What happened to 'Seattle Weekly'?

A founder of the alternative weekly, now changing owners again, reflects on the paper's origins, ideals, and tribulations.
The 'Seattle Weekly' and 'The Stranger' have long battled one another and established media for a place in Seattle.

The 'Seattle Weekly' and 'The Stranger' have long battled one another and established media for a place in Seattle. Kristin Resurreccion/Flickr

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.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Another alum of The Weekly is Tom Robbins, who in spring 1981 authored an incredibly prophetic look at the changing of The Jet City, "The Cult of the Rude Meets the City of the Nice". When The Weekly debuted, it also went up against an excellent little free pub, The Seattle Sun, which was outlasted by its great offspring, The Rocket. When I see a copy of The Weekly, I'll usually glance at it....until I hit the recently notorious sex ads, which might be interesting if the person in charge of the ads was someone like the composer of the Lusty Lady billboards.
And here's kudos to another of David Brewster's great experiments, The Mark Tobey pub at Post Alley in the basement of The Alexis. Thanks, David! I spent a lot of happy hours there, pulling pints and downing quite a few.

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 8:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you David for this nice piece. This felt like an in-depth obit for the weekly. It's still there right?!

Your mention of the Argus made me think of The Rocket or The Fish Wrapper in Bellingham. We should have a memorial area somewhere in Seattle (or every city for that matter) where you could bring one's smartphone and scan articles from papers from long ago. A roll call of former area papers. We forget what pleasure these free or paid things bring/brought us.

You bring up so many points as to why the public comes to media in all its forms. Sadly, we don't come back enough or seem willing to pay enough. Your last paragraph makes sense for what lies ahead. These local web based models are still relatively new and who knows, perhaps this is another decade like the 80's.

Thanks for your energy over the years. Please continue!

uncletim

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

One missed point: Prior to all the hoopla over escort ads, prior to Facebook, prior to the internet...came the Weekly personals. Most of my dates back in the 80s came from those pages. :)

debbalee

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

A fine and informative piece indeed, and not just about the Weekly. What it fails to address - and this question of mine doesn't pertain exclusively to what the variety of alternatives do or have done, is why so little muck-raking in depth reporting is done, across the board. I have a couple of instances of that, entirely fortuitous, since that is not my beaat. I am uncertain whether, say, Crosscut, even with the finances to support a few really good noses, might be the venue to then run "that one long story" of the week, that one long story that becomes a "must read." Crosscut, so far, for me, does not live up to its name. I don't need links to David Brooks or Joel Connolly since I peek at the P.I. and read the NY Times. As a local aggregator, a "go to" aggregator, which Crosscut might be, it needs to aggregate a lot more locally and link to little stories in the adjoining counties.

mikerol

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

David’s history of Seattle Weekly mirrors in many ways that of Willamette Week in Portland, founded about the same time but still under local ownership. I was part of the founding group, writing a monthly column when I worked at King Broadcasting’s station in Portland. We began as an effort to pump some life into Portland journalism; The Oregonian was in the doldrums, taking its audience for granted and yielding much of the journalistic enterprise in Portland to local television (yikes, those were the days!). Led by Ron Buel, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who came West to work for Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, the Week was a hardnosed alternative news and opinion paper.
Gradually it morphed into the sort of “hip” publication David describes, with a heavy emphasis on places to eat, drink and be entertained. In more recent years it has rediscovered some of its journalistic chops, with a small corps of really fine reporters. It lured Brent Walth, a top political reporter, away from The Oregonian to be its editor. The Week won a Pulitzer Prize for outing a three-decades-old case of Goldschmidt having sex with an under-age girl and it has continued tough reporting this year on candidates for the city’s hotly contest mayoralty race. When I’m in the city, I always pick up a copy.
The challenge for alternative weeklies—and frankly for Crosscut as well—is to find a way to pay for younger reporters and editors so they can actually make a living by writing. Retired journalists (like me) and people with day jobs can keep up a flow of copy and contribute insights that the youngsters may not have acquired. But reporters need legs, even in the Internet age, and they need to eat. Too many of my former students with good talent and strong work ethics are “spokespersons” (dreaded label!) or using their writing skills to aid business promotions. Too few have found places in what we once called “newspapering” and now call “media”.
It’s all about the money. When I was working at newspapers and particularly in television, wages supported my family and I was happily oblivious of which company was paying for the advertising. It was all so simple. Now we find ourselves hawking to readers, begging for tips like servers at a diner. It’s a new world all right but not a brave new world.
Adjustment to online isn’t that hard for a writer; for me it was easier than moving from print to television. But the economic adjustment faced by the gutsy pioneers (David is one) trying to make the move has been more challenging than anyone predicted. I’d like to be quietly shuffled to the sidelines in favor of an aggressive youngster with the fire in his or her eye that I had 40 years ago. But who will pay the bill?

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 12:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting retrospective by Mr. Brewster, but deficient in at least three ways.

There's no mention of The Seattle Sun (1974-1981), which under the editorship of Dick Clever (and later of Jane Hadley) set the pace for alternative newspaper journalism in Seattle.

One of The Sun's many coups was the series by Bruce Olson that scooped the world on the impending bankruptcy of the Washington Public Power Supply System, the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. Alas, it was in retribution for just such fearless reporting The Sun was destroyed by a Ruling Class advertising boycott -- a pivotal fact in any history of Seattle journalism.

Nor does Mr. Brewster make any mention of how the same vindictiveness on the part of the local One Percent, again expressed via an advertising boycott, killed Seattle Magazine in 1970.

Lastly there is the capitalist macrocosm illustrated by the Seattle microcosm.

If capitalism is to thrive in an age of terminal scarcity, it demands two dictatorial prerequisites. The first is that government at every level must be restructured in accordance with the principles set out by Benito Mussolini: absolute power and unlimited profit for the (corporate) Ruling Class, total subjugation for everyone else – exactly the regime now being imposed on the United States. Secondly – and as the pivotal element of the first – it is essential the masses be kept as ignorant as possible: note for example the One Percent's effort to bolster its profits by concealing the deadly dangers of genetically modified foods.

A major part of shutting off the information flow and thus dumbing down the public is, of course, the methodical destruction of newspapers – a process that becomes especially evident when the relative health of British and European print media is contrasted to the terminal sickness with which its U.S. counterpart has been (deliberately) infected.

Surely the notably thoughtful Mr. Brewster cannot be unaware of these factors, especially how various governmental policies, postal rates in particular, have been constructed specifically to destroy the U.S. press. Thus it is disingenuous of him to attribute the termination of public access to vital information as merely a consequence of random forces in an allegedly free market – a market that is in fact as deliberately structured as any psychology lab's rat maze.

(Disclosure: a working journalist since 1956, I have had at least one proverbial foot in the alternative press since 1963, when I wrote for The Knoxville Flashlight Herald under the editorship of Marion Barry, who was then a field secretary for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. In 1966-67, I was the text editor for Marc Crawford's TransMundo, the world's first alternative photo agency. From 1967 through 1971, my photographs and/or writing appeared in several alternative publications, among them The East Village Other, The Manhattan Tribune and Northwest Passage. From 1974 through 1976 I was the founding photographer of The Seattle Sun, and into the early '80s wrote occasional in-depth reports for Tacoma Review. Most recently, I covered Occupy Tacoma for Reader Supported News, an on-line alternative.)

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 1:16 p.m. Inappropriate

David,

Hail from long ago! Enjoyed reading your piece about the state and fate of the Seattle Weekly. I think your assessment is accurate--for the Weekly and for almost all of the other alternative newsweeklies--and certainly for Victoria's Monday Magazine (which, believe it or not, pre-dates the Seattle Weekly by a year). I founded Monday with roughly the same intentions held by the other publishers/editors at that time. By the way, I, too, entertained the idea of starting an alternative weekly in Vancouver (my strategy was to purchase the Georgia Straight, but that came to nothing as publisher Dan MacLeod thought better of selling).

Monday, too, is not the publication it was in its heyday. Bear in mind that our publications are now middle-aged, in their mid-thirties, and that so many institutions, not just in publishing, have gone through enormous changes. When I think back, I consider it a good run; and it was so much fun shaming the dozy dailies and connecting vitally, importantly with our readerships.

Sometimes, I yield to nostalgia and the memory of years of journalistic accomplishments, but mostly I take the view, as do you, that things have just moved on...and online. I take the same position about conferences, after recently running seven consecutive annual environmental conferences under the name, Gaining Ground. While it was great to convene communities of conscience in Victoria, Vancouver and Calgary and to powerfully inform audiences, the business model stunk, and the potentials of vaster audiences online reachable at a fraction of the cost beckoned (and continue to beckon) seductively!

