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July 31, 2023, 11:43 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Pittsburgh laments The Incline’s descent

An online Pittsburgh newsroom’s last remaining journalist says goodbye, as the city’s media landscape sputters.

A version of this story was originally published by the Pittsburgh Independent.

When online Pittsburgh newsroom The Incline launched in 2016, with a party at the Il Tetto rooftop bar in the city’s Downtown Cultural District, few anticipated how significantly Pittsburgh’s media landscape would deteriorate in the years to follow.

“The Incline came into being at a time…when the city still had two printed daily newspapers,” Andrew Conte, director of Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation, told me recently. “Now Pittsburgh has only the Post-Gazette on Thursdays and Sundays.”

Conte quips that The Incline could have just as easily been named “The Bridge,” given its emergence during a shift from print to online news. With original reporting, a morning newsletter and news roundup, 40-under-40 awards, regular trivia nights, and other Pittsburgh-centric events, the small but nimble newsroom aimed at millennials punched above its weight.

But over the years, the newsroom slimmed from five staffers, to two, to one — and, as of last month, zero Pittsburgh employees. On June 13, tucked away at the bottom of an otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning newsletter, The Incline’s sole remaining Pittsburgh journalist, Colin Williams, said his last goodbye, thanking readers for their support and urging them to stay engaged: “We need you — and your thoughtful attention to what’s happening in our city — more than ever.”

The Incline was first announced in 2015 by Jim Brady, CEO of Spirited Media, as a sister site to Philadelphia’s Billy Penn. The Incline was funded by a $2.6 million investment round that came primarily from Gannett. (Brady declined to comment for this article, as did The Incline’s founding editor, Lexi Belculfine.)

The Incline was a regular figure at the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania Golden Quill awards. It won a Hearken Champions of Curiosity award for an in-depth look at Pittsburgh’s monkey balls, and a 2020 Newsguard “unsung hero” award for its credibility and transparency.

“I’ve never worked at a publication where we received so much encouragement from readers,” said former Incline director Rossilynne Skena Culgan, author of 100 Things to Do in Pittsburgh Before You Die and currently an editor at Time Out New York. “That tells me that Pittsburghers truly craved the wit, snark, sass and dogged reporting that The Incline was founded upon, and I’m sad that it no longer exists in that way.”

“[The Incline] was like your nebby neighbor telling you the who’s who and what’s what in the ‘Burgh, but expertly reported with the right amount of both criticism and celebration of our city,” said Francesca Dabecco, who now writes “Hey Pittsburgh,” the newsletter for City Cast Pittsburgh.

The Incline’s online archives from its time owned by Spirited Media were not preserved, meaning that original reporting from its heydey is gone, only some of it accessible only via the Internet Archive, if at all.

In 2019, Spirited Media pivoted to consulting and put its three sites up for sale. Billy Penn was eventually purchased by WHYY, while in Denver, Colorado Public Media purchased Denverite. In Pittsburgh, The Incline went not to public media but to Whereby.Us, a for-profit news network with $1 million in annual revenue and four similarly newsletter-forward news sites: The New Tropic in Miami, The Evergrey in Seattle, Pulptown in Orlando, and Bridgeliner in Portland.

Williams, who joined The Incline in March 2022, eventually took over for Dabecco. Despite being the lone man standing, he remained an active presence in the Pittsburgh Media Partnership and was nominated for a Golden Quill award for a collaborative reporting project with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism on diversity and inclusion efforts in the Pine-Richland school district. He also mentored interns and participated in a series on air pollution and disinformation in Allegheny County with the Pittsburgh Independent and several other outlets.

But journalists cost money.

“There’s a changing financial landscape for the media, for sure,” said Chris Sopher, cofounder and director of WhereBy.Us. “That obviously plays a role, but it’s not exclusively a financial aspect. It’s really about the business kind of needing to reassess what’s the right structure and strategy going forward in each of the cities.”

Sopher is also cofounder and CEO of Letterhead, a newsletter platform. It was created in-house by WhereBy to help publishers build and monetize email newsletters, but spun off as a separate company in 2021.

Sopher wouldn’t comment on Williams’ dismissal or those of other directors in other cities. He said The Incline is now being generated in-house by Whereby.us, using Letterhead’s software.

He compared the current transition to the reassessment that occurred when WhereBy bought The Incline from Spirited Media. The difference this time, of course, is that local journalists are no longer at the helm.

“We do think it’s really important that the newsletter is produced locally. And, you know, that’s certainly our intention,” said Sopher, without offering a timeline. “So what we’re looking at right now is what’s the best way to make that happen.”

Changes at The Incline come amid other labor struggles at other Pittsburgh news outlets. Earlier this month, Pittsburgh NPR affiliate 90.5 WESA notified supporters that the newsroom reached an agreement with SAG-AFTRA to offer voluntary buyouts to two of its reporters, and on July 28, the station announced that its flagship daily news show, The Confluence, would end in a week.

Meanwhile, the strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stretches into its tenth month. Last week, to help sustain the effort, striking workers received a $300,000 allocation from the Communication Workers of America’s Member Relief Fund.

As for The Incline, for the moment, the orange-and-white newsletter looks the same. But it’s now delivered two days a week, down from four, and there’s a clear difference between the newsletters written by Williams and the briefer, unbylined link wraps shared in the newsletter now. To discerning readers, the type The Incline long cultivated, it has become apparent that the now-anonymous newsletter that until last month signed off with “made with love in Pittsburgh” no longer is.

Sopher did not respond to questions pertaining to if or how paying members or subscribers were notified of changes. In the meantime, WhereBy continues to offer $80 annual memberships for perks that are on indefinite hold — like members-only trivia nights, and the “warm, fuzzy feeling of supporting local journalism and community-oriented storytelling.”

Brian Conway is an independent journalist based in Pittsburgh and the publisher and editor of the Pittsburgh Independent. He is a two-time Western PA Press Club Golden Quill Award winner and was a first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Photo of Pittsburgh by Matt Evans used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 31, 2023, 11:43 a.m.
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