Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story
Old News: Staying forever young is a losing battle
The Seattle Weekly turned 25 last month. Celebrations notwithstanding, this is an alarming milestone, for 25 years in alternative-newspaper time is roughly equivalent to 60 human years. And the anniversary is being belatedly marked this week by a new ownership and executive team who are unfamiliar with the history of the paper and its city, and who are intent on shaping the Weekly into something entirely new.
Here, then, is what should be seen as a helping hand: I've decided to lend an assist by filling in the 24 or so years of history preceding the arrival of the paper's new helmspeople, offering a few words of friendly advice, and wishing them well. For I ended my 17 years at the paper trying and failing spectacularly at the trick they're trying to pull off now.
TIME WAS, Seattle was a simpler place, and the Weekly a simpler proposition. The baby-boom generation, having defined itself largely as a counterculture, prided itself on a disdain for most things mainstream - particularly mainstream publications like The Times and P-I. Moreover, there were so many baby boomers entering adulthood that they could subsidize a publication of their own, both through their own purchasing power and through the power of their allure to advertisers. Weekly founder David Brewster saw a spectacular opportunity in 1976: Create an alternative publication devoted largely to covering politics, the arts and Seattle culture (also a simpler proposition back then), targeted to the tastes and vanities of Seattle baby-boomers.
In the 1970s, Seattle was very much a small town. Downtown was dying; Pioneer Square was moribund; Western Avenue was nondescript warehouses; Belltown was more or less a slum. There was no Starbucks - no espresso of any kind, actually. The Monorail was three blocks shorter than it is now. Until 1976, there was no pro sports stadium except for Seattle Center's home of the SuperSonics. When the Kingdome opened in 1976, it was home of the Seattle Sounders professional soccer franchise. Next came the Mariners, followed in short order by the Seahawks. The town was excitedly positioning itself as a major-league city. The Weekly was part of that pretension-to-urbanism wave, with the self-imposed mandate of providing serious restaurant reviewing (although there were almost no serious restaurants in town, at least as measured by today's standards), serious arts coverage, serious political coverage and commentary, and a relentlessly anti-establishment tone. The paper started off in politics with a losing crusade, backing the candidacy of Paul Schell, a self-styled visionary with big ideas for Seattle, against the more practical Charles Royer. Elected in 1977, Royer was to serve for three terms, with the Weekly promoting Schell as a kind of shadow mayor the whole time.
When I arrived at the Weekly in 1981, I found a small, exuberant, purposeful, excited and highly energetic staff of fellow youngsters. Everyone was around my age, nearly everyone shared my leftish political persuasion, and everyone had the same mischievous bent toward sarcasm, irreverence and mockery of establishment figures and established wisdom.
More exciting was the level of writing talent there, and Brewster's determination to nurture it. The Weekly was first and foremost a writer's paper - one where style was as important as substance, and substance was supremely important.
Yet for all of its sense of itself as a brash literary newsmagazine, the Weekly mostly defined itself by what it was not: It was not conventional daily journalism, it was not "objective," it was not staid or part of the establishment or respectful toward anything respectable, and it took the opposite tack from daily coverage by taking high art more seriously than popular culture. Brewster's favorite - and, in my case, only - credential-related exchange during a job interview went like this:
"Did you ever take journalism in college?"
THE '80s AT THE WEEKLY went by for me in a kind of blissful blur of writing, subversion and laughter. I was essentially living in a state of suspended adolescence. I was being paid to be a smartass, making fun of adults just so I could see the look on their faces. The adult side of the company - where editor-in-chief Brewster, publisher Michael Crystal and others had to attend to the company's bottom line and report to the board of directors - hardly existed for the writing staff. We were only dimly and occasionally aware of them off at the distant grownups' table while we were absorbed in food fights at the kids' table.
We believed that we were building something that would last forever - an alternative aesthetic, and a market for it that would support and sustain stylish writing at least until we died. We were convinced that we would never have to grow up or sell out or take an establishment job like those poor stiff at the dailies, ever.
