Photo: Ben Petchel
If there was a party going on in Pittsburgh, chances are likely Natalie Bencivenga was there taking notes. As the writer and editor of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
’s SEEN column, Bencivenga was the eyes and ears of the city’s social scene for over six years.
But life isn't always a party for Bencivenga. For one, she holds a master’s degree in social work. She also claims she quit P-G
in March 2020 because she was “verbally assaulted”
Even while writing her column, she says she recognized the inequities of the scene she had been assigned to cover, which is why she expanded the reach of the column under her tenure. In her goodbye letter, as printed online in NEXT Pittsburgh
, she says she wished she had seen more communities integrated into event spaces. “There’s the ‘Art’ crowd, the ‘Healthcare’ crowd, the ‘Cultural’ crowd, etc.,” Bencivenga wrote. “I would love to see these crowds branch out and try attending smaller events outside of their usual neighborhoods to help support more communities that often go under the radar.”
In the months after leaving the P-G,
Bencivenga embarked on a mission to rebrand her personal business into the work she feels most important; work that, in her own words, she believes will “inspire, educate, and activate.” She took on freelance writing opportunities including a series of stories for Table magazine
and continued to write her syndicated advice column
. She also launched “Five Minutes With …,” a series of video interviews with community members broadcasted live every week on Alone Together
, a nightly streaming talk show produced by Patrick Jordan’s theater company barebones productions.
In the summer of 2020, Bencivenga was named one of Pittsburgh Magazine
’s coveted 40 Under 40 award
winners and a recipient of Multiplying Good’s One in a Million Award
for her interviews on Alone Together
Pittsburgh City Paper
is proud to announce that the alt-weekly is partnering with Bencivenga to continue to amplify her work. Recently, the journalist put out a call to local political candidates, inviting them to be interviewed on an election edition of her series “Five Minutes With …” leading up to this May's primary election, and continuing into the fall. Look for Bencivenga's interviews on our site, along with bonus "After Hours" episodes, and live interviews coming to our Instagram page.
To celebrate our new partnership, City Paper
sat down with Bencivenga over Zoom to talk about rebranding, politics, and bringing more equitable work to Pittsburgh.
You really rebranded yourself in the past year since leaving the P-G.
When did you first decide to make equity and inclusivity such a strong part of your work?
So I would say that honestly, it was a thread through the SEEN column for the past seven years when I worked at the Post-Gazette
because of my background as a social worker. When I took over the SEEN column, I realized I couldn't just highlight the parties of the one-percenters because it didn't feel relevant or important to the work of the community. And so I thought, “Well, let's take a peek behind the curtain and highlight the people that are benefiting from these nonprofits that need these services and are actively working in these spaces to create equity and Inclusion throughout our communities.” And so I tried to really ground the work of seeing that with that lens.
So when I left the Post-Gazette
, I was able to take that seed and grow it to what I'm doing now. So really, rethinking, “What is my brand and who do I want to be?” I want to be somebody that inspires, educates, and activates people to make change in their community, so that we can all thrive, not just survive.
What's been the most challenging part about switching gears to covering more serious news topics?
I think the most challenging part for me is trying to find a lane because I love to talk and learn and read about so many things, from health care to the arts to social justice. So I think what was challenging was just trying to pick something to do. And that was sort of how “Five Minutes With …” was born because I needed to find a way to take all of these different ideas and funnel them into a product that would be digestible and easy for people to engage with. Doing short-form video interviews was helpful for me to stay engaged with our community leaders and our members because I love to network, but also it allowed me to touch on topics ranging from all of these different spaces and focusing it through that lens of equity.
So you've had a lot of practice for your new “Five Minutes With …” political interviews in that you've been doing interviews for a solid year with Patrick Jordan on his Alone Together
show. How did your partnership with Patrick come about?
I've been friends with his wife, Eileen Jordan, for many years. She was one of the first people that supported me and my work with Post-Gazette
, and she was a big supporter of me after I left. And I love Patrick, and we've always had a really nice rapport. They had just started Alone Together
, and he contacted me maybe a week or two into their filming, and he said, “Hey, we're going to do this short series because you know, in a couple of weeks, we'll all be back to normal. So we thought it would be cool if you wanted to do a segment. We're working with all different types of artists and creatives, and your name, of course, came up.” And I said, “Oh, that'd be cool. Like, maybe I'll just do an interview segment.” And here we are, what is it 56? It'll be 58 weeks this week. So I've done a year's worth of interviews. I won a One in a Million award for it in the summer of 2020 because it caught fire. And I really credit those guys to giving me a platform and letting me really ... I really do whatever the hell I want. They've never ever, ever said, “Oh, you can't.” They've always been just so supportive of whatever I've brought to them and even when they've been slightly longer than five minutes, they've been OK with it.
What have you learned from doing those interviews?
I think what I have learned is a few things, actually. One being that people want this content. They want to feel connected to one another. They want to see the best in each other, and they want to talk about serious topics, but in a way that is solutions-focused. And that's where the activism stuff comes in, where they can step away from that conversation and say “I could get involved with that” or “I could lend my expertise to that” or “I could donate to that” because it's right in their backyard. And I think sometimes we really play down the importance of local politics, local conversations, local interviews, and we sort of look down at it if it's not something that's hitting on a national scale, but in actuality, I think being a hyperlocal interviewer has created a space for people who never would get to share their story, who would never have a platform. Often the voices that are missing from a conversation that are actually focused on them in a way that they don't get to be a part of. And so I'm honored and happy to fill that void.