Also, it encourages me that alternative and investigative voices seem now to be everywhere. Light now shines into many dark corners, and our alternative newsweeklies have played a significant role in that outcome.

Best to you,

Gene Miller
Founding Publisher
Monday Magazine
Victoria, BC

Posted Tue, Oct 2, 2:02 p.m. Inappropriate

The weeklies in Seattle don't shine any light into dark corners. They are not only wholly predictable and overwhelmingly trivial, but when they do venture into local politics they are complete suckups for downtown money.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Oct 5, 5:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Well said, NotFan.

The reason this is true is implicit in the fates of Seattle Magazine and The Seattle Sun and the lessons taught thereby.

To wit: cover Seattle as it should be covered -- cover it as Seattle Magazine did or as we at The Sun covered it -- and the local aristocracy will kill you with an advertising boycott.

Yes, that's what happened. Seattle's own One Percent is as malevolently self-protective as any Ruling Class clique in the Ku Klux South.

Want more proof? Note how the local and regional transit systems are 40 years behind time.

Why? Adequate transit is like cutting-edge journalism in that each encourages genuine diversity -- which the local fat-cats seek to avoid no matter the cost.

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 7:10 p.m. Inappropriate

A great roundup piece that will be tucked away in the History of Seattle Journalism time capsule...along with the added recollections, suggestions, and helpful criticisms that you've attracted.

I'm motivated to re-up my charter subscription to Crosscut!

In all of this, regarding the little question of content and mission: there's still work to be done digging deeper into how a little old airplane company and a handful of energetic pols turned Washington state into one of the most defense-dependent, military-industrial-complex-driven regions of the USA. Go to it, Crosscut!

Seneca

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 7:48 a.m. Inappropriate

I've always thought the Seattle Weekly has tried to Emulate The Stranger ever since David Brewster left, so it was very interesting to read Brewster's retrospect. The Weekly used to read like it was written by (and for) grown-ups, but now, there is almost nothing that separates the Weekly from The Stranger.

I'd be overjoyed to have a paper in Seattle that at least attempts to bring some editorial balance between left and right viewpoints (the Times does seem to give it a try every so often), but this IS Seattle I'm talking about. Not going to happen in the current milieu of what passes for journalism these days (i.e., bring your preconceived notions to the keyboard, type out a story that reflects those prejudices, then add a supportive quote here and there to flesh it out). I'll read both the Weekly and Stranger when I get copies, but I know what I'm getting beforehand.

It should be added that there ARE papers that have not just survived, but even turned profits in recent years: The so-called "neighborhood weeklies" that have popped up in the past two decades. Sound Publishing has built a mini-empire of free smaller-scale papers that are lighter than air on editorial content but heavy on local news or semi-news content. The Reporter papers in Bellevue, Renton, Kent, etcetera have made it work by selling their blanket home delivery to advertisers, who'll pay money to ensure their ad makes it to every driveway in their target market.

You don't get great "journalism" in the classic sense: These are not watchdogs and there aren't investigative stories, which (to their credit) the Weekly and Stranger DO run. These weeklies also notoriously underpay their writers but in the final analysis, Sound Publishing does make money. Love them or hate them, there's a reason the Eastside Journal is gone but the Bellevue Reporter lives. In the end, you still have to pay for the cost of production.

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

15 years ago I'd look to The Stranger or The Weekly to read restaurant reviews, to see what shows were in town, and to read the articles. I used to get it when I went out to lunch by myself to have something to read while I ate.

Now I do all of that on my phone, and the only reason that I even pick up a Weekly or a Stranger is that I need to restock newsprint for starting my charcoal chimney or a campfire. They just aren't relevant any more, especially for the generations younger than I who fully embrace technology for their information, entertainment and social needs.

talisker

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 11:12 a.m. Inappropriate

I flip through to see if they have any alternative comics. Then they go straight into recycling.