What a job! All I had to do was drop by Brewster's office once in awhile and select story ideas from an endless list that he was constantly generating. The man was a dynamo. No matter how fast I wrote - and I wrote constantly, about everything from books to race to relationships to sports to affirmative action to food to education policy to beer to politicians - he kept on generating story ideas even faster than my ego demanded I write them up.
Brewster had great instincts in those days. He sent me off to Olympia once to write about the House Appropriations chair, Gary Locke, because he was convinced he was going to be a huge deal in Washington politics. He pushed me to cover the contretemps between King County Executive Randy Revelle and the Seattle Mariners because he felt pro sports-vs.-local government was going to be a big story in Seattle's future. He would come into the office excited about a conversation he had over the weekend and send me off for weeks at a time to see if it amounted to anything by way of a story. His excitement about even the vaguest ideas was infectious - I can think of virtually no dead ends in the 10 or so years I took that kind of direction from him.
The best work I did for the Weekly always began with some open-ended suggestion of Brewster's. I discovered a surprisingly rich and deep Korean community in Seattle and Tacoma when Brewster sent me off to see what I could find there in the late 1980s. I predicted, two years in advance, that the Husky football program was headed for probation. I uncovered a hideous gaffe in a P-I exposÀe of alleged racketeers who turned out to be victims of the confidence man who was the P-I's source. And I wrote an unforgettable 7,000-word story on the Seattle Sea Gals.
Well, maybe all of this was eminently forgettable. Every once in awhile - far more often than I was willing to acknowledge at the time - I would be introduced to someone who invariably would ask, "What do you do?"
"I work at the Weekly."
"Really? What do you do there?"
MEANWHILE, Seattle was changing, and for all of the time I spent writing about the city, there was a lot I didn't notice. Co-workers were drifting away one by one as they neared or passed 40.
"You get to be a certain age," one of them said, "and you have to make the decision whether to get a real job or just stay here forever." (I didn't get it.)
The city was growing rapidly - and rapidly different - around me. Kids who worked in an office upstairs for a record company called Sub Pop kept buttonholing Weekly staffers in the elevator and insisting that we should write about them and the bands they were signing. (We declined.) And in 1990, the Stranger, an alternative to our alternative, was launched. (We were oblivious.)
It took another four years or so for troubled introspection to set in. Sub Pop-promoted Nirvana and grunge ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone, and we had to confront the reality that the biggest story in the history of the Weekly - a massive phenomenon called "alternative music" - had eluded the attention of Seattle's self-styled "alternative" paper.
Maybe it was just coincidence, but it seemed to me that from that time on, Brewster grew increasingly distracted and decreasingly dynamic. It may have been simply that he was attending more and more to business: the Weekly board, by tradition philanthropic, began insisting that he stop indulging himself and his writers and start making the company some money.
The trouble broke out in the open in 1994, when the paper laid off employees for the first time in its history, and Brewster announced that the moves were part of a new, board-mandated plan that the Weekly start meeting stated profit goals. The layoffs were announced at a tearful company meeting, with workers standing around the office alternately crying and muttering to themselves, "You mean ... we're a business? I thought we were a cause!"
Alas, we were a business. And business was bad. It began to dawn on me that we all had been living in a state of massive denial, and that our underwriters had been willing to enable it only for as long as denial showed promise of leading someday to profitability.
DENIAL IS WEIRD in the way it blinds you to the most painfully obvious things. By 1995, we finally started taking serious note of the Stranger in our offices. I would look at the paper in utter bafflement, put off by its graphics and nearly all of its writing, and wonder what on Earth these people were thinking. Surely they can't hope to compete for the Weekly's alternative audience with this kind of semi-literate raving!
I was, of course, misstating the problem, and missing completely the slap in the face the Stranger represented. The paper wasn't competing for our audience at all; it was answering the cry for help from the audience our paper was ignoring: the disenfranchised young souls who now were the age the Weekly's audience - its reason for being - had been in the 1970s. Our audience was not, as I had pretentiously assumed, defined by taste. It was defined by age.
In other words, our audience was old. And so was I. Nearly 50, I was still trying to make it as a youngster. I had grown up to be an aging cub reporter, and my paper had grown into an establishment rag.
It wasn't until early 1997, when Brewster announced that the Weekly had been put up for sale, that the scales finally were torn from my eyes.
