Steve and Carolyn Fillmore love to explore their surroundings.
Most days, you’ll find them strolling around East Falls, the tight-knit sliver of Northwest Philadelphia they’ve collectively called home for more than a decade.
For them, the leafy neighborhood is like an onion that gets more interesting with each peel.
“We literally are in awe of everything that’s here,” said Carolyn Fillmore.
Not surprisingly, the couple has learned a thing or two about their community over the years.
It wasn’t until they started researching a crumbling brick property on Indian Queen Lane, however, that they decided to carve out a virtual space to share all that info with the world.
An upstart mission
Enter the East Falls Local, the latest source for community news in this civically engaged, information-hungry part of the city.
The eight-month old site’s first entry focused on the herculean renovation of the Hohenadel House, a quirky 19th century property once owned by a local brewer.
“As we started writing it, we kind of heard this echo from the neighborhood,” said Steve Fillmore. “That’s when the news thing presented itself.”
The East Falls Local is part blog, part news site, part community forum.
Carolyn Fillmore serves as editor and lead photographer; Steve Fillmore handles the technical side of things.
Both contribute posts which, for now, are loosely organized into three categories: Neighborhood, history and business.
There’s newspaper-like reporting, but don’t expect complete objectivity. The two don’t consider themselves journalists. The site’s cheeky — often opinionated — style helps make that clear.
“It’s not Bill Maher, it’s Ellen,” said Carolyn Fillmore.
It’s been less than a year, but it appears at least some of what the couple is throwing down is being picked up by their neighbors, mostly through social media.
New kid on an established block
Still, when it comes to neighborhood news, it’s not easy to be a Northwest Philadelphia newcomer.
Community papers there have deep roots and deep loyalty, which, in part, is tied to a simple, but powerful reality: No one else is routinely covering the area on a block-by-block level.
New online outfits — including this one — have popped up recently, but traditional hyperlocal news isn’t dead here. Not yet and, perhaps, not for some time.
Some publications, though, are certainly surviving more easily than others.
The old heads
The Chestnut Hill Local is perhaps the most stable publication.
Since its start in 1958, the Chestnut Hill Community Association — more specifically, its board — has owned “the Local,” as it’s known around the neighborhood.
The relationship has, at times, been the source of some friction. Still, it’s safe to say the paper has largely remained viable because of — and not in spite of — it.
That’s largely because the Local has a bottom line, but no pressure to hit profit margins.
“They want us to pay our own way, but we’re not trying to make money for anybody,” said longtime editor Pete Mazzaccaro.
While the weekly paper doesn’t have any debtors, it’s not (big surprise) a particularly lavish operation. Its business model remains quite simple: Sell ads and subscriptions.
Mazzaccaro said advertising dollars from local retailers have ebbed more than flowed lately, which has cut into the paper’s page and staff count.
Readers, however, have mostly hung around , though more than a few have migrated to the paper’s website.
Mazzaccaro said he’s seen a noticeable uptick in online traffic recently. The weekly split each week is now roughly 50/50.
Currently, the paper distributes between 6,000 and 7,000 issues each week both to community association members and non-members. In the past, that total was closer to 9,000.
Content-wise, the Local has essentially stuck to its roots (profiles, civic meetings, high-school sports) and neighborhood borders. There’s good reason for that approach: That’s what readers want.
“People have an expectation and I think if you change or deviate from that, then you’ll hear about it,” said Mazzaccaro. “You’ll hear from people that you’re really not giving us what we need.”
That regularity has also helped keep the paper viable all these years.
Reputation has also been an important buoy.
Put together, Mazzaccaro said the paper should be alive for some time.
“As long as the civic association is relatively healthy and wants to do it and put that name on it, it’ll persist in some form whatever that may be,” he said.
Underlying it all is credibility; not only when it comes to the content being fair and accurate, but also that it’s being reported and written by people who really know the neighborhood and who, more likely than not, live there.
The Falls shuffle
In East Falls, that’s given The Fallser new life.
Earlier this year, Julie Camburn, the independent paper’s founder and steward, decided to step down as editor after 20 years on the job.
December’s issue was her last issue at the helm. She has no regrets.
“It’s a beautiful thing to know you were able to create something that meant a lot to a lot of people,” said Camburn. “I had no idea that it would go on and on like this.”
