Brewster, David Clark (b. 1939)

  • By Don Glickstein
  • Posted 5/10/2024
  • Essay 22976
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David Clark Brewster (b. 1939) is a journalist and serial civic entrepreneur whose voice and creations have influenced Northwest culture and politics for more than six decades. He came to Seattle in his mid-20s to teach English literature at the University of Washington. By his mid-80s, he had helped found an influential weekly newspaper, a pub, chamber-music group, the Northwest’s preeminent guidebook, a publishing house, private library, two online news journals, and Town Hall Seattle. As an editor, he nurtured prominent journalists. As an opinion leader, his voice influenced City Hall. In 2005, he received a Mayor’s Arts Award for being a cultural catalyst.

Before Seattle

While Brewster was born on September 26, 1939 in Newark, New Jersey, his family lived in Livingston, about 17 miles west of New York City. He grew up in Bernardsville, then a town of about 3,500 people about 30 miles west of Manhattan. Both towns were named after eighteenth-century New Jersey governors – a fitting historical context for Brewster, a direct descendent of William Brewster, the Pilgrims’ religious leader and, before the Mayflower sailed, a publisher in Holland. David’s father grew up in Nebraska, working in management for Radio Corporation of America (later, RCA Corp.), a dominant twentieth-century electronics company. (It was later broken up, and its components became part of Comcast, Sony, General Electric, and others.) He eventually moved to New Jersey, where RCA was headquartered. Brewster’s mother was a secretary and homemaker.

As a child, David was an extrovert with many friends. His mother remembered that he’d sit on a sidewalk curb interviewing passersby. As a teen, he worked for the high school newspaper. When he was a senior, he interned at the local weekly paper and learned from a classic "cigar-chewing editor" (Brewster interview with author). Brewster went to Yale University, where he received a bachelors degree (1961) and a masters degree (1963) in English. He married Joyce Skaggs, a Smith College alumna, in 1964. The next year, he received three job offers: from Case Western University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington. He took the UW job as an acting assistant English professor. Meanwhile, he had completed his PhD studies, but never finished his dissertation to get the degree. A PhD would lead to a university professorship, but he concluded that he didn’t want an academic career. He thought most of his English Department colleagues were unhappy, and he was less interested in researching literature than in politics, economics, and the world outside of academia.

Journalism Career

Journalism seemed more relevant. He left the UW in 1968 when The Seattle Times hired him as a copy editor and writer. His first bylined story, that August, was about plans for a new Federal Way high school. In ensuing months, he’d report about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; a rock festival in Sultan; and protests at a predominantly Black school. He wrote book reviews about Henry Fielding, George Eliot, and Theodore Roethke, among others; an essay about campus militants; and an analysis of students appointed to college boards of trustees.

His tenure at the Times was short, because at the end of 1968, Seattle magazine offered him its associate editorship. The magazine was more than a coffee-table lifestyle journal; it didn’t hesitate to attacked entrenched institutions. Brewster led one of the attacks. He wrote a lengthy critique in 1970 of a city-hired, business-oriented consultant’s plan for the waterfront. He criticized the plan’s failure to connect the waterfront with downtown, and its general lack of imagination. Because of the critique, Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) named Brewster to a related citizens' task force. The criticisms stalled the original plan, and waterfront modifications over ensuing years were piecemeal. In 2012, a new plan came out that combined a new park with the tear-down of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a safety hazard. As the new waterfront park was being completed in 2024, Brewster remained a critic. He said there were too many compromises needed to fund the project and appease special interests. Because of the road’s width, for example, it’s less of a park than a parkway, he said. It is focused mostly on tourists, and it fails to fully link downtown to the waterfront, he said. 

Brewster stayed about two years at the magazine before it folded. Its parent company, KING-TV, hired him as an assignment editor. There, Brewster met reporter and future mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939), one month older than Brewster. The station was known for tough reporting, but the industry was changing, and TV news was starting to focus on what Royer called "happy-talk personality" (Chesley). Brewster got antsy as an assignment editor: He missed writing.

