Victor Fiorillo

Victor Fiorillo

Courtesy of Victor Fiorillo

Inside the mind of Victor Fiorillo, Philly Mag’s traffic-driving gossip hound

He’s pretty much the “Worst of Philly” guy.

Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Philadelphia magazine’s masthead lists Victor Fiorillo as the arts and entertainment editor. In the actual printed magazine, he is surely that— picking the concerts that can’t be missed, reviewing theater shows, interviewing notable locals and so on. But in a magazine that takes care to catalog the city’s elites in features like  “The Great Philadelphia Families,” Fiorillo’s duties for its website present a startling contrast.

Fiorillo, 42, is the reporter who finds the cop who tried to mail weed, or allegations of anti-Semitism at a gentleman’s club.  He breaks news of a party bus that caught fire and “burnt to a crisp.” He stays with it, and hears that friends attending a bachelorette party say they were still on the bus when it began to burn. “God forbid we were all on the bus longer,” the bride told Fiorillo. “We had the music blasting. You can’t hear fire.”

It might just be the most distinctive byline in local media, a self-proclaimed “heat-seeking missile” aimed at the Worst of Philly from the same publication that prides itself in presenting its Best. Sure, there’s Daily News curmudgeon Stu Bykofsky, or Philly Mag’s newcomer Ernest Owens, but note one thing— those men make their mark through a column. Fiorillo’s no stranger to personal essays or opinion pieces, but really, he’s a reporter. Gossip and tabloid fodder— sex offenders, bitter feuds within family businesses, odd criminals, etc.—  get researched; court docs are handled deftly, comments are included from those impacted — the bereaved, the accused, the authorities. “Before making someone the treasurer of your organization, here’s a tip: Do a background check. That is the lesson being learned by one suburban group that claims that its recent treasurer stole thousands of dollars from the coffer,” is how one such story, on an embezzlement scandal, began.

Fiorillo can hop on a lead, have it reported out (and off to a lawyer if need be) in a few hours. He’s fast, and — according to both Philadelphia magazine editor Tom McGrath and its former editor Patrick Kerkstra — he’s clean.

“I’ve never known him to make a meaningful factual mistake. I can’t think of one,” said Kerkstra. “I wish more reporters were as unfailingly accurate as he is.”

On his chops alone, Fiorillo should be among the most respected Philadelphia journalists. But to understand why that’s not really the case, take a moment to consider some of Fiorillo’s online highlights in the last year:

Journalists love to judge not just the quality of each other’s work, but what’s worthy of being covered. And plenty in Philly don’t love what Fiorillo considers news. In fact, he was wondering if that’s why we’re writing this, right now.

“Why me, why now? I’m inclined to meet with you, but before I do that, I want to know if you are going for a Meet the Biggest Asshole in Philly Journalism article,” was his emailed reply to our request to talk.

“That wouldn’t necessarily change my answer, but it’s helpful for me to know your intent.”

We’re writing this because Fiorillo is not normal. We weren’t able to find an equivalent on the staffs of city magazines in Chicago, Boston, Atlanta or Baltimore. He’s the most-read writer that Philadelphia magazine has, according to McGrath.

But there’s another side to this hard-bitten reporter who prides himself on getting it right, and fast. He’s a member of the Martha Graham Cracker band— a drag-queen led group in which he’s the keyboardist and manager (they tour internationally) —  and he’s a family man who lives with his wife Suchita and two children in Overbrook. Beyond this, he also produces events. I asked his good friend Bobbi Booker, a reporter at the Philadelphia Tribune, how he does it all. “I wonder about that myself,” she replied.

Martha Graham Cracker.

Martha Graham Cracker.

Courtesy of Victor Fiorillo

For the past 11 years, he’s been the keyboardist for Martha Graham Cracker. Martha, or as Booker insists, “Marfa,” is a drag queen, the alter ego of local actor Dito Van Reigersberg.

“They could find a keyboard player who’s better than me pretty easily. I kind of know my role is most important on the business end of it,” said Fiorillo. He puts in the extra work, he said, to make sure they’re not wasting their time. “I have a wife and two kids and an extremely busy job. I don’t have time to play for beer money.”

He’s “gotten them a regular booking at Joe’s Pub in New York,” Booker said, pride clear in her voice. “There are acts in New York that have been in New York for decades who can’t set foot into Joe’s Pub.”

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The Fiorillos are local. At first, his family lived in Norristown, but when he was 6, they moved to a big South Jersey house “with a pool, blah blah blah,” in Fiorillo’s words.

“In elementary school, he got an award one year: “If the teacher doesn’t know, ask Victor,” Fran Bowers, Fiorillo’s mom, remembered. “We used to play Trivial Pursuit. We [his father and I] used to have to cheat to beat him.”

Family photo. Young Victor is in the center.

Family photo. Young Victor is in the center.

Courtesy of Victor Fiorillo

He was a bright, musically gifted, exceptional writer back then, his mother said. That made it tough when Fiorillo dropped out of high school, and later, out of Penn when he eventually tried college.

“I don’t think I’m built for the average school,” Fiorillo remarked.

“He was a nonconformist, and I used to say ‘Where does that come from?’” Bowers said. “His father and I were very conforming.”

Things were tense after he dropped out for the first time. He moved to Philly because he felt like he couldn’t stay home after leaving school. He worked in a mail room at a law firm. He took community college classes before applying to Penn— this was in the mid-to-late ’90s. He got in, despite not having a GED, but despised it. So he quit.

His path wound through the IT Department at Independence Blue Cross, before, in 2000 moving to Comcast as a systems engineer.

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The story goes that Suchita wanted to go to an island. This was still in 2000, before they got married. The choices were Barbados and Haiti. Fiorillo remembers Haiti being $5 cheaper.

In his pre-travel research, he found about the Khian Sea waste disposal debacle: in 1986, Philadelphia paid a waste-hauling firm $6 million to rid the city of 14,000 pounds of ash. Four thousand were dumped on a beach in a small town in Haiti in 1988. The ash stayed on Caribbean sands despite local objections until most of it was removed 12 years later.

“I told Liz [Spikol] about this crazy story. She was managing editor at the Philadelphia Weekly at the time. She was like, ‘Dude, this is a cover story.’”

Spikol co-wrote the story with him. He covered ongoing cleaning efforts, spoke to workers who showed him rashes to prove what they believed to be long term health effects.  “We’re there during presidential elections in Haiti. So there’s like pipe bombs and masked gunmen in pickup trucks like randomly shooting people— it was an insane trip.”

The story landed him on NPR. Practically on a lark, he had worked as a freelance foreign correspondent on his first serious swing at news.

“He kind of popped up out of nowhere. Like ‘Hey, who’s that guy?’” Booker remembered.

“I was working for Comcast at the time, doing computer stuff that I had no business doing. I talked myself into a systems engineer job. I literally had no clue what I was talking about,” Fiorillo recalled. That vacation he was on wasn’t exactly smiled upon, and when his bosses discovered he’d been moonlighting in journalism, that was a problem too. He got fired, but the seed was planted, and he started interning at Philly Mag, living off unemployment. It’s typical for journalism interns to be college kids. Fiorillo was a 27-year-old college dropout.

He thought his time was up as he neared the end of his unemployment benefits. “I go to my supervisor on a Friday and I said: I have I two weeks left on my unemployment and I have to get a real job so I’m giving my notice,” Fiorillo remembered.  “And she said, ‘It’s funny, because I’m quitting to have a baby and I recommended you for the job’

“I wasn’t even looking for it, and it came.”

He was a research editor for the better part of a decade. Getting source and citation lists on a longform story is like having someone hand you the ingredients list out of a recipe book. The hyper-accurate reporter who can sniff the sauce out of a document was built here. When he finally transitioned to serving as staff writer in 2010, he was talented, but ultimately awful at his job.

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Courtesy of Victor Fiorillo

“I got a staff writer position, which basically meant that they would tell me what I would write. And I came very close to getting fired,” Fiorillo recalled.

What saved him? The internet.

“Whereas I couldn’t write a 3,000-word story [for] an issue three months from now,” he said, “in 24 hours I could crank out a 2,000-word on something big happening in Philadelphia [that] had lot of voice and got lots of traffic.”

And a digital star was born.

“When I have something I want to do, it’s like heat-seeking missile mode… I probably have an undiagnosed something that makes all this good for me. ADHD or whatever you want to call it.”

That brings us to 2016. Oral histories, like his recent Rocky story or his MOVE Bombing piece, he can tackle. Planned-out nonfiction narrative he cannot.

“Every time I get an assignment for the magazine with the long lead time, I get panic attacks. I can’t deal with it,” he said.

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Fiorillo’s work is identifiable almost by headline alone. In Philly Mag election planning meetings, Fiorillo’s contributions were referred to as “the shenanigans beat.” And “in some respects, that’s always his beat,” said Kerkstra.

Shenanigans might be a public figure behaving badly. Or a bold squatter insisting to neighbors that he owns the Wynnefield home he’s staying in. To Fiorillo, he claimed police and the Department of Licenses and Inspections were lying, and that a visit to the Recorder of Deeds would show what’s what. The squatter’s name, of course, wasn’t on the deed. Fiorillo stories can also often be grim— like when a suburban dog died inside a plastic-wrapped cage left outdoors.

McGrath doesn’t really consider these kinds of stories incongruous to the magazine’s other coverage— not the “Best of Philly” list, or deep urban affairs reporting, or the longform narratives. Kerkstra didn’t either during his time as editor, explaining that he saw this as providing a good mix.

