As Pittsburgh City Paper Editor Charlie Deitch was driving to work on Tuesday morning, a colleague tipped him off that the paper’s management was in the office and prepared to ambush. “I sat across the street in a parking garage and I deleted all the passwords from my computer, getting ready to hand it in,” Deitch, who’s led the alt-weekly since 2014, told Splinter.
The unabashedly liberal paper is owned by local company Eagle Media Corp., and Deitch’s subsequent meeting with its president, Vernon L. Wise III, was brief. “He said simply, ‘You got to go,’” Deitch added. “I asked him why, and he said, ‘we’re not going to get into that.’”
But Deitch has a hunch. And it hints at the sort of free-speech-under-threat story that is unlikely to make the pages of prestige national media. He claims he was canned after refusing to back off critical coverage of a conservative state legislator.
The scandal revolves around Daryl Metcalfe, an influential Republican who represents the district north of Pittsburgh. He’s the type of guy who uses his Facebook page to rail against the “enemies of liberty” and “leftist media attack dogs.” On May 2, a City Paper editorial argued that he’s a bigot who uses a powerful committee chairmanship to obstruct legislation, and called him unfit for office. In a blog post days later, the outlet reported that members of a white supremacist group attended a pro-gun rally Metcalfe hosted. This came in addition to Metcalfe’s second consecutive inclusion in City Paper’s annual “Sh*t List” (their asterisk) last year, “because he is, after all, an asshole.”
“We’re an alternative paper, so we can be a little more flip, a little more sarcastic, a little more snarky,” Deitch said. “But our facts have never been alternative or fake.”
Deitch said that his paper’s coverage of Metcalfe irked the money people at Eagle Media Corp. (The company also prints the Butler Eagle, a daily newspaper in Metcalfe’s district.) On May 7, Raymond Sielski, acting general manager of City Paper, asked Deitch to knock it off in an email the latter shared with Splinter:
Can you redirect your anti Metcalf [sic] efforts towards let’s say maybe Pittsburgh politics, Are we not running any local races that CP readership might like to hear about relevant to Pittsburgh.
In a subsequent meeting, Deitch added, Sielski went so far as to ask that the editorial critical of Metcalfe be retracted. “I told him that Daryl Metcalfe isn’t a client of this paper,” Deitch said. “[Sielski] responded, ‘He’s a client of mine.’” The message was clear: tone down coverage of one of the state’s most powerful conservative lawmakers.
“It’s not only that I won’t do it,” Deitch told Splinter. “I can’t ethically do this.”
Reached by phone Wednesday morning, Sielski told Splinter, “I don’t have any comment on that. I’ve never had any involvement editorially.” He then hung up.
Eagle Media Corp. announced Deitch’s firing in an affably worded goodbye post on Tuesday that made no mention of any dispute over coverage.
“We are very excited for the future of [City Paper] and feel like we have a team in place that will help to move [City Paper] into a future where we can encompass all of Pittsburgh, with a renewed focus on neighborhoods, the arts, food and drink, and of course, local news,” Wise wrote in a news release.
Wise told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Deitch’s criticism of a local politician was “absolutely not” a factor in his firing. Splinter’s message to him seeking further explanation on Tuesday has gone unreturned.
The last bit of Wise’s note—the one about local news—is worth underscoring. Alternative media outlets have been particularly decimated by a loss in advertising revenue, making them easy pickings for media companies seeking synergies or rich investors looking for a hobby. The upshot is that many outlets are turning to more marketable lifestyle content in order to survive—or worse.
Just months after Joe Ricketts, the billionaire owner of DNAinfo, bought the local New York site Gothamist last year, he abruptly shuttered both publications. (Gothamist has since reopened.) When rich investors stealthily purchased the LA Weekly in November, they immediately fired nine of 13 editorial staffers. The supposedly liberal savior of the Village Voice likewise undertook a mass culling of the famed publication last year. These decisions are typically framed in financial terms; they also happen to be silencing independent—and typically progressive—local voices.
In Pittsburgh, City Paper will now be led by Rob Rossi, most recently a sports columnist. Deitch, out of a job after 13 years at the publication, wouldn’t get into many specifics about the paper’s direction, citing a nondisclosure agreement. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have another hunch.
“We’re the place to get arts and entertainment coverage [in Pittsburgh],” Deitch said. “But we’re also a place that people with nowhere else to turn come to [tell their stories], because we can give them a voice. I certainly hope that’s not in jeopardy. But I don’t know.”
Update, 2:09 p.m.: This post was amended to include more specifics from Deitch’s interactions with Sielski.