One of the axioms of Seattle politics, possibly an urban legend, is that the most important factor in primary elections is who The Stranger endorses, since a slew of younger, late-deciding readers vote as the paper advises. Political consultants regularly say the Stranger endorsement can boost a candidate by 8-12 points in the low-turnout August primary (much less in the general election).
This week, the website (no longer a print product) issued its lively, highly readable, highly unfair, profanity-laced endorsements. Their mayoral pick, Lorena Gonzalez, the leading progressive in the race, was no surprise, though Jessyn Farrell and Colleen Echohawk had some hopes of an election-shifting nod.
The paper, in endorsing City Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda, admitted it had warmed up to this previously dissed candidate as she migrated leftward. Endorsing Nikkita Oliver for the open city council seat continues that romance. Usual favorite City Attorney Pete Holmes got snubbed for an inexperienced challenger on his left, Nichole Thomas-Kennedy. Another leftie new star, Joe Nguyen, got the long-odds pick over fourth-term-seeking County Executive Dow Constantine. More surprisingly, the publication’s endorsements for Seattle School Board (Michelle Sarju and Vivian Maritz) aligned with the consensus, sensible choices.
We will learn after the August 3 primary election how much clout these endorsements still carry. Some think the Stranger is waning. The 30-year-old publication no longer has a print edition, which means glamorous cover photos of the anointed will not be spread all over sidewalks. The paper, struggling before the pandemic, has cut its editorial staff in half and no longer has the reporting credibility that cements reader loyalty. On the other hand, the absence of other rating services, notably the “pause” in evaluations by the Municipal League, means The Stranger, The Seattle Times, and The Urbanist and Publicola pretty much dominate the game. Indeed, the rise of the Stranger’s endorsement clout is directly traceable to the demise of the print Post-Intelligencer, formerly a liberal foil to The Times.
So how does The Stranger do its endorsements, a reader feature that is among the strongest draws? The zany, addictive formula is said to have been created by Dan Savage, one of the paper’s founders and owners. Longtime publisher of the paper (and now just an owner) Tim Keck says the endorsement style was conceived as a kind of “parody” of the stuffy newspaper process, particularly in the joke-laden, snarky, loaded endorsements. Above all, the endorsements are “entertaining,” in hopes of reaching a broad audience of moderately informed voters. Savage once regularly edited the section, adding jokes.
Candidates are interviewed jointly (not the standard one-on-one), so they can be observed in the boxing ring. The interviews are more of a wrestling match among contestants than the usual sober interview. Some candidates bring placating beer or donuts, and all must be prepared for personal questions (particularly about drug use) and for performing amid heated arguments. One city council candidate recalls showing up and being handed a bottle of whiskey, though such frat-party aspects are now muted. It’s all an effort to throw candidates off their talking points, to cut the crap, see how people think under stress and anger. The paper’s reporters sit in and fire questions (traditional papers protect their beat reporters from such conflicts), and each writer gets an unweighted vote.
Publisher Keck would rarely weigh in to break a tie or make a veto (as he says he did to block a Ralph Nader endorsement), but now he says he avoids the process altogether and all day-to-day involvement in the publication, as does Dan Savage. The endorsements focus on policy and hold firmly to a progressive line or, as the paper’s pitch for donations has it, “journalism that protects the marginalized and holds the powerful accountable.” These endorsement issues are, by one way of looking at them, invaluable marketing to the Stranger base (now 58 percent male and around 40 in median age). Their outrageousness stirs lots of discussion and, more valuably, gives promising newcomers a launch.
The endorsement panel this year was led by associate editor Rich Smith, 35, who joined the paper to review books and arts with a MFA from the University of Washington and now is the main news writer (many bigger names have been raided away or moved on). Others on the panel are writers Charles Mudede, Matt Baume, Jasmyne Keimig, and Natalie Graham. Editor Chase Burns, 29 (also a former arts writer), has another vote, and publisher Laurie Saito says she is abstaining this year. The Stranger staff had been 30 before COVID, with 12 on the editorial side; those numbers today are 13 and 6, according to publisher Saito.
The Stranger, like most newspapers, has endured wrenching changes in recent years. It survived all the cuts, particularly in its mainstay entertainment advertising, thanks to a generous amount of federal PPP money and its new pitch for one-time and monthly contributions, now amounting to 35 percent of revenue. Founder Dan Savage has drifted off to his national eminence and advocacy, and co-founder Tim Keck says he has replaced himself as publisher and as board chair in order to work on a new entertainment package called Everout.
The return to print is “very uncertain,” in the words of board chair Rob Crocker, who admits that the print products in Seattle and Portland (Portland Mercury) were “struggling mightily” before the pandemic. Three years ago the papers shifted to fortnightly print frequency, which Crocker says “helped a little.” Web traffic, very dependent on entertainment listings, has dropped 60 percent, he says, and plans for a redesign of the website are under way. As for advertising, publisher Saito says, “our ad base is so wide and varied, we are lucky to be supported by the arts, local politics, retail, non-profits, promoters and the entertainment industries as well.” Pot advertising holds steady at 20 percent of the business.
The Stranger was founded in 1991 by a company called Loaded for Bear, with Keck (co-founder of the humor publication The Onion) joined by James Sturm, Peri Pakroo (Keck’s girlfriend at the time), Nancy Hartunian, Wm. Steven Humphrey, Christine Wenc, Johanna “Jonnie” Wilder, Matt Cook, Andy Spletzer, and, later, Dan Savage. It had a Midwestern sensibility, some thought: vulgar, blunt, funny, naughty, what-the-hell, comic graphics — in all, a great, grating contrast with prissy, middle-class, liberal Seattle. Loaded for Bear took on a financial partner a few years ago, a group called Quarterfold, made up of some former owners of the Chicago Reader. The Chicago group owns 33 percent of the merged company, Index Newspapers. Index is controlled by a board consisting of Keck and Cocker as well as Jane Levine and Tom Yoder, representing Quarterfold owners. Cocker, a former accountant for The Stranger, is the new board chair.
From what I can tell, The Stranger is likely to rebound and survive, thought largely in digital format. The company has diversified into Portland, the ticket business (Stranger Tickets), Dan Savage’s Hump film series (porn, horror, and stoner flicks) licensed to other cities, and Keck’s new venture for entertainment calendae/tickets/restaurant/reader commentary, Everout. The Stranger‘s alternative weekly rival, Seattle Weekly, gave up the ghost last year, and as entertainment returns from the pandemic hibernation, so will the listings and advertising and ticket business to the company. Portland Mercury, formerly mostly an entertainment publication, has now been doing more news reporting, but it faces a strong rival, Willamette Week.
And of course, The Stranger has a lock on progressive politics, a growing audience in Seattle. This year, I learn from talks with Stranger sources, the endorsement discussion did not want to make the same mistake it did four years ago in endorsing Cary Moon for mayor. After the Stranger endorsement, Moon surprisingly shot into second place in the primary, only to be defeated convincingly by business-and-labor-backed Jenny Durkan, whom the paper came to hate for her center-left politics. That Moon episode, said editor Chase Burns, “looms over us,” but it also created the urban legend that as goes the Stranger, so goes the Seattle primary election.
The Moon endorsement became a notorious public squabble for Stranger staffers. The endorsement board split among factions favoring Jessyn Farrell and Nikkita Oliver, so the Moon choice (advocated by her friend Mudede) was a fallback compromise that fizzled. This year, with Oliver safely lateraled over to a city council race, The Stranger could speak in one clear (if predictable) voice on the important mayoral endorsement.
Then it’s on to the donnybrook election in November, where the Stranger writers will be back in the groove of skewering the Seattle establishment candidate. We’ll see if the famous Stranger Boost in the primary will become another Bust in the general.