“Tell him, you know, it’s a think piece … he’ll wet himself!”
— Philip Seymour Hoffman as rock journalist Lester Bangs, advising an aspiring young journo how to pitch a long-form story to an editor at Rolling Stone magazine, in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film “Almost Famous.”
THAT BLADDER-CONTROL issue notwithstanding, a couple generations of writers here at Pacific NW, your Sunday mag, have been pitching “think pieces” at editors — and, by extension, at all of you faithful readers — for a long time.
Really long, in journalistic, if not Douglas fir, terms: The Seattle Times has produced a weekly Sunday magazine of some form since 1902. And the modern incarnation you’re looking at right now has been alive for 40 years, this week.
Yes: It’s our birthday. Being human and needing something — let’s face it, anything — to celebrate, we’re taking a moment to look wistfully backward, with an eye toward better plotting the future.
The original birth date for Pacific, which in 1995 was tweaked to “Pacific NW,” was Sept. 7, 1980.
Personal note: As a lifelong local, I have been reading The Seattle Times since I was old enough to read. But being a recalcitrant high school senior at the time of the new mag’s birth, I was working so hard to (successfully!) get expelled from my college-prep English class that I failed to note the announcement on page A-12 of The Times, which in 1988 would make the questionable move of employing me.
Under the headline “Belated obituary,” Don Brazier, the Times’ assistant managing editor, reported the birth of Pacific — a replacement for what then were two previous Sunday magazines, the unconscionably vanilla-titled, newsprint “The Magazine” and its glossy counterpart, the “Sunday Rotogravure Pictorial Section,” better known to readers and staffers as “Roto” or, later, “Pictorial.”
Their longevity illustrates the remarkable survival chops of a thirst for a read-it-over-crab-eggs-Benedict, quasi-independent mag within a daily newspaper in Seattle. Not to tempt fate here, but the publication you’re reading is one of only a handful of its kind left in the realm of U.S. metro newspapers. Most proved easy budget-line targets during endless rounds of cuts as the news industry has struggled to stay afloat in the digital era.
WHEN PACIFIC CARRIED the legacy forward in 1980, Magazine and Roto already had served as showcases for some of the best — or at least the most substantial — work of Times writers and photographers for 78 and 57 years, respectively.
The new Pacific, captained by an enterprising young firebrand photographer not long out of the University of Missouri, Kathy Andrisevic — who would remain at its helm until her retirement in 2017 — hoped to propel the old chassis with a souped-up motor.
Like other Sunday newspaper mags of its era, Pacific was to be a distinct product within a product, a means to display the best work of staff journalists unleashed from the tight space constraints and mind-numbing deadline pressures of daily journalism. (Here, as elsewhere, an additional complication was, and is, producing “timely” stories some six to eight weeks in advance, because the section is preprinted on off-site presses.)
In most markets, the Sunday magazine also endeavored to flavor its broader offerings with the journalistically vaunted “sense of place,” offering local-focused stories or standing features about food, homes, history, hobbies, jobs, profiles of residents known and unknown, and sometimes a touch of humor (now largely a lost art).
The notion: You’ll get an occasional story about Seattle from The New York Times or Newsweek. But only Pacific would take you inside the horse trailers at the Omak Stampede’s Suicide Race. This was especially important, editors said, given the extra-strong regional identity at play here — said region broadly defined as the entire upper-left corner of the nation, plus Alaska.
The concept was endorsed at the time by former publisher Jerry Pennington, and after his death — and still today — by the succeeding publisher, Frank Blethen, says Mike Fancher, the longtime former Times executive editor who shepherded Pacific through most of its formative years.
THE SUNDAY PAPER was a key sales magnet — viewed as a strategic foundation not only of The Times’ future, but as an enticing lure for daily subscriptions from longtime readers of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which then competed head-to-head with The Times under an awkward (at least in the newsroom), federally sanctioned Joint Operating Agreement.
The magazine was a key component of what then was a big, fat Sunday paper, carrying both Times and P-I logos, buoyed by national display and classified advertising in those delightful pre-Craigslist days. The goal was to make it synonymous with the newspaper’s brand, Fancher recalls.
“You should be able to pick up The Seattle Times and know where you are,” he says. “The magazine was the epitome of that. It’s always been specific to the character of this place.”
Of course, just what that “character” is — and, more specifically, how much of that character readers wanted served alongside their toast on Sunday mornings — would be the subject of long, and ongoing, debate, especially inside the newspaper.
CLEANING OUT BOXES of old files in the newsroom in recent weeks, current Pacific NW editor Bill Reader stumbled upon some yellowed, dot-matrix-printed Times memos, one of which groused that defining the identity of the new magazine, which had been launched largely without market research, “has resembled an attempt to nail Jell-O to the wall.”
