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What happened to ‘Seattle Weekly’?

The 'Seattle Weekly' and 'The Stranger' have long battled one another and established media for a place in Seattle. Credit: 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.

Weeklies like Seattle Weekly aimed at a young professional audience — smart readers, relatively new to town (needing orientation), mixing bourgeois and bohemian tastes (David Brooks’ famous BoBos). Just as the antiwar “underground” weeklies such as the Berkeley Barb and the LA Free Press were becoming “level-ground” after the Vietnam War subsided, so the readers of the new weeklies were less alienated, entering careers, but still impatient. I would define the paper’s ideal reader as a young lawyer who has made some vocational and marriage choices but still thinks the boss is a jerk.

But there was another tide, which eventually swept aside my version of a city weekly. Like The Stranger, which came to Seattle from Madison, Wisconsin in 1990, these papers were lefter, younger, hipper, gayer,more contemptuous of established powers, “stranger.” And they were free, which meant they could quickly match the paid circulation of the earlier weeklies, driving all of us eventually to join the free revolution. The audience, and the advertising base, shifted from young professionals in their 30s to the youth market in their 20s, more interested in clubs, popular music, sexual liberation, and radical politics. Key national advertisers (cigarettes, beer, movies, rock) pushed these papers to become younger and more tightly focused.

The problem was, we were putting eggs in fewer baskets. Free distribution meant the end of revenues from circulation — a move that prefigured the way mainstream newspapers would lose revenued by offering stories free on the Web. The youth market meant fewer advertisers for a broader market. And once Craigslist decimated classified advertising, these papers were faced with sharply declining revenues. That meant chopping editorial budgets, “youth-sourcing” to inexpensive staffers, and serving the demanding nightlife advertisers with pages and pages of puffy entertainment stories that squeezed out much other reporting. 

This sounds conveniently deterministic, excusing me from my own blunders. Confession time: I lost focus around 1990. While other cities ruthlessly beat back upstarts like The Stranger, for fear of dividing the market, we were relaxed. We were diverting resources to things like the books division (Sasquatch Books, spun off in 1994), and Eastsideweek, started as a free weekly in 1990. I got too old to be a good editor of the free-circulation Seattle Weekly and dawdled about moving on until 1997. I had opposed the move to free distribution, and was losing heart in the city-weekly movement.

The company had made money, not a lot, for most of its years, but it put all earnings back into the venture. And so, familiar story, as the original investors passed on shares to offspring, who lacked Dad’s interest in the company and were getting no returns, I found that I could not convince the board about new enterprises, such as making Sasquatch books into a national book publisher or co-venturing a new weekly in Vancouver, B.C.

We took the usual way out of such an impasse and decided to sell the company, with Village Voice owner Leonard Stern (then on an expansionist ride) purchasing us in 1997. Good move for shareholders, for we sold at the top of the market for these soon-troubled weeklies, but bad move (in my view) for the paper and my fine colleagues. The Voice once was a good paper but it was always a managerial zoo, and Stern shortly afterward lost interest in his journalistic fling, selling the Voice empire to a highly leveraged new entity.

The Weekly rapidly went through new editors, new approaches, new designs, new publishers. It tried to undersell its rival The Stranger, which held on gamely. It tried to become more like The Stranger, earning the new nickname, “The Strangest.” It got into the website wars too late, after The Slog had dominated the alt-market. Ironically, the snarky world of blogs had been anticipated by these weeklies, but the massive shift of young people to Web products also made the print versions vulnerable.

And then the Voice enterprise hit the wall, selling to its rival group, The New Times of Phoenix, Arizona, with its collection of  Sunbelt city weeklies. That created a group of 13 alt-weeklies, beset with legal battles and eking out profits with the crucial help of those lucrative prostitution ads.

The Phoenix group, led by two swashbuckling renegades, was one of several groups and formulas competing in the gangbuster days of this movement. Their formula, which still holds in Seattle Weekly today and is likely to prevail under the new New-Times-trained owners,  is one long, narrative story for reading at lunchtime and ending with a roundhouse punch at one’s “betters”; good restaurant critics; lots of rock and movie coverage; and a relentless pressure on the ad staff to meet goals. The formula mostly avoids the topics other media are covering, refuses to endorse candidates, and reflects an alienated, libertarian disdain toward local do-gooders. An odd formula for Seattle, I should think, though better for the deracinated, mavericky Sunbelt towns like Phoenix and Houston.

Another approach, now in disarray after an unwise sale to mismatched new owners, was perfected by the Chicago Reader, and its offspring in D.C., Berkeley, and Los Angeles. Long, literary, offbeat stories; exhaustive listings; flood-the-zone arts coverage; and addictive features like Lynda Barry and Straight Dope and Savage Love  The Reader was the first to do free distribution with very low ad rates, so it perfected a formula to keep editorial costs low.

LA Weekly, eventually bought by Village Voice, was an attempt to bring a sophisticated New York radicalism to Los Angeles. There were small,  liberal/environmental redoubts in conservative smaller cities and states. And there were progressive, reformist, civic sheets in places like Portland, Austin, and Seattle. Most of these are now very slender versions of their former selves, largely peripheral to the big local debates.

One good thing about this attempted reform of American journalism is that there were no chains at first but instead a lot of local experiments, tied to local sensibilities. Lots of fine writers used the papers as a training ground, finding a voice and a career.  I remember with fond pride writers such as Rebecca Boren, Roger Downey, Fred Moody, Eric Scigliano, Bruce Barcott, Kathy Robinson, John Arthur Wilson, Mary Bruno, Terry Tang, Geoff Cowley, Cindy Wilson, Tim Appelo, Paul Roberts, Barry Mitzman, George Blooston, Claire Dederer, Mark Fefer, Rick Anderson, Nina Shapiro, and of course Knute Berger who thrived, along with wonderful talents on the business side.) I also despair of how few good first-job opportunities there are in journalism today.

Mostly, this brave and creative adventure in forging a new journalism fizzled. Most of us were way undercapitalized. We were so committed to roll-your-own approaches that no clear financial model emerged. As with most other parts of the American media spectrum, when the founders got tired and the local investors and staffers didn’t see enough return to justify taking the papers over, the chains moved in, applying simplistic formulas.

Have you noticed, by the way, how few Seattle media properties are locally owned? Count 'em: Seattle Times (49.5 percent owned by the McClatchy Co.), The Stranger (with minority Chicago owners), KOMO (up for sale), public broadcast stations, and assorted local blogs like Geekwire, SportspressNW,  a few state dailies such as the Wenatchee World. It’s embarrassing.

The larger picture, to my mind, is the struggle for Seattle to define itself either as a civic culture or as an alternative culture. The city of Jim Ellis or the land of Dan Savage? My hope in the 21 years of editing and publishing Seattle Weekly was to straddle that big culture divide, to blend the civic ideals of a northern-tier progressive city with the impatient, irreverent, alt-culture of the new creative-economy Seattle. 

Given the pressures from advertisers for segmented markets and the modern compulsion to divide into proud, suspicious tribes, that amalgam probably couldn’t be made to work for these city weeklies, which are now mostly niche-market papers and websites, not addressing and orchestrating a wider public.

Is there a way forward? In my view, it takes a non-profit, member-supported, web-only model such as Crosscut to make it happen. Such a model breaks out of the relentless commercial pressures driving down media today. Being Web-based greatly reduces distribution costs.  And these city websites, like the city weeklies before them, are still locally owned, creative about new business approaches, and charged with mission. That mission, for me at least, has always been the same: find a way to reinvent, and steadily produce, quality local journalism.

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