Food & Culture
The 50-year Evolution of Seattle Magazine
A look at the interestingly twisted branches of the 'Seattle' family tree
By Tim Appelo with additional reporting by Eva Seelye November 1, 2016
To understand where Seattle magazine came from 50 years ago, you have to know about the Bullitt media dynasty, founded by Dorothy Bullitt, whose one-armed logger father, C.D. Stimson, built the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. In 1947, Dorothy founded KING Broadcasting, paid her pal Walt Disney $75 to draw its logo and achieved a 30–40 percent annual profit. Her son, Stimson Bullitt, started the original Seattle magazine in 1964.
Confusingly, today’s Seattle magazine descends not from the 1964 Seattle magazine, but from a sibling publication—Pacific Search, the natural science mag founded on a shoestring by Stimson’s sister Harriet Bullitt in 1966. “Stim’s magazine was very courageous,” says Harriet, 92, who now lives at the Leavenworth arts center/resort Sleeping Lady, which she built. Sadly, thin-skinned Seattle was not ready for Stimson’s tough, crusading magazine, a sacred-cow slaughterhouse that lost money and folded in 1970, causing unemployed staffers David Brewster and Gordon Bowker to found, respectively, Seattle Weekly and Starbucks, while its art critic, Tom Robbins, turned to writing novels.
Meanwhile, the subscriber list for Harriet’s Pacific Search had grown from one shoebox full to two. It was hard to grow much more with a volunteer staff, a budget near zero, and content that was restricted to nature, including a mushroom of the month. In an interview with today’s Seattle magazine, Harriet said, “People don’t buy ads in a magazine with a mushroom on the cover.”
So in 1980, she rebranded Pacific Search, adding a paid staff, travel, lifestyle and culture coverage, and a new name: Pacific Northwest. The new title attracted ads and 100,000 readers. In 1982 it became a finalist for the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, the slicks’ equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, an honor no other Seattle publication has ever earned, before or since. Harriet published many well-known writers: Ken Kesey, Tony Angell, Ivan Doig; as well as the first six cartoons by then-unknown Gary Larson. “They sucked,” Larson later recalled in an exclusive interview for Harriet’s magazine, whose $90 check started his career.
In 1987, Harriet sold Pacific Northwest to New Jersey’s Micromedia Corp. Some of her former employees became finalists for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, and Gary Larson sold 45 million books. Harriet won the Audubon Medal (she’s in good company with other winners Rachel Carson, Robert Redford and Jimmy Carter). Micromedia sold the mag to Adams Publishing in 1992, and in 1999, Tiger Oak Publications of Minneapolis turned it into a Seattle magazine for the new century.
Seattle magazine has come a long, circuitous way since 1966. In the next 50 years, we intend to stay lively and live up to the Bullitt legacy. And maybe even go further: As current contributor Langdon Cook’s foraging column proves, you can sell ads with Northwest mushrooms in a rich editorial mix.
Cover Story: Family trees can be knobby and gnarly, and Seattle magazine has some interestingly twisted branches. Here are some of the highlights of its half-century history.
October 1966: Pacific Search founded
Harriett Bullitt, daughter of KING Broadcasting founder Dorothy Bullitt, puts out a 10-page regional science journal—more like a newsletter—penned by local scientists, professors and nature lovers. “We cut the copy with sewing scissors,” she recalls. The cover of its first issue noted it was “for those interested in any or all Pacific Northwest scientific matters.” Pacific Search established a lineage, which—through a series of changes in title, ownership, style voice and mission statement–connect it directly to the Seattle magazine of today.
May 1970: Pacific Search’s covers go color
Going color wasn’t the only thing that changed at Pacific Search this year. The true local vibe of Seattle magazine and its predecessors began here. The stories started to include more on life in the Pacific Northwest and travel rather than just science and nature issues though you could still test your fauna knowledge with “What’s Your Foot I.Q?”
