A year shy of its 30th birthday covering culture and politics for baby boomers, Seattle Weekly is becoming part of the nation's largest...

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A year shy of its 30th birthday covering culture and politics for baby boomers, Seattle Weekly is becoming part of the nation’s largest chain of free-circulation city papers.

The Weekly’s parent company, Village Voice Media, is being acquired by Phoenix-based New Times Media, which has a reputation for hard-hitting investigative stories and vigorous central control over its publications’ news policies.

The sale, announced Monday and pending federal antitrust review, would mean a deep-pocketed financial competitor for Seattle’s other, locally owned free alternative newsweekly, The Stranger.

The merged company will own 17 publications with annual revenue totaling $180 million and combined circulation of 1.7 million.

It may mean big changes to the Weekly’s mix, which devotes a full-time reporter to cover politics and a lot of space to editorial endorsements.

By contrast, New Times weeklies are relatively apolitical, paying less attention to politics and public affairs and emphasizing splashy, magazine-length cover features.

Weekly Editor in Chief Knute “Skip” Berger said his staff was digesting the news and expecting to find out more about potential changes after the deal clears U.S. Justice Department review.

Weekly history

1976: David Brewster and partners start Seattle Weekly, a tabloid focused on covering Seattle arts, culture and politics.

1997: The Seattle Weekly is bought by Village Voice Media, a chain of alternative papers controlled by pet-food magnate Daniel Stern.

2000: Stern sells Village Voice Media to partnership backed by New York investment firms Goldman Sachs and Weiss, Peck and Greer.

2002: U.S. Justice Department charges Village Voice Media and competing alternative weekly chain New Times Media with illegally colluding to shut down competing papers in Los Angeles and Cleveland.

2005: New Times Media acquiring Village Voice Media, creating chain of 17 free-circulation publications with combined circulation of 1.8 million.

“I think we’re putting out a good paper and financially doing well,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s any question that these guys are committed to the kind of journalism that alternative weeklies are all about.”

Seattle Weekly founder David Brewster, who sold the paper to Village Voice Publications in 1997, said New Times managers “tend to be very top down. They’re very proud of what is working in these other cities.”

But he said the chain’s emphasis on news reporting and less interest in commentary could be invigorating in liberal Seattle.

“New Times papers are not doing a lot of soap-box stuff about how bad Bush is,” he said. “It’s a little more complex political stance than predictable Seattle liberalism.”

Stranger Publisher Tim Keck said if New Times remakes the Weekly to resemble its other publications, it could mark the end of the thoughtful commentary and analysis that was Brewster’s legacy at the Weekly.

“They are the anti-David Brewster paper,” he said. “If you like a New Times kind of paper, people are going to love it,” Keck said.

“If you don’t, the more NPR-listening crowd that Seattle Weekly has — I think they’ll be turned off.”

Keck said The Stranger would be happy to be ceded the field for political commentary.

“They’re apolitical, so they don’t do voter guides, they don’t do endorsements,” Keck said.

“We like to be political and opinionated — I think that’s our job in this market.”

If the merger is approved, the company will take the name Village Voice Media, but it will be led by New Times Chief Executive James Larkin and New Times Executive Editor Michael Lacey.

Village Voice CEO David Schneiderman plans to stay, overseeing online operations.

Larkin’s and Lacey’s toughest immediate task could be the financially ailing Village Voice.

The 50-year-old Manhattan alternative weekly, known for its radical views and anarchic newsroom, has been struggling, like many free-circulation weeklies, with competition from the classified-ad Web site craigslist.org.

In Seattle, both alternative weeklies, like Seattle’s daily papers, have lost classified business to craigslist and other Web sites, but both The Stranger and Seattle Weekly have stayed fat with entertainment and lifestyle advertising.

Tom Boyer: 206-464-2923 or tboyer@seattletimes.com