Sabrina Eaton was Features Editor from January 1984 to July 1984 and Co–Editor from September 1984 to December 1984.
This piece is part of a series of personal narratives written by Street alumni in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 34th Street.
Dear 34th Street Editors,
Your request for my college reminiscences made my day. My own kids, who are roughly your age, groan when I when I talk about the old days when nobody had cell phones or laptops or email. In those far off times before iTunes and Spotify, music was transmitted to the masses via the radio or on black vinyl discs called records. Disco ruled the radio and I hated it. I didn’t have enough money to buy the punk rock records I wanted and that’s what first led me to 34th Street Magazine. It ran an ad that said it needed record reviewers. And the reviewers would get to keep the records.
My first experiences were disappointing. The music editor gave me the worst crap to review. I thought he kept the best records for himself and his friends. But other freebies sucked me in. I did a few film reviews, as I also lacked the disposable income to see movies and this was before folks could watch things on the internet. In an era when personal computers were rare, The DP had word processors that staff could use to write their school papers. A local pizza place paid for its DP ads by delivering pizzas every night, so I didn’t have to scare up dinner. And writing for 34th Street got me decent enough clips to get paid journalism internships during summer breaks.
Eventually two guys named Bob and Dave were put in charge of the magazine. They did not get along. Dave was manic and Bob was depressive. Bob also seemed to live in the office, as artifacts believed to be his socks and undergarments were in his desk drawers. The pair had trouble deciding what to put in the magazine. In an attempt at Hunter S. Thompson style “Gonzo” journalism, Dave scandalized The DP’s more “serious” editors by taste testing dog food in the newsroom and writing it up like a restaurant review. I supplied more mainstream fare by profiling comedian John Candy and interviewing members of the band REM to promo their appearance at Irvine Auditorium.
Upset by Dave and Bob’s hijinks, some members of the DP Board of Managers discussed shutting down the magazine. Instead, they formed a committee on how to improve it. I was on that committee. To avoid the sort of difficulties that resulted from Bob and Dave’s feuding, we decided to have three editors instead of two, with one outranking the others to avoid deadlocks. We also tried to figure out ways to draw in more writers and to encourage DP staff to use the magazine’s format for more ambitious projects.
The next year, I was one of the magazine’s editors. We got non DP–people who were contemplating journalism careers to write for us as a way to bolster their clip portfolio, and folks interested in art to assist with layout and graphics. I assigned far more material than needed because I realized some writers would cop out or submit articles that required triage. During my editor stint, I was shocked that many people who considered themselves good writers had no grasp of punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure, let alone storytelling. And plenty of people who didn’t think of themselves as good writers were naturals. As an editor, I focused on unscrambling prose and helping writers more clearly say what they wanted to say in their own words. Hopefully, I improved staffers’ writing and helped them decide whether journalism was something they could do for a living. Some future pros who wrote for the magazine while I was an editor include financial journalist Jean Sherman Chatzky (C ’86), The Atlantic editor Jeff Goldberg (C '87), Fast Company’s Sue Karlin (C ’85), the late rock critic Jimmy Guterman (C '84), Texas Monthly’s Jeff Salamon (C ’86), Politico’s Peter Canellos (C ’84), NPR’s Stefan Fatsis (C ’85) and New York Times restaurant critic C ’86).
Editing 34th Street made me realize I didn’t particularly enjoy being an editor, although I got invited to more parties by people who were into status–y stuff like titles. Towards the end of my tenure, I pulled some all–nighters to enter dozens of people’s work in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association contest. We won more awards than The DP itself (mostly for design), which helped shut down those who entertained thoughts of shutting down the magazine.
34th Street was in its late teens when I helped usher it past some adolescent misadventures. When my editing term was over, I extracted myself from it as best I could. I was dating the person who succeeded me as editor, and did not want to be a buttinsky. I was also eager to launch my post–college life. I got a succession of newspaper and wire service jobs and currently serve as Washington correspondent for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and its Cleveland.com website. Although I went the hard news route, I think it’s important for Penn students to get the chance to read and write the sort of arts and feature coverage that 34th Street provides. I’m glad the magazine survived into middle age, and hope it does not succumb to any midlife crises.
Sabrina Eaton is the Washington correspondent for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and its Cleveland.com.