Hyperlocal elegy: Why Steve Strahs is ending CitizensCall.net

With the recent sale of the Bucks and Burlington County dailies to NewMedia Investment Group (GateHouse) and Digital First Media’s attempts to sell the Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware County dailies, suburban Philadelphia journalism “is far from flourishing,” warns Stephen Strahs, Melrose Park-based publisher of the late Citizens’ Call.

His own site, which covered Cheltenham Township in an independent news effort, “is permanently suspended and will soon be removed,” said Strahs, who had worked as an economic-development and labor consultant before he took up local web news in 2012. “It still wasn’t profitable, despite long hours.”

I asked him whether internet millionaire Michael Golden’s investment in local websites MoreThanTheCurve and AroundAmbler was a hopeful sign.

Sure, an investor can “grow” a website by networking with local businesses, including one’s own (Golden owns restaurants, apartments, and events), Strahs told me. “But it says nothing about the viability of web-based local accountability journalism. Promotions and happy talk, as you know, is quite different from real reporting.”

As is real business, sadly: “I did real journalism — and as a one-man show, never had the time to court advertisers and social media the way I needed to.”

I asked him to sample his favorite Citizens’ Call stories before they vanish and you have to dig for them on Archive.org. He sent a list. Excerpts:

Confusion surrounds the 1900 Ashbourne (condo development) project,” Strahs wrote in a 2014 story. “Michael Choi of (developer) Swift & Choi was convicted in 2012 of a range of federal offenses, including violations of federal immigration laws and the filing of false tax returns for his law firm, Choi & Associates, based in Melrose Park. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the IRS of more than $160,000 … Choi was also disbarred and subject to a probationary period of three years, according to the disbarment order by the Pa. Supreme Court.”

Asked for his side of the story, Strahs related, Choi “reacted strongly: ‘What are you talking about?  I’m not going to answer any of those. Listen, you don’t know what happened. … You’re rubbing my wound for no reason, OK?’ ”

Before his legal problems, Choi was a significant player in the region’s Democratic Party, serving as chair of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian American Affairs under Ed Rendell and on a number of boards associated with the city of Philadelphia. According to public records, he was a frequent contributor to political campaigns.

Criminal conviction provides no legal bar to “success in the real estate development business,” Strahs noted — and then went on to get comments from each of the seven township commissioners on Choi, his project, and other pending plans.

In another story that fall, Strahs listed the sponsors behind the state Senate candidates competing for the local district — and their connections: “Notable backers of (Art) Haywood begin with State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), whose committee contributed $10,000 on top of a $40,000 loan to the campaign. Evans, long a power in Philadelphia politics and a reduced but still significant force in Harrisburg, endorsed Haywood and has been generous in his praise. … Another contributor is Jeff Brown of Westville, N.J., owner of a chain of some 10 ShopRite supermarkets including the one in the Cheltenham Mall. He provided $5,000. … The state was to contribute $5.5 million of the $11 million renovation and modernization project of his Cheltenham store in 2011, which had to be officially approved and signed off on by the township’s board of commissioners. Another is a $1,000 contribution from the political committee of the law firm Duane Morris, which has done work recently under a contract with the township for representing it before the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“On the [challenger Brian] Gralnick side of the ledger, Laurie Franz of Jenkintown, daughter of Toll Brothers Inc. CEO Robert Toll, contributed $3,000 and her husband, Jeff, also in real estate, provided $2,450 through an in-kind donation for housing. Democratic party stalwart Peter Buttenweiser of Philadelphia donated $3,000 and Richard Green, CEO of Firstrust Bank, contributed $5,000 … Leanna Washington secured 2014 contributions through May 5 of $20,755. … Her single largest source was the Carpenters Union PAC from Philadelphia, which gave $5,000, followed by the Jay Costa for State Senate committee at $4,000 and the Laborers District Council PAC of Philadelphia with $3,500.” Haywood won. Voters had the benefit of a local reporter connecting the dots.

What’s next for Strahs? “I’m working on some extended pieces on issues around mental health and criminal justice.” Very different, he adds, from basic block-and-tackle hometown reporting.