Poor Seattle Weekly. Like the Romney campaign, when it’s in the news these days it’s mostly adverse.
The latest round of mixed tidings is the sale of the Weekly’s parent company to a group of next-tier-down employees and investors. The embattled Backpage.com, which runs online adult ads, will be shifted to a new entity.
Locally, Seattle Weekly has decided, under pressure of advertising boycotts by Mayor Mike McGinn and others, to drop “escort” advertising. Perhaps this will help some of the 13 city weeklies in the Phoenix group to rebound. The outcome is a victory for the mayor, be it noted, who led a national campaign to pressure Backpage over its alleged role in abetting sexual trafficking of minors.
Update: Today, Mayor McGinn made this statement: “We appreciate the decision by the Seattle Weekly to disassociate from Backpage.com. But the fact remains that Backpage.com continues to be an accelerant of the sexual exploitation of children. I remain committed to working with state leaders and mayors across the country to stop Backpage.com’s abhorrent profit-driven practices.” McGinn said it would be okay for city departments to go back to advertising with Seattle Weekly.
I take more than a civic interest in this story, since I was among a small band of journalists and investors who founded Seattle Weekly in 1976. The story of those early days, and the saga of this nationwide media experiment in alternative weeklies, might be of interest as the paper reinvents itself one more time. It’s also a variant of the broader story of the decline of American media.
The idea for a Seattle city weekly, as they were called back then before “alternative” became the adjective of choice, came from three inspirations. One was KING Broadcasting’s Seattle Magazine, a high-toned and urbane monthly slick that I worked for in the late 1960s and found to be a wonderful first job in journalism. We missed it terribly when it was shut down in 1970, amid the Boeing recession and the toppling of Stimson Bullitt as the idealistic head of the broadcast company. Some of us vowed to revive all this in some new form.
A second inspiration was the Argus, a “cracker-barrel” weekly with roots all the way back to 1894, and where I was managing editor 1971-75. The Argus lived off legal ads for much of its early life, and was a pretty dreadful expression of narrow prejudices until Phil Bailey bought it in the 1950s and made it a lively gadfly, attracting intriguing and irreverent writers such as Emmett Watson, Roger Sale, Murray Morgan (as theater critic), and Maxine Cushing Gray (arts watchdog). Working at the paper, I learned how much more timely a weekly could be than the monthly rhythm of Seattle Magazine.
The third inspiration came from Portland, where Willamette Week (still going strong) had begun in 1974, the creation of several top editors determined to pull political stories out from under the snoring nose of the Oregonian. If Portland, we reasonably said to ourselves, why not Seattle?
And so The Weekly of Metropolitan Seattle (its first, cumbersome name) was born on March 31, 1976, the very same day the Kingdome opened to the public. (Note which one died first.) We began with a capital injection of $75,000, plus a loan(!) from Seattle Trust and Savings Bank. The first two modest investors, gold standard types, were Bagley Wright, the notable arts patron, and Jerry Grinstein, a revered political powerbroker.
The good years were the 1980s, when a lot of factors combined to breed city weeklies all over the country, particularly in amenities cities. Weeklies kept cooking up breakthrough publishing ideas, exploiting them until the mainstream media coopted them: personal ads, phone personals, extensive entertainment listings, free distribution. In many ways these papers were the R&D arm of print journalism, developing more personal voices in the writers, and proving particularly creative about classified advertising.
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