Rocket Deal Crashes for City of Roses

Negotiations end as new competition arrives.

After three months of negotiations, City of Roses Publishing, owner of Portland’s Willamette Week, has backed out of a deal to buy The Rocket, a Seattle-based bimonthly tabloid that reviews the local music scenes in Portland and Seattle.

City of Roses’ interest in the Rocket was spawned by the imminent arrival in Portland of a new alternative weekly owned by Tim Keck, publisher of Seattle’s The Stranger. Keck’s Portland Mercury is due to hit the streets on June 1 — also the opening day of the AAN convention — a month-and-a-half earlier than originally anticipated.

City of Roses coveted the Rocket as a means to reach the 18-34-year old audience that The Stranger has successfully tapped in the Seattle market. “We were trying to create a product that could compete favorably with the Mercury,” said Russ Martineau, City of Roses co-owner and Willamette Week vice president of sales and marketing.

Martineau declined to provide a specific reason why the negotiation foundered. “After three months of significant due diligence, we decided it was not in our best interest to do this,” he said.

Dennis Erokan, owner of The Rocket and eight other music-oriented magazines, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Business Journal of Portland reported that the deal between City of Roses and The Rocket was “estimated” to be worth $1 million. Martineau called that figure “ridiculous.”

City of Roses had already hired a new editor in anticipation of the acquisition. When the deal fell through, the prospective editor, Jen Lane of the local Portland publication BarFly, was offered a position with Willamette Week. Lane declined the offer, deciding instead to continue publishing BarFly. She said she was “very disappointed by the recent turn of events, really quite disillusioned.”

According to Martineau, Willamette Week isn’t fretting about its new competitor from up Interstate 5. He claimed that competition typically strengthens the existing, dominant paper, especially in a mid-sized market like Portland.

“We’ve been in Portland for 25 years. We understand the marketplace,” Martineau said. “This is not a giant conglomerate. It’s two small business people in a competitive market. You do whatever you can to put yourself in the best position to win.”

Keck, who anticipates starting the Portland Mercury with a weekly circulation of around 30,000, said he is ready to wage a fierce battle with Willamette Week for readers. However, he also said he plans to compete on other fronts as well, offering local businesses lower advertising rates than his competitor.

“He is a rate cutter,” Martineau said. “He is a person who only knows how to win by cutting rates.”

“We’re being aggressive but I don’t think we’re being particularly tricky,” Keck said. “That’s just what newspaper do.”

Despite the all-out war that is about to be waged between Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury, Martineau believes there is room in Portland for both papers. He said the paper most likely to be hurt is Portland’s daily.

“We are not planning to change Willamette Week,” he said. “It works and it works well.”

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