Updated at 5:22 pm; correction appended.
Philadelphia magazine editor Patrick Kerkstra confirmed that he was ousted this morning, after what he termed management’s “strategic retreat” from his signature priority: Increasing the magazine’s original online content.
“I went in in January thinking we were going to really commit in a major way to doing news online in a daily fashion, less aggregation, more original reporting. That is something that for business reasons the outlet has retreated from a little bit,” Kerkstra told Billy Penn. “I couldn’t endorse that decision. It felt like we wanted different things from the outlet.”
The magazine will again be edited by Tom McGrath, who told staffers of the change shortly after 10 am today. The shift reverberated around the magazine’s newsroom.
“The staff is sad, shocked and confused. Patrick and his vision for what Philly Mag could be are the reason many of us came to the company. Under his leadership, the magazine became smarter, more urban, more digitally focused and more inclusive. Through careful editing and mentoring, he helped many of us grow into better writers and reporters,” an editorial staffer who wishes to remain anonymous said. “He also deeply believed that diversity should be a top priority for the company, and under him, the staff indeed became more diverse. Just as important, our coverage reflected that fact. Patrick pushed Philadelphia magazine to live up to its name.”
Kerkstra took over as editor of Philly Mag in January as the magazine laid off three editorial staffers, and quickly made his mark with a swath of new hires and what appeared to be a sharper focus on the city. David Gambacorta left the Philadelphia Daily News; Jared Brey moved from PlanPhilly, and the mag added Malcolm Burnley and curator Claire Sasko. Associate editor Joel Mathis departed around this time. The magazine also changed business editors — swapping Jared Shelly, now at Curalate, for Fabiola Cineas.
Kerkstra joined the magazine as Deputy Editor in June of 2014, relatively quickly hiring Holly Otterbein away from WHYY’s NewsWorks. Kerkstra, a former Inquirer City Hall Bureau Chief, had spent a few years as a freelancer, for the magazine as well as the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and other outlets. He launched the magazine’s politics-focused online vertical Citified just in time for the 2015 mayor’s race.
But it wasn’t long before the magazine’s ownership lost patience with the strategy, which didn’t immediately draw revenue. A second round of cuts about six weeks ago further put the squeeze on Philly Mag’s digital offerings.
“I don’t know that it’s entirely unusual in 2016. For me the bigger issue was more where the resources were redirected away from: Digital news,” Kerkstra said. “We were going to draw down in a meaningful way, and I thought that was a strategic mistake for the company and bad for the city of Philadelphia. We had gotten a phenomenal team just assembled. For reasons I never quite fully understood, they made a call to dial back on that.”
The strategy, Kerkstra notes, was bigger than just more original local content online. He was after a broader audience for the magazine than it has traditionally enjoyed.
“There was a disconnect in editorial focus. I had an interest in making the outlet more city oriented, more cosmopolitan, trying to pursue a younger more diverse audience,” he said. “I thought going in that Philly Mag was on board, and maybe they are and maybe I’m just not their guy. But it seemed to me that my commitment to doing that was different than their own, more substantial than their own. They wanted to do different things.”
The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists — which tussled with the magazine most recently for its “A City Parent’s Guide to Schools” cover from October 2015, and led to its call for McGrath to resign — issued the following statement on Kerkstra’s departure:
“PABJ is disappointed to learn of the departure of Patrick Kerkstra from Philadelphia magazine. During the months of his tenure, Patrick made great strides in adding and creating opportunities for journalists of color, as well as leading more racially sensitive and inclusive news coverage at the publication,” said Cherri Gregg, Esq., the group’s president. “He had a tough job rebuilding community trust; but he did it with diplomacy and sensitivity. PABJ hopes that Philadelphia magazine will continue its outreach under interim Editor in Chief, Tom McGrath and that any new leadership keep diversity and inclusiveness as a priority.”
The title of editor now falls again onMcGrath, who told Billy Penn that the magazine’s readers shouldn’t notice the newest change at the top of its masthead. He’s taking the reins as editor again, after nine months spent as Chief Content Officer for both Philly and Boston mags and building up a “content studio” advertorial business.
“I don’t think it’s any major directional shift on things,” McGrath told Billy Penn Tuesday, a few hours after the announcement. “We have a long legacy of doing really good journalism, narrative, investigative journalism, great service journalism, and that’s going to be the focus going forward.”
McGrath confirmed that it’s fair to say Philly Mag’s digital ambitions have changed.
“We’ve had some slight shifts in direction there. It’s been a work in progress for the last several years. We’ve been constantly trying things. Certain things don’t work, so we go in different directions. We’ve done some experimenting. We continue to be a work in progress,” McGrath said. “Citified still exists on the site. Its role had changed somewhat when Patrick became editor. It still exists, and we’re certainly still covering politics because we have a strong group of people who do that for us.”
The Citified section was last updated on September 19th; prior to that, the last post was on September 2nd. Its Twitter feed has not updated since early July. On the other hand, when the magazine’s Birds 24/7 vertical lost editor Tim McManus to ESPN, it hired away Brandon Gownton from SB Nation’s Eagles blog, Bleeding Green Nation, as his replacement.
McGrath also stressed that the magazine had no other staff changes or cuts planned.
“You work in the media business, you know it’s a challenging environment out there,” he said. “We feel good about where we’re heading with things.”
Kerkstra, for his part, described this day as inevitable.
“There was a disconnect between what I wanted to do with the magazine and what the magazine’s ownership wanted it to be. That’s their right, they own the place. Tom’s been editor before for a good long run. That says something about what they wanted the magazine to be,” Kerkstra said. “I will say this, if they hadn’t done it, I might have any day now. It had run through my mind more than once.”