(Photo Courtesy of Kim O’Donnel)

Swimming Upstream: Growing Up at an Alt-Weekly

Kim, while she freelanced at the Sowetan in South African. (Photo Courtesy of Kim O’Donnel)

Every job is a stone upon which you step. For me, that first stone was in a creek called Philadelphia City Paper, a small but mighty body of water with a near electric current. It was publisher Bruce Schimmel’s paper then, and he had editor David Warner help him run it. Together, they encouraged me to stir the proverbial pot, to ask questions that made people uncomfortable, to speak truth to power, and to write like I meant it.

We were mostly young, underpaid, overworked and totally and utterly in love with the printed thing we made week after week.

I was 22. It was 1989. It was a time when you picked up the phone to talk to a source, and when out in the field you holed up in a phone booth. We filed our stories on early generation Macintosh word processors, stories that the art department (two gals who would become like sisters to me) would lay out by hand, using an exact-o knife to remove typos. The entire staff stayed until the paper “went to bed,” a weekly event not unlike a circus, with clowns, costumes, pageantry, neon-colored snack foods and adrenaline running wild among a few dozen creative types under one roof. We were mostly young, underpaid, overworked and totally and utterly in love with the printed thing we made week after week. It was a mashup of local arts coverage and hard stuff only made sweeter when we scooped the dailies. I covered the gamut, from abortion clinic blockades to state political races, from fledgling artists to reproductive technology. In two years, I went from being a college girl to a reporter gal with a newly chiseled set of writing chops. From there, I set my sights on South Africa as the next stop, in that funky uncertain period following Mandela’s release with the first elections still yet to occur.

I freelanced at the Sowetan, the country’s only black newspaper at that time, and I filed stories back to Philly, including a first-person account of what it’s like to be white in a racially divided country more brutally honest and hostile than the one where I grew up. If it had not been for the creek in which I learned to paddle, I would not have been ready for the open waters on the other side of the world, nor would I have been able to go with the moxie and conviction that my fearless leaders and fellow creek dwellers instilled in me.

My career took several different turns after that, including cooking school, several years at a major daily and authoring two cookbooks (with one on the way). In 2004, I found my way back to the alt-weekly universe, scribbling Kitchen Witch, a cooking column at Creative Loafing. I believed then and still believe that alt-weeklies play a vital role in this institution called journalism, particularly now when news organizations of all shapes and sizes and frequencies are drying up and getting tossed to the curb. Alt-weeklies speak truth to power. They take in and train young tadpoles and help them grow up. They keep us honest.

At the age of 34, City Paper is now among the dead. Gone too soon, but in its short life, had a helluva run.

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