Happy 40th Anniversary, PW: Here's to Four Decades of Renegade Journalism

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted May. 4, 2011

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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. A newspaper called the Welcomat was founded in 1971. According to the Library of Congress, that publication ceased to exist in 1995, when it was transformed by new ownership into Philadelphia Weekly. Years later, marketing gurus suggested the name Philadelphia Weekly was too cumbersome, thus spurring an exquisitely painful rebranding campaign that ended in the name PW.

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.

That was an appropriate mission at the time of the Welcomat’s founding. The ’60s had been characterized by massive cultural change, a devastating war and the tragedy of multiple assassinations. Poet Robert Lowell’s “tranquilized fifties” were long gone, and women and minorities found themselves newly emancipated. Journalists, too, found a new voice— rejecting “objective” newspaper accounts in favor of personalized narratives with strong points of view. Writers like Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin and Hunter S. Thompson pioneered this new approach, while establishment reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein employed investigative tactics and detective work to expose corruption in government.

The Welcomat started humbly, as a far-too-bland community paper that seemed disconnected from all the energy new journalism embodied. Within a few years, though, it found its voice: scrappy, irritable, unafraid. No one could ever say the Welcomat resisted pissing people off; no subjects were off limits. Susan Seiderman, who inherited the paper from her father, respected the independence of “her” editors, even if she disagreed with them. She loved it when the paper made noise; she was a noisy, fiery person herself.

And she was rewarded. Center City residents were deeply attuned to the Welcomat’s content, in part because they helped create it. Very few article submissions were turned down: If a resident of the city had something they burned to say, they could say it. At the same time, individual voices were cultivated in a way that would become an alt-weekly staple. Jim Knipfel’s searingly revealing first-person column “Slackjaw” covered his experiences with mental illness and related misery, and served as inspiration for later self-flagellating personal-disclosure columnists (like yours truly).

In keeping with the times, the Welcomat featured frequent ruminations on gender, race and class issues, including Thom Nickels’ regular column on gay issues—one of the first of its kind in the country. The late writer John Guinther tenaciously pursued injustice in the pages of the Welcomat, getting three innocent men off of death row. Many other columnists, reporters and what we now call citizen journalists were also nurtured by the Welcomat.

In 1995, new ownership began the process of transforming the Welcomat into an alternative weekly along the lines of The Village Voice. The transition between the two identities was a rocky one. New publisher Michael Cohen wanted to change every aspect of the publication, and indeed, the transformation he implemented made the paper extremely profitable. The paper that had been folded and thrown onto Philly’s stoops was now printed flat, Daily News-style and placed that way into honor boxes across the city. Tim Whitaker and Sara Kelly took over as the pub’s top editors, and began to develop the point of view that characterized it in the years to come: speaking truth to power; telling the stories that wouldn’t otherwise be told; revealing the city’s singularity; voraciously covering arts and music; and honing a left-of-center point of view regarding politics and business as usual.

In the process, the paper became an essential translator of the city’s text, with opinionated columns, news briefs, cover stories, arts reviews and listings. If a visitor wanted to understand what Philadelphia was all about—really—they could pick up an issue of Philadelphia Weekly and get the idea. Writers were encouraged to do long-form journalism and burrow into an important, overlooked issue until change took place. People who could write, not just report, were nurtured. There was infinite flexibility when the paper was large; as an editor, the space was a gift. Seem like a weird idea to have moneyed Republican WASP City Councilman Thacher Longstreth—he of the bow tie and argyle socks—give advice in an alt weekly? Then let’s do it!

PW made space for just about anything readers might enjoy, no matter how outlandish.

The paper won award after award for writing, photography, design, even headlines. Candidates longed for a PW endorsement; restaurants and theaters cringed at bad reviews. Communities that had been ignored for years by local government were attended to quickly after a story in PW’s pages; and individuals got their day in court far more quickly than they’d anticipated. PW got people out of jail. PW put people into jail. PW advocated and won. PW advocated and lost. At the end of the day, PW was an essential square of fabric in the city’s vast quilt-in-progress.

The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, which is the governing body of North America’s alt weeklies, describes the mission this way: “What ties [AAN member papers] together are a strong focus on local news, culture and the arts; an informal and sometimes profane style; an emphasis on point-of-view reporting and narrative journalism; a tolerance for individual freedoms and social differences; and an eagerness to report on issues and communities that many mainstream media outlets ignore.”

This is precisely what Philadelphia Weekly has been devoted to since 1995.

On the following pages of our anniversary issue, you’ll hear from some of the staffers and freelancers who determined the paper’s direction over the years. Literally hundreds of people have been employed by PW (and its parent company, Review Publishing). We reached out to an eclectic group, but admittedly missed the great majority.

In 2011, PW remains an independently owned alternative newsweekly. It’s been a remarkable journey. Happy anniversary!

Some of what you can find inside this issue:

Q&As: Go back in time with the paper's former top editors, including Dan Rottenberg, Tim Whitaker and Sara Kelly.

Doing His Own(er) Thing: An interview with the man in charge, Anthony Clifton.

Memory Lane: Take a stroll with some of PW's former staffers.

Paper Tales: Former Staff Writer Steve Volk looks back on the paper he loved.

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1. jj said... on May 5, 2011 at 07:06PM

“minor league 2nd rate journalisim is more like it. minorities&women madea&had all kinds of handouts long before this rag came along. jj”

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2. Ben M. said... on May 13, 2011 at 11:07AM

“I was a young adult just out of Penn when I started reading the weekly papers, including the Philadelphia Weekly. I was riding on the 1960 El trains. You remember, the ones with no air conditioning, so the windows were open, hot air was blowing, and the noise from the tunnel was so loud you couldn't hear yourself think? It was during that time on the El that I became a Philadelphian, reading PW as it chronicled the human side of a modern city. Philadelphia has always felt like a big-small town, which is why it appeals to me. PW, with Ms. Spikol, Mr. Whitaker, Ms. Gregory, Mr. Bevenour and so many others, consistently informed and entertained on my way to and from work with their witty and insightful writings and illustrations. In spite of the headwinds, I encourage you continue to do what you do so well.”

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