Max Pulcini Matthew Albasi Temple Grads Owners of The Spirit of the Riverwards
Left to right: Max Pulcini and Matthew Albasi, recent Temple grads and owners of The Spirit of the Riverwards.
Dan Meyers

Left to right: Max Pulcini and Matthew Albasi, recent Temple grads and owners of The Spirit of the Riverwards. Photo by Dan Meyers.

Recent Temple alumni Max Pulcini and Matthew Albasi know these are perilous times for newspapers. But, a year ago, they bought one anyway.

They use their publication, The Spirit of the Riverwards, to create discussion and unite their diverse, changing and sometimes fractious community.

So far, it seems, so good. September 2015 marked a year since their first edition. They are making changes and, they say, money. The website's been revved up, news coverage is more topical and the community is engaged in discussions the Spirit has helped provoke.

"A few months ago we finally took our first deep breath," Albasi says. "We've gotten to the point where we can finally look beyond our noses, beyond the point of 'how do we get this thing out every week?'"

It's fun and challenging for the Temple grads to use what they learned in the Department of Journalism to put out a newspaper and website. But they've also thrown themselves into something bigger -- a great, global experiment as media try to keep pace with rapid changes in communication technology and audience.

The Spirit, in news-speak, is hyperlocal, focused on the communities it serves. Or, as the newspaper itself declares, "Hyperlocal News, Done Differently."

The difference, the owners say, is that they engage the community in creating the newspaper. Like when the Spirit launched a discussion about the boundaries of the neighborhoods it covers -- Fishtown, Kensington, Northern Liberties, Port Richmond and Bridesburg.

Although these are neighborhoods with long, proud traditions, folks who live there, along with journalists and real estate agents, didn't agree on where one neighborhood stopped and another began.

Pulcini, SMC'13, and Albasi, SMC '12, didn't settle for a traditional story. They posted a map and requested comments. The responses underscored an issue people were talking about and gave residents a voice. (One reader trashed the Temple duo for hailing from New Jersey; they printed that comment too).

The hyperlocal journalism Pulcini and Albasi are practicing comes as daily newspapers, struggle.

"It's pretty clear that, in Philadelphia and around the country, the metro dailies are not able to do hyperlocal any more," says Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, which has helped fund dozens of hyperlocal news start-ups. "They just don't have feet on the street," he said.

But, Schaffer adds, that vacuum doesn't guarantee success for the newcomers.

"It depends on who is running them," she says, "and whether they do it as a hobby or a business, whether they consider their main task to be to create a work of art or a model of sustainability."

Quality is no guarantee of success either. Look at Philadelphia's journalistically sound online publication, Metropolis, which recently closed.

"The reason is simple," Metropolis explained to readers. "We ran out of money."

With that gulp-inducing backdrop, Temple's Pulcini and Albasi, trained in journalism but not in business, entered the world of local newspaper ownership. Pulcini serves as managing editor, Albasi as publisher, though it's a small place and they wear many hats.

Their story goes back to their academic careers at Temple. They met at the Journalism program of the School of Media and Communication, where they learned to use different platforms of communication to reach different audiences. The school's focus on community connections also was a good fit.

In his senior year, Pulcini moved to Fishtown, dropped off a resume at the Spirit and began to freelance. One of those pieces was about the Kensington football team, the Tigers. Convinced there was a deeper story about the team's helpful role in the community, Pulcini enlisted Albasi to make a video.

Their video, Rise of the Tigers, attracted local media attention. The then-owners of the Spirit, Tom and Maryanne Milligan, began talking with the pair about how the newspaper could use the video. Then, the surprise - the Milligans asked if they wanted to buy the newspaper.

Albasi recalls their surprised answer: "Um, all right, yeah. Yeah?"

Albasi's father helped with the business plan. Relatives provided funding and joined in a limited liability corporation with Pulcini and Albasi. They reached a deal in nine months and the Temple grads began running the Spirit.

Through the window of their offices on Susquehanna Avenue in Fishtown, Pulcini and Albasi could look out and see that the river wards are tricky places to cover.

The area, a jumble of row houses set on small streets, had struggled when Philadelphia's manufacturing base crumbled. Now, artists, empty nesters and people who want cheaper housing are moving in. With them come coffee shops, juice bars and restaurants with burgers priced in the double digits. Albasi tracks the changes with his own scoring system.

"My metric is joggers," he says.

Pulcini adds, "Yuppie and hipster are negative terms that are thrown around here" by older residents.

But the Temple grads couldn't simply play to the new crowd.

"We need to avoid the sense that Fishtown is only cool now," Pulcini says.

"And," Albasi adds, "one of the things we are trying to do with the Spirit is open that dialogue."

The newspaper's design a year ago was as jumbled as the neighborhood's streets. The website was stale, social media was overlooked. Stories were mostly fluffy features.

It was one thing to study journalism, quite another to own a piece of it.

"Cash flow," Albasi recalls, "was slowwww."

Unable to hire many full-time reporters, they put out a call for freelancers on Facebook. Dozens responded. The public was invited to Spirit staff meetings. A professional came on board to do the books.

Today, the design makes sense, the Spirit's Facebook page has more than 3,000 likes and the news topics include hard news such as crime, development, pot, and potholes while still noting parish updates and seasonal recipes.

The Spirit website draws some 30,000 unique hits a month compared to 2,000 a year ago. But print isn't dead. About 14,000 papers a week are distributed free, with an estimated readership of 40,000.

The Temple duo says there's more to come. Their initial business plan called for expansion and they're planning and raising money for that.

They won't go into detail yet but Albasi says of the future, "We can have a newspaper like this in many different neighborhoods. It's more about us giving the opportunity to the community to create a newspaper."

"The past year has been scary and exciting," Pulcini says. "We want to bring the community together, not set it apart. I love my neighbors and my neighborhood. I think we should love it together."