No Stranger To Adversity: “Seattle’s Only Newspaper” Fights To Survive


The good news for media is that there is a huge surge of interest in news about the pandemic. The bad news is the huge drop in advertising.

Notes this story in The Washington Post:

The outbreak has created massive uncertainty about the future, including questions about whether advertisers — some of which are shutting down — will maintain their support in the face of deepening economic peril. The pandemic has already tipped some smaller news outlets into suspending publication or laying off staff, an especially agonizing decision as they struggle to cover a story with implications global and local.

One local example of this peril/opportunity is Seattle’s alternative newspaper, The Stranger, which recently suspended print versions of its two papers (the other is Portland Mercury, started in 2000), “temporarily laid off” 18 staffers, and has suspended some lucrative ancillary ventures such as its amateur film series all across the nation. It also made an appeal for donations to keep things going, and says 3,000 loyal readers have sent in money. The paper continues its online version, with all hands turning to coverage of one of the biggest local stories ever, the coronavirus. The current website includes helpful guides to streaming arts and restaurant take-out.

The Stranger, which began publishing in 1991, has become another important Seattle export. Tim Keck, who is president of the diversified publishing company, says he was on track to have the newspapers break even this year, while the diversified ventures were thriving. Making much money in print remains a challenge, so Keck has developed several new lines of revenue to keep his ship afloat. Portland Mercury, largely an entertainment paper (hence lower editorial costs), was one step. Another is a ticket service, also franchised to other alt-weeklies. Last is a three-film series, showing amateur flicks (sex, drugs, and horror) in 50 cities. The result, Keck says, is “the biggest alt-weekly in the country.”

The problem, as Keck admits, is that “all the diversification was in one area, events and entertainment.” What was smart diversification turned out to be a perfect storm of revenue-peril, once all the shows were shut down by the coronavirus. So it’s white-knuckle time.

The Stranger, with roots in The Onion and humor publications, has weathered many challenges on its way to a large national presence. Unlike its rival Seattle Weekly, which was sold to The Village Voice in 1997, Keck resisted sale to other weekly-gobbling entities, though he did take in a minority financial partner (said to be about 25 percent) from the former owners of The Reader, a greatly admired weekly in Chicago and now in its third new ownership group.

Sensing that print economics were going to be ever-tougher, Keck and editorial director Dan Savage got the jump on making changes. The Slog, the paper’s blog, drove online readership up dramatically. Savage’s sex-advice column was widely syndicated. Amateur film festivals like Hump, Splif, and Slay spread to many other cities, with The Stranger getting a cut. Also a smart move was Stranger Tickets, a box-office service also franchised to other cities. Most recent was the conversion of The Stranger and Portland Mercury to fortnightly publication on better paper stock.

The result was a paper that continued its bad-boy, snarky political coverage in Seattle (though with less impact as more experienced writers have been replaced with younger ones). But it had really morphed into primarily an arts-and-entertainment package, developing the best listings calendar in the city as the Seattle Times cut back. The company that emerged was vertically integrated to make money on ads, tickets, events, and tie-ins. All smart, and reflecting Seattle’s drift from a middle-class civic culture to a youthful, disruptive, Bernie-Bro vibe.

This transformation was also smart by contrast with other weeklies and their clumsy new national owners. Such entities, based in New York (Village Voice Media) and Phoenix (New Times group), Atlanta (Creative Loafing), and Victoria, B.C. (Black Press), thought there would be economies of scale, by combining papers, but instead found disadvantages through loss of local character and cost-cutting.

Some locally owned weeklies still do well, notably Willamette Week in Portland and the Austin (Texas) Chronicle, the latter saved by the huge music festival South By Southwest it started. And some weeklies in smaller cities, where they can be a dominant voice and advertising outlet, have semi-thrived. But, as with the demise of Seattle Weekly in the past year, the city weekly movement has pretty much been eclipsed.

Keck, now 53, is a smart and focused businessperson, and reader loyalty to The Stranger in hipster Seattle remains strong. He has survived challenges before, as when the Village Voice-owned Seattle Weekly tried to initiate a rate war with its rival. But Keck was able to control costs, take in some new capital, and weather that storm.

Now comes a new storm with much higher winds.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.



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