Inside the Seattle Weekly's journalistic demise

Seattle Weekly and Me

by Geov Parrish, Eat the State

On August 15, I quit writing for Seattle Weekly (SW) after eight years as a bylined columnist and editorial board member. I have zero regrets. It was the right thing to do.

This is a story not about me, but about a distant corporate behemoth coming in and effectively dismantling one of only four functioning print newsrooms in our city, with another, the P-I, on death watch. It was the only local commercial news department in any medium consistently willing to take grass roots political activists and groups seriously. The destruction of the Seattle Weekly news department is a loss for the entire city.

Nearly a year ago--on Oct. 31, 2005, Halloween--Seattle Weekly's parent company, Village Voice Media (VVM), which owned the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, SW, and three other major market alternative weeklies (as the format is called), announced a "merger" with New Times Corp. (NT), the nation's largest alt weekly chain, with papers in 11 other cities. New Times took the VVM name and controlling interest in the new company. The new VVM, with 17 major market newspapers, is by far the nation's largest alt weekly chain.

The New Times merger raised concerns among media democracy types. NT had run a centralized corporate operation, editorially and on the business side. Their papers look formulaic and alike, regardless of city: each week has a long feature story, a major political column, little other local and no national news coverage, relatively little arts and cultural coverage (often, especially with film and music reviews, written not locally but chain-wide), and lots of ads. Most New Times papers don't do editorials, and there's almost no local civic engagement or involvement. Unlike traditional alt weeklies, New Times' political leanings, if there are any, tend to be more libertarian than progressive. And, of course, the profits all leave town. So much for "alternative."

With newspapers from the old VVM chain, when the sale closed in February 2006, the question was always whether NT execs would let their new papers be run locally, as the old VVM allowed, or whether they would be revamped in the usual cookie-cutter New Times style. With the flagship Village Voice, which has been an editorial and business mess for years, the carnage began almost immediately. There were misfiring attempts to fill a vacant editor-in-chief position, and the exodus of a number of talented staffers, including the April firing of 30-year veteran and renowned investigative reporter James Ridgeway, a move that prompted an open revolt among Village Voice staff. More recently, famed veteran rock critic Robert Christgau was also fired.

At the other new acquisitions, however, including Seattle Weekly, there were sweeping procedural changes and centralization on the business and administrative side, but little of it affected editorial content. SW has been quite profitable in recent years, and each member of its eight-person news department was highly experienced, with deep roots in Seattle. The one partial exception was Mike Seely, a 32-year-old Seattle native who'd gotten his first journalism job working for New Times' St. Louis paper in 2002, and who asked to be transferred to Seattle after the merger went through. Seely, a talented and personable writer, was thrust upon SW editors without their input in April, and, in a "secret" everyone at the paper knew, thereafter served as a back channel conduit of office information to VVM execs in Phoenix, Denver, and New York.

Until this summer, editorial staff were largely unaffected by the new ownership, but elsewhere at SW, talented, experienced people were leaving the paper in droves. Publisher Terry Coe left. So did longtime award-winning Art Director Karen Steichen. Ace web designer Gary Love left in July, months after his fellow geek, IT head Andrew McCarty. Senior Editor Roger Downey, who helped found the paper with David Brewster in 1976 and who had been on staff ever since, left staff. The sales department for months was badly short-staffed. And on, and on. (Recently, Arts Editor Lynn Jacobson also quit.)

And then, in July, Editor-in-Chief (and "Mossback" columnist, and KUOW "Weekday" regular) Knute "Skip" Berger gave notice. He'd been with SW for 16 years, with a two-year break in 2000-02. When he'd been lured back to SW in 2002 it had been with the condition of total editorial control over staffing and content. Both were now gone, and Berger decided he wanted no part of it.

That set in motion the editorial purge everyone had feared in February. First out was the Managing Editor that Berger had insisted (as a condition of his return) on hiring in 2002: 20-year Seattle Times veteran Chuck Taylor, whose Times career was effectively ended by his remarkable editing job with the strike paper, the Seattle Union Record, in 2000-01. Taylor went into a meeting with VVM Executive Associate Editor (and third in command at VVM) Andy Van De Voorde planning to be at SW in the post-Berger era, and came out of the meeting having "resigned." Another meeting the same day, between Van De Voorde and Political Editor (and former SW and Stranger News Editor) George Howland, ended when Howland abruptly quit.