December 1973: Pacific Search goes glossy
By the mid-1970s Pacific Search had transformed into a glossy 40-plus-page publication, a kind of National Geographic for the Northwest. One headline from this issue: “A Year in the Life of a Bog.” And while a lot has changed over the years at Seattle magazine, some issues from the ‘70s still resonate today such as, “Urbanization is the Bane of Salmon,” “Santa Barbara was Bad? Tankers Could Be Worse,” and the ever-present question for western Washington residents: “Quake: Can Our Buildings Take it?”
March 1974: Pacific Search tagline changes From “Journal of Natural Science in the Pacific Northwest” to “About Nature and Man in the Pacific Northwest”
February 1980: Pacific Search becomes Pacific Northwest
With this issue, Pacific Search changed its name to Pacific Northwest (PNW). In an editor’s note, Bullitt mentions that, in addition to its science and nature coverage, the newly titled magazine will begin covering art, travel, history, home projects, politics and city living (we smell a modern-day city magazine in the making)
This cover story, about federal and state funding cuts at the University of Washington, shows PNW veering from nature to edgier and newsier topics.
By the mid-’80s PNW was starting to look and read like the regional publication Seattle magazine is today. It’s worth noting that science and nature features are all but gone from this issue. Another sign of the times? Editor Peter Potterfield revealed in an editor’s note that PNW’s most popular sections are food and lodging, travel and the city.
Pacific Northwest sold to New Jersey-based Micromedia Affiliates
Seattle Home and Garden emerged as an additional title in PNW family to capitalize on a booming home furnishings industry as well as Seattle’s healthy housing market.
The last issue of Seattle Home and Garden.
Seattle Home and Garden becomes Greater Seattle
Micromedia corporation sells the magazine to Adams Publishing of the Pacific Northwest.
Greater Seattle becomes Seattle (absorbing Pacific Northwest magazine).
July 1999: Seattle magazine purchased by Tiger Oak Publications (current owner)
Seattle changed ownership again when it was purchased by the Minneapolis-based publisher specializing in high quality regional titles and custom publishing. Tiger Oak had successfully launched Seattle Bride magazine in fall of 1998. This fully redesigned and reimagined issue rebooted Seattle magazine as the city’s premier city magazine. This era of Seattle magazine features a balanced mix of lifestyle stories alongside in-depth articles on more hard-hitting issues affecting our city.
June 2000: An industry is born
Seattle magazine chronicles the impact that region-defining events and issues have on our city, such as the boom, bomb, and eventually re-booming of the dot-com industry.
February 2006: 40th Anniversary!
Seattle magazine celebrates its 40th anniversary, tapping luminaries and Seattle notables such as Tom Robbins, Gary Locke, Charlie Cross and others to reflect on the 40 people, moments and movements that shaped today’s Seattle.
March 2006—Called it!
Though Seattle ultimately weathered the national real estate crisis better than the rest of the country, the magazine questioned whether the real estate bubble would burst.
When Paul Allen launched the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle mag snagged a coveted interview with the billionaire and put him on the cover.
October 2010: The Coffee Issue
The “fourth wave” of coffee (single origin bean brewing) provides inspiration to finally take a deep dive into our signature coffee culture.
Seattle magazine celebrated our resident nerds with this issue that captured the unique mashup of Seattle’s creative and tech class.
February 2012 Seattle magazine is official magazine partner for the Space Needle’s 50th anniversary celebration.
November 2013: The Year of Macklemore
“Celebrities don’t sell” is contrary to what most people might think is a truth for city magazines. The exception was this top-selling issue’s cover featuring the then white-hot local rapper.
MAY 2015: Glamping!
Camping (albeit luxury camping) was our best seller in recent years by a long shot proving Harriet’s initial ideas to celebrate our natural environment is far from dead.
November 2016: 50th Anniversary Issue
Seattle magazine celebrates its golden anniversary with the cover feature: “50 Things Seattle Has Given the World”
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1964–1970: That OTHER Seattle magazine
While New York magazine was making Tom Wolfe famous, Stimson Bullitt’s Seattle magazine was making Tom Robbins famous. When the ’60s version of Seattle covered mushrooms, the fungi were hallucinogenic, and Robbins wrote of his experience eating them, “Some say we were poisoned. I say we were entertained.”