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 3:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting historical review. My main objection was David's lack of acknowledgement that over many years, New Times papers across the country have done a lot of outstanding investigative reporting that has made a big impact in South Florida, Phoenix, Houston, Denver, and other cities where they are located. David, you may not like the NT owners or business model but you have to give them their due. I did some of the best work of my career during my one year at New Times Broward Palm Beach, where I won my Gerald Loeb Award for business reporting in 2000. New Times has been fearless in its reporting, totally willing to take on the most powerful business and government players and nonprofit players. That's not true of most journalism operations, in my experience.

Posted Fri, Sep 28, 8:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Let's buy KOMO. Not alone, but as the center of an alliance of journalistic tools that would provide a one-stop center for Seattle centered, Puget Sound surrounding, WA/Olympia included (esp. in the absence of any other consistent Olympia coverage), locally owned, news coverage.

Crosscut is a wonderful concept, but frankly by itself inadequate to resupply the vacuum you so aptly describe. The Crosscut effort is a useful catalyst for asking how big the journalistic hole really is...huge...and for imagining how big the solution needs to be.

Posted Mon, Oct 1, 1:45 a.m. Inappropriate

There is no journalism without beat reporting, and you can't get that unless you have a paid staff. Seattle Weekly and The Stranger have always been remorrah fish on the newspapers, and so have the TV stations. With the newspapers now down to one, and that one clearly on its last legs, the whole structure is about to fall over.

The opportunity will exist for someone who can accumulate the funds to pay beat reporters. It will take years for the investment ti pay off, but it will pay off. Once the Seattle Times folds, there will be a vacuum, and people will be looking around for something that can fill it.

As for the Weekly and the Stranger, they are like the Times, dead men walking. The Weekly will die first, but the Stranger is gasping for air. Publicola was promising, but they have a problem with facts, and are biased as hell. I think the winner will emerge from some completely unexpected place. Crosscut has no chance in its current form. It's an Op-Ed section. People want news, and eventually they'll even pay for it.

NotFan

Posted Mon, Oct 1, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

After a long absence from the Pacific Northwest I returned a few years ago and was having a hard time putting my finger on what exactly had changed about The Weekly, or as it is called these days, Seattle Weekly. Yes, there were still the long in-depth stories anchoring the middle of the mag. But there was something about the general sensibility and vision that had changed. I have to admit I didn't have much reason to think long and hard about this, and I chalked it up to getting older or something. I mean, back in my college days, all of us at the University of Washington Daily had trouble understanding why there were so many stories in the Weekly about whether the local symphony conductor was up to snuff. And some 25-odd years later, it appeared that it wasn't doing stories like those anymore. Maybe it was just doing a few more of the stories that I would have found mildly interesting at age 23, about which taverns were cool. So maybe I'd made a mistake by getting older instead of younger. Maybe that was it. Oh, and all those cool personal ads had been replaced by escort ads. So no point in reading the fine print in the back anymore. And then I probably started thinking about what was for for lunch.

Looking back on it, I think that latter point was the key thing. The real transformation was that the Weekly had become something that didn't matter and really wasn't worth more than a second's thought. It wasn't until I found myself going back to the microfilm about a year ago, trying to look up a story I remembered in the Weekly from the mid-'80s, that I realized what a change had taken place, and what a terrific job it had done in those years of covering arts, politics and culture. Where the Weekly once had a voice, now it really had none. To view a copy of the Weekly from, say, 1984, side by side with the current edition, is to understand how radical this change has been. The Weekly has gone from a must-read publication for grownups and everyone with an interest in the community, to something quite a bit snarkier with pretenses toward hipness -- a publication which can easily be ignored. I'd often wondered about David Brewster's take on the transformation; I figured he was remaining silent as a matter of professional courtesy. I'm glad to see him break that silence.

ErikSmith

Posted Sat, Oct 6, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

David neglects to mention Victor Steinbrueck as a contributor to the ARGUS. Beginning in october 1959 and extending to summer 1962, Steinbrueck published his sketches in the ARGUS, usually on the front page. These did not appear every week; about 80 appeared in the three-year run. Steinbrueck sketched ordinary places, historic buildings, new buildings, interesting streets, and views and vistas. His captions were more than descriptive, offering lessons in what makes a good city. He also routinely attacked the destruction that the construction of I-5 was causing. The first SEATTLE CITYSCAPE book, published in May 1962, incorporated most of his ARGUS sketches and a good many more. In short, the ARGUS was the venue in which Victor Steinbrueck's activism first appeared.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »