News: Balls vs. Brains

Dan Savage on 'Savage Love'

Many considered Savage Love CityBeat's edgiest weekly feature. The syndicated sex column written by Dan Savage was often the first thing many readers turned to when picking up the paper.

For four years John Fox, co-publisher and editor of CityBeat, fought off complaints from advertisers who thought the column was too sexually brazen in content.

For over a year now, Savage Love has been relegated to the CityBeat Web site only.

In an editorial about the change, Fox said the purpose of his decision to move the column to the Web was to help boost advertising for the print edition and to relieve pressure on the paper's distribution outlets (see "The Savage Truth, issue of Aug. 20-26, 2003). Fox also wrote that Citizens for Community Values had launched a complaint campaign, focusing on major distribution points for CityBeat, seeking to have the paper removed.

Most of the staff at the paper disagreed with Fox's decision. Letters from outraged readers poured in, demanding that "Savage Love" be put back into the paper. Readers and employees alike felt like CityBeat had caved in to conservative forces — that the paper no longer had "balls." Now a year later, the column it's still available only on the CityBeat Web page.

During a recent interview with Savage in Seattle, he said he's torn about that decision.

"I don't want to see a paper punished for running my column and I don't want to see a paper punished for not running it, but I would like to be back," he said. "I want to be in papers. I think having the column on the Web only is sort of a nervous compromise."

Savage is editor and co-publisher of The Stranger, an alternative weekly in Seattle. Like Fox, he'd had to make business decisions that have proven unpopular with readers.

"I never think my column should have been pulled from any paper, but it has," he said. "But as the editor of The Stranger, I recognize the right of other editors or publishers to make their own decisions. You know, here we move things, cut things, have people screaming at us just like you guys do. Papers are businesses and I don't think a paper should have to go out of business just to have my column in it. I don't think going out of business proves you have balls. It proves you have no brains."

While moving "Savage Love" to the Web site has improved CityBeat's revenue, it hasn't pleased all its advertisers. For example, the owner of a restaurant in Clifton cancelled his advertising contract after the sex column had been pulled from the print edition.

"Well, God bless the burrito place for standing up and defending my honor," Savage said. "But that's a good sign, you know? That's what you want. He takes your paper seriously and he'll come around.

"I think if it were up to the people at CityBeat, I would still be in the paper," Savage said. "But it's not ultimately just up to them. There are marketing considerations, editorial considerations and advertising considerations. You have to think in the long-term best interest of the paper. I know CityBeat wants to get bigger and to thrive and not be stuck with pitchforks in both butt cheeks."

CityBeat isn't the first alternative weekly to carry "Savage Love" only on the Web. In fact, many papers consider it just too hot to touch.

"When you look at 'Savage Love' on the map, when you look at all the papers who have it, it looks like a big upside down U," Savage said. "It goes up the West Coast across all of Canada, across the Midwest, then it goes down the East Coast. There's this huge blank spot in the middle of the country."

Despite the controversy over his sex column and getting booted from some alternatives, Savage enjoys writing it. He's been at it now for more than 13 years.

"I wrote it for the first couple years thinking it was just a lark and a joke, but it's kind of taken over my life," he said. "It doesn't feel like a joke anymore and the mail just pours in. I get about 5,000 letters a week. One of the biggest parts of my job is just keeping up with the mail, and I read all of it."

The end is not in sight for "Savage Love."

"I'm like Ann Landers," he said. "It will have to be taken from my cold, dead hands one day. I can't imagine stopping. It's too much fun to write." ©