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Sunday, July 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Uncertain times at Seattle Weekly

Seattle Times staff reporter

During the 30 years he has written for the Seattle Weekly, Roger Downey has seen a lot of people come and go at the free alternative newspaper.

Never as many, he says, as in the past six months.

A Phoenix-based chain known until recently as New Times Media assumed ownership of the Weekly in January. Since then the paper's publisher, advertising director, production director, design director, music editor and several longtime writers have left.

Three weeks ago Editor in Chief Knute "Skip" Berger, probably the Weekly's best-known personality, joined the exodus, announcing plans to depart next month.

"It's unprecedented," says Downey, who himself left a staff position last month to freelance regularly for the tabloid. "Every departure has been painful."

Despite all the turnover, there's no evidence of a bloodbath at the Weekly. New Publisher Kenny Stocker, a 16-year New Times veteran, says no one has been fired. Those who have left say they departed voluntarily.

Seattle Weekly


Founded: 1976

Owner: Village Voice Media, Phoenix (formerly New Times Media)

Numbers: Average weekly circulation, July-December 2005, is 100,089

Publisher: Kenny Stocker

Editor in Chief: Knute Berger (departing in August)

Managing Editor: Chuck Taylor

Web site: seattleweekly.com

Previous owners:

• Sasquatch Publishing/Quickfish Media, Seattle: 1976-1997

• Stern Publishing, New York: 1997-2000

• Village Voice Media, New York: 2000-2005

Sister papers:

• Cleveland Scene

• Dallas Observer

• Westword (Denver)

• East Bay Express ((Emeryville, Calif.)

• New Times Broward-Palm Beach (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

• Houston Press

• The Pitch (Kansas City)

• Miami New Times

• Phoenix New Times

• SF Weekly (San Francisco)

• Riverfront Times (St. Louis)

• The Village Voice (New York)

• LA Weekly (Los Angeles)

• City Pages (Minneapolis)

• Nashville Scene

• OC Weekly (Orange County, Calif.)

Sources: Seattle Weekly, Seattle Times archives, Village Voice Media, Audit Bureau of Circulations

Current and former employees agree the new owner has expressed no great dissatisfaction with the paper and has given no indication a general housecleaning is imminent.

"We aren't necessarily committing to making wholesale changes," Stocker says. "The paper's doing a good job."

But change is in the air at the Weekly, and uncertainty about what form that change might take has helped propel some staff members out the door.

"I didn't know if I was going to lose my job," says one former employee, who requested anonymity. "You start looking for other paychecks."

New Times has a different editorial formula than the Weekly, and a management approach that's more top-down. The company already has begun to shake up New York's venerable Village Voice, another recent acquisition, touching off a staff revolt that has attracted national notice. Some longtime staff members there have been fired.

It's only a matter of time, several observers say, before the company begins to recast Seattle Weekly in its image as well.

"They don't have a touchy-feely reputation — let's put it that way ... ," says Chuck Taylor, the paper's managing editor since 2002. "I don't know if that's deserved or not. We'll find out.

"People are nervous about that."

Alternative giant

The Weekly, founded in 1976, has been owned by out-of-towners since founding editor David Brewster and his partners sold it in 1997. But Taylor says the most recent owner, Village Voice Media, allowed the Weekly, The Village Voice and its four other alternative city papers "unbelievable autonomy — more than anyone has a right to expect, really."

"They ran it more as a collection than a chain," Berger agrees.

New Times, owner of 11 weeklies stretching from Miami to San Francisco, swallowed Village Voice Media last fall and assumed its name. The new company is a giant in the industry: Its 17 papers account for one-quarter of the country's alternative newspaper circulation.

New Times is known for keeping a tight corporate rein on its papers. Berger says headquarters now plays a larger role in budgeting and hiring at the Weekly, and that the change was a factor in his decision to leave.

"The new company is just much more centralized," he says.

But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, he adds, and it wasn't the chief reason for his departure: "I was feeling restless even before the New Times thing came along." He says he's not sure what he'll do next; he's weighing an offer from the new owner to continue writing for the paper.

Berger and others say the changes at the Weekly have been mostly internal. So far New Times has kept its hands off the editorial product.

After the ownership change, "we were always told in editorial meetings that we were a productive paper," says former Associate Editor Laura Cassidy, who left the Weekly for the new Seattle Metropolitan magazine in May. "We were never told we were doing anything wrong."

"Cultural change"

Still, New Times' pre-merger papers have a different look and feel than the Weekly, a different emphasis that's likely to find its way onto the paper's pages in some form eventually.

"It's a cultural change," says Taylor, a former Seattle Times reporter and editor. "I just don't know what that change is going to be yet."

Observers and insiders say New Times papers are more intensely local, edgier, more committed to hard news, less devoted to commentary and the arts, less political.

There's much that's admirable in that formula, Brewster says: "They really want reporters to report and break stories and tell people things they don't know, rather than telling your liberal readers that George Bush is a bad guy."

But the Weekly has been driven from the beginning by a commitment to civic reform that New Times papers don't share, he adds: "It's been about building a better city, rather than just reveling in how bad the place is." He fears that legacy will disappear under the new ownership.

The Weekly itself has noted its differences with its new corporate overlord. When word of the merger surfaced last October, Berger wrote a column on their historic antagonism. For much of its existence, he wrote, the Weekly "had been a kind of anti-New Times Paper, and any given New Times paper was an anti-Weekly."

Taylor praised New Times for award-winning investigative reporting, but also observed "a certain sameness to many papers that suggests a nonlocal heritage."

That prompted Michael Lacey, New Times' executive editor, to rip Taylor for "lazy journalism." He said Taylor hadn't tried to reach him; Taylor said Lacey hadn't returned his calls.

New look on the way

Since that rocky beginning, Taylor says, he has met with Lacey and other New Times executives and they have cleared the air. "They haven't said anything about the paper that I can't agree with," he says. "Philosophically, I don't think we're that far apart."

New publisher Stocker, who arrived just three weeks ago from St. Louis, says the paper's design will be overhauled soon, to make it "more reader-friendly ... make it flow more easily from section to section, from front to back."

The Weekly will look more like other New Times papers, he acknowledges. "Some may say that's a cookie-cutter approach," he says. "All I can say is, it's worked in every market in the country."

Andy Van De Voorde, the chain's executive associate editor, says it plans to emphasize investigative reporting and narrative storytelling at the Weekly. "We want to tell good yarns," he says. "We want to tell people how Seattle works."

Hiring Berger's successor is the top priority now, he says; any other changes will come later. "We're just getting to know people," he says.

Stocker also plans to beef up the sales staff. Brewster expects heightened competition between the Weekly and Seattle's other alternative paper, The Stranger, for stories and advertising dollars.

Ultimately, he says, Seattle could end up with just one city weekly. A New Times subsidiary, the Ruxton Group, sells national advertising for both The Stranger and the Weekly, Brewster notes; what's to keep it from cutting off the company's Seattle competitor?

Stocker says Ruxton has no such plans. The two papers' audiences are different enough and the Seattle market large enough to support both, he says.

Stranger Publisher Tim Keck says he's been talking with Ruxton since November, and "they've been very happy to keep us." There has been no talk of a buyout or merger with the Weekly, he adds.

"We like competition," says Van De Voorde. "We think it makes our lives more interesting."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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