On Friday, October 13, Stranger music editor Dave Segal resigned. So did club advertising coordinator Bailee Martin, an employee who sold ads directly to bands and facilitated the sale of ads to nightclubs. The trigger for the resignations was an unusual request made on September 21: Martin wanted her name put on checks being issued to Stranger freelancer Keenan Bowen. It turned out that for almost five months Martin had been secretly writing about music using "Keenan Bowen" as a pseudonym, while also selling music ads. It was a violation of journalism ethics, accomplished with the consent of the music editor, and a problem in the eyes of the paper's managers.
There is no evidence that Martin was a profiteer or even corruptible. In print and on the paper's music blog, she didn't reward bands or clubs that bought ads; nor did she punish those that didn't. (And as an assistant, she didn't work on commission.) It seems Martin just wanted to be a music writer—despite the speech that Stranger director of sales and marketing Marty Griswold gives incoming staffers: If you're angling for a writing job, you've come to the wrong department. Advertising and editorial are separate.
If Martin didn't know she was doing wrong, then she wasn't listening. For their part, Stranger managers, who took three weeks to unravel what was going on and what should be done about it, say they wish they had acted sooner. And Segal, a dedicated journalist with a 23-year history, is not commenting on what caused him to enter into a quiet arrangement that violated the first rule of the profession. (In an e-mail sent to Stranger colleagues, he wrote that he had "made some wrong-headed decisions, for which I am truly sorry.")
The famous divide between the editorial and business sides of a newspaper is real. The people who sell the ads don't write the stories. They don't edit the stories. This is not high-mindedness; it's common sense and a universal practice. At The Stranger, the division between sales and editorial is so ingrained that when editor Dan Savage first heard that Keenan Bowen was actually Bailee Martin, he had never heard of the ad rep from upstairs.
This is the reassuringly simple part of the story—a bald error in judgment, revealed and then, after some time, dealt with.
Trouble is, in the little-regarded and even less understood world of journalism, one blunder drags the entire paper's credibility onto the forum floor. That's not such an easy dodge for The Stranger, a cocky paper that never met a rule it didn't want to break. The obvious next question: Is The Stranger being selective in its stridency, owning up to this mistake while ignoring others? As one commenter on the paper's blog wrote, "Did someone flip a switch at The Stranger? Since when do they give a shit about ethics or any other standards?"
For me, I say: good times. I've only been here 10 months, after almost a decade in strait-laced dailies, and already I've been told by my editor in a dumbfounding meeting that our ad staff is not a freelancer pool. I started asking reporterish questions. In response, Savage essentially made me ombudsman of our cultural journalism (not the news sections) for a week. I interviewed Savage, publisher Tim Keck, sales manager Griswold, and the other cultural editors and writers on staff—Hannah Levin and Megan Seling (music), Christopher Frizzelle (overall arts, books), Annie Wagner (film), Brendan Kiley (theater), David Schmader (food), and Charles Mudede (film, art, books, music).
It's true that The Stranger has long been perceived to be—and probably occasionally has been—in bed with its subjects, and each other, and, well, anyone else who wanted to get into bed. But it has also been overwhelmingly forthcoming with the details of its healthy sex life. When Schmader sings the praises of On the Boards in the Genius Awards section of this issue, he outs himself as a local artist once produced at the theater, (whose support of local artists we're lauding with the award).
I've always known that The Stranger specializes in writing as performance. In my research, I discovered two more things: Sometimes The Stranger pushes back at strictures because they're nothing more than stifling orthodoxies, and sometimes for less noble reasons, including logistics (available personnel being one: Schmader felt uneasy writing the On the Boards profile, for instance, but everyone else was busy). And sometimes, it pushes back simply to add to the dramatic flourish that is the paper's trademark. (When Savage ripped a spoof of one of his own plays in the 1990s, it was blood sport, not a real review.)
The Stranger also makes mistakes. When Mudede was in talks with Northwest Film Forum for sponsorship of his movie Police Beat, he probably shouldn't have been reviewing movies there. (That said, if you've read Mudede, you know he already gets millions in kickbacks from dead German philosophers.) When Wagner was writing about the Northwest Film Forum's pay scale, news editor Josh Feit decided she didn't need to mention that her boyfriend had been fired from there a year earlier. (Wagner suggested the relationship be disclosed in the story, but was overruled by Feit.) That, too, seems like a slip. Readers should be able to expect transparency from The Stranger, and transparency is in fact one of The Stranger's better instincts. The paper's own blog has a "Conflict of Interest" category for entries, where Frizzelle can, for example, plug one of Savage's readings.
The Stranger is unclean, but I don't believe its writers are intentionally deceitful or cliquish, or even particularly quick to let themselves off the hook for missteps. And in cultural journalism, the spotless can be the clueless. It's a matter of having knowledge and access, and grinding professional instead of personal axes. When theater editor Kiley first started writing reviews for The Stranger, he was a resentful low-wage ticket taker at ACT Theatre. He never wrote about ACT or any shows by its directors, and he learned a lot by being inside, but not an insider. Even today, he says he'd hire someone in a similar position.
I was relieved to know there's only one other pseudonym in regular operation at The Stranger these days: Thadius Van Landingham III, a patently absurd name given to a restaurant reviewer with a publicly recognizable face who needs to avoid being given prejudicial service. (Occasionally, the joke pseudonyms Nancy Drew and Jeff Boiardi have been used by the news and food sections, respectively.) Fact is, some violations of journalistic custom make sense, some don't. As discomfiting as it may be, there aren't many rules here beyond that, except those involving ad reps.
There's a reason this alt-weekly prefers to hang out in dangerous gray areas with a joint dangling from its mouth—it's a stance, however adolescent-seeming, that can lead to greater insight. It courts greater punishment, too.