Tell me about the beginning of the Welcomat, and its late guiding light, Susan Seiderman.
Leon Levin, who owned the South Philadelphia Review, started what was called the Center City Welcomat in 1971, primarily as a way of protecting his Northern flank. He didn’t want someone else to start publishing a paper. And for the first, I guess, eight years or so, it was really the South Philadelphia Review with a different front page. Susan was the youngest of his three daughters, and she got involved fairly early. She kept telling him it was the wrong kind of paper for Center City. You know, you need something like The Village Voice , and he kept saying no. He died in ’79 and she took it over and she had this vision.
How did you get involved?
I had been with Philadelphia magazine from ’72 to ’75 and then I was freelancing. I also had a vision of something like The Village Voice in Philadelphia, and I bounced it off a number of publishers and they all said, “It’s a crazy idea. It’ll never work.” Then I ran into Susan Seiderman around early 1981 and we found that we had a very similar vision. She couldn’t really afford to hire me and I couldn’t really afford to go to work with her, but I said, “Let’s stay in touch and I want to do whatever I can to encourage you.”
About six months later, she called me and said, “I need an editor,” and I said, “I’ll help you find one.” The more I started thinking about it, the more I said to myself, “If I don’t take this opportunity, I’m gonna kick myself in 10 years.” We worked out an arrangement.
At that point, we completely revamped the format of the paper, which had been a very pedestrian neighborhood kind of paper. From day one when I was editor, it became like the op-ed page of a newspaper. It was entirely unsolicited manuscripts submitted by readers, and page after page of letters. It became a tremendous success almost from the get-go. It really took off both in terms of pages and revenues.
Do you think people were responding to the communal aspect of it?
We had a unique community in Center City. You had a very articulate audience, highly educated, very affluent and they all lived and worked in the same neighborhood. There was almost nothing like that anywhere in the United States. I had almost no freelance budget at all, but I kind of thought if you give people an outlet where they can express themselves and talk to their neighbors, they’ll come out of the woodwork. There were a lot of fascinating pieces that we got that I could never have assigned in a million years. I never would have thought of them. And, of course, it was a precursor to what blogs are today.
The Welcomat faced some legal challenges, right?
Susan was tremendously courageous and loved to fight. We got sued for libel three times including once by Frank Rizzo, and, boy, she rose to the occasion each time. We won that suit, we won another suit, we were sued by the head of the local blue collar workers union, represented by Dick Sprague, and beat them also. She just had tremendous backbone.
Susan sold the paper to Ralph Roberts of Comcast in 1987 and had a five-year contract to stay on. At the end of five years, she decided to leave. Shortly after she left, I left.
What did you think of the name change?
The Welcomat was always a ridiculous name. People were always saying to us, “Why didn’t you change it?” and I always said, “Well, the publication transcends its name after a while.” You think of Playboy, you don’t think of a guy walking around with chorus girls on his arm. You think of the publication. When they did change the name, it became a sort of generic alternative weekly at that point. When I was there, I was the editor, I had an assistant editor, we had somebody who did listings, and then we had Derek Davis, who edited the back section, After Dark. But everything else was pretty much freelance. And we didn’t have long assigned reportorial stories or anything like that. It was a unique publication. To me, it was an alternative paper in the best sense of the word.
When we initially emailed you, you said you felt like the Welcomat was one of the most important things you’ve done in your career. What makes you feel that way?
I think it was an important development in the evolution of alternative media. The Welcomat was really a genuine experiment in finding new ways to get at the truth. There used to be this idea that journalism is some kind of high priesthood and there are these high priests who are passing knowledge onto the multitudes. And I was trying to get away from that. I was saying, This isn’t the only way to run a publication. Let’s try something different. There are other ways to get at the truth. And let’s listen to ordinary people. And of course that has now evolved to the Internet and blogs and things like that.
The paper you now hold in your hands, PW, has been around for 40 years—more or less. Like most media stories, it’s a bit more complicated than that. No matter the changes, though, there is a through line in the paper’s history: a renegade spirit and a determination to give voices to the voiceless.