Big Trial image
YouTube screenshot//courtesy Ralph Cipriano

Big Trial breaks big Philly news but faces funding crisis

Its reporters have gone inside Shady McCoy and Seth Williams’ cases, but they’re working for free.

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Ralph Cipriano and George Anastasia rarely hear praise from local Philadelphia media colleagues. When their website, Big Trial, comes up with a big scoop or provides a different angle than what’s seen at Philly’s mainstream outlets, they aren’t congratulated on Twitter and often are not even cited for their work.

“The best feedback we get,”  Anastasia said, “is when they decide they’ve got to cover [a story] because we covered it.”

The amount of times that’s happened since the site began in 2012 is significant. Big Trial had the backstory on LeSean McCoy’s bar fight before anybody else last year. Cipriano and Anastasia, a few months ago, were the only reporters to interview the dismissed 12th juror in the Chaka Fattah trial. And just a couple weeks ago the website reported District Attorney Seth Williams was denied entry at the Union League.

Those stories and more have gained a following among the legal community. Many lawyers, police and government employees read the site — and some, who Anastasia and Cipriano have known for years, act as sources.

The problem? After about four years of financial backing from The Beasley Firm, they’re now doing the work for free. Big Trial is coming up with some of biggest scoops in Philly’s criminal justice realm on credit.

“We’ve gone back and forth saying, ‘do we want to keep it alive?’” Cipriano said. “I kept saying to myself ‘It’s useful. It fills a need. Nobody else is doing this stuff.’”

The official start of Big Trial dates back to 2012. But the origin story is incomplete without the connection between The Beasley Law Firm and Cipriano.

In the 1990s, Cipriano was a veteran reporter at the Inquirer, the newspaper he now readily criticizes, covering the religion beat and South Philadelphia. He was a divisive figure in the newsroom, clashing with the brass over things like diversity training and smoking in the newsroom (yes this was the ’90s) while reporting some of the biggest stories in the paper.

In 1997, he reported an in-depth piece on then-Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, but the paper spiked portions of it, namely sections detailing how despite the Archdiocese of Philadelphia claiming it was going through financial trouble, Bevilacqua had authorized the spending of millions on his house, his vacation home, three church buildings and a cathedral. Cipriano later got the National Catholic Reporter to publish his full piece. After that story ran, amid accusations the Inquirer had been soft on the Archdiocese and toward former publisher Brian Tierney’s communications group representing it, Inquirer editor Robert Rosenthal told the Washington Post Cipriano “has a very strong personal point of view and agenda” and “there were things Ralph wrote that we didn’t think were truthful.”

Cipriano sued for libel, represented by Beasley’s firm. The parties settled, winning Cipriano at least a million dollars.

He also got connected with the firm. In 2004, Jim Beasley Jr. hired Cipriano to work on a biography of the firm’s founder and his father, James Beasley. Then in 2008, with the corruption trial of former Philly lawmaker Vincent Fumo set to begin, Beasley Jr. asked him to cover the case on the firm’s website, Beasleyfirm.com. Cipriano became one of the few reporters covering the entirety of the lengthy trial and was regularly featured on Fox 29.

By the time some of the biggest cases of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s sexual abuse scandal went to trial in 2012, Big Trial was born under the umbrella of The Beasley Firm. Anastasia jumped on board later that year after taking a buyout from the Inquirer.

They aren’t exactly scientific in the way they choose stories. Anastasia covered the mob for years and has published several books on the topic, so he often focuses on that subject. Both he and Cipriano know the courts and Philadelphia police officers. Anastasia recalls a time he was at the courthouse and a couple of U.S. attorneys he knew asked him if he was going to cover a trial about a doctor connected to prostitutes and the Pagan motorcycle gang. He had never heard of the case but decided he’d cover it. And soon, after his stories on Big Trial ran, so did more mainstream publications.

Cipriano’s articles are often a mix of news, analysis and opinion, and he generally takes a contrarian point of view. Just this week, he posted about the “liberal media bubble”: “So why does our local daily newspaper miss so many stories that we wind up by default writing about on this blog?” he wrote. “Because too many people down at our local daily newspaper all think alike.”

The site’s scoops have at times attracted a large audience. The McCoy story, for instance, drew about 30,000 page views in one day, Cipriano said. The Williams Union League story got over 10,000. Biggest of all was a story about disgraced Rolling Stone writer and Penn grad Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which, Cipriano said, got over 50,000 page views in a day.

And yet despite the some of the big hits, they haven’t pulled a consistent or large audience and have never had advertising on their site. For a few years, all they needed was Beasley Jr. anyway. They said he paid for their work by the article since the launch of the site in 2012 until last summer. At that point, he stopped funding them.

Cipriano said in the earlier days of Big Trial, the firm’s website picked up so many referrals from links on Big Trial Beasley Jr. considered it worth the cost. When the reach declined, Cipriano said Beasley Jr. decided to stop paying for it.

Anastasia said, “We appreciate all he’s done. He’s no longer financially supporting us, but he’s still the umbrella under which we operate.”

Beasley Jr. did not respond to a request for comment. The firm’s logo and a link to BeasleyFirm.com is still located in the upper right corner of the Big Trial.

Anastasia and Cipriano said they’ve been searching for grant money to no avail. Anastasia has deals writing for other publications and is usually at work on a mob-related book or documentary. Cipriano writes for other publications, too, and a book he’s been working about Fumo for the last several years is almost complete.

They’re not sure how long they can continue operating the site but doubt they could cover a “big trial” from beginning to end as they have in the past. As good as it feels to beat their former place of employment on some of the city’s biggest stories, they’re searching for more.

“It’s justification, it’s fortification,” Anastasia said, “but it doesn’t pay the bills.”