Former Editor Tim Whitaker Waxes Nostalgic

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 4, 2011

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Photo by Zoey Sless-Kitain

Tell me about what you were doing before PW, and how you got involved with the paper.

It’s probably a little fuzzy, but I was in Naples, Fla., at a magazine called Gulfshore Life for two years. The first year I really liked it and the second year I didn’t like it at all, and then I put migrant workers on the cover for the Christmas issue and they basically wanted me out of there.

Then I decided we had to get back to Philly. I started doing some freelance work at Cigna of all places, hourly work there, and then I got a call from Michael Cohen, who got my name from somebody about doing a Main Line version of the Welcomat . I hired Sara [Kelly], and then Sara and I were brought in for the Center City Welcomat .

What was the Welcomat like when you came in?

The Welcomat did a really nice job as a community newspaper, as a Center City community newspaper that had a small number of writers who were paid very little to express themselves about whatever they felt like. And I think that worked for a really long time, did really well, and then I think it sort of got tired. I think from a commercial point of view there was a chance to make a lot more money, get a much wider readership. All it required was looking at the template that worked at The Village Voice and places like that and just sort of mimic that kind of energy and that kind of writing and build a staff and it would do much better, and it did.

So whose idea was it to make it an alt-weekly proper?

That was publisher Michael Cohen. He was brought in to change it from the Welcomat into an alternative newspaper. And he was ruthless.

It was just you and Sara at the beginning.

I put an ad in the paper and got a ton of responses, but Sara’s jumped right out at me because it was really honest about her state of life and how she had no money and was moving to Upper Darby on a wing and a prayer. Her ambition and her writing ability shone through, so I hired her. And then [staff writer] Karen Abbott was pretty close behind that.

What steps did you take to turn it into an alt weekly?

The whole thing was that we would go from the Welcomat, which paid $10, $20, maybe $40 for a story, to paying $300 to $500 for a cover story, so you could demand good writing and reporting. There was no reporting at the Welcomat to speak of. So we needed to hire staff writers and build a whole team.

Was there a time when the paper was at its best, or do you think it just sort of fluctuated?

I think it fluctuated. I think there were two periods when it was really good—one was when we had Rick Fellinger, Karen Abbott and Solomon Jones. I’m so hesitant to name these people because I’m so afraid I’m going to leave somebody out. Then at the end, the year before I left, the paper won the most awards in its history. Remember it was second to L.A. Weekly ? And that was a time when the business side was not happy, so it’s weird.

What changes in the industry did you see over time that impacted what you were doing?

It was all about online and trying to cope with that, and watching the advertising move away and then the papers getting smaller and smaller and squeezed and squeezed so that any sense of art design went away for long periods of time. Everything was just bunched in there. It had been a nice paper to look at, design-wise, when there were big papers and money was robust. If you look back at those old issues, they were swimming in white space. It’s hard to believe the papers were so big.

How do you feel about those early ventures into online territory?

Many stumbles. Many, many, many, many, many stumbles. What was the first incarnation called? Brainsoap? It was really forward-looking, I’ll give it that. I think Anthony [Clifton] was very game to explore it in the most cutting-edge ways, but in the end, nothing worked. I’m not sure that any other alternative newspaper did a whole lot better, though. There was so much confusion about resources; there’s still confusion. To this day, the print product makes more money.

In the heyday of alt weeklies, what were their strengths?

I think it varied from city to city and from style to style. I think there was sort of the New Times style, which was real hard-hitting investigative reporting, take-no-prisoners kind of thing. And then there was the L.A. Weekly model, which was the one I favored. I think it had more emphasis on writing and crafting. I’m not saying one was better than the other. I think in the heyday they both worked. It was just different.

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