What were your impressions of Philadelphia journalism before you got involved with it?
Let me first focus my response on PW and its predecessor, the Welcomat (which became Philadelphia Weekly in 1995). I came to Philadelphia in 1982. Candidly, when I got the Welcomat free on my doorstep, it would invariably go straight into the trash. This was because the covers nearly always failed to grab my attention and so, for me personally, all the hard work and good writing—and it was usually quite good—that went into putting each edition together was a waste. In 1981, Dan Rottenberg became the paper’s first editor since its launch in 1971. Over time, Dan developed a following of local readers until he chose to move on in 1993. He focused quite a lot of editorial content on the “little guys” around town whose diverse range of activities, accomplishments, views and personas were of local interest (but did not much interest the two local dailies) and, he felt, needed a voice. While this was good for a certain limited circle of readers, it did not serve as a base on which to build a wider audience and to garner the support needed from local, regional and national advertisers that would make the growing paper self-sustaining.
On my watch, we chose to focus much more on trying to create a seductive cover each week as the ‘key to the door’ for readers to open … to each edition chock full of interest. At first, this notion did not sit well with some editorial folks who focused almost exclusively on writing text but ignored the critical importance to the reader of artful artwork that would draw them into a story. This remains a challenge at times, as successive generations of art directors put their individual artistic hallmarks on the covers and inside each edition.
We also deliberately increased the size of the news hole space and reduced the amount of advertising pages in order to attract more readership. The format changed to more of what it is today—a free weekly paper focused on younger urban adults, where they want to live, what they want to do and where they want to go. It so happens that this readership focus also resonates with advertisers desiring to reach those who are still young and independent enough to be making their consumer brand choices for life. In turn, this has helped nourish the paper’s growth over time.
Journalism ‘proper’ was still largely the preserve of the dailies and then-[Inquirer] Editor Eugene Roberts. Under his leadership, the dailies won a series of Pulitzer Prizes. The dailies were then local ‘supermarkets’ or ‘department stores’ of some local, and much regional, national and international news but whose readership tended toward an aging readership of 55 plus. By contrast, our focus was ‘local, local, local’ with emphasis on younger folk in their 20s to 40s and interested in local arts, entertainment and local topics that would rarely see the light of day in the two dailies.
How have you seen PW change over the years?
In addition to changes mentioned above, PW has long since converted many tedious manual processes to automation— all the way from typing copy on a typewriter and typesetting it to pasting it up with wax, to its business systems. This is because I’ve always firmly believed in consigning repetitive and relatively mindless tasks to reliable robots (aka computer systems) and freeing up smart people to do smart things that computer systems can’t do. Taking advantage of technology has been key to our survival and success. It has helped us free up the creative talent that resides in the majority of people on our PW team.
This is an inexorable and critical process as technology gets better and cheaper. At the same time, you can have the best computer system in the world, but if you have weak people performing, then there’s nowhere to go. So we try very hard to find and hire the best talent we can and to show respect to the people on our team, because they are the ultimate ambassadors of the paper on whom we depend to link it to both its readers and its advertisers.
What is the most important thing you want to commemorate for this anniversary?
The people who make our paper and create our website and other digital products are first and foremost those I want to recognize on this significant anniversary. As to commemoration proper, I’d like to salute all those who have struggled through a succession of tough recessions and real-estate and financial system meltdowns that have, at times, greatly challenged our business. At the end of the day, our business is a people business where creative and gifted individuals work together to help to create something bigger than themselves alone and to share the fruit of their efforts with a really large and growing audience.
How do you feel about the future of print media?
In two words, very excited. I refuse to buy the argument that ‘newspapers are dead’. That is a complete red herring. The newspaper is simply one type of vehicle for conveying what readers really want, which is accurate and timely information. The Internet and tablets and mobile phones are clearly here to stay, so neither we nor our readers need ever feel imprisoned by the ‘four walls’ of the newspaper whose capacities and physical size is limited and finite. Readers can potentially get the accurate information they need right now. So there are only two things to limit our ability going forward—our creative imagination and our resources to realize it.
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.
Letters to the Editor