Three most relevant, mentioned and impactful Philadelphia columnists write in a niche

Eighteen months ago, I was searching for the best metro columnist in Philadelphia.

I felt the Inquirer’s Dan Rubin was the nearest in a legacy of citywide voice boxes, telling the broadest and widest ranging stories. Perhaps that’s true.

But it’s been nagging me that outside of some media-focused friends — and even then — I never hear Rubin or his other traditional columnist colleagues with any sort of regularity.

Instead, the columnists whose names I read, hear mentioned and myself reference the most are increasingly niche orientated. They’re not writing about the city, they’re writing about and for a very narrowly focused part of it. These are other critics and writers who have long existed in newspaper parlance, but I believe the increasingly niche-dominated media ecosystem means their voices carry greater power than before.

What Philadelphia names do I think appear most influential, if only in mention?

  • Inga Saffron (Inquirer) — This architecture critic is as feared, respected, mentioned, referenced and discussed as any other journalist I know. It helps that niche sites like PlanPhilly, Brownstoner and other geographic-specific hyperlocal sites have popped up to echo and push out further her name and work more regularly.
  • Joe Six Pack (Daily News) — The man who was at the forefront of the Philadelphia beer movement, including helping launch Philly Beer Week, has his hands in many different pots, like good journalists of the future are known to do. There are any number of niche beer publications, in Philadelphia particularly, and this man is the vanguard of their work.
  • Craig LaBan (Inquirer) — He’s long been a big name in Philly media and perhaps, unlike Inga, the crush of blogs focusing on his coverage area has helped to subdue his influence, but still he remains a force whose name crosses my eyes with regularity.
  • Todd Zolecki ( — The former Inqy beat writer turned MLB scribe is among the top of the heap in a crowded Philly baseball sports field. Like Saffron, Zolecki gains authority from a blogosphere that pushes his way, which is an important step after losing the power of print.
  • Joey Sweeney (Philebrity) — It’s tough to externally compare voice when comparing the independent publishers and the legacy media folks — how many of the two million monthly visitors to read a Inga Saffron column? — but Joey probably has the clearest community of and is the longest established among independent online publishers in Philadelphia. He speaks for a younger, progressive, music-and-culture orientated class and is credited (and derided) widely for doing so. He (and his interns) interject a very clear editorial voice to a very narrow community. So, though he owns the domain himself, he fits very clearly the group here.

Now, I haven’t put the requisite time into comparing this trend with out metro regions. It’d be my bet that of course other cities still have eminently respected general interest newspaper columnists who are supported by existing newspaper readerships, but the generation of readers being developed today are built into a niche.

I know I find myself increasingly attracted to niche-specific news and allowing the serendipity of social media to help make sure I don’t miss the big, important pieces in other niches.

Inga Saffron or Craig LaBan or Todd Zolecki or Joey Sweeney are an entry point into news and information around a person’s interest.

Those who have come from the general audience are grappling with their need to find a niche.

Former Daily News political writer Dave Davies went to WHYY and is writing there, but I haven’t heard much from him. He may still be grappling with the need to connect to his audiences on his own terms. Chris Satullo preceded that move from 400 North Broad to the Old City public media company but his impact has not been with the pen (or voice) but with his organization of NewsWorks, the organization’s hyperlocal experiment and a niche onto itself.

Tom Ferrick is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former general interest columnist for the Inquirer but he is transitioning, building an audience around narrow city politics coverage with his Metropolis.

Can existing metro columnists do the same or do they have to break away?

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