Farewell, Worthy Adversary
© 2019 Jonnie Wilder
Seattle Weekly’s last print issue hits the streets today. It’s another exclamation point at the end of a string of exclamation points that signal the exasperation of excitable writers witnessing the end of an era that began in the mid 1970s with the rise of alternative weekly newspapers.
Alt Weeklies, as they were called, were the counterculture’s attempt to take back the media narratives that were at one time controlled by daily newspapers. Dailies were the CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC of their day, respected and read by everyone who wanted to know what opinions they’d have at the clubhouse after a round of golf.
The alternative was newspapers like the Chicago Reader, Village Voice, and the L.A. Weekly who reported weekly on the culture beneath the dominant culture with a loud and proud voice that told it like it was. The mid-to-late seventies were a time of cultural upheaval, and the rebels wanted their own balladeers to properly sing their praises. The upstart young poets would weave epic tales worth rhyming, and the hearts of the broken-down cities of the ‘70s were bleeding to the beat of a different drummer.
The birthplace of great writers such as Susan Orlean, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Matt Groening — where television personalities Chris Hayes and Jake Tapper got their journalistic start — alt weeklies were the WNBA of the literary sport: the place you’d go to see the game the way it was meant to be played, without the oversized egos and the steep ticket prices.
After Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative journalism had just brought down a President, what else was it capable of doing for the public good? This was the ‘70s on a stage set in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. King, the riots at the Stonewall Inn, and the fight for an Equal Rights Amendment. Great social change was ongoing, and it was in this chapter of Journalism’s greatest story ever told, the Seattle Weekly proudly proclaimed themselves the alternative to the alternative weekly.
What the hell, Seattle Weekly?
Fast forward to 1990 and a young Tim Keck is in Madison, Wisconsin researching cities for the perfect place to start his next newspaper. Keck had started The Onion with Chris Johnson, but was looking for something with a little more cachet than yuck-yuck jokes and free-pizza-slice coupons.
Seattle, back then, was still a sleepy, small town with a decent but still mostly unknown flannel-punk scene. Seattle Weekly, despite sharing an office building with SubPop, was more interested in selling upscale furniture than they were investigating the screeches down the hall from the loud, drunken bunch of guitar-thrashing louts from the poor side of the Puget Sound.
I was in Charlottesville, Virginia at the time, living my dream of designing fantasy and science fiction role playing games. I like to think of myself as the Luther to Tim’s Ethan Hunt, but it would be more precise to say I was his Benji.
“What do you think of starting The Stranger in Seattle?” Tim asked me on the phone.
“The place Tom Robbins writes about?” I asked. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
In 1991, Seattle had two big dailies, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (where Tom Robbins got his start) and two alternative papers, Seattle Weekly and The Rocket.
The Rocket wasn’t a weekly, it was fortnightly, which was its Achilles heel; and Seattle Weekly cost seventy-five cents, which would be it’s undoing. Both papers charged their advertisers extra to produce the advertisements, in addition to the advertising rate to print the ad. Our gimmick with The Onion and then The Stranger was that we produced the advertisement for them for free, because it was cheap and easy to do with the advent of computer typesetting, which was adorably referred to as “Desktop Publishing” back in those days.
The dirty little secret of the biz is that classified advertisements supported journalism. They supported everything. Those three or four pages at the back of a 20-page tabloid paid for all the writers and artists that made an alt-weekly hip. Desktop publishing made printing columns of text easy, where it once required extremely expensive equipment and highly skilled and unionized workers.
Seattle Weekly was a high-end publication for wealthy Seattleites who traveled, bought Volvos, ate expensively, and lived lavishly. Seattle was the home of Microsoft and Boeing and Seattle Weekly positioned themselves to serve that market. Young people didn’t have any money to spend anyway, right?
So we came by land, sea, and air from all parts East and started up a real alternative to the alternative alternative. It was like taking candy from a baby.
We’d spent our youth watching gangster movies instead of wasting our time in business school. Many of us without even bachelors degrees, but all well-schooled in entrepreneurial tactics: Kill the Other Team and Take Their Stuff.
It worked out well, for a time. In short order, we’d crashed The Rocket and forced Seattle Weekly to resort to giving away what they used to charge money for. Guerilla Desktop Publishers were opening up opportunities, but we were slamming the door on people with once difficult-to-acquire skills and making it more difficult for them to make enough to survive.
We didn’t start the race to the bottom. Generation X was the first generation to do more poorly than their parents financially, because the institutions that once held pride in their ability to provide a dignified lifestyle for their workers decided that those were costs that would be better off diluted and sent to shareholders as dividends, or even better to provide fat bonuses for executives.
It was just as easy then as it is now for a small group of people to swoop in and “disrupt” a market. Compact, fast-moving teams think creatively, are resilient to risk, and can churn out product before the behemoths even have time to turn their heads around to see what ate their lunch.
The me-me-me ’80s were dead, and the D-I-Y ’90s were here.
