AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   February/March 2008

The Column That Became a Franchise   

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

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There are few in Philadelphia who will forget that April day in 1998, in that cadaver-cold dump they called the Vet, when Joe Sixpack became a star.

Mr. Sixpack, as he later became known, had been around for two full seasons. The real fans knew him, liked what he did, appreciated the way he went about his business. He was a Philly fan's dream, a local boy, one of their own. Born in Southwest Philadelphia, he grew up in suburban Havertown and had lived in Philly since college. You'd see him around town – he sure knew the taverns. He'd have a beer with you, shoot the breeze. Just like a regular, uh, Joe Sixpack.

But when it came time for him to step up to the plate on that April day, Sixpack connected in a way a Philly fan doesn't forget. He did it with hard work, a little imagination and a measuring cup.

The Philadelphia Daily News played it big on its April 23, 1998, front page for everyone to see. "Squeeze Play on Tap: Suds Fans Cheated 2 OZ. Per Cup At Vet, Adding Up To Big Bucks," the headline read.

"In a town where beer is a fundamental part of baseball lore..failing to give an honest pour is worse than striking out with the bases loaded.

"It's un-American.

"Joe Sixpack uncovered the rampant short-cupping during Tuesday night's game against the Reds," the story went.

Don Russell wrote that story. Wrote all of the Joe Sixpack stories, as a matter of fact. Still does, once a week, for the city's pugnacious tabloid. Became so associated with the hometown hero most folks just call him Joe Sixpack. He left the newspaper racket after nearly 30 years to do Joe Sixpack full-time. The Joe Sixpack column, a Joe Sixpack Web site (joesixpack.net) and, coming in March, a book: "Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide."

"The beer business in Philadelphia is a very tightly knit community, and Joe Sixpack is an absolutely huge part of it," says Tom Peters, owner of Monk's Café in center city Philadelphia, one of America's great beer bars. "But the unique part of it is that the column is directed at a broader audience."

Calling Joe Sixpack a beer column is a little like calling Mike Royko's a tavern column or A.J. Liebling a boxing writer. Like all the best columns, Joe Sixpack is about people and place. "He tends to tell Philadelphia stories that just happen to be about beer," former Daily News Editor Zack Stalberg says.

The man who became Joe Sixpack had been a reporter for daily newspapers from the time he graduated from Shippensburg State College in south-central Pennsylvania in 1977. He had handled plenty of tough stories since working himself off the copy desk and into a general assignment slot after coming to the Daily News in 1987.

The guy could report and he could write. "He's maybe in my top five all-time well-rounded journalists that I've worked with," says Stalberg, who ran the Daily News for 20 years before leaving in 2005 to head The Committee of Seventy, a good- government nonprofit in Philadelphia.

Having the chops didn't automatically get Joe Sixpack his column. Russell liked beer, but he also knew a good story when it was breaking. All over the country in the 1990s men and women who had been brewing beer in their basements were opening up little breweries and brewpubs to sell the craft beer they were making. Others, like Peters, were taking trips to Europe and opening places in this country to sell the exotic beers they had tried.

But in spite of a significant business and cultural change, daily newspapers, many of which had regular wine columns, were apathetic about beer. Today, when craft and imported beer is the only segment of the market showing any growth, there are fewer than three dozen papers, most of them small, devoting any space to the subject, says Ray Daniels, director of brewers' publications for the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colorado.

"There are many editors out there who don't believe there is enough to write about or that there isn't enough in beer to be of general interest to daily readers," Daniels says. "And if you read a lot of the local newspaper coverage of beer, it's pretty ho-hum."

The reaction to Joe Sixpack among a few editors was similarly ho-hum, Russell says. At least a couple were pretty sure Russell was running a scam to keep himself in gratis brew. But Russell had the advantage of working for a newspaper that depends upon box sales for its survival. "If you're not providing news and features that are different and unusual, then there's no reason to buy it," says Stalberg, who gave the column the green light. "Risk-taking is in the DNA of the Daily News."

