Amber Cortes | The Stranger | October 2016 | 15 minutes (3,636 words)
In July of 1991, Tim Keck moved to Seattle from Madison, Wisconsin, to launch a newspaper. He’d recruited a handful of friends and colleagues from the Onion, the satirical weekly he’d cofounded and recently sold (yes, that Onion), to help him conceive a new, irreverent publication—one which sent-up the weekly newspaper format and had equal doses of reporting and criticism as it did satire.
Among those who joined him were James Sturm, Peri Pakroo, Nancy Hartunian, Wm. Steven Humphrey, Christine Wenc, Johanna “Jonnie” Wilder, Matt Cook, Andy Spletzer, and, later, Dan Savage.
Armed mostly with hubris, a few thousand dollars, and three slow-as-fuck computers, they initially set their sights on appealing to University of Washington students, but quickly found their real audience among the queers and weirdos who (used to) populate Capitol Hill. Their coverage of Seattle was necessarily informed by their perspective as outsiders, transplants… (are you really going to make me say it?) strangers.
You could make the case that The Stranger‘s relationship with its adoptive hometown has not always been frictionless. That’s not entirely accidental. Making people uncomfortable—while entertaining and serving them—is an important part of the job.
“The only way I see myself becoming one of the cherished traditions of the Village,” Norman Mailer wrote of his column in the Village Voice in 1956, “is to be actively disliked each week.”
Mailer only lasted 17 columns in the Voice. The Stranger just turned 25. Here’s how it got started.
Assemble Your Crew
Tim Keck, cofounder and publisher of The Stranger: Both of my folks were newspaper people. My dad was the editor of the Hammond Times, and my mom was an investigative reporter, and so newspapers were my whole childhood.
After my Dad died, my mom took a teaching gig at the University of Wisconsin, and we moved to a very rural area about a half hour away from her work. I was in high school. At first, the only daily paper available out there was the Oshkosh Northwestern, which was unintentionally hilarious. And then, later, the soulless USA Today came on the scene. My mom and I would read the papers, and she would read headlines aloud and laugh. I think the Onion was a combination of a parody of USA Today and Oshkosh Northwestern.
My partner Chris Johnson and I sold the Onion to our staff about two years after we started it. At the time, I just wanted to do something fun and pay my rent. And I also had lived in Wisconsin for a while, and I was ready to not be in Madison, Wisconsin.
We were ready to move on. We hitched to Brazil and lived in a small town outside of Rio. He stayed. I really wanted to start another paper. I got together with my old girlfriend, Peri Pakroo, who later became our editor. She wanted to move out to the Northwest and that’s what we did.
Dan Savage, cofounder and Savage Love columnist: Maybe Tim remembers how we first met. It was love at first sight. I worked at a video store in Madison, Wisconsin, called Four Star Fiction and Video. There was somebody I worked there with who was in the orbit of the Madison Mafia—the people who came here to start the paper. We were introduced and Tim and I began to talk about what an advice column written by a gay guy giving sex advice to straight people would look like, and how that would work.
Tim: I just wanted to do something that was a little more real, but I wanted to fuck around with the form, and Dan was that. He was doing real advice, but sort of a parody of Ann Landers. It was perfect.
Dan: Tim picked Seattle. His girlfriend at the time wanted to move here, and he was ready to leave Madison. And so he looked around at various cities and their alt weeklies and thought the Seattle Weekly was a particularly crap one. So I moved here for The Stranger and I stayed for the dick. Also known as my husband.
Johanna “Jonnie” Wilder, cofounder and first production director: So the first few months was setting up, getting everything ready. And everyone kind of coming out. Matt Cook came out and started writing almost immediately. And then later on that year, Dan Savage moved out from Madison. James Sturm came out later on, after a few weeks.
Matt Cook, first editor in chief: I remember sitting in the student union [at the University of Wisconsin] with Tim talking about the future, and he was telling me how they were planning on selling the Onion and going on with their lives. So the two of us just started, I don’t know, what do they call it? Spitballing, just talking about if we were to do another paper, what we would do. And in my head I’m picturing it along the lines of Chicago Reader, or the Village Voice… but with our own sardonic spin. Maybe several months later I got a call from him, and he said, “Peri and I are heading out to Seattle to start a paper, you coming?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll be there. Gimme a few weeks to get my shit together.”
James Sturm, first art director: I was finishing graduate school in New York City and Tim was like, “Why don’t you come out to Seattle and be my first art director and get involved in The Stranger? I’m starting this newspaper.” Fantagraphics was just starting to publish me, and so I drove out to Seattle in the fall of 1991 and helped launched the paper.
Wm. Steven Humphrey, “distribution monkey,” now editor in chief of the Portland Mercury: I was not put off in the least by it. I mean, I knew really what I was getting into. I knew it was going to be an adventure, and it was a shoestring sort of operation. I got there maybe just two or three weeks after Tim, and it was just already buzzing, and I walked in, and Tim said, “Oh, hey. It’s great to meet you.” And, he just said, “Let’s get to work.”
A Stranger Comes to Town
Nancy Hartunian, co-owner, first sales director: By the time we got there, Seattle was being inundated with outsiders. And so we were a part of that. But Seattle was also sort of still a sleepy, small city. And I think that we thought we were bringing a little bit more of an urban feel to it.
James: There was just a little bit of a wild and woolly feeling to the place. The Stranger was pretty appropriately named because everybody seemed to be pretty new to town.
Tim: It’s my name. I really like “The Stranger, America’s hometown newspaper,” because it has this really uncomfortable and non-wholesome and creepy sort of aspect of it. And I really like the anonymity of a city. That you’re a stranger in a city. We were all from out of town, and I liked it that it has this tension, right?
James: I think with Seattle there was a sense that anything was possible. English majors getting jobs at Microsoft and hoping to become millionaires and this sense that the internet was going to unite the world, and we were all going to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.”
Matt: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” broke around the same time that we started the paper, so that was Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Screaming Trees, everything was going on. Soundgarden. The whole world was moving to Seattle at the time.
James: That was the thing, right? I remember Michael Kinsley on the cover of Time or Newsweek saying everyone’s moving to Seattle. There was definitely at that moment in time in Seattle, it was like this frontier town, and people were just going there. There were riches in that Northwest corner. [Laughs]
Steve: I mean, we were able to look at it with fresh eyes, and see things that other people—people that might be more established—might not see. We were definitely on the lower end of the income spectrum. We would go to free basement shows, cheap movies, eat free pizza. That was our life there. That’s what we knew.
The House on Latona
Nancy: It was the top floor of a duplex in Wallingford. A big brown house with super ugly, nasty carpets and ugly walls and a bunch of people living in there, sleeping on the floor, working all night, smoking cigarettes.
Steve: And it was the most unmemorable apartment you ever saw—it was like gray carpeting, a couple of bedrooms, a little porch out the back where everybody would go to smoke and think of ideas.
Matt: None of us had anywhere else to live and none of us had any money, so we all lived there. I slept in a hallway that you could block off. There was a way to go through the dining room into what was supposedly the living room, although the living room was also the publishing room, plus somebody’s bedroom.
Tim: Everybody who came out crashed for months. We all slept in the office [chuckles]. There were a couple of tables that had Macs on them and piles of newspapers and toner paper and a printer, and people’s duffel bags and sleeping bags. Everything was breaking down, and the place was infested with rats. And nothing would work. It was a flophouse and a newspaper all in one.
Steve: I wouldn’t say it was like an opium den. It didn’t look exactly like an opium den. But only because there was no opium. It was gross enough. It looked like a college two-bedroom apartment that eight people were living in.
Matt: It was a relatively controlled chaos.
Johanna: We were living like hippies, we were living like monks, and our lives were just… thrown into this project.
Dan: The whole apartment was basically just a pile of futons on the floor where people slept at night, and rats, and a handful of computers that the entire paper was sort of churned through. And it was a labor of love. No one was getting paid. And that’s how we put out the paper.
Dan: Not getting paid sucked. [Laughs]
Tim: I sold most of the ads, and Nancy started selling some ads. And I would pay the print bill, and then everybody would get whatever money was left.
Steve: We would get a small stipend. I can’t remember how much it was. It was really small. Certainly nothing you could live on. But it wasn’t the worst, either.
Matt: I remember there was a lot of oatmeal eaten, because we didn’t have a lot of money. And so we had this wok, and you’d just take some quick oats and some water, and throw it in the wok, and hope you got the amounts correct.
Tim: And we had Hot Lips Pizza, which was one of our early advertisers that gave us trade for ads for pizza. So everybody went to Hot Lips Pizza, which was great—delicious pizza.
Dan: We’d get like these—I still have one at home—Hot Lips Bucks. And we would get those and go trade them for pizzas.
Steve: That’s how I ate three times a week. I fucking loved it. I thought it was so good.
Matt: Sometimes, that was the only thing we had to eat. ‘Cause money was pretty scarce! So we would often traipse over there to get some slices because there was no food in the house. But we were totally over-taking advantage of it! And eventually they had to crack down.
The First Issue
Dan: I think the first issue was locked in the vault so that no one could ever see it.
Tim: The first issue of The Stranger was so bad. But they delivered it to the house, on the deck. Whoever was helping out was sleeping upstairs. It was like three in the afternoon, and the truck pulled up. And I helped the guy unload the truck, and I was pretty excited. And then I opened up the paper, and I just—I burst into tears. “Oh, my God. This thing, this is so…”
Matt: I remember the cover looked awfully muddy. We were all sort of trying to be super proud of how it looked, and all slightly feeling like it didn’t look as good as we thought it was gonna. [Laughs]
Johanna: No, it was horrible. Nothing was right [chuckle]. I know that for sure, nothing was—it was horrible [chuckle]. We never had enough time to do everything because everything has to come together at the end.
Tim: And I just thought, “Oh, we’re fucking finished.” It was hard for me to even look at it.
Johanna: But I think Tim helped me realize that the nice thing about a weekly newspaper is that once it gets printed, it’s done, and you get to start brand-new every week. So that’s kind of a blessing and a curse.
Everyone Had Three Jobs
Johanna: We had almost no money and not really all that many people, as well. You know, there was just me doing layout and design. And everybody pitching in to do a lot of different jobs. Nobody did one thing. Everybody did a lot of things.
James: Besides doing a lot of illustration and drawing, I remember distributing papers, I wrote theater reviews, I wrote articles. There was a little bit of everything that everybody did. That was really fun.
Tim: Oh, yeah. I delivered it. I wrote… I laid out. I sold ads. Everybody did. James sold ads.
Steve: I was a writer and the distribution department. Along with Andy, we did it out of his—I think it was like a 1984 Chevelle or something like that. Or we would go on the back porch and smoke cigarettes and decide what we’re going to write for the Gordy the Little Scrap of Paper comic that went in there every week. We would sincerely contribute to everything.
James: I was also in charge of editing all the comics and getting all the cartoons in there. And yeah, anything went. There was stuff that was just filthy and profane and then there was stuff that was beautiful and gorgeous, and actually sometimes the beautiful and gorgeous stuff was profane. So there was a very experimental kind of, let’s test some boundaries here and see what we can do.
Nancy: I started by writing, but then one day, before The Stranger was due to be published, I remember Tim walking out into the living room saying, “We haven’t sold any ads. Can anybody help?” And so I said I’d try—what the heck.
Johanna: We were working 80-hour weeks, easy, where we would work all day during the week, and then well into the evening.
Matt: There was a total Henrietta Pussycat slang that was in the office a lot. I remember one little phrase that Tim came out with one day and I’ve used in my daily life ever since. I came in and I said, “Hey, Tim how’s it going?” And he said, “Meow hungry. Meow tired, meow.”
Johanna: And there was a very small room that we did layout in, and Matt and Andy and Tim would be playing professional wrestler moves in the middle of the room while I’m trying to do paste-up, and it was tremendously stressful for me. I was terribly unhappy; I think I quit many different times.
James: What was the name of that video game that we sure played a lot of? Maelstrom. We’d have little Maelstrom tournaments, and I remember every now and then one of us would call a press conference.
Matt: There was an old Centris in the dining room. I remember that computer; it wouldn’t boot up right but you could Fonzie it. If you waited until you heard it make a certain tone, and hit it with the heel of your hand in one spot, you could get the hard drive to grab.
Dan: I just remember the vibe in the office was we were inventing this paper. We were inventing ourselves. We were finding our voices as writers. We didn’t have the money but we had a weekly deadline. It didn’t take me long to realize after getting here that it was a small enough city that if a little group of people came here and wanted to do something, they could make it happen—and a big enough city that it mattered for that group of people to do that.
The Voice of The Stranger
Dan: But we all had nothing better to do, and we just hung in there and did it. We wrote, we put together a paper that we said and I thought of as the paper that we would all want to read.
Johanna: One of the things that we noticed about Seattle was that Seattle’s very quirky, or Seattle was back then. Was very quirky, it was very weird. Everyone was really busy trying to be weird. And so we tried really hard to outweird the weird [chuckles] and kind of shake things up a little bit. I think we succeeded in some ways and didn’t in others.
Nancy: Well, there was the wacky “Kill Bill Gates” game. They spent so much time putting that game together.
Johanna: And we wanted to make sure the game actually worked. So we did the layout so that if you spread out the newspaper, all the game pieces were there, and you could play the game on the newspaper. I think people were a little upset because the game was about killing Bill Gates.
James: It wasn’t a cynical paper. It wasn’t a mean-spirited paper. It was smart and fun and playful.
Nancy: It was brash and funny and irreverent. And so it was fun to put out something so effervescent and naughty.
Johanna: We were kind of mean sometimes. For sure, we were very mean sometimes. But we tried to be mean and funny at the same time.
Dan: We were Midwesterners and assholes, and there wasn’t a Midwestern sensibility in this town in publishing, and it was easy to accidentally make a splash without intentionally trying to stir shit up, just by saying exactly what we thought in print.
Johanna: So Savage Love… when Dan first started writing it, he addressed every letter with “Hey, Faggot,” whether it was addressed to him that way or not. Every letter would start off with that. People freaked out at that.
Nancy: Nobody was doing that. Nobody was that… vulgar. It was really unusual for a weekly paper. You know, at the time, alt-weekly journalism was liberal, but it was sort of wholesome and kind of prudish.
Dan: The Weekly, I think, in the first two years, they dismissed us, patronized us, acted as if we didn’t matter and we would fail and go away sometime soon. They were confident that our paper would last six months tops, that it was just a big flash in the pan.
Matt: We were all sarcastic and we all had a certain disdain for authority, and I think that tone sort of infiltrated everything we did. And I think that was what was appealing to people who picked the paper up. It was a little sense of absurdity and a large sense of who gives a fuck.
Tim: I just think people thought, “Oh, this is kind of refreshing. It’s a total train wreck, but I kind of like it [chuckles].”
Steve: It was subverting whatever newspapers and alternative weeklies were around at the time, because even alternative weeklies were not very far away from just the mainstream dailies. They were very reliant on money and commerce and never really stepping out and stretching the boundaries.
Tim: I like a snow day, or I like when—if I could freeze the whole city and make everybody have to get out of their cars and not go to school, I would. I love that feeling [chuckles]. The paper can do that, stop things for a little bit, or mess shit up a little bit. It’s exhilarating.
Leaving a Legacy
Dan: Our motto was always “Let’s suck this week less than we did last week”—not we’re great, we’re awesome, we’re perfect. I’ve been hearing The Stranger wasn’t what it was every year for the past 25 years. Constantly, the paper is not what it used to be.
Tim: It’s been fucking here for 25 years. Anything that sticks around long enough is bound to be part of the fabric of the city. It’s like we’re the couch in the little traffic circle that’s been there for six weeks. It’s just like, “Okay, I guess that fucking couch is here [laughs].”
Dan: I hope in the next 25 years, The Stranger either has been completely taken over by new people who completely reinvigorate it, or it’s dead. My money is on the former.
Johanna: If we leave any legacy at all, it should be a legacy of: Someone else start a newspaper to put The Stranger out of business, damn it!
Read more from The Stranger’s 25th anniversary celebration.