They were tiny and ugly and brave. They believed in things and got sued.
The Welcomat made the first real mark, in 1971. It was a weekly paper with awkward fonts, owned by three eccentric sisters who loved nothing better than an argument. But the Welcomat didn’t start to land like a bomb on the doorsteps of Center City until a man named Dan Rottenberg took over as editor, in 1981. Rottenberg didn’t have any money to hire reporters, so he let the readers write the paper. They would write letters and unsolicited manuscripts, stuff them into envelopes, and send them to Rottenberg, and Rottenberg, a lean bulldog of a former Wall Street Journal reporter, would edit the letters, type them up and publish them in the Welcomat: letters about race and racism, gay rights, Israel, Frank Rizzo, AIDS.
Rottenberg, who used to work in Chicago, was a combative character who had been profoundly affected in 1968 when the Chicago cops beat the shit out of anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention and the daily newspapers in that city parroted the mayor’s propaganda. Rottenberg had come to believe that the only way to improve the existing media was to embarrass them from the outside. A vibrant alternative media could accomplish that in two ways: one, by critiquing the dailies’ coverage; and two, by covering the stories that the dailies overlooked. The fact that people sued the Welcomat right and left said to Rottenberg that he was doing a good job, that he was having an impact. Rizzo sued. This guy named Earl Stout sued—he was the head of the blue-collar municipal union, and represented by Dick Sprague, the most fearsome libel lawyer in town. Rottenberg fought the suits and won them. One day there was a mass walkout at Overbrook High School over something an Overbrook teacher had written in the Welcomat. (Specifically, the teacher said his students were stupid.) Another day, the gay-rights group ACT UP invaded Rottenberg’s office, incensed about an article on AIDS. There were countless advertiser boycotts. It was all a normal part of life at the Welcomat.
Meanwhile, half a city away, in Germantown, a charismatic Penn graduate student named Bruce Schimmel was putting together a competing paper, the soon-to-be-called City Paper, with friends and colleagues—former Vietnam War protesters, rock-and-roll freaks, an urban-gardening guru from Oklahoma, a feminist film reviewer. Schimmel had met them while writing articles about contemporary dance for the monthly newspaper of WXPN-FM, the public radio station at Penn. Their newsroom was the 350-square-foot first-floor former drugstore beneath Schimmel’s house—a noisy, joyous place that attracted boarders, Penn professors, young wannabe journalists who didn’t mind writing for free, and thieves. (“I bought a big dog to keep the thieves out,” Schimmel later wrote, “which contracted a disease, and barfed and shitted itself to a horrible death.”) On production days, Schimmel and friends used to cut rows of type with X-Acto knives and wax them, pasting them down by column; to deal with the deadline stress, Schimmel alternated between smoking pot and glugging NyQuil.
His goal with the City Paper was nothing less than to transform the culture of Philadelphia—to feed the counterculture into the mainstream by publishing articles “that we could really use as a solid foundation for action,” Schimmel recalls. He got a huge boost in 1993, when Howard Altman, an investigative journalist with rumpled clothes and a prickly beard, took over as the City Paper’s news editor. The first thing Altman did was send a reporter out to dig through the trash of three people: the head of the Philly Mafia, the head of the city’s recycling program, and Mayor Ed Rendell. The reporter came back with three piles of trash. Altman then recruited an archaeologist to examine the piles without knowing whose trash was whose. It turned out there was stuff in the recycling guy’s trash that should have been recycled. The Mafia don’s trash was full of fancy Italian food. Rendell’s was full of Slim-Fast cans.
Altman knew it sounded cheesy, but he thought sometimes about how he was working in the same city where, 200 years before, another weekly newspaper editor, Benjamin Franklin, had helped to invent the country. He took that legacy seriously. Soon enough, Altman was getting sued, too, thanks to his investigations of then-state senator Vince Fumo, at the time the most powerful man in Pennsylvania. (He’s now in federal prison for defrauding taxpayers and others of more than $2 million.) Altman’s reporters Scott Farmelant and Noel Weyrich became two of the first in the city to peel back the layers of the corrupt Fumo empire. One morning, an intimidating man showed up at Altman’s door, scaring his wife and warning him to stop printing the stories. Fumo also sent countless threatening letters through his lawyer, Dick Sprague, and eventually sued for libel. But the City Paper didn’t back down. Altman remembers one deposition where Sprague asked him to explain why he used the word “freakin’” in one of his anti-Fumo columns.
“What does ‘freakin’’ mean?” Sprague asked. “Does that mean ‘fucking’?”
“No,” Altman said, “it’s the City Paper. If I wanted to use ‘fucking,’ I’d use ‘fucking.’ This is freakin’, as in, this lawsuit is freakin’ ridiculous.”