He’d been arrested the previous spring after trying to arrange a meeting with a cop posing as an underage kid. When the police seized his hard drive, they found pictures of both pre- and postpubescent kids. Evidence of both downloading and uploading.
A real whiz on the Internet.
His court date on Monday? That had been his sentencing. He’d showed contrition to the judge, so he was sentenced to relatively light probation and time to be served at a weekend facility.
I wasn’t sure then—and I’m still not sure now—if firing him was the right move. But PW ’s lawyer advised us that if he did it again, and from a work computer, we could be held liable, now that we knew about his history. So we didn’t really have a choice.
After that, we started Googling all intern applicants.
Alina the Overenthusiastic Russian
The first email I got from Alina arrived in my inbox, like, six times; she must have kept hitting send. (Some names have been changed to protect me from the mafia.) The cover letter was littered with exclamation points, and it repeatedly emphasized how she was just! so! excited! to learn about Philadelphia Weekly’s internship program. She was a Russian exchange student at a local school for the year, and really wanted to learn all about American journalism so she could take the knowledge back home to Moscow. Really, really wanted to. With lots of exclamation points.
Typically, cover-letter exclamation points would result in an immediate “delete.” But something about her earnestness made me want to at least bring her in for an interview.
“Oh, Mr. Barg, I’m so excited to hear from you!” she cooed in a thick Russian accent when I called to arrange an interview. “I cannot wait to come in and interview for your internship program!”
Alina arrived with green streaks in her hair, multicolor earrings and nose rings, and a jacket and tie.
The interview was one of the most intense I’ve conducted. The whole time, she was leaning forward, maintaining remarkable eye contact, being very deliberate and very enthusiastic and very Russian in her responses. At one point she took out some writing samples to show me, but they were all in Russian, so I had to take her word for it that the byline at the top actually said “Alina.”
After I had gone through the spiel about what the PW internship program entails (this was in the pre-horse-video days), I asked her if she had any questions for me.
She leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said, “What can I do to prove to you that I should be your intern?”
“Um,” I replied, “there’s a fact-checking test I’m going to give you in a few minutes. Doing well on that will help.”
Not the answer she was looking for.
Nevertheless, she took the fact-checking test—didn’t do very well on it. But we still liked hiring the occasional wild card—even if they weren’t cut out for detail-oriented work, they could surprise us by being really talented writers. So we decided to give Alina a shot.
I called her: “We’d like to offer you an internship in our listings department, working with our listings editor.”
“Oh, I am so excited!” she nearly burst through the receiver. “I cannot wait to start my internship with Philadelphia Weekly!” She went on like this for a few minutes before adding, “But you know, I have to tell you: I’m just a little bit disappointed that I won’t be working directly with you.”
“Um,” I replied, “well, you know sometimes interns will jump around from one department to the other.”
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.