The start-up becomes the third major Center City alternative weekly, after the City Paper and the Philadelphia Weekly, which changed its name from the Welcomat last year.
Why start another free weekly newspaper in Philadelphia?
``I guess the answer is: Why not?'' said Rottenberg, a 53-year-old contrarian who prides himself on his ability to stir debate. ``When I started the Welcomat in 1981, I had a lot of things I was burning to say and didn't have a place to say them, and a lot of other people had the same feeling. And we're back at the same place right now.''
Rottenberg said the publication aims for a more intellectual readership than the old Welcomat, with more emphasis on arts coverage. The Welcomat often ran voluminous columns of letters to the editor, which could take on the shrill back-and-forth tone of talk radio. By contrast, he said the new publication aims to be a place where ``intellectuals or highbrows can exchange ideas.''
``I'm a great believer in free speech,'' he said. ``I think everybody is worth listening to, some people because they have solutions to problems and others because they're very good examples of what the problems are. At the Welcomat, sometimes we had more of the latter, more patients and fewer doctors. This time, we're going to make sure we have more doctors.''
Most of the Forum's dozen employees formerly worked at the Welcomat, which Rottenberg left in 1993 to join Seven Arts, a monthly arts magazine that he edited for a year. Following Rottenberg's departure, the Welcomat was changed from a quirky community bulletin board into a mainstream alternative weekly, and it changed its name to Philadelphia Weekly.
Rottenberg said he and Forum publisher Larry Singer are among its investors, as are the Forum's managing editor, Derek S.B. Davis, and the receptionist at its Ludlow Street office, Toni Flynn. All worked at the Welcomat, and they are based in the same decrepit three-story townhouse that housed that newspaper.
Singer said the newspaper has raised enough money to keep going for five years, with the hope of breaking even in the fourth year.
The Forum's competitors said they were unconcerned by its launch. ``To be honest, I haven't given it much thought at all,'' said Michael Cohen, publisher of Philadelphia Weekly, which distributes 112,000 papers.
``People have got to make a living, and maybe [Rottenberg] will find an audience,'' said City Paper publisher Bruce Schimmel, whose paper distributes 85,000 copies weekly. ``I'm confused what it's going to be doing that's not being done better elsewhere.''
The start-up of the Forum comes at a time when free alternative weeklies are gaining popularity. Although many daily newspapers are grappling with readership declines - and, overall, U.S. daily newspaper circulation is stagnant - weekly papers are ascendant.
The circulation of 105 newspapers in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies more than doubled from 1990 to 1995 to 6.1 million, according to the group. Unlike daily newspapers, which get money from readers and advertisers, nearly all of the alternative weekly papers are ad-supported and free to readers.
In a notable addition to that trend, the Village Voice, the nation's preeminent alternative newspaper, said yesterday that it would be free to readers in Manhattan, though it would retain its $1.25 cover price elsewhere. Leonard Stern, the pet-food magnate whose company owns the Voice, said he believed ``the future of all paid newspapers will become increasingly difficult in the years ahead, especially with young readers who have not grown up with the daily newspaper habit.''
Stern Publishing said it wanted to expand into other markets - which could include Philadelphia. Voice publisher David Schneiderman said the company will look at Philadelphia, perhaps to start or buy a newspaper. ``We think it's a great market, and it's not necessarily terrifically served yet,'' he said.
Schimmel, publisher of the City Paper, said he had recently been approached by ``a couple of people'' seeking to buy the paper. He declined to say who, but added, ``I'm always interested in listening.'' Schneiderman, meanwhile, said he was unaware that the City Paper might be for sale. ``I've never met or spoken to them,'' he said.