The person continued: “When Pictorial and The Magazine were merged in September of 1980, only one thing was clear. The Lawrence Welk days of Sunday magazine journalism were ending.”
Ah one, ah two …
While many, including people selling ads for the mag, hoped for ongoing oodles of softer, distinctly “lifestyle” content, Andrisevic and Times staff members had other ideas.
“That was the battle from the beginning,” Andrisevic says, noting the long-running conflict between substance and fluffier content less upsetting to Sunday readers — “the dessert for the news,” as she puts it.
Never one to cruise in the slow lane, she saw the reborn magazine as an opportunity to put the publication’s best journalists to higher, better, more distinctly edgy-storytelling use.
“I really thought it was the last hope for the kind of journalism I wanted to do,” Andrisevic says.
MORE ON THIS after a brief glimpse of what the merger of two mags into one wrought — and what it said about what now seems like a distant, quaint Seattle.
When Pacific debuted, the news section detailed President Ronald Reagan sparring with Congress over Pentagon funding. In sports: Driven by homers from Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski, the Red Sox registered the first of what would later seem like several million subsequent wins, 5-1, over Your Seattle Mariners.
Savvy clippers of coupons and scanners of sale ads (remember those?) could make plans to stop by Albertson’s to pick up a 5-pound bag of Gold Medal flour for 78 cents. With winter looming, shelves were stacked at The Bon and Lamont’s with “box quilt” nylon ski jackets, which looked — and acted — painfully like a Coleman sleeping bag with sleeves.
The new Pacific’s cover was graced by Alan Hinton, coach of the first (North American Soccer League) iteration of the Seattle Sounders soccer club. Inside, veteran columnist John Hinterberger, a magazine staple, spun a piece about an atheist friend struggling to fit in during a rebirth of fundamentalism.
The magazine was fat (48 pages) with ads, including a number of slick cigarette offerings, one boasting a 3-to-1 favorable rating over competitors in “tests comparing taste and tar levels.”
In a nod to the rich photographic tradition of the old “Roto,” the issue included a photo-driven piece about Foss Creveling, a range rider in the Methow Valley, with art by longtime Times photographer Josef Scaylea. The story’s lead, by Ranny Green: “In this era of the ‘Urban Cowboy,’ whatever happened to the real thing?” (Kids: See “Travolta, John.”)
The “Northwest Fashion” section of Pacific highlighted a hot Seattle trend: “Blazers with jeans — it’s the look,” with a photo of a man clad in a black turtleneck, jeans and jacket — and also a welterweight-title-worthy silver belt buckle as large as a salad plate. The photo caption: “Jeans can go dressy when topped with a classic camel hair blazer.”
The food piece: Scotch eggs as a tailgate snack at Husky Stadium (note: back when they played games there in the daylight). Northwest home-design topic, a long-running mag mainstay: cedar shingles, an “attractive and practical siding.”
Columnist Tom Swint waxed bemused about his dog, Ginger, a “cocker mounted on a Dachshund chassis.” The issue’s Northwest Living feature was a houseboat, photographed by the Times’ Greg Gilbert (historical note: still a Times staff shooter).
It set a tone for content that would follow a familiar framework — albeit steadily evolve over four decades.
ALONG THE WAY, Pacific, then Pacific NW, took readers along for a ride to some of the region’s best- and least-known places, and got them face-to-face with people ranging from the unknown to the first-name famous. Characterizing the full sum of that content (more than 2,000 cover stories) in one place is a fool’s errand that not even this fool will presume to attempt.
But a random sampling of content reveals a mix of dead-serious and less-weighty “writerly” treatments — the sort of combination most magazines shoot for. Aside from the occasional book excerpt or freelance piece, most stories came from the magazine’s staff writers — usually two reporters, mixed in for indeterminate periods of time — supplemented by a rich collection of those fabled “think pieces” by loaned-out general Times staffers.
In hindsight, the 1980 reboot marked a clear turning point for content, which shifted almost immediately to the sort of meatier profiles and subjects preferred by Andrisevic and the magazine’s developing writers. It was a contentious and risky leap, in a way — one made possible by Andrisevic constantly running interference with advertising as she shaped her role into what amounted to magazine publisher, Fancher says.
Looking back, her strategy seems clear: Don’t be afraid to surprise your readers. One Sunday, they might be lulled by a clever piece about a local haberdasher. The next: real Nazis in Idaho, heading our way.
Cover pieces during the next two decades were a broad mix: the invasion of Californians, the beauty and folly of professional baseball, the ethics of passing one’s hunting rifle to a son, globalism and Seattle’s entrance onto the world stage as a major Pacific Rim power, ongoing trauma among Vietnam veterans, the “end of excess” and launching of greener local lifestyles, and ramifications of the first dot-com boom and its subsequent impact on local housing.
The mag’s important regional role was evident in its participation in The Times’ general coverage of environmental issues, notably the 1989 work of Ross Anderson, Bill Dietrich, Eric Nalder and Mary Ann Gwinn, along with photographer Craig Fujii, covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which garnered a Pulitzer Prize.
Profile subjects during those formative years included public figures and, more memorably, the lesser-known characters, criminals and saints among us. For every Nathan Myhrvold, Ron Sims, Paul Allen, Mark Morris and Dan Savage, there was Seattle’s “Hat Lady,” Henrietta Pierce; John and Carol Williams, a local Bonnie-and-Clyde throwback couple whose love was expressed in the robbing of banks; and Robert Shields, a Dayton preacher whose obsessive journaling had created a 36-million-word memoir.
The magazine’s most powerful pieces brought to life the world of people we all see but neither know nor appreciate, captured in prose many of us wish we’d had the wherewithal to spin out. Take, as just one example, the irresistible opening of the late Alex Tizon’s glimpse into the lives of local nude dancers:
Sometime after the second verse, the realization dawned that Simon & Garfunkel’s swooning rendition of “America” was not a good song to strip to. It’s almost church music. But she managed it, this dancer named Chelsea …
The magazine dared you not to read further.
AMID ALL THAT “writerly” content came the straight jabs: survivalists in Southern Oregon. Occasional glimpses into the minds of the most-disturbed among us — an X-ray of a spotted owl with a nail driven through its skull, illustrating a piece about a wildlife forensics lab, surely qualifies as one of Pacific’s most haunting cover images.
The undisputed champ in this category, however, might have been the magazine’s April 1983 portrayal of everyday lives of avowed Nazis — members of the Rev. Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations compound at Hayden Lake, Idaho, which leaders vowed to establish as an epicenter to an all-Aryan homeland by 1986.
That cover story led off with a provocative Chris Johns photograph of Butler giving a Nazi salute from behind a pulpit. Headline: “We’re Not Saluting Hitler — We’re Saluting God.”
Most of that shift into eyebrow-raising content was abided, and appreciated, by readers, recalls Andrisevic, the longtime editor.
“Unless we did something really out of the comfort zone,” she says. The Aryan Nations piece about Butler qualified; some readers gulped a bit, and let the newspaper know. The “I don’t want this with my breakfast” line might’ve been crossed. But so be it, Andrisevic says. She would do it again — and did.
“True grit would be one description,” Fancher says of Andrisevic, and her 40-year legacy at the magazine. “In the early days, especially when advertising would rather have had the magazine be something else, the sense of pushing a rock uphill was profound.” (Andrisevic is the first to admit that on many occasions, it rolled over her; it’s the getting up that counts.)
But tilting the balance of gritty to pretty was never questioned by front-line writers, photographers, graphic artists (and, more recently, videographers) who appreciated the space and time to make their work more impactful.
Some years after the reboot, market research confirmed that the formula was working. In a memo to other editors, Fancher related results of a focus-group study about the magazine: “They love us. Really,” he wrote in an undated memo to another Times editor. Readers liked the mix of in-depth and less-taxing content, the photos, the general package.
“They love the fact that it’s local. They want variety, not predictability,” he continued. “Above all, they do NOT want Pacific turned into a lifestyle magazine. As one said during the focus group, ‘I’ve had it up to here with ‘lifestyle’ — with living and cooking at home!’ ” (Hoo-boy.)
ALL OF THIS has combined to make the current Pacific NW a rarity — a survivor of an era that celebrated narrative journalism. Times officials in recent days have reiterated that the mag remains a key component in making Sundays a showcase for the publication, now dual-focused on digital and print delivery.
The magazine, it’s worth noting, has not taken its foot off the substance gas pedal in modern times. If anything, it has worked of late to extend its own comfort zone, striving to better reflect a society coming to terms with diversity and inclusion, or a historical lack thereof. It’s an ongoing, deep reconsideration of what a sense of “place” really means to all, not just some, Northwesterners.
But in the big picture, credit for the magazine’s survival — and success — belongs not as much to anyone at The Times as it does to you, the mag’s stubbornly faithful readers, who continue to point to the publication’s value in their lives, and how they fit into their immediate universe.
There’s that strong sense of “place” again, which always has helped attract journalists eager to dig into their work, and not necessarily on their way somewhere else, Fancher believes.
The Puget Sound area stands in marked contrast, he notes, to other media markets with publications that once were peers to The Seattle Times — places like San Jose, which Seattle editors used to rather gleefully hold up as an alternate-universe readership area where, “There’s no there there,” Fancher says with a chuckle.
There’s still plenty of “there” here. And as long as we have any say in the matter, it will continue to play out, in glossy color, in a Sunday printed and/or digitally delivered magazine.
And thinking, while no longer encouraged nationally, does still go on here in the Garden of Moss. At the risk of wetting ourselves, we’re convinced think pieces surely will continue to follow.