Neighbors, though, were decidedly disappointed.
The paper was never a source for hard-hitting investigations, but it certainly kept residents informed about what was going on around them the way no other news source did or would.
That sparked community leaders to get together and discuss the paper’s future. For weeks, the details were a bit blurry. That’s no longer the case.
Pending a final agreement with the East Falls Community Council, the monthly publication will live on under new leadership with Camburn moving into more of a consulting role.
Starting with the January issue, longtime residents John Gillespie and Bill Epstein will take on the editorial duties.
Epstein, a public-relations veteran, said a board made up of stakeholders would likely oversee the operation.
EFCC, the East Falls Development Corp. and the East Falls Business Association will effectively purchase the paper from Camburn over time by giving her a percentage of its ad revenues.
“We’re very hopeful that the newspaper will be published in January, February and beyond,” said Epstein.
Camburn couldn’t be more thrilled.
For her and other longtime Fallsers, the paper became a cherished, even entrenched piece of the community’s fabric, its tradition.
The view from Roxborough
Thomas Celona, who became editor of the Roxborough Review over the summer, said Northwest Philadelphia residents pick up community papers because they, more often than not, care about the neighborhood. As such, they naturally want to know what’s happening there.
The Review, Celona maintained, is the most trusted source for that information, partially because of its longevity.
“People feel a lot more comfortable talking to our reporters and they get to know us on a personal level and they feel connected with the newspaper,” he said.
That’s not to say the paper — which covers Roxborough, Manayunk and East Falls — hasn’t taken some lumps over the years. Similar to the Local and others, circulation and page count have dipped.
It’s trying to rebound.
Shortly after Celona arrived, the paper — owned by Digital First Media — made some changes to the layout and style of its print edition. That includes “more modern type” and an “emphasis on great visuals for our readers.”
Jim Foster’s battle
When it comes to newspapers, Jim Foster knows a little bit about bouncing back.
Face to face with the impending loss of two weekly newspapers (and with it, all that intrinsic community value), Foster launched the Germantown Chronicle and Mt. Airy Independent in 2009.
At the time, the Germantown Courier and the Mt. Airy Times Express — both neighborhood mainstays — were on their way out as the result of its parent company, The Journal Register Company, filing for bankruptcy and not being able to sell them.
Both papers had been part of the community for decades. For Foster, the idea of losing local coverage wasn’t something he was going to swallow.
“I came up with the idea that if we moved quickly enough, we could go out on the street and get all of the advertisers before the paper was gone for too long,” said Foster.
The plan worked.
Foster also secured some private financing (a $100,000 loan from the First Presbyterian Church of Germantown) and soon enough, the papers were back in business.
The two papers were later merged and called the Northwest Independent. It’s now the Independent Voice, a bi-monthly newspaper that also delivers papers to Chestnut Hill and East Falls.
It’s still, in a sense, a labor of love.
The paper relies solely on advertisers. It’s a point of pride for Foster.
Lately, that model has meant the paper doesn’t have enough money to cover a full-time staff writer. And interns, said Foster, are harder and harder to come by.
“The papers always survived with interns as their writers,” he said. “In recent years, when I tried to get them, very few young people are interested in doing print journalism.”
That means there are far fewer civic meetings and local events being covered.
Opinion pieces are now a much bigger part of the paper’s diet, with Foster typically writing at least a couple himself, typically about some form of political corruption and the city or state level.
“There’s no secret that I have an innate distaste for the political culture of this city and it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Foster.
To help keep readers up to date in between issues, the paper has launched a Facebook page, which is largely used as a community bulletin and aggregator of local news from other sources.
It’s all part of a strategy built from necessity and one that may or may not be long term.
“To me, the [newspapers] that survive are the ones that focus on the immediate community — things you’re not going to get in a daily,” said associate editor Scott Alloway.
Freshly looking forward
Back in East Falls, Carolyn and Steve Fillmore say the East Falls Local isn’t trying to compete with The Fallser or any other paper for that matter.
To them, their blog is complementary and offers a voice that Northwest Philadelphia, or the city for that matter, doesn’t have yet. And so, they figure, why not put it out there and see what sticks?
An observation Carolyn Fillmore made keeps her motivated: “East Falls loves to look at itself.”
It’s perhaps what’s also kept four papers alive in Northwest Philadelphia all these years and maybe, many more.