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    Local media is now a cut-and-run game

    Commentary: The sale of the Seattle Weekly confirms a disturbing trend: Washington's titans are too busy creating global juggernauts to worry about the state of local media.
    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

    The sale, yet again, of  Seattle Weekly  to out-of-town owners makes me wonder, yet again: Why is there such a paucity of local owners of our media? Are we too busy building global corporations to pay attention to paltry things like publishing?

    It’s got so the Weekly's sale, from a New York-based entity to a Phoenix-based group to a Denver-based company to (now) a Victoria B.C.-based chain is characterized, in the words of Seattle Weekly editor Mike Seely, that “we have local owners again.” There’s a gram or so of truth to that description since Sound Publishing, owned by Black Press in Canada, has a lot of slender local weeklies. Cold comfort to localists, but that’s about the best we can do. (For a thorough story on the low-profile Black newspaper chain and its 170 newspapers in western Canada and the Pacific Northwest, here is a fine story in The Weekly from 2008.)

    Last week also brought the news that Fisher Communications, owners of KOMO, may be putting the company or some components up for sale. There would be no shortage of buyers, says a Seattle Times story, but you can be sure that none of them would be local. And there would go the last of the locally owned television stations, gone the way of our banks.

    Contrast that with stories from other cities, where civic leaders are buying faltering local dailies at rock-bottom prices. Last April in Philadelphia a consortium made up of a Democratic power broker, a parking magnate and a Republican fund-raiser and insurance executive ponied up a paltry $55 million to buy The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Daily News, and Philly.com. Former mayor Ed Rendell brokered the deal, then stepped back because of worries that he was too big a conflict of interest. You can find similar stories in San Diego and Santa Rosa. Yet when the Post-Intelligencer was closing its print edition (dating back to 1867) and an effort was made to find local buyers to keep it going, no such saviors were to be found.

    For the first 21 years of its life, Seattle Weekly was locally owned, and its board members included some of the important names in the city, such as Bagley Wright, Douglass Raff and Alan Black. But the trend of local groups selling to acquiring chains was clear during that period. Probably the most beloved of the local media companies, the Bullitt family’s KING Broadcasting, was sold to a Providence-based, then Belo, a Dallas-based group. A Harriett Bullitt magazine, Pacific Northwest, was sold, eventually winding up owned by a Minneapolis-based group and renamed Seattle Magazine.

    Radio stations joined the sales parade. The Eastside Journal, now shrunk to some slender weeklies owned by Sound Publishing, passed through various hands. The dailies in Everett and Tacoma drifted from family ownership to, respectively, the Washington Post and McClatchy.

    What new publications were started (The Stranger, from Madison, Wisconsin, and Seattle Metropolitan, from Portland) came from outside talent, money and formulas. Crosscut, locally generated and owned, was one counter-example. And I tip my hat to green developer Greg Smith and tech entrepreneur Rajeev Singh, who bankrolled Publicola.com, now owned by the Portland-based group that publishes Seattle Met magazine.

    Leading up to the sale of Seattle Weekly in 1997, I tried as publisher of the enterprise to find local buyers. The company was making money, had a second paper, Eastsideweek, and a book publishing company, Sasquatch Books. The price would have been in the mid-to-upper seven figures. No takers, though plenty of out-of-town bidders.

    The turndowns by the locals were illuminating. The new, tech-oriented wealth of the town, while loaded with cash, could not see any future for ink-on-paper publishing. Older wealth feared the public exposure that goes with owning an irreverent periodical. Investors couldn’t see an easy way to “scale up” the venture, such as expanding to other cities or other kinds of magazines.

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    Posted Tue, Jan 15, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

    David: If you hired some 6'11" reporters who could drain 3's from the arc, you'd have a better chance of scoring points with local investors. With the fall of local control of the media, we seem to have lost our appetite for 'Crosscutting' journalism in this town.


    Posted Tue, Jan 15, 2:23 p.m. Inappropriate

    Wow ! I enjoyed reading your piece and found some things to agree with. I too think it is a sorry state for our Metro community to be journalistically served by an inbred corps of sychophants ..... "doing the real job of journalism in this uneasy, boosterish town seems oddly disloyal". They fear the appearance of disloyalty so much, that they put much of their efforts into avoiding views and topics contrary to the current (Liberal?) standard. The irony is that the news outlet workers become what they distain. Dissent is repressed, deep investigation is throttled, mild criticisms are dramatized into cancerous eruptions from a clique of the mentally disturbed. Our local press/media is a homogenized cliche' of the fuzzy headed hippyism of the 60s. They have been thoroughly trained by the elite of our educational institutions.
    By the same token, the circulation and advertising sales departments tag along, and crossbreed, with the mouthpieces. They are as bewildered as the business managers, by the lack of enthusiastic support of local business people.They fail to notice that they (media)are trying to sell a product to people (business owners) whose personal opinions are consistantly held up for public ridicule. At the same time, the patronage businesses get the protection of "The Cloak of Invisibility". E.G., in Seattle, would you feel most welcome as a nightclub owner or as an oil product distributer ?
    I want to end my digression.
    The big city vs little city comparison is incorrect. Big cities can support "publications" of opposing views because they have sufficient populations of opposing views and audiences. In some cities the cocktail parties are integrated making for lively conversation and dynamic movements of information and opinion. Seattle Metro has and maintains a culture of exclusion and homogenization. Attending a Seattle gathering can be a creepy and disturbing experience.

    Hey ! How many Conservatives do you have on the Crosscut staff ? Do you mentor conservative voices, in a comparable way, as those of the tag-a long staus quosters ? I think not.
    It would be fun to have a local writer worth looking for and reading.


    Posted Tue, Jan 15, 5:52 p.m. Inappropriate

    An interesting idea, the Bullitts buying the P-I, but since the early 70s the FCC has had a rule prohibiting one company from owning TV, radio and newspapers in the same market. No could do, though they would most likely be contemplating the 3X/week print model. Which is what Hearst should've done...


    Posted Tue, Jan 15, 7:57 p.m. Inappropriate

    Brewster makes some good points, but here is one more ingredient to add to the stew. The Weekly was always an odd duck. From the outset it offered quality journalism, but it never had a clearly identifiable core constituency nor an overriding point of view. It came across as a jumble of incoherent impulses. It was torn between trying to be hip enough to appeal to a young avant-garde crowd, but not so hip as to offend the civic movers and shakers at the Rainier Club. In the end it was embraced by neither group. The Weekly was held together by the energy of Brewster's idiosyncratic vision, and when he sold and left, the centrifugal forces took over and The Weekly began an inexorable process of disintegration.

    Compare The Weekly to The Stranger. The Stranger may have its shortcomings, but its sense of identity is clear. It consistently serves a well-defined and cohesive community. And that community rewards The Stranger with an intensity of loyalty and support that The Weekly never approached even at the pinnacle of its success.


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