Strange Changes at The Stranger

The Stranger in happier times, circa November 2012. Courtesy of The Stranger.

The Stranger in happier times, circa November 2012. Courtesy of The Stranger.

You may have recently noticed, if you’re a regular reader of The Stranger, some intriguing changes on the staff roster at Seattle’s Only Newspaper.

Several excellent writers have apparently either jumped or been pushed from the Stranger staff in recent months. The most high-profile of these departures was star investigative reporter (and erstwhile news editor) Dominic Holden, who announced his resignation on September 22. Other significant recent departures include news reporters David Goldstein (a.k.a. Goldy), Cienna Madrid, and, most recently, Anna Minard, along with food and culture critic Bethany Jean Clement.

What’s going on at The Stranger? It’s tempting to speculate that there’s a purge in progress there. While it’s true that many talented writers have come and gone through the Stranger newsroom since the paper’s founding in 1991, the number and quality of the recent departures begs for such speculation. Rumors exist of political pressure from big-money advertisers and/or Seattle City Hall insiders who may have objected to the paper’s hard-hitting muckraking in recent years, such as its critical reportage on the deep-bore tunnel fiasco and the $15 minimum wage movement, among other recent touchy subjects in local politics. Internal staff dissent may also have played a role in the recent departures. It’s known that senior Stranger management interfered with reporters who were covering Seattle’s move to a $15 minimum wage. Some of those reporters also openly advocated the $15 minimum wage, which certain local business owners — and regular Stranger advertisers — openly and vociferously opposed.

Also, as Joel Connelly noted at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on October 24, “The Stranger is notorious for paying low wages to highly talented writers … even as editorial director [Dan] Savage rings up the honoraria on the college lecture circuit.”

For those of us who have followed Seattle’s alternative print media for many years now, these departures echo uncannily the purge that happened at Seattle Weekly in 2006, after the national newspaper chain New Times Media took over that once-great alt-weekly. What happened at the Weekly then was clearly a blatant purge, whose casualties included longtime editor-in-chief Knute Berger and political columnist Geov Parrish, both of whom were known for high-quality writing and fathomless insider knowledge regarding Seattle city politics. Some Weekly staffers were fired, while others — such as Berger and Parrish — were given conditions for staying clearly designed to make them quit, which they did.

Apparently, New Times Media then felt that appealing to a younger, more “urban” and “edgy” demographic was more important than maintaining crucial institutional memory. Hence, the Weekly‘s news department was effectively and deliberately dismantled. As part of that purge, the Weekly stopped covering local politics and stopped running election endorsements. The overall drop in quality at the Weekly was immediately obvious, and that paper took several years to recover.

(Much the same thing then happened at other New Times Media alt-weekly acquisitions nationwide, such as the Village Voice, where the legendary rock critic Robert Christgau was fired as music editor after 37 years at that paper, apparently for being too old.)

In the case of The Stranger circa 2014, it’s not so obvious whether a deliberate purge is in effect. Holden, who once called his position as Stranger news editor “the best job in Seattle,” has already moved to New York City, where he’ll be writing about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues as a national reporter for BuzzFeed. Minard found a better-paying job at a non-profit agency — and will apparently no longer be writing professionally — while Clement has advanced to food writer for The Seattle Times. Goldstein was fired last spring, despite the reverence that Dan Savage once professed for Goldy when the latter’s only public writing outlet was his longtime political blog Horse’s Ass, which he still maintains.

As for The Stranger‘s immediate future, the paper announced on November 6 that it has already found a replacement for Clement in the food section: namely, Angela Garbes, who has previously written for the paper as a freelancer. Meanwhile, their full-time news staff remains reduced to recent hire Ansel Herz and longtime staffer (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Eli Sanders, who recently returned there after a lengthy book-writing absence. The paper announced on September 23 that it was seeking a new full-time news reporter. Apparently, as of November 10, that position remains unfilled.

In a related development, as reported at Capitol Hill Seattle Blog on October 29, Stranger publisher Tim Keck announced that the paper’s offices will be moving sometime before February 2016, since the building it has occupied since 1999 is now slated for redevelopment (like so much of Capitol Hill’s Pike-Pine corridor in recent years), and may even move away from Capitol Hill.

“We’re looking around the market, Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill,” Keck told CHS. “We want to be where the action is. We’ve been on the Hill forever, but if we can’t be on the Hill, we can’t be on the Hill.”

Most intriguingly, Keck also made comments to CHS about The Stranger‘s future editorial direction suggesting the paper might soon be aiming for a more respectable demographic than the irreverent hipster crowd that’s been the paper’s core audience all these years.

“Loud, brash opinions are a dime a dozen,” Keck said. “It’s really important for publications to distinguish ourselves from that.”

Albert Camus was unavailable for comment.