McGrath put it this way, “It’s certainly not problematic in any way as far I’m concerned.”

Kerkstra acknowledged that sometimes, he’d defend Fiorillo’s brand of reporting, internally and externally. “It was a defense I was always happy to make,” he said. “I’m certainly aware that some of his work alienates people in big ways, but as a part of a team, he’s utterly invaluable.”

“He’s never boring. And there’s a lot of boring stuff out there, but Fiorillo never is,” Kerkstra continued. He has a “nose for what’s going to interest people. A lot of times what interests people is sensitive.”

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Courtesy of Victor Fiorillo

It’s easy for the Daily Mail-vibes to Fiorillo’s online work to cast a shadow over just how rare he might be. When asked for examples of gossip regularly published in a deeply reported fashion, Tim Seiber, a professor at the University of Redlands who’s studied gossip, thought of just two examples: black journals during the antebellum years, and reporting on the lavender scare during the McCarthy era.

It’s not unusual in online media these days to find gossipy, clickbaity stories next to more prestigious, investigative coverage. “They are in a confused space in which what’s news and what’s gossip are one click away,” said Seiber. But with Fiorillo, “It’s sounds like this reporter has just collapsed those things. It’s all just the story.”

Now, Fiorillo’s Philly Mag work isn’t all scandal.

The A&E section is his; as are plenty of opinion pieces. (Fiorillo can sometimes take on a grumpy uncle voice and let you know why that event you were looking forward to is going to suck, or has historically sucked.) A personal essay where he contemplated cancelling Thanksgiving to avoid the Trump voters in his family, namely his mom, caught the eye of CBS News, who invited him and his mother to sit for a mock Thanksgiving dinner with a mediator. He likes mixing it up. Writing only gossip “might get a little boring for me,” he said.

Fiorillo doesn’t seem to worry about how other journalists may measure his rep. “That might bother some of my stiff-collared colleagues from the dailies that hang out at the Pen and Pencil, but it doesn’t bother me. (Ed. note: Fiorillo has run at least twice for the P&P’s Board of Directors, and lost.) I know I have very little respect from those people, but I think that comes with the territory.”

Booker is one of the few people, if not the only person, in the local media scene who Fiorillo considers a dear friend. But even that friendship was tested in its early years by Fiorillo’s nose for news.

“I used to call him a bad refrigerator. He couldn’t keep shit. He just couldn’t,” said Booker. “It was one of those things— I had to lightly threaten him a couple of times… I learned to be very, very careful about what I said, but he was always looking for scoops.”

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Courtesy of Victor Fiorillo

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As Seiber points out, the market for this is “humongous” and not locally exclusive. But print tabloids aren’t as popular these days.

“I would ascribe the decline in attention to tabloid journalism itself as related to the increased production of tabloid reality in social media,” said Seiber.  “I think we are in some ways capable of producing our own shortform tabloids… That’s troubling for prestigious publications and [gossip papers.]”

In 2014, Fiorillo broke the news that local police were looking for a man who allegedly would expose himself him to strangers before placing swiss cheese on his junk. Fiorillo actually went out to the suspect’s house in Norristown to ask him about the accusations before his arrest. He found the story through social media.

“Let’s be honest, Facebook is its own news outlet,” said Fiorillo.  “A lot of the stuff that I do had a life on Facebook and other social media. But I think it’s important that we gather the facts of what folks are talking about… Let’s figure out ‘Okay, what’s the truth here?’

“…I love stuff like that where the magazine gives me the freedom to run with something, that could otherwise be somebody’s Facebook post.”

But he doesn’t get free to write about everything. Fiorillo remembered a story he wish he told: The one about a fight at a Starbucks involving a lawyer from a “prominent Center City law firm.” It wasn’t “like an assault where somebody’s is brutally beaten,” he detailed, “but there’s… an assault.”

“There was video of this incident, and I wanted to run a story on it. And I was baffled when I was told it wasn’t newsworthy. I was like it’s newsworthy because people are going to be like, ‘Oh my gosh!”

Indeed, McGrath confirmed, there are stories the magazine declines to tell.

“I think we’ve certainly had pieces where he’s gone down the road a bit, and we’ve put the brakes on it,” McGrath said, “Either a), that’s not a story, or b), what is the value of doing a particular story?”

“If I had my own site, it would definitely be the TMZ of Philadelphia. And I’d be writing about all different kinds of things you don’t hear about because they’re not newsworthy” said Fiorillo. “I think I’ve come to understand what Philly Mag’s level of acceptability is. We don’t get into too many full-blown disagreements…

“[But] there’s certainly [stories] that I come across that Philly Mag will not let me publish. So I save those for the day when I have my own media empire and can do whatever I want.

“You laugh, but just you wait.”