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Unusual loan revives two weeklies

Philadelphia PC(USA) church brings newspapers to life

October 30, 2009

The session of First Presbyterian Church of Germantown.

The session of First Presbyterian Church of Germantown, in Philadelphia Presbytery. —First Presbyterian Church

Philadelphia

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

When two weekly newspapers in Germantown and Mt. Airy closed earlier this year, a Philadelphia church active in the community for 200 years provided financing that enabled a new publisher to bring similar newspapers to life.

In an era of failing newspapers, the resurrection of two papers in Northwest Philadelphia was an unusual event.  For a church to make it happen was even more unusual, but First Presbyterian Church in Germantown in Philadelphia Presbytery considered the investment to be part of its social mission.

The church last spring made a $100,000 loan that resulted in the birth of two weekly newspapers called the Germantown Chronicle and the Mt. Airy Independent

"Our church is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year," says the Rev. Nancy E. Muth, the church’s pastor. “That is how long we have been part of this community. When Mt. Airy and Germantown lost their weekly newspapers, we lost a vital means of sharing stories and announcements in the neighborhoods around our church. 

“Businesses were not able to advertise. People no longer had a way to learn about housing and job opportunities,” Muth adds. “We are an urban church that is committed to serving the people in the community. Within the church, we felt a responsibility to the community to help revive these papers.”

The former Germantown Courier and Mt. Airy Times ceased publication in February when their owner, the Journal Register Co., filed for bankruptcy.

Soon afterward, a Mt. Airy businessman, Jim Foster, set out to launch two similar weekly newspapers under the names Germantown Chronicle and Mt. Airy Independent. Foster sought financial backing from First Presbyterian Church, which is in the heart of the Germantown business district. 

“I knew no bank would finance this," says Foster. “I ruled out seeking public money in any form because that would involve politicians. I also ruled out private developers in Northwest Philadelphia as investors.”

Foster said he knew that First Presbyterian Church was committed to community outreach, so he approached Muth and other church leaders with a request for financial support.

Muth says the church made the loan based on projections that Foster’s proposed weekly newspapers were expected to be profitable and the loan would be repaid. She says the church did not want to have — and does not have — any involvement in the editorial content of the papers.  “Our vision is for these new papers to present fair and unbiased news and to restore the voice of the communities they represent,” she says.

The Germantown Chronicle and Mt. Airy Independent were first published on April 30 and have been printed weekly since then.  They are circulated for free to 36,000 homes and businesses in the Germantown and Mt. Airy communities.

The newspapers are operated by a for-profit enterprise called Germantown Newspapers. Foster said that after four months, the papers are breaking even.

“Everybody I talk with is happy to have them,” said Foster. “I think it’s pretty much of a success in most folks’ eyes.”

Foster said he found it “remarkable” that the church had been willing to make the loan. “I find this church’s philosophy is a committed one,” he said.

First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, founded in 1809, is a racially-mixed and multi-cultural congregation. It has been celebrating its 200th anniversary throughout this year with a series of special events, including “Breakfast with Tiffanies,” a program featuring several Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows at the church; “Tea with Violet,” featuring murals within the church by muralist Violet Oakley; and musical programs and concerts.

“The fact that we have been able to help return two weekly newspapers to our community is another way we are celebrating our bicentennial year,” says Muth.  “We are happy to have done it. We believe it is very much in keeping with our role and our mission.”

Linda Deeter is a communications professional in Philadelphia.

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