"They're going to want to make some significant changes here," Brewster told me one day. "Advertisers want to reach readers in the 18 to 28 age bracket, because those readers are more impressionable." Then he uttered a word - "demographic" - that I had always, in my high-minded (and, in retrospect, highly hypocritical) way had regarded as anathema in alternative journalism.
"It's bad enough to be pandering after your audience," one of my fellow writers said when I was talking to him about this conversation. "But now we're pandering after someone else's audience."
The sale, which turned out to be to Hartz Mountain Pet Foods, was of course a psychological and public-relations disaster. A paper intent on proving itself all over again as an alternative medium for the young, the hip and the disaffected was now a multimillion-dollar part of a chain of newspapers owned by a pet food company headquartered in New York. The whole situation made us look like an uncomfortably middle-aged dad, decked out in gold chains and reeking of Grecian Formula, persistently coming on to his teenaged daughter's friends.
Stranger publisher Tim Keck had a field day with the sale and our pretensions to hipness and high principle. "I look forward," he said to The Times when asked to comment on the sale, "to going toe-to-toe with the pet food magnate."
Adults make such easy targets.
Inevitably, passages like this always have you re-examining your life with jaundiced eyes. When your entire professional identity has been wrapped in delusional visions of moral grandeur, this can be a painful process. So it hit me particularly hard at Brewster's retirement party when he spoke of his and his paper's - and, by extension, my - legacy to Seattle. "We taught the city to appreciate good coffee and good food," he said.
INSIDE THE WEEKLY walls, a hideous psychological meltdown set in, both in the corporate consciousness and in my own. Our new owners set unrealizable profit goals - we were expected in the space of a single year to grow from a break-even paper to one netting 14 percent per year in profit - and an even more unrealizable goal of putting the Stranger out of business. I kept going to meetings where our publisher and editor-in-chief tried to whip us into a frenzy by saying, "We're at war!" and "This is an old-fashioned newspaper war!"
It got you so excited you'd start brandishing your cane in rage.
Hoping to reach the Stranger's demographic, we tried hiring some youngsters. But importing younger writers only served to sink editorial morale ever lower, and raise tensions and depression ever higher. Editorial meetings turned into exercises where an older staffer would bring up a story idea and the youngsters would sigh and roll their eyes in exasperation, radiating the rage of a grounded teenager at a tweedy dad. And when the kids would suggest a story or an angle, the adults would look at them with a mix of horror and bewilderment. There were times when I half expected myself or one of my coevals to burst out with, "Why, you whippersnapper!" or "By cracky, in my day ...."
The only thing worse than being old in a culture that worships youth is being old at an alternative newspaper in a culture that worships youth. One by one, editors and managing editors walked off the job. After months of abuse, a news editor came to me and begged me to take his job. (I did - big mistake.) Three managing editors left over the next two years, and I was forced to take the managing editorship because no one else would. (Bigger mistake.) Then I found myself looking up one day in amazement, suddenly aware that I was the second-oldest person at the company, and that the oldest was an eccentric of such proportions that my young staffers begged me to schedule editorial meetings without telling him.
Age, age, age was constantly on my mind. I felt like I was turning into the Old Man of the Weekly, this tiresome graybeard who wandered the halls in ragged clothing, collaring youngsters and boring them to madness with tales of the paper's glory days. Moreover, I was growing more and more afraid to leave the office. Everywhere I went, I saw pierced and tattooed hipsters reading the Stranger, old gray people reading the Weekly. It was mortifying - and, I knew, immensely more so for the Weekly's young staffers, who had to endure the constant disdain of their peers.
One day, in one of my unfortunate attempts at disporting among the young, I heard a 28-year-old acquaintance talking about the personals ad he'd put in the Stranger.
"Why didn't you advertise in the Weekly?" I asked.
"Everyone in the Weekly personals is too old," he said matter-of-factly.
It didn't help that the pressure from New York was intensifying. Grow younger! Grow more profitable! Every Wednesday, when the Weekly and Stranger were hot off their presses, we had to overnight-deliver a package to New York, with a copy of both papers in it. Our owners went through them, comparing look, tone, hipness quotient, number of pages, ad density, cover art .... And every Thursday, our upper management was raked over the coals for some perceived failure in that week's issue vis-´-vis the "competition."
