Why Philly Mag’s editor is resigning after 10 years on the job

Tom McGrath hopes his replacement isn’t “a middle-aged white guy.”

Philadelphia magazine is known for its 'Best of Philly' issues (inset: Tom McGrath)

Philadelphia magazine is known for its 'Best of Philly' issues (inset: Tom McGrath)

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn; LinkedIn
danya

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The top editor at Philadelphia magazine is resigning at the end of the summer, he confirmed to Billy Penn, adding to a string of white men who’ve stepped down from leadership posts as newsrooms reckon with the nationwide movement to call out and address systemic racism.

In the case of Tom McGrath, who has helmed editorial at Philly Mag for the past 10 years, there wasn’t a specific touchpoint that caused his departure — at least, not a recent one.

A memo McGrath sent to staff on Monday and obtained by Billy Penn cited the need for “deep and meaningful change” across parent company Metrocorp, which also runs Boston magazine. Second-generation owner David Lipson Jr. recently gave up his CEO title, and for the first time hired an outside consultant to lead the lifestyle media company.

In his memo, McGrath wrote that the need for more diversity was a company-wide issue, and opined that Philly Mag’s editorial team had made the most progress of any Metrocorp department on that front. He also made clear he recognizes much work remains.

“I have given almost every ounce of energy I have to this job for the last decade, and at the moment I’m not sure I have enough in my tank to do the job as well as it needs to be done,” McGrath said in the memo.

He observed that while he’d have no say over his successor, he thought it should not be a “middle-aged white guy.”

White men of middle age have recently left top posts at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where blowback over a headline reading “Buildings Matter, Too” forced out former executive editor Stan Wischnowski, and the New York Times, where opinion editor James Bennett stepped down after greenlighting a piece in which a U.S. senator called for troops to be used against protesters.

“Media institutions have enormous power, and the people who run them shouldn’t all look the same, think the same, or come from the same backgrounds,” McGrath told Billy Penn. “Over time these shifts should only make the media better and more reflective of what’s happening in the world.”

Controversy and accusations of racism swirled around the magazine during his tenure at Philly Mag, as highlighted in a tweet thread by former staffer Fabiola Cineas, now at Vox.

A cover story titled “Being White in Philly” sparked major outcry when it was published in 2013, garnering national attention, a rebuke from then-Mayor Michael Nutter, and threats of a boycott.

Intended as a provoking look at race relations in the region and the city — which is 44% Black — the article didn’t include any Black voices, and all 10 of its white interview subjects were granted anonymity. Its author, Robert Huber, still writes regularly for the magazine. After its publication, McGrath pledged to hire more nonwhite writers.

Two and a half years after “Being White” came out, McGrath issued a formal apology over another cover story, calling his decision to approve the photo used “stupid” and “insensitive.” The article in question was a guide to the city’s schools, which are only 15% white, yet the image that fronted the October 2015 issue of the mag appeared to include no children of color.

In the aftermath of the schools controversy, McGrath pledged again to change “the culture within the magazine’s walls that leads to blown decisions” like that one.

According to Cineas, efforts were only half-hearted. She cited a diversity committee and company retreat that saw no followthrough, as well as a PABJ summer fellowship seen as “an afterthought.” There are currently two full-time African American staff members on the editorial team, sources confirmed to Billy Penn.

While acknowledging missteps in his memo this week, McGrath urged Metrocorp to take action from the top. “It really needs to begin with an expression by them, the owners,” he wrote.

Lipson, the owner, expressed thanks to McGrath and a commitment to diversity in a company-wide email.

“The owners of this company, my family, are fully committed to a diverse and inclusionary workplace,” Lipson wrote. “I care deeply about the staff here and want nothing more than to create the most accepting and nurturing workplace for you all.”

He promised that the coming weeks would bring a series of announcements that would “mark important steps forward.”

For McGrath, the future is uncertain. “I’m not sure what’s next for me,” he told Billy Penn. “I’m hoping to spend the rest of this summer thinking and talking to people about that.”

The September issue of the magazine will be his last.

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