The risk, if there was one, was that Russell provided no plan for the column, just a name, offered up by his wife, Theresa Conroy, another reporter at the Daily News. The name conjured up a time in Philadelphia, maybe in the 1950s, when the drinker of Schmidt's, one of the local beers, might very well take a poke at someone for drinking another of the locals, Ortlieb's. Both breweries closed in the 1980s, but their identification with the city is palpable.

"Beer is a great metaphor for how people are in Philly," Russell says. "We look at ourselves as basically everyday Joe Sixpacks. Beer is an everyman's beverage, and Philadelphia is an everyman's town."

But Joe Sixpack isn't necessarily an everyman's column. Russell makes no bones about championing good beer, and the brews he writes about often are a long way from the Bud Lights of the world. Last March Joe Sixpack came to the defense of "extreme" beers, innovative, intense and high-alcohol concoctions that had come under fire for being elitist. Joe Sixpack helped Monk's Café earn a national reputation for serving great Belgian beers. Word about Stoudt's, Yards and Victory breweries, all eastern Pennsylvania microbreweries now nationally recognized, first leaked in Joe Sixpack. Philadelphia's two dozen really good beer bars make it one of the best beer-drinking cities in the country, no small thanks to Joe Sixpack.

For his beer writing alone, Russell has won more than 20 awards from various brewing associations, including the prestigious and lyrically named Quill and Tankard Award for writer of the year. In 2006 the Brewers Association gave him its Beer Journalism Award.

The column is just as likely to concern itself with a historical look at the image of Santa Claus being used to sell beer, as in one recent column. Or an impassioned endorsement of permitting dogs in Philly taverns. Or Joe Sixpack's list of the Top 20 fictional bartenders of all time (Moe Szyslak of "The Simpsons" came in first, Woody Boyd from "Cheers" only 12th).

"What Russell was able to do is make you say, 'It's Friday, I better go buy Joe Sixpack's column,'" Stalberg says. "I'm a bourbon guy, not all that interested in beer. He made it interesting for me."

And then there was the Super Suds Skimming Scandal. Russell had gotten a tip that Ogden Entertainment, the company that ran concessions for Veterans Stadium, ordered its vendors to pour beers with a healthy head on them. What would otherwise be good beer etiquette was actually shorting customers with cups that were too small to hold the amount of beer advertised. "It's a racket that costs beer-drinking fans at Veterans Stadium nearly a half-million bucks a year," he wrote.

Suddenly Joe Sixpack was on television and radio. Russell and the Daily News rode the story into an investigation by the Philadelphia City Council that confirmed all of the reporting. On Opening Day 1999, representatives for the concessionaire announced over the public address system that from that day forward prices for their beer would be lowered and the beer served in the advertised amounts.

"I was there on Opening Day, down in the dugout, when someone recognized me as Joe Sixpack," Russell says. "As I was walking up into the stands somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people stood up and gave me a standing ovation. It was a great moment."

In a way, that moment pointed the direction for Joe Sixpack. Russell realized that the character he created was now part of the Philadelphia vocabulary – and a brand. Joe Sixpack was asked to host beer tastings, organize festivals and write more about beer.

When the Daily News announced a round of buyouts in 2005, Russell resisted, worrying that he would miss the hum of a newsroom. The reality of the newspaper business and a promise from the paper that he could continue on, writing a column weekly for its Big Fat Friday section, changed his mind. Theresa Conroy left in a second round of staff reductions and plans to open a yoga studio in the spring.

"I do worry about the future of daily newspapers. God forbid that the Daily News closes," Russell says. "But that was only part of the calculation. I had just turned 50; we had saved a little money. We don't have kids. The buyout was generous, with a pretty decent severance. Most of all, I still get to be Joe Sixpack, only I have more time to do it."

Senior contributing writer Mark Lisheron (mlisheron@statesman.com) has written about MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, Minne-apolis' Star Tribune and lying to get a story in recent issues of AJR. A noted hops aficionado, Lisheron, like Mr. Sixpack, is a Quill and Tankard Award winner.