Margit’s Note: RIP Alt-Weekly
(Photo: Bruce Schimmel)
I can still see our publisher doing a shoulder stand in the middle of the newsroom. An enforced “siesta” he called it. 2 p.m. Lights out. Phones turned off. Do something quietly.
The sales people hated this and, at 1:59, would scramble out the door. No one would be able to phone in an ad. The siesta concept lasted for a month or so until the staff essentially revolted.
That was the Philadelphia City Paper back in 1992 (or so), my weird and wondrous workplace on 13th Street filled with a Whitman’s sampler box of characters. As staffers, we embraced the quirky, and we took our fun as seriously as our work. The two were impossible to separate.
Last week after 34 years, the City Paper closed up shop, the next to fall in a line of alt-weeklies including the Boston Phoenix, San Francisco Bay Guardian and many others. Alt-weeklies are on their very last legs (somebody make the documentary, quick!) and they are/were their own brand of publication unlike any other — irreverent, edgy and often scooping the dailies. And the people who worked at them were a particularly scrappy sort of human.
I worked at the City Paper for 10 years. It was my first full-time job after college. My pal, Mary Finnegan, who had been interning at the paper, told me they were hiring an administrative assistant and she didn’t want the job. Did I want it?
You mean that free weekly that ran interviews with local punk bands and in-depth takedowns of shady South Philly politicians? Critics who wrote about obscure art films and probably couldn’t find a home anywhere else? One of the first to publish Matt Groening’s Life in Hell?
Sign me up.
I called from a pay phone (hey, 1989) in my rain boots and slicker, walked in that day for an interview and got the job on the spot. I worked for the classifieds manager, ad manager and assistant editor and eventually settled into a variety of editorial jobs from Listings Editor to Music Editor to Managing Editor. I became a Jill of all trades: learned how to wax and paste up the galleys, file the local club listings and seed a good personal ad. “Loves Raymond Carver, Tom Waits, South Street Souvlaki and embracing the unknown.”
Back then, we were a tiny staff, comparatively — albeit with crazy things like copyeditors and proofreaders. Editorial (now called, ahem, “content”) was taken very seriously. And while there was a blazing orange “do-not-cross” line between editorial and advertising, we partied together, lived together, dated each other, screamed at each other.
We’d pull all-nighters weekly to get the paper out the damn door, and the art staff would often become delusional. “Grant, the bear, “ was a regular sighting at 3 a.m.
The art team. Much has been written about the amazing, award-winning reporting reporters and critics at newsweeklies but not nearly enough about the people who designed every issue. Back in the day, the cover of an alt-weekly was like today’s click-bait headline — it had to grab you. One of City Paper‘s finest was Kat Borosky, and her sense of typography and illustration has always dazzled me. We were in and out of touch over the last decades, but when I had the idea for TueNight, Kat was one of the first ones I called.
I am so proud of the work I did at CP. Chronicling the lost art of the rock DJ or reporting on an attempted shut-down of the beloved Mütter Museum calendar (which just might have saved it). The thing about starting your publishing career somewhere other than New York is that you can really roll up your sleeves and do the actual work. There were “beats,” of course, but if it was a good idea you could write about anything.
(It should be noted that by 1999 I was craving something with a bit more structure and left CP for the digital world of AOL. I had to go through a re-sensitization — learned what an annual review was, what “brand values” were and maybe that “fuck you” wasn’t appropriate workplace language. Sell out.)
I’ve dropped bits of my affection for City Paper all over TueNight, perhaps to an embarrassing extent — an effort to revive a job I loved more than any other. When one of our TueNight crew suggested, “Why don’t we try this monthly or even quarterly, it would give us more time…” I gasped, “NOOOOOO!”
I love the hustle. A weekly churn culminating in the glorious publishing day. And then starting all over again.
Many are mourning the death of CP; I am gutted by the news. But there’s solace in all the conversations I’m having with ex-staffers and readers online. In a bit of irony, some of the most poignant posts about City Paper have been on social media — each post sparking another unforgettable memory.
Thanks to Bruce Schimmel, David Warner and Paul Curci for that 10-year opportunity.
And who knows — there was a glimmer of hope this week, when a Pennsylvania newspaper owner bought the 60-year-old Village Voice, promising to put the arts and quality content, first. Sending you major mojo, fella.
This week, in a bit of shameless indulgence, I’ve rallied some ex alt-weekly types and newspaper folks to share the beauty of a good ink-stained read. Our paean to print. Because there’s still something to be said for the curated vision of a bunch of like-minded weirdos.
- The Wide-Eyed Intern: Rosemary Darigo will get you that cup of coffee
- The Intrepid Reporter: Kim O’Donnel went to South Africa and back for stories
- The Obscure Music Critic: Mary Armstrong hopes newspapers can keep their Roots
- The Humor Columnist: Novelist and sitcom writer Sarah Dunn on her beginnings
- The Listings Editor: Pat Rapa
- The Sex Columnist: Judy McGuire on being Seattle Weekly’s “Dategirl”
- The Letter-to-the-Editor-Writer: Dionne Ford’s great-grandmother had a prolific point-of-view
- The Graphic Designer: And a few designs by Nancy Gonzalez (we linked to one here, atop Mary Armstrong’s piece) one of the graphic designers at City Paper and a contributor to these pages.
In your honor CP,
Monica Dennis (@jigsawverbiage)
Spent eight years as a copy editor (2 words in my world) for a daily in my first full-time job. I worked Sun-Thurs, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. The people from day and night staff were literally as different as just that and I loved every bit of it – until some conglom came to buy it and my very first paycheck bounced. I had had my first child by then and it was clearly time to be like the rats in the race so he could have a normal life given that his dad was working nights too and would continue to do so. I am still friends with some of those folk and Facebook friends with others of them. It’s ingrained in me to this day and I totally feel your pain. My condolences.
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