The main problem - aside from the morale problem, which was immense - was that the ownership mandate to grow both more hip and more profitable was a demand to move simultaneously in opposite directions. Greater profitability meant greater ad sales, and the Weekly ad department, held to impossible goals, was constantly begging editorial for "something to sell" to mainstream advertisers. The quality of the paper alone, apparently, wasn't enough. Since editorial was too busy waging internecine warfare to bother with anyone else's problems, advertising kept piling on special sections, supplements and advertiser-driven theme issues until it seemed that every week's paper was a "special" issue in one way or another.
Confronted with the dreaded Gardening Supplement on our schedule one week, followed in short order by the dreadful Fashion Supplement, I kept convening editorial brainstorming sessions that turned into brainthumping sessions. What were we going to put in these damned supplements?
"I've got it!" exclaimed a youngster at one meeting. "Extreme Gardening!" He followed up that helpful suggestion with one for a fashion supplement called "Rehab Chic."
The heartbreaking part of that story is that there was a time when we would have taken ideas like those and run with them. Now it was impossible. It was all I could do not to start croaking, "Why, in my day ...!"
The more painful the generational schism grew, the more the Weekly turned into a dysfunctional family. Mike Crystal, the publisher, and Skip Berger, the editor-in-chief who replaced Brewster when the paper was sold, were the Father: More or less zombified by the mandate from New York and the almost constant bludgeoning by the owners, they had become withdrawn and detached. I was the Mom, constantly trying to find a way to placate the writers, who were the children, and to get Dad to notice how miserable they were. More and more, I found myself hunkered down in Dad's den, the two of us wailing about "the children." We never referred to the editorial staff as writers anymore - it was always "the children," and the children were constantly coming to me demanding that I go ask Dad for happiness in one form or another.
At some point in 1999, around the time the paper was put up for sale again, it hit me that there was only one way out of this morass. I came out of my office at the end of a particularly bruising day and realized that the only way to revive the paper was to destroy it. I finally understood that we had to fire everybody who had been there before the sale, bring in a bunch of legitimate youngsters, and turn the paper over to them entirely. It also hit me that I was not the person to do that.
IT'S BEEN MORE than a year now since my departure from the Weekly battleground, and I can finally look at it with a combination of detachment and survivor's guilt. Most of my friends are gone from the paper, and those who remain are struggling heroically to make it something it has never been: both a financial and a journalistic triumph.
I want them to succeed, but I also somehow want them to be spared the pain the effort to succeed will cause them. For my horrific vision - a kind of bomb-the-paper-in-order-to-save-it strategy - remains, in my view, the paper's only hope. The Weekly must obliterate rather than celebrate its tradition, start anew from nothing, and turn itself over to twentysomethings who can target not the Stranger's audience, as the Weekly is doing now, but the emerging audience the Stranger is growing too old to notice.
For that is the undeniable reality of life in alternative publishing. It is nearly impossible to break free of the demographic you were born to serve. When a paper is a startup, it is driven by shared passions, aesthetics, agendas and philosophies that come naturally to publisher, writer and audience alike. It is something inborn. A paper intent on breaking out of its generational genome has to reinvent itself in ways that are all but impossible - like Lou Whittaker taking up snowboarding and excelling at it.
This, then, is my prescription for Weekly success: Instead of celebrating the paper's past, you should be ferociously disassociating yourself from it, the way the determined adolescent rejects the way chosen for him by his father. The anniversary should be not a promotion of the Weekly's past but a wake - a ceremonial burying of the old Weekly and its hoary traditions, and the public birth of an unrecognizable paper in its place. (I would define that for you if I could, but as I said at the outset, I failed spectacularly at rebirthing myself.)
The most important move in this respect is also the hardest: handing the paper over to a twentysomething who hates what it is now. For there's just no getting around the single fundamental truth in publishing: Every generation will demand its own alternative voice, by cracky!
In addition to his years writing and editing for the Seattle Weekly, Fred Moody is the author of books on Microsoft, virtual reality and the Seattle Seahawks.