Former Staff Writer Steve Volk Reflects on the Paper He Loved

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted May. 4, 2011

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At my first alt-weekly job, a colleague on the business side of the operation took me out for a beer and told me what he considered to be a secret. “Owning one of these papers,” he said, “is like owning a license to print money.”

He was exaggerating. And I never did feel the weight of that statement in my pocketbook. But I felt it in my hands.

Picking up PW used to take some want to—an intention to hoist a fat sheaf of dead tree out of an honor box and lug it, to a coffee shop, bar stool or all the way home. At our best, our fat paper acted as a mirror for the city to see itself—or at least our demographic—reflected in more than 200 pages of event listings, news stories and lots and lots of ads.

Hard to believe now, but there was a time when every self-respecting bar, brew pub and restaurant in this city had to toss some money inside our doors. That unseemly bit of commerce, however, translated directly into paying jobs.

I wrote my first cover story for PW in 1996, and after a long gig writing at the Pittsburgh Weekly landed a full-time job in 2002. The first time I walked into a staff meeting at the Weekly, we sat at a long conference table with maybe 20 people present—from full-time staffers to contract writers. We had the bodies and the resources to get out into the city and embed ourselves in every strata of Philadelphia, from the nightclubs, to the dives, from politics to police, from rich to poor. Just listening to stories fellow staffers told, the ones they published and the ones they could never bring to print, felt like holding a skeleton key to the city. By the summer of 2007, we often had meetings with fewer than 10 people present, and some of those people weren’t paid staffers or contract writers. They were interns. Our grip on the city, and our place in it, had diminished.

These changes did not occur overnight. They evolved by slow, painful degrees. And you suffered.

When I arrived at the Weekly, getting to write a cover story was an accomplishment. The editor had numerous options, so landing a story he’d grant you 4,000 words for took some doing. Co-workers were tough competitors for that space. Five years later, seeing your name on the cover meant one thing: It was your turn. Whatever the reader got, that was all we had to give.

The license to print money had been revoked.

I spent 10 years working for alt weeklies before I left PW. In the first years, I got used to the weight of those papers in my hands. I knew how much force I needed to exert to lift an oversized tabloid that regularly pushed up more than 200 pages. And all those years later, my muscles retained that memory. There was an expectation carved into my synapses and still alive in my neural networks that equated those two words—“Philadelphia Weekly”—with a certain weight, and I’ll never forget accidentally flinging my first sub 100-page paper over my head and turning to Jeff Barg, our copy editor, in shock.

The paper I knew and loved and felt so optimistic about was gone—became unrecognizable. It is easy to say that the Internet wrecked us. But looking back, I think it’s more complicated than that—a combination of real-world economics and the damage done by wishful thinking.

In 2002, the Internet was like a toy we’d never figured out how to work correctly—and frankly, I’m not sure much has changed. We broke some news online. We had our very own blogger. But mostly, the online site served as a companion to the paper. It isn’t that we were blindsided by the Net. We saw it coming. But I think the truth is, as an institution, we just sort of hoped to be swept up by it and carried along.

In a karmic sense, this seemed just.

After all, alt weeklies were free decades before the Internet made free news seem like a right. We were free back when daily newspaper reporters, so proud of their 25- or 50- or 75-cent price tags, used to dismiss alt weeklies with a chortled, “You get what you pay for!”

We understood that something free could hold value. Something free could be great, in part, because it was free.

I figured The Gods of the Internet would see to it that the progressive thinking of alt weeklies would somehow be recognized. That we would be spared the pain falling on everyone else.

Right, oh Digital Faerie?

But it didn’t quite happen that way. Whatever place we held in the city, the Internet was bigger than all that. It literally changed our relationship to our readers and advertisers in ways we couldn’t account for.

I remember meetings in which Tim Whitaker would hustle interns into the room—I think, to flesh out the table, to hide our dwindling size.

I remember him saying, “We’re gonna make a big push on the Internet”—like, what, a hundred times?

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1. Anonymous said... on May 5, 2011 at 10:42AM

“Yeah, I remember those days in the early 2000s when the Philadelphia Weekly (and City Paper too) was so much fun to read. PW (and to a lesser extent City Paper) somehow became... thin, anemic, shadows of their former glory days self.”

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