His new opportunity came in 1972 when he was hired as managing editor of The Argus, a weekly Seattle newspaper founded in 1894. Over its 110-year existence, its politics ranged from progressive (public ownership of utilities) to regressive (opposition to women’s suffrage). When Brewster’s tenure began, he didn’t know that the paper had begun a long financial death spiral that would end in 1983, with all of 900 paid subscribers. From Brewster’s perspective, The Argus became an opportunity to become more active in the community and use journalism as a tool for civic change. He would lead a panel discussion about the Seattle school-levy process; debate a union official who wanted to recall Uhlman (he survived); speak out in favor of energy conservation, historic preservation, and the environment; and endorse a moderate Republican, Tim Hill (b. 1936), for Seattle City Council (he won). In 1975, a Seattle Times columnist recognized Brewster as a leading "urban critic" ("Odd Parcels").

That year, Brewster almost left Seattle. His wife Joyce got a job offer in Boston. The couple traveled there to see what kind of future they might have on the East Coast, where they had originally planned to end up. They determined that the job outlook for David didn’t look promising, they had two young daughters, Kate and Anne, they didn’t want to disrupt, and they decided to stay in Seattle. It was, he said, "a key moment, so I really committed myself to making a rich life here." It helped that Seattle politics was positive, and the city was undergoing a renaissance. The Boston "temptation" became a Seattle "commitment" (Brewster interview). Joyce went on to work as a writer at the University of Washington and teach English at Seattle University. Kate and Anne both became teachers.

The Weekly

Brewster left The Argus in 1976 after persuading investors to back a new weekly paper, called, appropriately, The Weekly. (Its name later changed to The Seattle Weekly.) Brewster would be publisher and editor.

It was the model for many of Brewster’s future endeavors: Articulate a vision, fill a civic need, and ask rich people to help fund it. Brewster never minded asking people for money. "The value of asking is you can have a deep discussion," he said. "I always liked that" (Brewster interview). He’d find an initial backer or two, then use their names to prime the pump. Another key was to assemble a pool of investors, so no one person would dominate. Almost all his ventures began undercapitalized, but his philosophy was "get it started, and others will show up" (Brewster interview). Brewster persuaded investors that Seattle needed a progressive, but mainstream, alternative to the city’s two daily newspapers. It targeted young professionals in their 30s, what Brewster later called "Bohemian boomers" (Brewster interview). He resisted making the paper free because he felt free would devalue the publication – just as major publications today combat devaluation with subscription firewalls on the Web. His resistance lasted until 1995.

The Weekly was a reader success, although for its backers, it was a long-term capital investment, not a income investment. Still, it was solvent. "I learned to take the business part of publishing seriously to make sure there are some stories in favor of the home team along with the critical pieces," he said. "And to have 500 smaller advertisers rather than be dependent on five major advertisers" ("518 Weekys Later ..."). For 21 years, until 1997, the paper gave Brewster a pulpit for promoting civic projects – but not before he fired its first managing editor. They clashed over the mix of hard news and lifestyle stories. Brewster wanted the softer, broader approach. "The chemistry was wrong," he said ("Liberal Journalism is Still Alive ...").

Brewster’s goal was to maintain high standards, hire interesting writers, and be maverick and anti-establishment. His model, he said, was Portland’s Willamette Week, which preceded The Weekly’s start-up by a couple of years.

By 1984, he had become a proverbial mover and shaker. The Seattle Times editors put it this way: "You can hardly move in Seattle without encountering a Brewster product in one form or another." Brewster, they said, is "a character of great ambition, perhaps pretension, who has built, through mostly controversial means, his own soapbox to try to shape the nature of the city we live in" ("Our Weekly Wash"). He helped lead the unsuccessful opposition to a joint operating agreement between the Times and the failing Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He called such agreements "one of the worst menaces confronting the American press ... It stifles competition, embalms failing papers rather than letting vigorous new ones replace them, acts to encourage publishers to 'fail,' and is a threat to the precious American tradition of an arm’s length relationship between press and government" ("Why Times, P-I Plan Isn't In Public Interest").

Instead of endorsing his former KING-TV colleague, Royer, for mayor in 1977, Brewster supported his opponent, Paul Schell (1937-2014). Once Royer was in office, Brewster was a frequent critic. This mattered because Royer’s 12-year tenure as mayor was concurrent with Brewster’s time at The Weekly. Brewster, the mayor said, "managed to write about the trials and tribulations of the Royer administration for 11 years without ever talking to me" ("The Royer Years"). 