We didn’t have a lot of money or equipment, so we had little to lose. No one got paid very well, not in those days. The punk rock esthetic that made people famous for knowing three guitar chords and how to turn an amplifier up to 11, made the rest of us all aspiring illustrators, writers, poets, and graphic designers.
The one thing we all had in common was that everyone hated the Seattle Weekly. Those greedheads worshipped and catered to everything that had let us down. You can’t tell them they’re wrong — it just proves them right — because they don’t respect you. But dare to make fun of what they do, and they will grimace in pain.
So we made fun of them. This is apparently the most painful thing that can be done to someone who considers themselves powerful. Power relies on the make-believe notion that people will follow you. It’s a tale as old as “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: you can’t fight the emperor, but if you shame him, you win because he gets his power from being feared. One cannot be feared and laughed at simultaneously.
Spy magazine — which we used as a model for The Stranger early on — proved that this is especially effective on people like the bellicose landlord Trump. It worked on The Rocket, whose nose was so stuck up in the air it could smell cloud farts. And it worked a treat on the Seattle Weekly.
The harder they tried to be edgy and relevant, the more cringe they evoked with their inability to do so with dignity, the more we piled on.
We printed this in response to their feature headline, “Should Gays Act Like Gays?”.
They were thankfully on the side of “gays should act however they damn well please,” but even then referring to a bunch of queers as “the gays” was considered passé. Happy Pride Week, you bunch of gays. Love, Seattle Weekly. No homo.
Whether The Stranger is today any less cringey is up for debate. Maybe the whole Weaponized Cynicism thing will run its course and we’ll return to a social discourse based on rational thought and cooperation toward the greater good.
One of Tim’s witty comebacks for some terrible misfortune happening to someone was, “at least you still have your health,” which was even funnier when it was someone’s health that was taking the hit. None of us had health insurance — even the worst health insurance was prohibitively expensive back then — so ideas of starting families were put on hold, and the thought of growing old was something best put out of mind. We were slackers for life or until we could dig ourselves out of that financial hole our Boomer parents dug for us.
Our mercenary attitude towards business was as much struggle to survive as it was fantasy role playing. But metaphorical or real; by the sword we did our work, and by the sword did we die.
The Onion was one of the first publications to hit the Internet, in 1996, which is considered to be the year that the internet became commercialized. The same year brought the launch of Craig’s List, which is widely regarded as the reaper that came to escort the soul of Journalism to the underworld.
The people I worked with at The Stranger, back then, were still struggling against the concept of internal electronic mail. We discussed putting in more than two phone lines for the whole office with US West (the phone company at the time) and they quoted us a price of One Million Dollars — without even the Dr. Evil pinky finger — because we would have had to foot the bill for laying fiberoptic cable from the downtown up Pike Street to Capitol Hill.
The internet came anyway and washed over us all like a typhoon. As the waters recede, the extent of the damage makes itself known and we count up the casualties.
- Civil Discourse, RIP.
- Independent Journalism, RIP.
- Truth and Beauty, Missing Presumed Dead.
A service in remembrance will be performed by meme and shared on social media.
In the light of the last twenty years, our grudge against the Seattle Weekly’s editorial and marketing bent seems almost bizarre. How could it have gotten us so worked up when there were far more worthy windmills to be tilted at? We both survived for decades as competing businesses, serving niches both distinct and interconnected.
The number of Seattle-based internet publications of local and worldwide interest is large and competition is fierce for an ever-shrinking audience. Everyone else has migrated to social media. The great majority of advertising revenue doesn’t go to news media or even to classified advertising sites but to Amazon and Facebook who insert advertisements directly into people’s shopping lists and social media feed troughs.
Can local businesses be convinced to reinvest in local news and arts? It wasn’t easy even in the alt-weekly glory days to convince businesses to spend money on advertising next to an article about Seattle’s best penis piercings or how to give the better analingus. That’s why it was such a miraculous twist of fate that classified ads were able to support our kind of quality journalism for so long.
One-column-inch advertisements for music venues like RKCNDY, The Vogue, and The Showbox were what helped us survive in a market that was dominated by The Rocket.
We lived by the sword and we’ll die by the sword, but mostly we forgot the real lesson of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: the emperor always wins.
“The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, ‘This procession has got to go on.’ So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.”
Farewell, Seattle Weekly, you were a worthy adversary and a distinguished competitor. At least you still have your health.
Jonnie was one of the founders of The Stranger and left the paper in 1994 to get a sex change and to pursue dreams of science fiction and fantasy role playing game design. Jonnie worked for Wizards of the Coast and helped streamline the making of Magic: The Gathering cards and designed some cool Netrunner card art. Jonnie blogs words and pictures at Emojiency.com.
Links to articles for further research:
A Eulogy for the Alt-Weekly
What we’re losing when we say goodbye to alt weeklies, the rebels of journalism
Don’t Cry For Seattle Weekly. It’s Not Dead