Keck Says "The Time is Right"; Willamette Week Looks Forward to the Competition.
The Stranger, one of two AAN papers in Seattle, announced earlier this month that it plans to begin publishing an alternative newsweekly in Portland, Oregon, in mid-July.
Stranger Comptroller Rob Crocker will serve as publisher of the as-yet-unnamed Portland paper, and Managing Editor Steve Humphrey will move to Portland to take over as Editor.
With a staff of 50 and a growing paper that raked in $5 million last year, The Stranger appears to be in an ideal position to expand. “It seems to be the thing to do right now and the time is right,” says the paper’s Publisher and founder, Tim Keck, who also founded the satirical newspaper The Onion. Keck started The Stranger with $15,000 after selling The Onion in 1991.
The Stranger is no stranger to the second city of the Northwest. Incoming Publisher Crocker was born in Portland and Stranger News Editor Josh Feit is a former Willamette Week staffer. In addition, last January, The Stranger began distributing in Portland a music monthly called Excellent. According to Keck, copies of the paper were snapped up quickly, proving that there is a demand in Portland for what the Stranger has to offer. “They just disappeared” he says.
And if that wasn’t enough to convince Keck to start a paper in the City of Roses, the character of the city sealed his decision. “It’s a growing market and a cool town,” he says.
While there are some obvious regional similarities between Seattle and Portland, Keck insists the new paper will not be a Stranger clone. “When I started The Stranger, I brought a lot of Onion people with me, but the paper evolved into its own thing. A lot of it’s going to be determined by what’s happening in Portland. It’s also the preference of the editor.”
Adjustments will be made on the business side as well. “The [Portland] market’s a little bit smaller,” Keck says. “We’re going to be very aggressive with circulation. Every Willamette Week box will have company.”
His prospective competitors welcome the company. “There’s nothing better that’s happened in years than the announcement that The Stranger is opening in Portland,” says Willamette Week Publisher Richard Meeker. “Anytime we’ve had competition in the past, it has improved our revenues. And I expect it to improve the quality of journalism in Portland. Willamette Week and The Stranger will be a whole lot more interesting… [The new paper] will be a positive addition to the Portland scene.”
Meeker says he wasn’t blindsided by Keck’s announcement. “One way or another, every successful alternative newsweekly in a market of any size is going to experience competition. I would far rather have us compete with the real deal, which is Tim Keck and The Stranger, than some phony, dot-com alternative or an alternative put out by a daily.”
Meeker predicts that the local music weekly The Rocket will absorb The Stranger’s initial blows. “From a business point of view, the first pain will be felt by The Rocket,” he says, noting that the Seattle version of the same paper was badly damaged by the furious competition between Seattle Weekly and The Stranger.
But that doesn’t mean Willamette Week is complacent about its new competitor. “We’re taking this seriously. The word [Willamette Week Editor] Mark Zusman uses is ‘clarifying.’ We view this as a really positive development. And if [the new Portland paper is] applying for AAN membership, I’ll vote for them.”
With its strong appeal to the coveted 18-34 year old crowd and its aggressive marketing tactics, The Stranger is a handful for any competitor. Just ask outgoing Seattle Weekly Publisher Mike Crystal: “Tim [Keck] is a wily competitor. He’s a great packager and he’s got a very smart sense of marketing, so he’s a worthy competitor, no question about that.”
The Stranger invaded Seattle just as the caffeine-fueled grunge music zeitgeist was about to explode. Crystal says that back then, the Seattle Weekly was a smaller, paid circulation paper that catered to an older audience, focusing more on the fine arts than popular culture.
“That gave Tim a great opportunity and he took full advantage,” says Crystal. “Seattle Weekly wasn’t focused on that scene when we should have been. We’ve worked hard to reclaim the ground that should have been ours all along.”
Crystal says a paradigm or two have shifted since former Village Voice owner Leonard Stern bought the Seattle Weekly two and a half years ago. “We changed our focus and have competed much more fully with The Stranger in certain areas since that time. Very successfully, thankfully.”
And despite his admiration for The Stranger’s marketing prowess, Crystal isn’t shedding any tears for Meeker and his crew. “I think Willamette Week is well-positioned in that town, and I think Portland’s a fairly conservative city,” he says. “It may not be as easy for them to establish themselves in Portland as it was here. Willamette Week won’t allow them that kind of opportunity. Richard? Russ [Martineau, Willamette Week’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing]? They’re scrappy.”