Alan Halpern: Stealth revolutionary

In the age of TV, he galvanized the printed word

     When Alan Halpern became editor of Philadelphia Magazine in 1951, magazines were largely a national phenomenon. It was the heyday of Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post. City magazines and local alternative weeklies as we know them today didn’t exist. Philadelphia itself was a bland Chamber of Commerce giveaway that engaged in some of journalism’s most corrupt practices, like selling adulatory cover stories to any Chamber member willing to pay the going price. To be sure, America’s cities then enjoyed robust competition among local daily newspapers. But in most of these places— including Philadelphia— the papers avoided disturbing the local status quo or each other, preferring to practice the Gentleman’s Code of the journalism profession, i.e., “Don’t you tell on me, and I won’t tell on you.”

      Amid this intellectual torpor, Halpern seemed an unlikely revolutionary. He was a shy introvert who once described himself as “a hermit progressing to a recluse.” Like another famous introverted editor— William Shawn of the New Yorker— Halpern shrank from direct engagement with the world and so relied instead on his writers to feed his curiosity. In the process, Halpern invented the modern urban monthly magazine— stylish, sophisticated and abrasively irreverent toward the local establishment— and consequently changed the face of American journalism. During Halpern’s 29 years as editor, Philadelphia evolved from a Chamber of Commerce puff sheet with no editorial budget and just 6,000 readers to an innovator in investigative reporting and finally to a fat and trendy merchandising tool with 142,000 paid circulation by the time he left in 1980.

     Long before I knew Halpern personally— and long before I moved to Philadelphia and went to work for him— I knew him through his pioneering magazine. In the late ’60s and early ’70s I was a reporter and editor in Chicago— a heady time and place for a journalist, what with Mayor Richard J. Daley, Hugh Hefner, the police riot at the ’68 Democratic convention, the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial and the police murder of sleeping Black Panthers. Yet my inspiration in those days came not from Chicagoans but from the monthly arrival of Philadelphia magazine in my mail. Those were the days when Philadelphia’s Gaeton Fonzi stood up to such local powers as Walter Annenberg and the Inquirer’s extortionist reporter Harry Karafin, when Greg Walter exposed graft and child abuse at the Pearl Buck Foundation, when Nancy Love delved into previously taboo subjects like swinger parties, when Charles McNamara and Bernard McCormick poked their inquisitive noses into all sorts of corners— from education to transportation— and brought esoteric subjects to life with the sort of wry sophistication later cornered by the New Yorker’s John McPhee.

     Operating in an uptight, stodgy and self-deprecating city, Philadelphia’s writers brought style and wit to every subject, no matter how mundane. But the real difference between Philadelphia and other publications in those days was the difference between a movie and a lecture. Instead of reporting the dry facts about suburban burglaries and urban prostitution, Philadelphia’s writers portrayed the night’s work of a fictitious “composite” burglar and prostitute, based on real people. They wrote not as objective journalists but as passionate humans sharing their excitement about their subjects. They even inserted themselves into their stories. In Fonzi’s dissection of Annenberg, flashbacks recounting the mighty publisher’s abuses of his power were interspersed with flash-forward scenes describing Fonzi’s own attempts to interview Annenberg; such was the tension generated by this device that the reader damn near jumped out of his skin in anticipation of the ultimate confrontation between the reporter and his quarry.

     At that time, you bought Philadelphia magazine not to read specific stories (which were rarely spotlighted on the cover) or writers (who weren’t even listed in the table of contents), but for the general expectation that anything you read in any issue would surprise, delight, shock or fascinate you. In this manner Philadelphia introduced its readers to a broad range of important subjects that wouldn’t otherwise have interested them— which is perhaps a journalist’s most important task. An informed public may be the foundation of a healthy society, but information is like medicine: It does no good unless people swallow it. People didn’t merely swallow Philadelphia; they gobbled it up voraciously.

     The magazine’s appeal, incidentally, lay almost entirely in its words. Aside from a few illustrations thrown in as an afterthought, Philadelphia offered no design, no color, no glitzy layouts and picture spreads, really nothing to please the eye until the mid-’70s at the earliest. Philadelphia then was a testament to the sheer delight of the written word.

     In time, of course, Philadelphia’s techniques were copied and even improved by other city magazines (most notably New York and Texas Monthly) and then appropriated by newspapers (especially in their so-called “style” and “magazine” sections). In time, Halpern’s original writers drifted off to other careers, to be replaced by new generations of Halpern protégés. In time, Halpern and his publisher, Herb Lipson— like many another editor-publisher team— came to resent each other as each grew embittered by the other’s failure to appreciate his contribution to the magazine’s success. And in time Halpern left Philadelphia and launched a new mentoring career as a consultant to such new magazine ventures as Manhattan inc., Avenue, Philly Sport, Applause and Seven Arts.

     Halpern got into magazine journalism at just the time when most Americans were abandoning newspapers for television as their primary means of connecting with the world. Magazines were perceived then as the fun-and-games corner of the journalism business, certainly less essential than either newspapers or TV. But the trouble with TV is, you don’t have to think in order to watch it. By contrast, even a tabloid newspaper or a pornographic novel requires you to exercise your mind by converting abstract symbols— letters— into words and sentences. Two generations of American TV-watchers were largely spared this level of mental training, which may explain the widespread inability of Americans under 50 to think analytically about civic or global issues.

      The solution was to rekindle a hunger for reading— the same kind of hunger that Philadelphia magazine first kindled in readers like me back in the ’60s. For nearly half a century, while most Americans were succumbing to the siren song of TV, Alan Halpern was galvanizing readers of the printed word and teaching other writers and editors to do the same.

     Halpern died on December 13th at the age of 79, just as television was at last being displaced by the Internet as Americans’ first line of connection to the world. Rarely has the timing of an individual’s career coincided so closely with the world’s need for his services.


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