I also learned I have a lot of, I think, tenacity. You want to talk about turning, you know, nothing into something. I mean, this is my little dog and pony show that I did not expect anyone to really pay much attention to. I was just trying to stay connected to the community during this quarantine, and I have just learned so much about all of the amazing people and organizations in the city that are the heartbeat of this community and the work that was done during one of the most challenging times I think of anyone's life. And to see all the good that is in this community. Yes, we have our challenges, we have our struggles, but we can come together and we can persevere. That's the inspiration that I pull from every week. It's energizing to me.
Is there anything that you think people have underestimated about you?
I don't think people understood because my job was so focused on sort of the glamour of our community. And I enjoy all that. I'm the first one that loves to put on a beautiful dress and loves to get her hair done. Like, there's nothing wrong with embracing that aspect of myself. But I don't think people recognize the layers, the things that I can do. And this has been a great opportunity for people to see me in a different way and hopefully embrace the different aspects of myself creatively and professionally too.
What was it that made you want to tackle this election?
It dawned on me that no one could possibly cover this from a media perspective because I've seen the demise of local news in terms of newsrooms shrinking, people having to leave, cuts to funding, and I realized I'm in love with journalism, and I'm in love with journalists because this is a calling. And once you get the bug, it's really hard to walk away. And I thought someone needs to be interviewing as many of these people running for the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas as possible because this is a historic race. This is a historic moment. And other publications, you guys, no one has the bandwidth to do this, understandably. So I thought, “Well, I'll just start doing it and see if anybody starts paying attention.” And so I put a call to action on social media. And I said, “Hey, if anybody's looking to be interviewed …”
I really underestimated this whole situation. I thought maybe a handful of people would contact me. And I had 50 emails in less than 24 hours. And you know, I do work. I have multiple jobs, right? So for me, I was like, “Oh, no, this is gonna be wild.” So I've been trying to interview people on camera via Zoom two at a time so I can at least get multiple voices per show, which for the most part is what I've had to do. And then adding these After Hour shows because I quickly realized there's not enough weeks leading up to the primary for me to cover all of the people because it wasn't just the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, I thought, “Well, we should be talking to people running for school board, we should be talking to people running for magistrate, all the local, we should be talking to the people running for mayor in a different format, in a different way so you could actually get a little bit of their personality and get to know them on a different medium than necessarily just like in print.” And why not? What else was I doing? [laughs]
You’ve recorded a lot of candidate interviews already. What's been your favorite interview so far?
It would have to be a tie for me. I really liked the Ed Gainey interview
because he didn't hold back, and he said some really important things. And to him, what I took away from that is, "Priorities get funded. Issues get talked about, priorities get funded.” And when he said that, that really gave me chills because I think it's easy to talk a good game about an issue you want people to get on board with. But in actuality, when you look at an agenda of a politician, once they're in office, what are they actually funding? That's what they actually care about. That's what's actually getting prioritized. And I'd never really thought of it that way. And so Gainey really had me sort of think about what I hear a politician say versus what a politician is going to do.
I've been touched by all of them — but the other interview that really stuck with me was Bhavani Patel
, and she's running for Edgewood Borough Council. We talked a lot about the difference between representation and liberation. Just because someone may look like you, doesn’t mean that they represent your value systems. And so diversity versus sort of the sense of inclusion and leadership in spaces is what matters to make actual change. I just really think she's a force of nature, and I was really excited to get to interview her.
Alright, one final question. I have to ask - who's the best-dressed politician in Pittsburgh?
I would say. I mean, she's not technically Pittsburgh, but it's Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett
. I love her style. She's so regal. She's so chic. I just love her. So, Marita Garrett, I would say, wins that award from me.
Anything else you want readers to know?
Well, I'd like them to know that this conversation is going to be ongoing after the election. I still plan on weaving in a lot of political talk in the sense that I want to focus on the issues that will then be leading up to the November election. So do not expect “Five Minutes With …” to just be focused on the nonprofit community or the arts community moving forward. But definitely, there will be more issues-based conversations that I will be weaving throughout the summer into fall. And that I'm just, really, I feel very lucky that people are even interested enough to watch them and want to watch them and want to be a part of the conversation. I'm trying to keep a very egalitarian approach of how I bring people on.
If you have something that is supporting a community in whatever way, connect with me. I used to say when I worked as the SEEN columnist, there's really no event that's too small. If it's doing work for the community, I covered events that had seven people, and I covered events that had 2,500 people. And I kind of look at the show the same way. If you're making your little corner of the world a little brighter, or you know someone that is, that is a value. And that's the kind of thing I think media should be promoting more. And I think we are what we see. And if we can see it, we can do it. So I'm trying to have a cross-section of all different types of walks of life on the show so that everyone can feel as though they can also take those steps in their community. I don't need to have everyone's experiences and they don't need to have mine for us to feel connected to one another. Look at the big picture of how we can all make our world a more equitable, just, and beautiful place for us to live in.