You may have read about the sale of Seattle Weekly‘s parent company, Stern Publishing, last week. If you didn’t, here’s the short version.
Last fall, Leonard Stern, the owner of our chain of alternative newsweeklies, which includes The Village Voice, LA Weekly, Seattle Weekly, and papers in Orange County, Minneapolis, and Cleveland, announced he was selling his papers because none of his heirs was interested in running the newspaper side of his business empire (which includes Hartz Mountain and real estate). The papers have a combined circulation of 900,000 and revenues over $90 million.
A lot of chain building, buying, and selling has occurred in recent years as the alternative newsweekly market has heated up and bigger companies have discovered that alties are not only viable and profitable, but likely long-term fixtures in many of the 100 or so cities where they exist. These papers are a thriving bastion of print-based, iconoclastic local journalism, and advertisers love ’em because they appeal to young, affluent readers who are hormonally active.
The media anticipated a blockbuster deal. Dot-coms were reportedly interested; so too the New Times chain, a larger, competing network of papers that has been busily launching and acquiring alternatives around the country. Mainstream newspaper chains, like Times Mirror, and some investment banks were also reportedly interested.
When the smoke cleared, a deal was announced. David Schneiderman, Stern president and publisher of the Voice—the man who built the chain for Leonard Stern—was the winning bidder at a price, The New York Times reports, somewhere between $150 and $160 million. He is now CEO of a group, lead by the investment management firm of Weiss, Peck & Greer, called Village Voice Media, Inc. The group not only has deep pockets, but brings two more newspapers to the chain: Nashville Scene and Ace Magazine in Lexington, Kentucky. (Another Stern paper, Long Island Voice, has since been folded.) The Stern management team largely stays in place, and added is a new president, Arthur Howe, who recently ran a chain of weeklies in Pennsylvania, and vice president Albie Del Favero, publisher of the Nashville paper. The deal should be finalized in February.
The sale undoubtedly means change. This is the sixth time in my career that I’ve been sold along with a publication, and nothing ever remains just as it was. I’ve worked for brilliant owners and borderline psychos (you know who you are!). Everything flows from what ownership wants, crazy or not.
The changeover from the old Weekly ownership (Sasquatch Publishing—and no, they weren’t the psychos) to Stern has been difficult, but mostly positive for the paper. The old owners were local, but genteel, like an arts board; they lacked the fire and ambition the Weekly could have used from its backers, especially when competition and new technologies were forcing us to rethink our business. They too often saw themselves as caretakers of founder David Brewster’s vision, which was more elite than my own populist impulses. And the paper was sometimes too concerned with whose toes were being stepped on.
Stern encouraged us to change. These out-of-town owners don’t care whose toes are scrunched. They’ve supported our push to cover technology more, and invested to give us an Internet presence that’s garnered national recognition for the paper and our coverage of companies like Amazon.com or timely reporting on the WTO. They shuttered Eastsideweek (especially painful for me because I had been hired to launch it in 1990); they wanted us to focus on producing one paper. In so doing, however, they allowed me to expand the Weekly‘s news staff by retaining some of Eastsideweek’s best reporting talent. And they’ve backed me in giving the paper an edge it never had before.
As a result of these and other changes we’re bigger, more profitable, and healthier than ever.
The folks in charge of VVM are mostly people we already know, and the investors are a diverse lot who, I hope, understand that their investment in independent journalism is best protected by keeping the journalism independent. I expect our editorial freedom to continue. Schneiderman is also a former editor of the Voice (before that he was at The New York Times), and Arthur Howe won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986. These guys value editorial independence, too, and are staking their futures on it.
The new ownership group will want to make money. So did Stern. If they get too greedy, that could be a problem. I do think alternative papers are becoming too obsessed with demographics, increasingly conscious of catering to the target groups defined by the needs of national advertisers. To beat that, you have to stay committed to your local market, with its unique conditions, niches, and needs. You have to stay committed to journalism and great writing. And you have to strive to improve your paper constantly.
The Seattle Times‘ account of the sale last week seemed to suggest that Seattle Weekly was somehow tarnished because it has been sold twice in two years. The story also allowed Stranger publisher Tim Keck, whom reporters seem to treat as our unofficial spokesman, to offer circulation figures that made us look bad, and gave him, as papers often do, the final word. He described how his paper has flourished since Village Voice ownership came to town. Well, good. So has ours. Seattle Weekly continues to be the dominant alternative paper in the Pacific Northwest. We have the largest editorial staff we’ve ever had. We’ve won more journalism awards than ever. Our circulation is 102,000, compared with Keck’s 71,500 (that’s according to the latest annual Verified Audit reports). And our coverage of events and issues like the WTO has shown that Seattle Weekly has never been more engaged in the important stories of our city.
I expect that the “new” ownership group will want us to do more of the same— only better.