A newspaper veteran since middle school, Richard Meeker was a founding reporter at Willamette Week in 1974, becoming the Pulitzer-winning Portland alt-weekly’s editor in 1977 and, in 1983, publisher as co-owner with Mark Zusman. The two own another weekly, The Santa Fe Reporter. They bought The Independent Weekly from Steve Schewel in 2012, rebranding as INDY Week, expanding into glossy magazines such as Finder, and keeping the paper alive through trying times.
A few years ago, Meeker became the sole owner of the INDY, but now a new business partner is coming in: The Assembly, a subscriber-based website for long-form reporting on North Carolina, is taking over management of the INDY’s operations. We spoke with Meeker about his history with the paper, the details of the sale, and how the fate of alt-weeklies, agile entities with ample audiences, might not be as gloomy as you hear.
INDY: Take me back to why you wanted to buy the INDY in the first place.
RICHARD MEEKER: I have long-standing connections to North Carolina. When I was 21 years old, I was a teacher on Ocracoke Island. After that, every year I’d go back, in part to check in on my students, and to get to Ocracoke, you need to go through Raleigh, where I would visit my brother [former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker]. I also knew Steve Schewel and talked to him at length about suggestions for what he might do with the INDY. In 2012, after about five years of that, he turned the tables and offered to sell.
How were you thinking about the health and prospects of the alt-weekly model when you took on another paper?
Well, unlike daily newspapers, which have only become an economic challenge more recently, the alternative weekly model for most of the last 50 years, since all this began, has almost always been a challenging one. I’m an absolute heathen, but [journalism] is my religion. My view is that especially at the INDY, it’s just an incredible privilege to work on something where the goal is so much larger than yourself. If it had been some other community, the answer probably would have been no, because I wouldn’t have had the personal ties I had to Raleigh and the Triangle.
So it was less a vision of being able to fix the alt-weekly model and more a sense of civic duty?
Anybody in our business who cares about journalism does not see it as an opportunity to make a lot of money. But in the last 10 and a half years, we’ve had the chance to grow the INDY’s audience by a tremendous amount on the website and with our newsletters. And we have also developed a Press Club, which is a new and very strong form of support. You’re aware of the challenges we’ve faced, but the INDY is a stable operation, and it has more audience than it’s ever had while continuing to produce essential journalism.
At this point, we often talk about the Great Newspaper Collapse in a general way, like the Great Depression. Do you have any specific insights on how it played out at the INDY and your other papers?
I think you need to separate daily newspapers from weekly newspapers. Daily newspapers operated as incredible cash-cow operations and slowly but surely got bought up by conglomerates. And they really did miss the digital age. The business model was that the cover or subscription price basically paid for the delivery; the display advertising paid for the production, content, and manufacture; and classified advertising was the profit. Daily newspapers just never anticipated Craigslist. That decimated their classified businesses, and they have been in a spiral of disinvestment ever since, because they’re committed to making a fixed amount of profit every year.
Weeklies are very different. Obviously, Craigslist did the same thing to our classifieds. But weeklies are a little more nimble. We also have done better on the internet than dailies have, I think. Having a free website for the INDY is very important. There is plenty of room going forward for weeklies, and it comes in part from reader support, which is essential to the INDY’s continuation and is a good thing.
What stands out as your proudest moments so far?
First, the INDY’s coverage of city council meetings and the affairs of the city in Durham and Raleigh—coupled with deeply researched political endorsements—has been really important. Number two, some of my favorite INDY stories over the past decade were the ones about the environmental horrors of eastern North Carolina’s hog farms. And number three, setting the tone for dealing with House Bill 2—the INDY really played a part in that, and I particularly remember the great article Barry Yeoman wrote on the subject.
What can you tell me about the new arrangement with The Assembly?
Kyle Villemain and his team will be overseeing the INDY so that there will be a local operator. Jane [Porter] will remain the editor. John [Hurld] will remain the publisher. The goal is that over time, The Assembly will acquire INDY.
I have been looking for years—since well before the pandemic—to find a good, sound, local operator for the INDY. I think the idea that a 74-year-old white guy in Portland owns the INDY is nuts. During my many decades in this business, it has become increasingly apparent that local, independent journalism is essential. And if you want to have effective local, independent journalism, there need to be local, independent operators—operators who are deeply committed to producing journalism that helps their readers navigate this increasingly complex world while, at the same time, holding powerful institutions and figures to account. That may seem obvious, but it’s not all that easy to achieve.
Over the two years Kyle has run The Assembly, he has grown it to become an exceedingly valuable source of long-form journalism. It’s based on a different model, all digital and behind a paywall. I expect The Assembly and the INDY to complement each other in ways that will be good for the Triangle and for North Carolina.
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