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Originally published July 23, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified July 24, 2011 at 3:58 PM

Seattle's Tim Keck forever remains The Stranger

Two decades ago, as a 23-year-old college dropout fresh from Wisconsin, Tim Keck led a group of provocateurs to create The Stranger, Seattle's crusading, constantly profane and sometimes hilarious newsweekly.

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IT'S ELECTION night 2009, and Tim Keck has been party-hopping in a limousine full of nightclub owners to all the right places. Late into the night, he breezes into the War Room bar on Capitol Hill to join the throng celebrating Mike McGinn's narrow victory over Joe Mallahan to become Seattle's next mayor. The room is electric with the energy of an underdog upending the establishment. And it's Keck's kind of party.

Two decades ago, as a 23-year-old college dropout fresh from Wisconsin, Keck had led a group of provocateurs disdainful of the establishment. The name Keck chose for their business — The Stranger — was no coincidence.

Keck is still publisher of The Stranger, the man behind the curtain of Seattle's crusading, constantly profane and sometimes hilarious newsweekly.

He learned long ago that subversion could be good business. But with McGinn, Keck had been testing just how far The Stranger could migrate from righteous outsider to calculating power broker. "We tried to really let it all go, to turn up the dial as high as we could and see what happened."

The Stranger became a de facto arm of the McGinn campaign. It ran McGinn's hagiographic portrait on its cover, banner ads on its website and a four-part, 6,000-word polemic in print. In typical fashion, it called McGinn's opponent an idiot — complete with preceding four-letter-word adjective. Keck himself gave a rare political donation.

And it all worked.

Keck, 44, a slight guy with legs and hands that scissor the air with restless energy, is largely unknown in Seattle, but he found friends among the kind of progressive activists who showed up at McGinn's party.

McGinn barely knows Keck, but is an admirer. "Tim seems to care. He has found a formula that is frankly amazing," McGinn says. "They're not detached like other media, they're fully engaged in the areas they care about."

After a few too many drinks and a check-in back at The Stranger, Keck heads out to his Capitol Hill home, his longtime girlfriend, Dr. Abigail Gross, and their two preschool-aged kids. A thought occurs to him.

"I want McGinn to do well. And if he's a giant disaster, of course it'll not be good."

TIM KECK launched his first venture — a coupon-filled calendar sold to dorms and fraternities — as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was such a success that he and a fellow student, Chris Johnson, thought up a new idea: a weekly newspaper; something funny, irreverent, even subversive.

The Onion was born. Dull headlines that he and his mother had mocked in the Oshkosh newspaper — "Local Man Found Dead" — became a now-famous fake news template. Keck sold ads and wrote. He mimicked a photo of his father, a former Indiana state legislator, shaking hands with Richard Nixon to illustrate a story of a local man winning a cheese-eating competition.

Pounding away on a rented Apple 2C, he learned that his dyslexia — "My writing was almost illegible. If you had picked up my blue books, you'd say, 'This guy is an idiot' " — faded at the keyboard. "It was a blast and very successful right off the bat," Keck remembers. "Everyone read it." But after only about 18 months, Keck and his partner sold The Onion. He repaid his mother an $8,000 loan, dropped out and hitchhiked to Brazil. He stayed for six months but couldn't shake the publishing bug. "I was really genuinely worried that, like, I'll be having sex, smoking pot and body surfing the rest of my life," he says. This Keck wishes he could ask that Keck: " 'What's wrong with that life? Why not another two months?' "

He'd never been to Seattle, but picked it because it was a college town and lacked a free weekly, a model he had admired in the Chicago Reader. It was 1991. The music scene was magnetic. Keck saw a niche.

He recruited Onion writers to live and work on the second floor of a house in Wallingford. He also recruited Dan Savage, then a video-store employee in Madison who'd pitched to Keck a column about a gay man giving straight people sex advice. The first edition, Sept. 23, 1991, was 12 pages, heavy with comics and fiction. Keck sold ads, distributed the paper and wrote under the pseudonym "Ike Roberts."

"We didn't really talk long-term, about a greater vision. We just didn't want to pander to anyone ever. We wanted to put whatever we wanted in the paper," says Matt Cook, the first editor. He slept in the hallway.

There were plenty of video games and a house band, Blammo the Surly Drunk Clown. Hygiene was sporadic.

Keck had a performance art/music act called Weber. He would dress in a white jumpsuit and beat a Weber grill to pieces with a baseball bat to the blaring of a metal band.

Savage, who rose to become The Stranger's iconic editor, said the lean startup years forced fiscal discipline that would carry The Stranger through. "We've never had a net. None of us had trust funds . . . We couldn't even get bank loans. Tim has always run it profitably to survive."

SPRAWLING THROUGH the top floors of an old manufacturing building on Capitol Hill, The Stranger's headquarters is a rough-hewed place of exposed beams and tall windows hovering over a disheveled newsroom. Keck's office, in the former elevator shaft, is cluttered with a mounted fish caught by his grandfather and dirty gym clothes from his frequent dates playing squash. A spiral staircase leads to a wood-paneled rooftop shack and a panoramic view of the city. He used to smoke up there before he quit.

Clutching an ever-present iPhone, Keck races around from one pierced, tattooed staffer to another, calling out questions and dispensing fist-bump kudos. Former editor Emily White, who describes Keck as "the best boss I'll ever have," says his attention span is focused but short. "At a certain point you know Tim can't hear you anymore. You could tell him monkeys just flew out of your ass and he would say, 'OK.' "

Although he defers to Savage for editorial content, he sets the tone for bad-boy irreverence. (During a videotaped deposition, he repeatedly scratched his nose with his middle finger, aiming the subtle insult at the opposing lawyer.)

And struggling to recall an acquaintance's name recently, he said, "Look, I'm a lifelong pothead, I have two kids under 5, I'm a sleepwalker and I had a traumatic brain injury in high school. I don't remember." (His sleepwalking is so bad — he woke one night to find himself on the street, astride his motorcycle, wearing no pants — he now wears pajamas to bed.)

But he's also a serious businessman. Under his watch, The Stranger has grown to a constellation, with 83 employees, a sister publication in Portland called the Mercury, and annual print revenues of more than $8 million. A tight focus on costs means writers must ask permission for each pen, and young, cheap talent cycles through. The Stranger, Keck says, carries no debt and has money in the bank.

Keck, Savage and marketing director Nancy Hartunian are the only remaining original employees. In 2002, shortly after the Mercury's launch, Keck sold an undisclosed stake to the Chicago Reader, but he remains the largest shareholder.

His business approach mirrors The Stranger's news approach: a swarming intensity to the issue of the moment. The targets have changed over time, from perfecting the events calendar to personal ads to the go-to Weed Guide for medical marijuana.

For the past several years, it has been online. Marcus Charles, a friend and nightclub owner, jokes that Keck could have bought himself a Porche instead of investing in technology, but the decision is paying off. "Tim just has an ability to see into the future and forecast what will happen," says Charles, managing partner of the Crocodile. "He really doubles down and takes risk by betting on himself and betting on the brand of The Stranger."

The Stranger holds a fistful of online spinoffs, including a successful iPhone app, Cocktail Compass; an operating software platform called Foundation sold to other alternative weeklies; two Groupon-like services called Altperks and Strangermart, and Electionland, a political question-and-answer site active in all 50 states.

The Slog, the paper's widely read news and arts blog, is an advertising magnet. And in the past two years, The Stranger has become an increasingly successful ticket broker, taking $1 of every ticket sold for a dozen clubs, the Capitol Hill Block Party and, most recently, for Bumbershoot.

Keck is the "alternative to the alternative," a "real old-fashioned entrepreneur" who would have done well in any technology startup, says Bruce Brugmann, longtime publisher of San Francisco's Bay Guardian.

He is a brilliant marketer, says Richard Karpel, former head of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. At annual conferences, Keck has arrived with "magic brownies," deodorant for "hippies" and an illustrated French-English phrase book mocking the Village Voice.

Tweaking Village Voice Media, which owns a chain of alternative weeklies, including the Seattle Weekly, was a longtime bloodsport for Keck. But most media analysts say The Stranger won that war, with higher circulation, readership and a consistently fatter page count.

Keck once placed a classified ad in The Stranger to sell a pair of Elan skis owned by The Weekly's then-publisher after noticing the same ad had moldered for months in The Weekly. Keck forwarded the replies. He got no response back.

KECK WAS born into journalism. His mother, Janet, was an investigative reporter; his father, Edward, edited the Hammond (Indiana) Times. Keck remembers going with his dad to a famed South Chicago newspaper bar called Mike's, meeting newspaper legend Mike Royko and thrilling to the writers' sarcastic shoptalk.

Keck's father was paralyzed by a stroke during a newspaper strike and died while Tim was in school. His mother moved Keck and his two sisters to be near her family in rural Oshkosh and teach journalism at the University of Wisconsin branch.

In starting The Stranger, Keck says, "I wanted a paper that sounded like the journalists at Mike's talked like. Not necessarily fair, kind of jaded, funny, but with its heart in the right place."

A news junkie, Keck gets The New York Times delivered daily and choked up talking about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's demise.

"I like a snow day. I like it when the streets are closed, everyone is sledding down the streets, the buses are spinning out, everything's a little bit of a mess. I like when things don't run smoothly because interesting things can happen. And a newspaper can make things not run incredibly smoothly. It can change people's days. It can change a politician's day, or a business's day," he says.

On The Stranger's second anniversary, Keck wrote a rare column under his own name. Mimicking the smug corporate-speak of newspaper chains, he described his tour of "The Keck Family of Newspapers," their aggressive lobbying, their market analysis.

"My father wasn't an emotional man, but at special occasions he would open up to those that were close to him and say, 'Newspaper work is hard at times, but it always has the potential to be very rewarding.' And I think this anniversary would have been one of those occasions," he wrote.

A poignant quote, if it were true. It's not.

THESE DAYS, Keck rarely writes in his publication. But his imprint is as clear now as it was in 2000, when Dan Savage was arrested in Des Moines, Iowa. Savage had written about his attempt to pass his nasty flu to Gary Bauer, an anti-gay Republican presidential candidate, by licking doorknobs at Bauer's campaign office. It made international news, and Savage got nailed for fraudulently registering to vote in Iowa.

At such a moment, a publisher might call a good lawyer, gather bail money and start talking about the First Amendment.

Keck instead issued a news release: "Tell that Iowa pig-farmer of a governor and his inbred state patrol that if they're going after Savage, they better bring a lot of body bags. They so much as look at him funny, and it's gonna be toe-to-toe thermonuclear war with the Iowans."

Savage believes that news release got him indicted.

The Stranger is what it's always been, Keck says, "a writer's paper." He says he requires a writer citing a fact to have proof of it. Other journalists around town question how vigorously that standard is enforced. And Keck concedes that writers are given free rein to spin the facts however they wish.

Keck also consults on The Stranger's widely read editorial endorsements, which have called disfavored candidates an astonishing breadth of vulgarities unfit for a family newspaper. And occasionally, The Stranger takes after other reporters, including this one, calling them credulous hacks.

Asked if he regrets anything The Stranger has written, Keck recently said, "This would be a time when I could apologize, right? Let me think about it." Two weeks later, asked again, he said, "I haven't thought about it." He paused, and laughed. "I guess that's a reflection of my personality."

Perhaps that is why targets of The Stranger's vitriol — including a previous mayor and his chief of staff, several past City Council candidates and various editors and publishers of competing weeklies in Seattle and Portland — declined to talk about Keck on the record.

The Stranger's crusades for a more libertine, rowdy, dense, transit-heavy and stoned city reflect their readers' — and Keck's personal — views. Its most notable failed campaign was for the Monorail, but that yielded years of good copy.

McGinn's victory is its most successful. Joe Mallahan's campaign consultant, Jason Bennett, says The Stranger didn't make the race close, but "it tipped it in McGinn's favor."

The Stranger owes nothing to McGinn, and McGinn owes nothing to The Stranger, Keck says. And victory won't change The Stranger's view of itself — as a stranger.

"If we start thinking we're the most powerful thing in the city," he says, "we'll write like . . . ." another vulgarity follows. "People need The Stranger because they don't want life through a fine mesh. They want the big chunks."

Jonathan Martin is a Seattle Times staff reporter. He can be reached at 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.

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