LAST WEEK, New York real state and pet food billionaire Leonard Stern put his $80 million chain of seven alternative weeklies -- which includes not only the famous Village Voice, but Seattle Weekly -- up for sale.

The harsh news came to staffers last Wednesday morning via e-mail from Stern President David Schneiderman, which sounded more like a sales pitch than a reassurance. "The company is extremely attractive and we expect a considerable number of qualified suitors," he wrote. "I will tell them this: Stern Publishing is poised to be the leading national media company for young adults."

Neither Weekly Publisher Mike Crystal nor Editor Knute "Skip" Berger would comment for the record, but word of the pending sale must have hit hard. The Weekly chose Stern Publishing, when it went up for sale just two and a half years ago, over other buyers in part because the company said it believed in the paper's autonomy and supported the Weekly's offshoot publication, Eastside Week. Not long after the purchase, however, Stern closed Eastside Week (the idea was to increase the circulation of Seattle Weekly to 150,000 by the end of '98 by distributing it on the Eastside; according to Verified Audit, the number hovers around 99,000). Now the paper has little or no say in who its new owners will be. Weekly founder David Brewster, who left the paper after selling it to Stern, says, "The sense is the decision is being made in New York, and [Stern will] tell you who your next boss is."

Despite the uncertainty, staffers at the 23-year-old paper say Crystal and Berger were "upbeat" when they held an all-staff meeting on Wednesday. "Basically, they felt like we've done a good job upping the circulation, and that we have a lot to offer a potential suitor," says Weekly political columnist Geov Parrish. "If you were going to have an alternative weekly chain sell to a mainstream conglomerate, this would be the one. It's a great demographic. The bottom line is, it's a profitable media company, and profits attract big companies." Parrish has apparently forgotten his recent cover story bashing the corporate mindset of the World Trade Organization.

Schneiderman declined to comment for this story, but press releases say Stern Publishing is taking bids through its banker, Veronis, Suhler & Associates, and expects to announce a sale by the end of the year. Given the estimated fetching price of Stern's holdings -- between $150 to $250 million -- and its apparent determination to sell the papers as a package, the buyer is likely to be a large media company, which worries Brewster: "I have a sinking sensation that someone who can pay that kind of money is not going to be particularly committed to independent journalism."

If Stern opts to split the papers, one or more could go to rival alternative weekly chain New Times. More likely suitors include daily newspaper publishing companies like $3.2 billion Times-Mirror and $3 billion Knight-Ridder. Offers may also come from new media companies like Barry Diller's $2.6 billion USA Networks, Inc., which owns the Home Shopping Network and undoubtedly realizes what a boon it would be to combine alternative weekly content with its other asset, Ticketmaster-Online City Search.

"None of this is particularly good news for the alternative press," says Patty Calhoun, president of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) and longtime editor of Denver's Westword, which is owned by New Times. "The alternative press has always defined itself by being suspicious of people in power -- afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Suddenly, we are being eyed as a big, juicy plum by the very comfortable."

Indeed, in an era of wild media consolidation -- sparked by new, more lax federal rules governing media ownership and symbolized by this month's $37 billion Viacom-CBS merger -- the media is increasingly being whittled down to fewer and fewer corporate chieftains. Now it looks as if the alternative media is about to get vacuumed up into the same mainstream dustbin. Richard Karpel, Executive Director of AAN, says the Times-Mirror chain "sent shudders through the industry" last spring, when it bought up a few New England weeklies. Times-Mirror now owns both the daily paper and the alternative paper in Hartford, Connecticut. "We probably would have kicked them out [of AAN] if it had been a simple majority vote," Karpel says, "but we needed a super majority of the Association to do that. There weren't enough members at the '99 convention to do that."

With the gate open for another large corporate player to buy its way into the alternative press, Karpel may eventually have to consider booting even more papers. "It's hard to view [the Stern announcement] as a good thing," he says. "Large mainstream media organizations have a whole corporate culture that they'll stick the papers into."