20 Years, 20 Stories: The Duo Behind the University City Review

Nov 01, 2017 16 days ago

Even if you don’t know Bob and Claudia Christian by name, we guarantee that if you live in University City, you’ve seen their work. Bob and Claudia are the husband and wife one-two punch behind the long-standing University City Review, the hyper-local paper that’s been delivering news to the neighborhood for nearly 30 years. Bob is the paper’s publisher and editor, and Claudia serves as the associate publisher, yet given the small size of their operation, they both handle much more.

Originally from New York City, Bob and Claudia arrived in University City with a young child in the late 70s. They chose the neighborhood so Bob could do graduate work at the Reformed Episcopal Seminary, formerly at 43rd and Chestnut. When that didn’t work out, Bob dabbled in property management before deciding to turn a part-time writing pursuit – editing a community newspaper, freelancing for the Delaware County Community Times and contributing to The University City Press – into a full-time gig.

The University City Review debuted in 1988 as a true community paper focused on what was happening in and around University City, while a sister paper, the Philadelphia Free Press, covered news east of the Schuylkill River. 

“I used to worry about not having enough stories,” Bob remembers. “But that’s just impossible. There’s all kinds of things going on, all kinds of people. People wanted us to do the paper. They wanted to read about what was going on in the neighborhood: events, restaurants, crime. They wanted to read stories about people.”

The Review began as a monthly publication, then switched to every other week, and then settled into the weekly publication it is today. 15,000 copies of the UC Review are printed each week and distributed to homes and neighborhood spots like supermarkets or our own UCD office. Bob handled the editing and contributed pieces on occasion, while Claudia worked with community associations on their calendars and their meetings. She also collected crime stats from police districts and handled sales, sometimes with a new baby in a carrier. 

A typical issue focuses on quieter community stories within their coverage area – progress on local parks, upcoming community events, restaurant openings. The paper also serves as an outlet for community opinions, with op-eds and articles written by neighbors. “We had, and we still have, a lot of people who are local who contribute to the paper, and that’s one of our most favorite things,” Bob says.

But every once in a while, the paper has made big waves in the community through a story they’ve published. Bob seems to revel in stirring things up, in being an instigator, and in spurring neighborhood action through his paper.

“I’m in trouble a lot,” he says, and there’s a mischievous glint in his eye when he recalls the rival editors, lawyers, and neighborhood big wigs who have read him the riot act over stories he’s published. He seems to love being the fly in the ointment, or the David to the community Goliaths. When this is proposed to him, he points to a plaque on the wall that reads: “Fighting bad guys is only part of the wonderful world of the good guys.”

The paper doesn’t take a position on issues but serves as an outlet for neighborhood residents. “Sometimes it’s the only voice where people of the neighborhood can say things,” he explains.

Bob and Claudia have used the paper to help the community. When the University City Arts League nearly closed in the 1980s, it was a story in the Review that helped save it. “The board wanted to close it down and sell the building,” Bob remembers. “So I wrote a big editorial. People were horrified. They didn’t know the financial problems.” Bob’s reporting prompted a neighborhood movement to save the longstanding arts organization. “People got so roused up that they took over the Arts League: New board, new president. They got the funding and they’re still in business.”

A UC Review story also helped to save the Walnut Street West Library. The library had been closed due to water damage, and Bob learned there was a plan to demolish the building. He hired a Penn student to do a drawing of the library, and on the front page of the paper he published the headline “Why Are They Taking Our Library?” “I’m telling you, all hell broke loose on that one,” Bob says. After community opposition and a big meeting, the library was renovated instead of being demolished, and today it’s one of the most active branches in the system.

Other notable moments from the Review’s history? A battle with Philadelphia Magazine over a story involving a WXPN disc jockey that devolved into a flurry of angry faxes. The time Bob interviewed the commander of the South Sudanese Liberation Army, who was in the neighborhood to raise money from the Sudanese community; the US State Department had no knowledge of the commander’s visit, and the story wound up being reprinted and distributed all throughout Africa.

And Claudia recalls a local veteran won two concert tickets in a UC Review contest, who shared that it was the first time he had a gift to give to his son. A week after the show, he came back in and gave them the only thing he had a book of forever stamps, and told them he read the paper all the time. “And you know, that was one of the best gifts I ever received,” Claudia says.

Business has gotten more difficult over the years, not just for the Review but for the entire newspaper industry. Several local papers have folded and others have changed their formats entirely. Competition for readers’ attention has gotten stiff, and people get their news from so many different sources now, often in an instant. The UC Review has worked to stay relevant despite changing times, and have developed a website and an e-newsletter. Their revenue is driven by advertisements and their pitch is built on their ability to reach the neighborhood. This reach is what brings back larger organizations like Penn and Drexel, and smaller places like local restaurants and even UCD when we want to get our work out to a local audience. What really sets the Review apart, and keeps them relevant, is a devotion to the news that matters the most to people in the immediate area.

“We’re not making millions,” Claudia says. “But one thing we are good at is staying afloat, and staying around. Other papers in West Philly have folded, even with funding from this place and that place. You have to hustle. It's a labor of love."

It might be tricky, yet the Review has risen to that challenge over the years. A recent survey puts them well above the national average for the percentage of people receiving the paper who actually read it. When they drop off approximately 800 papers to three supermarkets in the neighborhood, people are waiting to pick up copies, and the boxes are empty within days. Countless neighbors share how appreciative they are of the coverage of community issues that are important to them. “People tell me they read it from cover to cover,” Bob says. “It always amazes me. We write things that people respond to.”

“It’s an industry that’s always exciting,” says Claudia. “There’s always new stories, and people to meet, and places to go.”

As the 30th anniversary of The Review approaches, Bob and Claudia have begun to consider their exit strategy. Although Bob says “the newspaper gets into your blood,” he admits he and Claudia are at a stage of their lives where they’re looking to turn the paper over to somebody else. When they retire, they hope someone will continue the paper that has found such a home in the community.

Bob allows himself a moment to be sentimental. “Working with people, working with writers, and working with community people, that’s all been really good. We’ve made so many friends in the area.”

For Claudia, the most satisfying part is publishing stories that make a difference. “Sometimes the stories really have a positive effect on a block, or on the people. Sometimes just having the publicity makes something happen. That’s about the best we can do. We can’t do more than just expose the story, but those things are really rewarding. Years ago there wasn’t much backup for community groups, so getting the exposure in the paper really meant something. If you are responsible, you can have an impact, and you can do something that’s really valuable to the neighborhood.”

Hopefully, they can continue that trend for years to come.

Comments

What a blast from the past to see this story and photo! Working for UCP in the late '80s was an important learning experience for me. I still remember clearly the late, late nights putting the paper together through hours of cutting and pasting.

Thanks for that article. I worked Bob and Claudia in 1992-1993 as a graphic designer, and I must say that they were the best people you could work for. Never a dull moment. Seeing them brings back the best memories.

Bob and Claudia represent the best of the best in local journalism and community outreach! If only other newspaper writers, editors and advertisers would imitate this daring duo! On a personal note, they are the sweetest people in the city! VM

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