Sara Kelly, One of PW's Founding Editors, Recalls How It All Began

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

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How did you get started at PW?

It was 1994. Six months before I arrived, Review Publishing founded the Main Line Welcomat . Tim Whitaker was hired as part-time editor of that paper but was still working full-time at Cigna. He was in there a couple days a week after work. He put an ad in the paper for writers. I was in graduate school at Penn’s School of Education. I’d just left an MFA program in Rhode Island. I was desperately poor. I came into the office one day to meet Tim and he put me to work editing stories. I was there for 12 hours, too afraid to use the bathroom the whole time. And I didn’t go back to school for 12 years.

So you just fell in love with the paper?

Well, I don’t know about that. It was like it pulled me in and there was really no option because Tim was only there part-time and the paper needed to get out. There was really no copy editing going on or anything so I remember [publisher] Michael Cohen saying he’d pay me $100 a week. First I was doing listings and it expanded from there. There was no going back. I worked there for 14 years.

What was the transition between Center City Welcomat and Philadelphia Weekly like?

There was an editor, Bill Warner, who was like the charismatic leader. The staff was very dedicated to him. They were putting a paper together that was in the old style of the Welcomat. Michael Cohen wanted to bring an alternative weekly format. The staff didn’t like it. They resisted. Cohen negotiated with Tim to become the editor of the Welcomat and put together a first issue that would be ready to go on the day the Welcomat staffers were fired—right after deadline. But as the paper was going out the door to the printer, somebody from the Inquirer called Suzanne Ross, who was the managing editor at the time, and asked her how she felt about having lost her job. She didn’t realize she’d lost her job. Then there was a parade down to Michael Cohen’s office, and that’s when people were told they had lost their jobs. A couple of staffers stayed. There were maybe three staffers there the first week.

How did you and Tim conceive the paper’s point of view?

It’s probably the same at a lot of places that have a relaxed editorial environment. The thing I learned from Tim as a manager, and that he always said and still rings true to me, is that if you surround yourself with talented people, whatever the product is will be good. The particulars don’t matter as much as the people. He has always been a very good judge of talent and he’s always been very successful at attracting talent to anything he’s been involved in. I think the paper naturally evolved through the voices of the talented people he brought on.

As the two top editors, you and Tim had very different styles.

I think the contrast worked well. We weren’t stepping on each other’s toes. Tim, being who he is, he’s a great big-picture guy, a cheerleader, a visionary, and he really set the tone for the paper and attracted people then got the best work out of them. I remember walking by his office all the time and seeing somebody sitting in his office, crying, having a total breakdown. He was very patient and very capable of counseling people through things.

That wasn’t exactly my strong suit. My role was to get things done. I probably could have been a little nicer and more supportive, but it really worked out well.

You were the person who kept everyone in line by reminding us we were at a workplace.

I was the killjoy. Jeff Barg and I. We created a culture of martyrdom. We made people feel guilty for taking time off because we felt we couldn’t take time off. But how much of that was our own faults? I’m not really sure.

Any instances of clashing with writers? No names necessary.

I remember that I couldn’t speak with one of our writers. If I came up to him to ask him about something or talk to him about a story, we just couldn’t connect in person. Eventually we realized that. At one point he said, “Well, why don’t I email you.” So I would go back to my office and he would email and it would be fine and perfectly clear and pleasant. But it didn’t work in person.

As a writer, you specialized on death-row subjects, wrote the column “Kelly’s World” and did a lot of City Hall reporting. What was the piece that got the most feedback?

Philebrity’s Joey Sweeney uses the pigeon story [Kelly’s cover story about Philly’s pigeons] as an extreme example of the worst of Philadelphia Weekly, which is funny. He constantly makes fun of it as a low point for the paper. As far as other stories, the one thing I keep thinking about now, in light of the nuclear disaster, is having put my hand in the water of one of the cooling towers at Three Mile Island in 1999. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. It was a great story. You know how it is—sometimes it’s better to have the story than be safe or smart. Sometimes it’s worth it to risk your life to get a good story.

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