When online Pittsburgh newsroom The Incline kicked off in 2016 with a swanky launch party at Il Tetto rooftop bar in the city’s Downtown Cultural District, few could anticipate how significantly Pittsburgh’s media landscape would deteriorate in the years to follow.
“The Incline came into being at a time…when the city still had two printed daily newspapers,” said Andrew Conte, director of Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation. “Now Pittsburgh has only the Post-Gazette on Thursdays and Sundays.”
Conte quips that The Incline could have just as easily been named “The Bridge,” given its emergence during a shift from print to online news. With original reporting, morning newsletter and news roundup, 40-under-40 awards, regular trivia nights, and other Pittsburgh-centric events, the small but nimble newsroom aimed at millennials punched well above its weight.
Over the years, the newsroom slimmed from five, to two, to one, and as of last month, zero Pittsburgh employees. On June 13, tucked away at the bottom of an otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning newsletter, The Incline’s sole remaining Pittsburgh journalist, Colin Williams, said his last goodbye, thanking readers for their support and urging them to stay engaged–“We need you—and your thoughtful attention to what’s happening in our city—more than ever.”
The Incline was first announced in 2015 by Jim Brady, CEO of Spirited Media, as a sister site to Philadelphia’s Billy Penn. According to media reports at the time, the Incline was funded by a $2.6 million investment from Gannett.
Brady declined to comment for this article, as did founding editor, Lexi Belculfine.
The Incline was a regular figure at the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania Golden Quill awards. They won a Hearken Champions of Curiosity awards for an in-depth look at Pittsburgh’s monkey balls, and a 2020 Newsguard “unsung hero” award for its credibility and transparency.
(The Incline’s online archives from their time owned by Spirited Media were not preserved, meaning that original reporting from its heydey is gone, only some of it accessible only via Internet Archive, if at all.)
Billy Penn was eventually purchased by WHYY in 2019. Similarly, in Denver, Colorado Public Media purchased another Spirited newsroom, Denverite. But in Pittsburgh, however, The Incline went not to public media, but Whereby.Us, a for-profit news network with $1 million in annual revenue and four similarly-aligned newsletter-forward news sites: The New Tropic in Miami, The Evergrey in Seattle, Pulptown in Orlando, and Bridgeliner in Portland.
Williams, who joined The Incline in March 2022, eventually took over for Francesca Dabecco, who currently writes “Hey Pittsburgh,” the newsletter for City Cast Pittsburgh.
Despite being the lone man standing, Williams remained an active presence in the Pittsburgh Media Partnership and was nominated for a Golden Quill award for a collaborative reporting project with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (PINJ) on diversity and inclusion efforts at the Pine-Richland school district. He also mentored interns and participated in a series on air pollution and disinformation in Allegheny County with the Pittsburgh Independent and several other outlets.
“There’s a changing financial landscape for the media, for sure,” said Chris Sopher, Cofounder and Director of WhereBy.Us. “You know, that obviously plays a role, but it’s not exclusively a financial aspect. It’s really about the business kind of needing to reassess what’s the right structure and strategy going forward in each of the cities.”
Sopher is also Cofounder and CEO of Letterhead, an online newsletter management and monetization platform. It was created in-house by WhereBy.Us to help publishers build and monetize email newsletters, and spun off from WhereBy in 2021.
Sopher would not comment on Williams’ dismissal or those of other directors in other cities. He said the newsletter is being generated in-house by Whereby.us, which is based in Miami.
He compared the current transition to the reassessment that occurred when Whereby bought The Incline from Spirited Media. The difference, of course, is that local journalists are no longer at the helm.
“I’ve never worked at a publication where we received so much encouragement from readers,” said former Incline director Rossilynne Skena Culgan, author of 100 Things to Do in Pittsburgh Before You Die and currently an editor at Time Out New York.
“That tells me that Pittsburghers truly craved the wit, snark, sass and dogged reporting that The Incline was founded upon, and I’m sad that it no longer exists in that way.”
Williams has applied for other full-time journalism jobs in Pittsburgh and is currently freelancing with PINJ on an assignment regarding censorship and book bans at area school districts.
Changes at The Incline come amid other labor struggles at other Pittsburgh news outlets. Earlier this month, Pittsburgh NPR affiliate 90.5 WESA notified supporters that the newsroom reached an agreement with SAG-AFTRA to offer voluntary buyouts to two of their reporters, and sources indicate significant programming changes will be announced soon.
Meanwhile, the strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stretches into its ninth month, easily making it the longest-running American newspaper strike since the 1990s. Last week, to help sustain the effort, striking workers received a $300,000 allocation from the Communication Workers of America’s Member Relief Fund, as well as an uptick in popular awareness as striking workers’ longstanding action is folded into the growing “hot strike summer” movement, alongside the writers’ and SAG-AFTRA guilds, hospitality workers, and more.
“We do think it’s really important that the newsletter is produced locally. And, you know, that’s certainly our intention,” said Sopher, without offering a timeline. “So what we’re looking at right now is what’s the best way to make that happen.”
For the moment, cosmetically, the orange-and-white newsletter looks the same, albeit delivered less frequently. But to discerning readers, the kind The Incline long cultivated, it has become apparent that the now-anonymous newsletter, which until this week signed off with “made with love in Pittsburgh,” no longer was.
Sopher did not respond to questions pertaining to if or how paying members or subscribers were notified of changes. In the meantime, Whereby continues to offer $80 annual memberships for perks which are on indefinite hold, like members-only trivia nights, and the “warm, fuzzy feeling of supporting local journalism and community-oriented storytelling.”
He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.
He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.
In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.