To some, the notion of being the Godfather of Philadelphia journalism may seem like a modest achievement. It’s not. By radically re-imagining the city magazine, as Alan did with Philadelphia magazine for three decades, he not only created the template that would be copied across the country but helped transform journalism as well. Even the Gazette reflects his influence, and not just because he served for years on the alumni publications committee that has advised the magazine.

Back in 1970, the Gazette published a lengthy article about Philadelphia and the phenomenon of city magazines, focusing on Alan and some of his fellow Penn alumni, especially Gaeton Fonzi C’57, Charles MacNamara C’47, Nancy Love CW’49, and advertising director Frank DeLone W’42. Fonzi—who had just published a none-too-flattering, 15,000-word piece about Penn in Philadelphia titled “Up Against the Wall, Mother Ivy”—also helped the magazine win its first National Magazine Award (for specialized journalism) that year. Two years before that it had won a National Magazine Award special citation for its account of a corrupt Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who was subsequently jailed for selling his byline. It would win more National Magazine Awards and scores of other significant journalistic prizes.

“The best city magazines are covering a wide range of subjects in greater depth, and with more daring, than are the newspapers against which they compete for local attention,” noted the author of the Gazette piece, one Robert Ankerson. “And the best of the city magazines, by all accounts, is Philadelphia. The Columbia Journalism Review rates it ‘the outstanding magazine in this field,’ and ‘a model of what city magazines can become.’ Sigma Delta Chi, the national journalism fraternity, bestowed its coveted award for distinguished reporting on Philadelphia in two successive years, a feat matched by only one other magazine, Life.”

At that time, Alan and Herb Lipson, the magazine’s publisher, had nothing but nice things to say about each other. Alan “praises him for creating and protecting an environment of complete editorial freedom,” the article noted. “Alan also credits Herb with the most critical decision: to improve readership by pouring all available dollars into research and writing. This commitment to put out a decent product was the key, according to Alan: ‘It was a good business decision and it put us in the big leagues.’”

The quality of the writing was “consistently high, which suggests that Alan must exert strong editorial control,” the author speculated. But the magazine’s writers quickly disabused him of that notion. While Alan was indeed a gifted editor, much of his genius lay in attracting talented writers, letting them follow their noses, and editing in such a way that their voices came through loud and clear.

“Alan trusts everybody,” Fonzi told him. “That’s the key to the success of the operation. And that makes us really feel the pressure—we put it on ourselves.’”

That trust led to great things, though it also had a downside. As the magazine grew more powerful, it sometimes pushed the envelope in ways that were more snarky than funny.

“During Alan’s last five to 10 years at the magazine, that caustic humor did tremendous damage to the magazine,” noted one Philadelphia veteran who asked not to be identified. “They’d made fun of all of the people who deserved to be made fun of and moved on to those who were less deserving of derision. As a result, the magazine developed a reputation for being snide and nasty that it has never lost.”

Though I was a contributing editor at Philadelphia for a 10-year stretch that began shortly after Alan left in 1980, I read it only sporadically these days, and I doubt anyone would argue that it is
a groundbreaking magazine anymore. And yet: once you get past the annoyingly contrived covers and relentless materialism, there is still—as there has always been—some very lively writing and reporting and buzz. That is the true legacy of Alan Halpern.

“Halpern invented the modern urban monthly magazine—stylish, sophisticated, and abrasively irreverent toward the local establishment—and consequently changed the face of American journalism,” wrote Dan Rottenberg C’64 in a eulogy for Broad Street Review, the online review of the Philadelphia arts scene that he edits. 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,” Rottenberg noted.

“His [story] was one that should have been told a hundred times, and in regions far beyond Broad Street,” wrote Lisa DePaulo C’82, now a correspondent for GQ, in an appreciation for Philadelphia, where she was a high-profile writer in the late 1980s and 1990s. “Alan invented city magazines, but never got the credit.”

Stephen Fried C’79, a long-time writer for Philadelphia, briefly its editor, and now an author and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, never worked for Alan. But having been a beneficiary of what Alan built in Philadelphia, he wrote to the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) urging it to give Alan a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I have always been amazed by what he contributed to the magazine industry, and to print journalism in general,” Fried wrote. “We all know the magazine business is New York-centric, even though magazine readers are all over the country and have distinctly regional and local needs. Part of the reason to honor Alan Halpern is to honor the idea of the importance of the regional-magazine business (and the increasing regionality of the national-magazine business). Regional magazines are, more than ever, an important part of the bricks and mortar of our industry. Alan Halpern was their primary architect.

“It can also be argued, I think, that the brand of journalism that came out of Alan Halpern’s Philadelphia—especially in the ’60s and early ’70s, before Watergate became synonymous with investigative reporting—made an important and unappreciated contribution to the so-called ‘new journalism’ that got all the national attention at Esquire and New York. Starting in 1961, Halpern was assigning and editing stories that not only featured vivid writing, but also vivid, in-depth reporting. The magazine’s best stories not only thrilled with verbal calisthenics: they were also gritty dramas that sent bad people to jail … ”

ASME ignored Fried’s suggestion. The New York Times didn’t even bother giving him an obituary. The snub still rankles.

“He was first, not New York and not [New York’s editor] Clay Felker,” points out Loren Feldman W’78, who wrote for Philadelphia in the 1980s and ’90s and edited it from 2000 to 2002. “That said, it’s a little tough to fully appreciate his contribution. In a weird way, it’s a little like reading Shakespeare today. The uninitiated might be tempted to ask, ‘Why does everyone think this guy’s a great writer—every other line is a cliché.’ And even a reader who understands that it was Shakespeare who created the cliché can’t possibly hear the lines the way they must have sounded when they were fresh. Same thing with Alan—though I really don’t mean to compare him with Shakespeare. He created a great format. Unfortunately, it’s been copied and perverted so many times and in so many places that it’s now hard to appreciate the genius.”

Eliot Kaplan C’78, editor of Philadelphia from 1991-1999 and now editorial talent director for Hearst Magazines, put it this way in a letter to Romenesko, the online journalism site: “In my opinion, Alan was simply the most underappreciated great editor of the past 50 years.”

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/08/06

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