Alternate Realities

The matriarch of Seattle and the patriarch of Phoenix meet again.

Alternate Realities

Back in 1996-97, Seattle Weekly was for sale. The founder, David Brewster, was planning to retire, and various publishing companies were courting the paper. Among the companies running other alternative weeklies, as they are called, were the owners of Chicago Reader, the Village Voice‘s Stern Publishing in New York (the successful bidder that later morphed into present owner Village Voice Media), and the New Times chain based in Phoenix. The serious bidders came to Seattle and met with the management group to ask questions and sweet-talk us with how great things would be under their wings. We had dinner with one mainstream newspaper chain. When I asked why they were interested in getting into alternative newsweeklies, one of their executives answered brightly: “Because alternative newsweeklies are the last unconsolidated category in publishing!”

Wrong answer. Seattle Weekly was looking for an owner that would share values and commitment to independent local journalism and cultural criticism.

Memorable during that process was a dinner with a delegation from New Times, including CEO Jim Larkin and Executive Editor Mike Lacey—the owners of and brains behind the outfit. For years, Seattle Weekly had been a kind of anti–New Times paper, and any given New Times paper was an anti-Weekly. The New Times guys were hard-drinking cowboys with a Sun Belt chain of feisty, muckraking papers. Seattle Weekly was better known nationally as a thoughtful paper with excellent arts coverage and political commentary. The New Times papers, like many alt weeklies, felt like a lad’s club; the Weekly was an outlier in the alternative-weekly world, in part because a majority of readers (not to mention many senior managers) were women.

The differences were highlighted at one of the first Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conferences I attended in the early 1990s. I remember Phoenix New Times Editor Lacey excoriating Seattle Weekly and Portland’s Willamette Week. What was it about those alt papers in the Pacific Northwest? He couldn’t stand the artsy-fartsy civic high-mindedness of Brewster’s paper, or the idea that a paper’s mission was to make a better city. “That’s the mission of the Chamber of Commerce!” Lacey thundered.

He had a point. But some of the differences stemmed also from a fact that Lacey acknowledged: Phoenix, he said, was a pretty corrupt town, and his paper reflected reader disgust with the place. Seattle and Portland tended to be cities their residents loved. The difference in the two editorial stances reflected tensions you might find in a frontier town: the guys with the six-shooters vs. the lace-curtain crowd.

That’s simplistic—the Weekly has long done its share of tackling sacred cows—but it sketches some fundamental differences that became the elephant in the room when we gathered for dinner years ago. The chitchat was idle through the meal, but afterward, Larkin invited Seattle Weekly managers to ask questions about New Times. I spoke up. What was a “booze and testosterone-fueled” operation like New Times going to do with a matriarchy like Seattle Weekly? There was a stunned moment of silence, then an explosion of laughter on all sides.

That deal never came to pass, and the question remains unanswered. It’s newly relevant given the news on Monday, Oct. 24, that Seattle Weekly‘s present owner, Village Voice Media, is merging with New Times to create a 17-paper alt-weekly chain to be run by Larkin and Lacey. (See “Our Ownership in Flux.”)

The matriarchy and the patriarchy are together at last.

This consolidation is a major leap in the alt-weekly world. One chain will own many of the best papers, including those in 11 of the 20 biggest media markets.

An interesting thing is that this media consolidation is being driven from within the alternative publishing community, not from outside. While many decry corporate investment in alt weeklies, the papers themselves are mostly responsible for creating chains and promoting imitation. Many alt papers have willingly tossed originality aside to embrace templates created by the Village Voice, Chicago Reader, or the New Times papers. If you travel from city to city, you’ll notice that many alt papers—chained and unchained—tend to read and look a lot alike. No corporate masters made us do that.

Part of this cloning is due to people copying successful formulas (listings, classifieds, cartoons). The lack of ideological diversity among alt papers—most of them lean left—has also been a factor.

I don’t believe chains are inherently good or bad. The values of the owners are what matter. Even more important are the values of the writers, editors, and designers they hire. At that level, formulas almost are beside the point: A terrific writer can make a formulaic paper a must-read; a bad editor can drive away readers without ever lifting a pen simply by making invisible, dumb decisions. You cannot “chain” the ineffable qualities that make a paper good, such as chemistry.

How Seattle Weekly will fare under the new ownership is unknown. Until the Justice Department approves the Village Voice Media–New Times merger, the two sides aren’t revealing specific operational plans. But the onetime matriarchy has evolved, and some say the patriarchy has mellowed. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle.

The good news is that the merged company will still be devoted to the common idea that independent journalism is a good thing. The unpredictable thing is that independent journalism can take a variety of forms—and can be motivated both by love for a city or contempt for it.

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