Hey strangers, my name's Dan. I’m the founder and CEO of Dan’s Tunes, a Seattle music journalism website dedicated to helping the music community thrive. I probably don't have to remind you that it's been a tough 15-or-so months for local journalism. In a landscape of quickly diminishing resources and increased demand for coverage, local outlets have had to make difficult choices about what to cover. For the blog you’re reading right now, Slog, I’m told that meant cutting back on arts coverage as breaking news took priority last spring and summer. But now, with Washington state reopened, The Stranger is hoping to ramp up arts and music coverage again.
Last summer, The Stranger was able to hire back one arts writer, Jasmyne Keimig, and reader contributions have allowed the paper to triple its freelance budget, which is how I’m able to write this post. (Thanks!) I sent The Stranger's editor Chase Burns a message about a month ago pitching a few stories and asking him what was up with their coverage. In between working on those pitches, I called him to talk about The Stranger's coverage, what we can expect going forward, and if we could publish part of our conversation on Slog. Here's that convo below, edited for length and clarity.
DAN: What did the editorial department at The Stranger focus on in the Before Times?
CHASE: We were focused on filling two products: our print paper and our daily blog. We'd have about 15 blogs a day. The print product came out every two weeks. It had a front section that could have features in it. Those would rotate depending on what we wanted to write about—maybe it was Capitol Hill Block Party or a news feature. Then there were dedicated sections. We'd have visual art. We'd have music. We'd have news. We'd have food and drink. And each of those sections would include at least one little feature with a calendar.
Pre-pandemic, The Stranger’s main revenue stream was print advertising. How much of your advertising was made up by the arts?
I don't know the explicit breakdown—there's a metaphorical wall between the sales department and the editorial department—but I think a good way of estimating that number is to look at the way the print product was broken down. Typically advertisers wanted to place their ads next to related content. So if we had tons of music ads come in, the music section could balloon. Of the art sections, I would say music was certainly one of our better-funded sections. It was often coming in around seven pages. Total page counts were around 60 pages. So you can kind of get a sense there.
The Stranger doesn’t print a paper right now. How did the loss of print advertising impact The Stranger?
A publisher would be able to answer that better than I can, but my understanding is that web ads are cheaper than print ads. We were always nervous about going into a future where it would be web-only because we knew that was a much harder game to play. And I think everyone thought if we were going to have to slide into a web-only model, we'd have a lot more preparation. When we lost [the print paper] it was real panic mode.
I walked into my publisher's office on a Friday, and we were basically told who was going to get furloughed. There was a little bit of a discussion, but there wasn't really that much of a discussion. It was like, “We don't know how long this is going to go. We know we need our news reporters because it's a pandemic.” It was sort of like the Titanic—who gets on the boat, and who doesn't? The offer we were given was that the news reporters would stay and anyone who was connected to the arts would be furloughed. We also lost our whole freelance budget. We just did not have any ability to hire outside of our organization for help.
Because, at least to an outside observer, The Stranger’s income was supported by the music community through ads for shows and the ticketing platform, there are musicians who feel like their trust with The Stranger was broken when coverage lapsed. What would you say to people who feel that way?
That response is valid, and I understand why it's there. In many ways we let down a lot of communities. Our coverage was driven off a cliff. We were covering streaming music and performance options, and then those kinda died. Not just with music, but across the board. People got tired of it, performers and viewers. There was this weird dead silence.
On another end, I would say unfortunately in this industry we have to make a lot of tough choices about coverage. I do feel like music is still a priority—but a priority with dwindling resources.
You said music is a priority. Why?
Historically, it's something we've always been committed to. Our readers really want it. We submitted a reader survey a few months ago, and readers wanted us to bring back more food and drink coverage, which we weren't able to do as much last year; more music coverage; and of course they wanted lots of politics.
But [another reason] is because one of the things The Stranger does really well is write about what it's like to be in the city, and that's something you can do when you write about concerts. It's at a physical venue, there's a crowd that’s typically rambunctious, and it's usually a cross-section of a lot of different people from the city. So as an editor, one of the reasons I'm interested in music beyond the artistic reasons is because I think it can showcase the uniqueness of the activity in Seattle.
What will coverage focus on moving forward?
My focus is twofold. We have endorsement season coming up, so we have half of our team focused mostly on guiding readers through the primary election season, which in full disclosure, I'm a little nervous about. Everyone's going to be rushing back to do X, Y, and Z and forgetting there’s a very important election in August. So that’ll be half our coverage.
The other half is focused on what reopening is like. I want to start going back to live music coverage in July. We have this really rare vacuum where, in July and August, these national acts can't come through because they haven't been booked out in advance. In my most optimistic world, what could happen is that venues skilled at booking local acts are gonna be turning it out with a lot of local performances.
Anything to add?
Something we've been thinking about a lot lately is how the products we upkeep might hold us back. The main thing we have right now is Slog, which is a blog. But a blog inherently demands you feed it a lot every single day. I would really love to do something that is more like Crosscut’s model. They put out [about] three articles a day. If I was able to go to my six or seven writers and say, “Your main focus right now is to write a really big, ambitious feature,” that's going to satisfy our readers—if we break the slog of Slog, I would be able to send our arts writers off to follow a band for four days and write a profile about that.
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