BY JONATHAN VALANIA As we reported earlier this week, PW Senior Writer Steve Volk — obsessive Bowie-phile, tireless chronicler of all things Beanie, daring dissector of the unholy marriage of crime and justice in this city, intrepid shiner of the Fourth Estate’s disinfecting sunshine upon the dark places where gay meets meth — is leaving the alt-weekly to take a staff writer gig at Philadelphia Magazine. We’ve known Steve a long time and aside from his impressive paper trail and his storage locker full of journo awards — hey, look at this, Steve Volk just took Second Place in the AAN Awards! — you should know that Steve is a damn good egg. Of course, that didn’t stop us from busting his balls in this exit interview.
PHAWKER: Steve, thanks for coming on the blog today. So, what was your bright and shining moment at PW?
STEVE VOLK: Jay Dagenhart overcame his meth addiction. Joe Jaskolka learned to live with a bullet in his head. There have been many. But about eight months into my run here I wrote a story called “Want Weed With That?” I had internal police memos, surveillance video and cops on and off the record telling me how drug dealing had gotten out of hand in and around Chinese takeout stores. I remember thinking I’d hit a new mark for myself, because no one in town had written about this phenomenon. I realized I had a chance to develop a niche.
PHAWKER: What was your most shameful day at PW?
SV: Mistakes? I made a few. But then again, too few to mention. Wow! You’re gonna let me off the hook that easily. Thanks pal.
PHAWKER: We’ll come back to that. What’s the state of alt-weeklies circa now as compared to when you first started writing for them back in, like, 1920s?
SV: Way back then, in 1997, the alt-weekly world was like a daisy planted in Miracle-Gro. All the talk was about expansion. It took a lot longer for the forces buffeting major dailies to reach weeklies, and I happen to believe that the alts, as niche publications, will never go away. We’ve got an audience. They like us. We like them. But to grow the enterprise alt weeklies need to hire — like, three or five years ago — a small squad of online content producers. Guys and gals dedicated to reporting items for the Internet on a daily basis. But I don’t see any owners these days running out to make that investment, which doesn’t bode well.
PHAWKER: The Internet, eh? That’s the one with email, right? Is your hire at PhillyMag part of some initiative to fill the masthead with guys who look like Mr. Clean?
SV: Dude, no wonder you’re number one in readers’ hearts. You got it. I am very excited to go work with Larry Platt, to consort with another guy who embraced his inner bald man. Tim Whitaker — he has such a head of hair! Immaculately coiffed every damn day. And me? You asked me a couple of paragraphs up what my bright and shining moment here had been. Maybe I should amend my answer: It’s when I walk in each morning and the fluorescents overhead set my dome ablaze in a brilliant white light. My most shameful moment? Back when I was still attempting to have hair, an intern here asked if she could write about me for her journalism class. I later saw her finished piece, which described my “pasty white” bald spot and the way the little tuft of hair remaining on the top of my head acted as a kind of “faux mohawk.” Soon after, I shaved my head, resulting in the gleaming, steaming pate you admire so today.
But seriously, starting last year I noticed a real sense of urgency in the Mag’s pages. They started writing vigorously about events within the city limits, like the homicide increase. And Bob Huber’s profile of Tom Knox was, to my mind, probably the best piece of political journalism this last election cycle produced. He spiraled down deep into his subject and resurfaced with the prize. So, I get it. There’s a puppy on the cover of the current issue. But I love puppies. You love puppies. And from a journalistic perspective, it’s what’s inside that counts. So I believe the bald thing was only about half of why I got the gig.
PHAWKER: I do like puppies, now that you mention it. Say, when you get over there, if you could let us know if Jessica Pressler is still alive we’d sure appreciate it.
SV: I have heard I might wind up working in an office next to her. I look forward to reuniting with her, in all her Jessness.
PHAWKER: What Philly Mag story do you wish you had written and why?
SV: The majority of great writers in this town pass through Philadelphia Magazine at some point, so there are a lot of examples I could pick. To get specific, when Jason Fagone was on staff there, I read his pieces with emotional and academic pleasure because I knew what the guy was doing yet continually felt moved and surprised by his writing. More recently, Matt Teague wrote a story about the aftermath of the Faheem Thomas-Childs murder — the North Philadelphia kid who was killed by a stray bullet just outside his school — that really flipped the switch for me. The story had all the poetry you could want, so he satisfied whatever artistic impulses he brings to bear. But he also served the city. We talk a lot in Philadelphia about a sense of hopelessness and lawlessness in the neighborhoods, where holding a gun makes someone all-powerful. Read Teague’s story and you can feel the sadness that hangs over such a neighborhood. Heady stuff.
PHAWKER: In your most conspiratorial heart of hearts, did you ever think Brian Tierney spurred the sale of PW to get back at all the negative coverage of his purchase and stewardship of the Inquirer and Daily News?
SV: I not only thought of it — I’m sure of it. And beyond that I think he floated this rumor about bidding on the Wall Street Journal to take everyone’s minds off the Bush administration’s failed policies in Iraq. But seriously, folks: With all due respect to the Inquirer and Daily News, I don’t expect them to do a terribly thorough job of covering their own ownership. That was something I tried to do with the Tierney Watch series at PW and I am looking forward to following him as he tries to salvage the Fourth Estate with Bill Marimow, a broken mop, a bucket with a hole in it and an abundance of self-confidence.
PHAWKER: You’ve written a lot about gun violence in this city, what do you think it’s accomplished? If you were named Police Commissioner, what would you do to stem the surge of gun violence?
SV: Ah. I don’t think anything anyone’s written has had any meaningful impact on the city’s violence. I think the amount of coverage that has been generated has helped raise awareness, but we’re still talking about a problem that is mostly restricted to the city’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. To me, that remains the biggest factor here: Money. Opportunity. Education. We don’t have as much of any of those things in North Philly as we do on the Main Line. If we did there wouldn’t be all those bullets flying around. Period. So given that nothing I or anyone else writes will create a single school or job, I think we’re serving the traditional town crier function. We’re screaming “Emergency, emergency!” It’s up to the people in office to actually fix the problem. That said, if I were Commissioner, I’d stop and frisk people all over the city. It can be done without violating anyone’s civil rights, or at least that’s what the courts have held. I’d also, and this has nothing to do with gun violence, climb into a squad car, turn on my siren and lead-foot it through town hollering “Whoo-hoo! Look at me! I’m the Police Commissioner!” I don’t believe I’d be able to hold the job for very long.
PHAWKER: Good one, Steve. Now, I’ve asked you this many times and you have never given me a straight answer: How did Police Commissioner Sylvester know there was a bug in John Street‘s office?
SV: I will answer this question only by saying the following: The Commissioner not only did nothing wrong. He did everything right. If he hadn’t, the Feds certainly wouldn’t have called a press conference to say so.
PHAWKER: You always say that! That’s not an answer! OK, last question: You are from Pittsburgh and are, like, proud of it. Why are you not embarrassed by this fact?
SV: Man, Pittsburghers are wise enough to live in the moment, to understand that tomorrow isn’t promised us, and put French fries on their sandwiches. I can’t think of a single gastronomical statement as powerful as that. And hey, before I sign off, allow me to answer a question you didn’t ask. Yes, I loved working at Philadelphia Weekly. I walked into work each day thinking I had an important responsibility to uphold and I believe the great majority of people I worked with in my time there felt the same way. I will always admire the people I worked alongside for all those years. It’s a small crew that runs an alternative paper, usually somewhere around a dozen folks on the editorial side, and I think, per pound, we did a pretty good job, delivering the troubles in the neighborhoods and more purely perverse and entertaining fare like The Angry Grammarian every week. I hope to work with all of my PW colleagues again some time in the future, even Steven Wells — who has no taste in music and sings in the office, like, all the time.
PHAWKER: Oh, just get a room already!