Suddenly the three top news people were gone. There had still been no replacement named for Berger, but VVM had a replacement all lined up and ready to go for Taylor's slot: Mike Seely, younger and less experienced than any of the remaining news writers. Seely, to the great advantage of the new VVM, would do exactly as he was told by Van De Voorde and other VVM execs. What choice did he have?

All this happened as I was on vacation, driving cross-country from Maine to Seattle. Two days before my return, I called Chuck Taylor, who broke the news. The following morning, I got a call from Seely, requesting an 8 AM breakfast meeting with him and Van De Voorde the morning after I got back to Seattle,

At that Friday meeting, among other things, Van De Voorde told me, preposterously, that he'd never consider me for a staff position because I'm not "objective" enough. Huh? Firstly, I'd primarily been a columnist, for God's sake, paid for years not to be objective; secondly, few outside the building knew that I worked free-lance and wasn't already on staff, so any "damage" was long done. Thus began the lying and bullshitting. Van de Voorde, as he busily oversaw the dismantling of the news department, insisted he wanted news coverage--but he told me he didn't want "advocacy" in the new SW. Beyond advocacy being, editorially, the historical raison d'etre of alternative weeklies, it also happens to be the only reason I've ever been willing to regularly write for SW, or any other commercial publication.

Monday, Seely (who I like and respect) told me that they very much needed and wanted my contributions. But the subtexts were that, first, column-writing as I understood it was dead; second, that once the paper was back up to full staff, my contributions would no longer be needed or even welcome; and third, that until then I would be told what to write. And that week's ordered topic was something I not only would never have written on my own, but which clearly was not in my own personal or professional interest to write.

So I quit.

I found out later that while I was on vacation Van De Voorde told Skip Berger to fire me. This is chickenshit for two reasons: ambushing someone while they're on vacation, and setting up an outgoing editor as the fall guy for a move sure to be unpopular with readers. Berger refused, forcefully. Taylor and Seely also reportedly fought VVM on my behalf, which I appreciate but which ultimately didn't matter.

My quitting is exactly what VVM wanted: to make me and other disfavored writers so uncomfortable that we'd leave on our own. They succeeded, because I value integrity over a paycheck, and don't need their money badly enough to suffer their indignities. It was the ass-covering mechanism of being able to claim that "we didn't fire anyone" and "they all left on their own"--exactly the claim Seely made in an unintentionally revealing 8-17-06 P-I article (seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/281567_seaweekly17.html).

My favorite Seely quotes from the P-I story--he didn't quite have the knack of being evasively bland with interviewers--include that SW will "shift toward storytelling rather than giving people the facts," and "I don't want us to feel obligated to cover anything." They're absolutely accurate quotes, consistent with the NT philosophy. The new SW, just like any other New Times paper, won't do political endorsements, and will do little in the way of local news. There will occasionally be good investigative features, but overall, the new SW will look a lot more like Mossback's insulting replacement, the racist, inane, and irrelevant-to-Seattle syndicated column "Wetback" (oops, sorry, "Ask a Mexican").

So why should you care? Because the new Seattle Weekly is being run by an enormous corporation that will run it the same way they'd run a widget factory--a cheap one--and it will show.

The demise of SW news reminds us all over again of the limitations of commercial media, and the importance of supporting independent media. The dailies and The Stranger have some good individual reporters, but they won't fill the progressive void left by SW. Real Change helps. ETS! is just too small. Progressive blogs are well-organized and often well-written here, but they have the same limitation as ETS!: nobody's making a living from them, and therefore nobody has the time to consistently do serious, primary source reporting and investigation. And that's what we need most.

Alternative media has the local community, not profit, as its bottom line. That's why all such outlets need to be supported, and more need to be started, here and everywhere. Investing in independent media is not only a good idea; it's essential. --Geov Parrish

article originally published at http://eatthestate.org/11-03/SeattleWeeklyMe.htm.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey