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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