In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Art at Work Month, our 10 in 10 series is spotlighting the best local people, ideas and events of the past decade.
If Tacoma’s culture scene were a bar, it would be Cheers‘ dirty cousin (in a good way), the one that attracts all kinds (let’s be honest), and everybody knows your name. The bartender of that joint, the Buddha of Budweiser, the maestro of mixology making the tastiest, most unpredictable cocktails to keep the scene lubricated would be Ron Swarner, publisher of the Weekly Volcano.
The Volcano is a key player in the city’s cultural life with a weekly print and online readership of 160,000. When the alternative newspaper won a 2007 AMOCAT Award in recognition of its arts patronage, it was cited as “a kind of collective urban diary,” one featuring original voices, “spunky columnists, vivid profiles and sassy commentary on the culture scene.” Furthermore, “When readers climb between the [Volcano's] swanky covers, they find a waking dream of film, theatre, art, fashion, and the best music section in the South Sound as well as the area’s most comprehensive arts and music calendars.” We couldn’t have said it better.
“The first Weekly Volcano hit the streets on Nov. 1, 2001, with the cover story ‘Drive-by Shots,’ a look at local drive-through coffee joints,” recalls Swarner. “Back then, there weren’t many huts. Also, baristas kept their clothes on. It was 12 pages.”
Swarner earned his chops before starting the culture scene’s paper of record. “I’ve been publishing papers since 1985 when the Mac, Photoshop and VHS tapes came out. And I was writing video reviews and hand delivering a monthly, paginated, video newspaper to 100 Tacoma houses while finishing my Econ degree at the University of Washington. I laugh just thinking about it.” Journalism is in his blood – also that of his brother, Ken, who publishes the Ranger and Northwest Airlifter. Though they run the papers separately, technically, he says, they are co-publishers.
We had a few more questions for the veteran newsman.
Tacoma Arts: What do you wear to work?
Ron Swarner: I wear slacks, Robert Graham shirts and often vintage hats. I haven’t worn a tie since the late ’80s.
TA: Do you personally answer your e-mail?
RS: I do personally answer my e-mail – and text messages, social media messages and posted comments on our website and blog. I receive hundreds daily, but I try to get through them by the end of the day. However, my phone message center says 10 messages are in the queue. I’ve never been a huge phone person.
TA: Do you read other newspapers?
RS: I read The News Tribune every day. No one can match their coverage of local city and county news, politics and civic issues. I pick up the Seattle Weekly and Stranger most weeks. And often, the Sunday New York Times. Online, I read Crosscut, Westword, Slate and the Weekly Alibi.
What is the main distinction between the Volcano and the TNT?
RS: The Weekly Volcano is a free, alternative newsweekly that targets younger readers with more emphasis on music and arts coverage, and a freewheeling editorial style compared to the News Tribune. Over the past 10 years we’ve prided ourselves on giving a voice to the voiceless – both in news and culture reporting. And no one else covers the underground culture scene in the South Sound better than we do. We also have more asterisked words than the Tribune.
TA: What do you think is the most underrated vice?
RS: Reckless swearing, especially the swearing practiced by Yosemite Sam. I often pull out a “Ya no account, bushwhackin’ barracuda!” Or, “You rassafrassin’ fur-bearin’ critter!”
TA: Them’s fightin’ words…
TA: What would you say is the most overrated virtue?
RS: I tend to think moderation is overrated….Because I adore writing, hopefully, brilliantly wry little missives about the state of our community – or the deterioration of the MSM Deli sign – on my super-sleek, super-thin titanium MacBook Pro with white doo hickeys while contenting my iPhone and iPad and iGutenberg as I sip a Manhattan created by Dino or Chris or Silvia or Jason, and listen to every song on the planet via Spotify.
TA: How has new technology changed the Volcano’s news coverage over 10 years?
RS: Back in 2001, we published a story but couldn’t easily see how it was consumed and discussed. Today, there are many ways to measure readers, and see the effect of a story in different cities in near real time. Sure, editor Matt Driscoll and his reporters travel the traditional news gathering routes. But they can also be seen as curators of the information contained in a news story. They decide what content, from which sources, and in what order, should be included in the news. We now see ourselves as part of this extended network of South Sounders — the community plays a vital role in news gathering and publishing. They make the product better.
TA: What would you say is the most important arts story you’ve covered in the past decade?
RS: I’m very proud to say we’ve covered Fab-5 from the very beginning of its journey. I remember hanging out with Jason Hulen and crew during the early breakdance sessions at Pacific Lutheran University. The organization makes a huge impact on kids’ lives – especially with its boot camp L.I.F.E. program, and Fabitat on MLK Way – teaching [kids] life skills beyond the hip-hop culture. I’m also honored to have art critic Alec Clayton on the team. Alec has covered the local visual arts scene since the early ’90s for us.
TA: Ron, how do you know when your workday has ended?
RS: Honestly, when my eyes become blurry. I work 15-, 17- and 15-hour days Monday through Wednesday, respectively. Then full days Thursday and Friday, and half-days Saturday and Sunday. Plus, I’m out buzzing around town three nights a week. I’m blessed/cursed with an Energizer Bunny gene.
TA: You’d better get back to work now. Thank you, Ron!
Enjoy past stories in our 10-in-10 Series: