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Paper gets some good news

A venerable alternative weekly invests in the upstart Portland Mercury

The Chicago Reader has invested more than $1 million in the Portland Mercury, giving the alternative weekly greater leverage in its duel with Willamette Week.

The cash infusion gives the respected 31-year-old Chicago newspaper 15 percent ownership in the Stranger, the weekly Seattle paper that is the Mercury's parent company.

Tim Keck, who owns the Stranger, 'was looking for a little more cash to do the things he wanted to do,' said Jane Levine, who is publisher of the Reader and worked at another Northwest paper, Seattle Weekly, for eight years.

'It was just a good opportunity for us. Tim, Rob and Dan Savage have done some great things in an industry that's supposed to be new,' Levine said, referring to Keck, Mercury Publisher Rob Crocker, and the author of the syndicated 'Savage Love' advice column.

The owners of the Chicago Reader also own Washington, D.C.'s City Paper.

Willamette Week Editor Mark Zusman said the Mercury has not been a threat to his paper's advertising base.

'I'm sure it's a relief to Tim, who has been shopping his paper around for a while,' he said, adding that it also may be 'a relief to free-lancers' who have had their rates cut recently.

Keck, who also founded the satirical newspaper The Onion, could not be reached for comment.

The Mercury and Stranger's parent company will take on the new name of Index Newspapers, but management of the two papers will remain the same.

The Mercury will use the money to add more news boxes and expand its metro circulation from 30,000 to 40,000.

With its typically shocking Ñ sometimes crude Ñ front page and irreverent stories on topics from earthy Hawthorne Boulevard residents to 'Spider-Man,' the Portland weekly has been able to capture some of the elusive 18- to 25-year-old readership beloved by advertisers.

Until now, the 2-year-old Mercury's operations have been subsidized by profits from the Stranger. The Mercury's ad revenues have been growing at a rate of 32 percent a year, Crocker said. The paper has nabbed ads for Balance Bar and Camel cigarettes. The Stranger, meanwhile, had its most profitable quarter ever in the first three months of 2002, he said.

'Our competition is weaker than ever,' Crocker said.

Zusman said his 85,000-circulation Willamette Week saw a dip in advertising after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but since January has been ahead of budget.

The Mercury began trading barbs with Willamette Week even before it started publishing.

Willamette Week Publisher Richard Meeker tried to beat the Mercury staff to registering the paper's name, a revival of a Portland newspaper that last was published in the 1870s.

Sales staffs of both papers have accused each other of underhanded methods. Last December, the Mercury filed a complaint of unfair practices with the state attorney general's office. The complaint is still under review.

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