an ad will win something because they bought an ad. Can I shout that from the rooftops? Advertisements do not buy votes. Readers choose the winners.

And, to be honest, there are alt-weekly angles in lawyers and car dealerships too. Readers, vote for cool ass lawyers! There have been lawyers in Pittsburgh fighting to release arrested protesters. I know of a singing car salesman who I’ve been hoping someone will write a story about. I got an email this week, asking why we don’t have Best Pet Groomers on our list. The truth is, we just don’t have enough room to include every profession in Pittsburgh. I wish we did. There are so many people worthy of an award.

But when it comes down to it, yes, City Paper needs advertisements to keep printing. So if it means having a Best Bank category in the Best of Pittsburgh readers’ poll, well, may the readers’ favorite bank win.

Seriously, Tony Norman and Damon Young don’t need this award (writing) any more than Eat n Park does for pancakes. Free the writers and the pancake makers! I would say again, that this issue is as much for the readers as it is for the winners. These awards mean very very much to so many of the winners, but this issue — down to the name! — is for the readers. They are the writers of the issue. They decide the nominations, they decide the winners, and they pick up the issue to see who they chose. So when making any decisions, I gotta think about them too. This is the best — and worst — issue of the year.

I’ve also noticed that some winners don’t even realize they have been nominated. Have you considered contacting nominees to see if they want to participate? In pre-COVID days, it’d be a struggle to contact everyone with our small staff. With our staff furloughs, we currently only have one person manning the Best of nominations right now. We are going to work hard to contact all of the top 10 finalists, but we just don’t have the resources to find out contact information and then contact every nomination right now. We are working overtime just to get through week-to-week right now and are hoping things pick up soon, so we can get furloughed staff back to help.

What is your favorite category? My favorite categories right now are the new ones we’ve added this year. I’m personally very excited about the Best woman-owned business.

What winner made you cheer? I know Vanessa German is celebrated nationally, but having readers finally recognize her as a Best of Pittsburgh winner last year made me really, really happy.

Have you ever had a category not attract enough nominees? My mind is blanking on this one. There are some that come in lower than others, but in recent years, at least, I can’t remember having to ever pull a category.

What category traditionally receives the most votes? Pittsburghers love food, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, and I believe pizza is a top one.

Have you had any controversial winners? After all these years, I should know better than to look at what people complain about on local message boards, but I can’t help myself. People always bitch about the winners every single year. Every single year.

Best activist has been controversial among activists who feel it puts personalities and popularity ahead of genuinely successful community building. You made some changes to that category – tell us why. That category was intended to celebrate the important work activists do in the community, and it was originally added because we saw that it was successful in other cities. But Pittsburgh has so many community activist groups, and I admit, a change was long overdue and we should have switched it out years ago. Some new categories we added instead in that section are Best Community Leader, Best Community Nonprofit, and Best Good Cause.

I now tell myself CP needs lawyers and restaurants and car dealers to advertise so we keep our alt-weekly. Is that a fair stance? You got it!

Due to Covid, It is unlikely you’ll be able to hold your annual Best of Pittsburgh party. How will you celebrate this year? We’re discussing some (don’t groan) virtual events, where we announce the winners over a few days, possibly with some live performances by some of the winners.

I have a few suggestions. Tell me what you think. 

– Best political billboard or yard sign. Haha. That’s actually great, but maybe Best Local Political Ad Campaign instead.

– Best mail carrier This, in theory, is super sweet, but I think would be impossible when our circulation covers the entire city of Pittsburgh, plus the suburbs. We’d have people writing in someone’s first name. It would never work. (But, I would love to start profiling more less well-known Pittsburghers with interesting stories and plan on putting up a page on our site for people to send me suggestions soon.)

– Restaurant most in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines. We should have definitely had that one. We did add in some COVID-related categories this year, but that’s one we missed.

– Best labor organizer. A union question would have been good.

– Best neighborhood for creative parking space claims. Aren’t they all the same, though?

– Best plumber to respond to emergency without overcharging. I like this one too! (But for real, if there is one, can you email me their name?)

You have a caveat this year about offensive social media content. Does this include Peace, Love and Little Donuts, Chick-fil-A, and the restaurants that culturally appropriate? This is the first time we’ve added this rule, and it was really important to me to do so. I was really happy that both the rest of the management team, and the marketing team, immediately agreed with me when I proposed it, even though it meant that it could mean losing some potential advertisers.

This is the exactly language: The top 10 nominees with the most nominations in each category will make it to the voting phase which begins on August 5. Pittsburgh City Paper will eliminate any nomination if found to have posted any harmful defamatory racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic commentary on social media or elsewhere.

We originally planned to immediately eliminate problematic nominations as they came in, but again — because of ongoing struggles caused by the pandemic, we unexpectedly became short staffed, and now, we’re going to have to do the eliminations during the period in between nominations and the final voting stage.

We’re also probably going to be faced with some hard decisions as we see who makes it into the final top 10 in each category. If a business made a one-time mistake in their past, we’ll discuss it and make a judgement call.. But if we find a nominee has shared a transphobic Facebook meme when we’re checking their page, for example, they will be eliminated. Chil-fil-A wouldn’t be allowed because they’re a national chain. Peace, Love, and Little Donuts? I haven’t heard about them forever. Is he still posting hateful LGBTQ things on social media? Then he’d be eliminated? But there might be some things we miss. What we are going to do, though, is come together with our small staff, come up with a list of guidelines, split up the categories, and comb through businesses and people’s social media’s pages and make sure we’re not letting any problematic contenders through as best we can.

Are City Paper employees and contributors eligible? City Paper employees and contributors are unfortunately not eligible, and they will be eliminated before the voting round. But, every single one of them are worthy of first place and I will find a way to present them each with an award myself to make up for it.

Seriously, Tony Norman and Damon Young don’t need this award (writing) any more than Eat n Park does for pancakes. Free the writers and the pancake makers! I would say again, that this issue is as much for the readers as it is for the winners. These awards mean very very much to so many of the winners, but this issue — down to the name! — is for the readers. They are the writers of the issue. They decide the nominations, they decide the winners, and they pick up the issue to see who they chose. So when making any decisions, I gotta think about them too. This is the best — and worst — issue of the year.

By the way, I’ve been playing around with a Worst of Pittsburgh issue idea too. But I don’t think that one would do very well for revenue 🙂

2020 Reader’s Poll nominations

Nominations: Wed., June 24 – Wed., July 22
Voting: Wed., Aug. 5 – Wed., Sept. 2


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