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The Welcomat’s unsung heroineBY: Dan Rottenberg 05.29.2012
I appreciate Philadelphia Magazine’s recent recognition of my role in transforming the Welcomat in the 1980s from a pedestrian Center City neighborhood weekly into a unique experiment in free speech. But the article overlooked the real heroine of Philadelphia’s alternative media saga of the past 45 years: the Welcomat’s feisty publisher.
Let us now praise gutsy publishersDAN ROTTENBERG
“Paper Tigers,” a lengthy article in the June issue of Philadelphia Magazine, chronicles the decline of Philadelphia’s two alternative weeklies— part of a curious nationwide narrative in which the ragged counter-culture protest papers of the mid-1960s somehow evolved into profitable advertising vehicles for real estate brokers, rock clubs and massage parlors but now seem to be going the way of daily print newspapers in the Internet age. (To read “Paper Tigers,” click here.)
As someone who was present at the creation of this phenomenon, I appreciate writer Jason Fagone’s kind recognition of my role in transforming the Welcomat in the 1980s from a pedestrian Center City neighborhood weekly into a unique experiment written by its readers, many of whom pushed the borders of free speech with outlandish ideas about religion, politics and sex.
But we editors and journalists tend to give short shrift to the critical role played by the business side of any creative enterprise. To my mind, Fagone overlooked the real heroine of Philadelphia’s alternative media saga of the past 45 years: the Welcomat’s feisty and gutsy publisher from 1979 to 1991, the late Susan Seiderman.
‘Let’s do it’
I spent much of the ‘70s peddling my then-peculiar vision of a provocative alternative weekly to some half-dozen experienced publishers, each of whom dismissed my notion as wacky. Then in 1981 I met Susan, a suburban housewife who had inherited control of the Welcomat from her father, Leon Levin, in 1979. When I asked Susan to risk her family’s assets on my unproven concept, she replied, “This is what I want to do! Whatever it takes, let’s do it.”
But Susan brought more to the Welcomat than her willingness to risk capital. She brought the courage to experiment and make mistakes. She brought a passion for free expression that enabled her to smile politely each week while her paper published opinions and language that made her cringe. She brought a combative spirit that successfully (and even eagerly) fought libel suits brought by such macho legends (in their own minds) as Mayor Frank Rizzo, the union leader Earl Stout and the power lawyer Richard Sprague.
Above all, Susan created a framework in which my editorial staff and I could operate freely, unburdened by the vicissitudes of sales, circulation, lawsuits or any other concern that might sap our creative energies. Unlike her successors at the renamed Philadelphia Weekly in the ’90s, Susan’s unusual combination of hardheaded managerial acumen and motherly concern enabled her to build a loyal and talented organization that maintained its family ambience even as it grew into a big moneymaker.
Fagone correctly notes that the Welcomat’s sales and circulation really took off in the mid-1990s under publisher Michael Cohen. But Cohen converted the Welcomat into a generic alternative weekly, indistinguishable from the rival City Paper, and consequently it lost the dominant market position it had enjoyed under Susan (as well as its name and, in my opinion, its soul).
More to the point, Cohen merely expanded a business model that Susan had created virtually from scratch. (Before Susan, no alternative paper in Philadelphia had ever shown a profit.) As Edgar Bronfman famously observed, “To turn $100 into $110 is work. To turn $100 million into $110 million is inevitable.”
Three eccentric sisters
Fagone describes the Welcomat’s owners in the ’80s as “three eccentric sisters.” He’s certainly correct in Susan’s case. She was rarely easy to work with. She could be irascible, temperamental, unpredictable and maddeningly illogical. Her attention span was minimal. She was at her best in a fight (as Rizzo and Sprague found out). And when no fight was available, she tried to contrive one.
After one disagreement between us, when Susan let me have my way, she told me, “All right— you won this fight, but I’m going to win the next one!”
“Susan,” I replied plaintively, “I’m your friend. I’m on your side. This is just a matter of figuring out between us what’s best for the paper.”
In our relationship, you see, Susan was very much the aggressive male and I was the conciliatory female.
Whatever else might be said about Susan, she was never dull. The bottom line was a rewarding weekly experience for the Welcomat’s readers, advertisers, employees and owners. We should all be so eccentric.♦
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