Brewster endorsed Republican Dan Evans (b. 1925) over Democrat Mike Lowry (1939-2017) for the Senate. Evans won. (Brewster said he’s been a moderate Democrat all his life, one who believes in compromise and broadening the base. But he’s also a "contrarian") (Brewster interview). 

He helped lead the unsuccessful opposition to what became the multiuse Westlake Center. He lectured on KUOW radio about Seattle’s past and future achievements, prospects, and problems. Once, Brewster led a tour to England. He edited a book that profiled prominent Washington residents. One reviewer panned it as "about things you already know, about people you already knew, from reprints of stories you've already read" ("Won't Be Long Before Brewster ..."). 

His music interests focused on the classical. He served on the Seattle Symphony board, worked with the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, and helped found the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. In 1982, he founded Seattle Camerata, a chamber-music ensemble that played in intimate settings. It was based on a similar group in Los Angeles. That The Weekly, the Camerata, and other projects were inspired by organizations elsewhere was no coincidence. Brewster described himself as "an importer of good ideas from other cities that can fit in Seattle" (Brewster interview).

A local publisher suggested to Brewster in 1974 that he put together a guidebook of the Northwest’s best places, which began as a collection of restaurant reviews. National guidebook publications existed, but Brewster and his investors didn’t think the national perspective did justice to the topic. The result was the creation of Sasquatch Publishing (now Sasquatch Books) and the Northwest Best Places guidebook in 1975, with later volumes for Seattle, British Columbia, Portland, Northern California, and Vancouver.

Mark Matassa, a reporter and editor at both The Seattle Times and Seattle P-I, included Brewster in his 1995 article of 100 influential people in the region. His highest praise was for the guidebooks, which "are appreciated by visitor and native alike" ("100 People of Influence").

A different venture that Brewster pulled together with investors was a downtown Seattle bar. The Mark Tobey Pub, named after a one-time Seattle painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976). The pub, opened in 1983, was the opposite of a dimly lit saloon. Brewster intended it to jumpstart conversations, "perhaps a place for soothing over City Hall differences like between the Royer Gang and the Schell gang, and sometimes a beer can help" ("Brewster Designs a Watering Hole"). Emmett Watson, a widely read local columnist for more than 50 years, said if Brewster had lived in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, he would have found investors to buy a tavern. "'This tavern,' he then would explain happily, 'gives our founding fathers-to-be a place where they can plot an alternative lifestyle free of George III'" ("Church Becomes a Pulpit ..."). The pub closed in 1987; it hadn’t been profitable.

Brewster created a different version of The Weekly in 1990: the Eastside Week, which one commentator said "shook up and cast light on Seattle suburbia" ("Seattle's Idea Man ...").

By 1997, Brewster was ready to move on from his newspaper. Some of its investors were nearing retirement and wanted to cash out. There was fierce competition from The Stranger, another weekly that targeted a younger audience and was more political than reportorial, Brewster said years later. Its formula wasn’t complicated: It never trusted anyone over 30, and it essentially published a "humor magazine" (Brewster interview). Moreover, The Stranger had diversified into tickets, film festivals, and syndicated columns. "I lost," Brewster said (Brewster interview). In 2024, Seattle Weekly and The Stranger both still published online only, their print editions a memory.

Brewster sold The Weekly to Stern Publishing, parent of the Village Voice, in April 1997. "This is the appropriate time to pass ownership to a professional group with the resources and experience to push us to still-higher levels," he said at the time. "It's a great match, a great outcome for our owners, our staff, and city" ("Seattle Weekly Being Sold ...")

Mindy Cameron, the Times editorial-page editor, hired Brewster that year as a columnist. In introducing him, she summed up his years at The Weekly: "Someone once labeled him a curmudgeon, but that doesn’t quite fit. Iconoclast comes close, but misses the mark, too. Forget labels. What Brewster does is peel away the slick veneer of conventional wisdom and challenge readers to fresh thinking about the city he loves." He had "needled, irritated, and inspired the community" ("Has the Women's Vote ..."). 

Looking back, Brewster said the one big mistake he had made was selling The Weekly to nonlocal owners, whose conglomerate eventually fell apart. (The Village Voice stopped publishing in 2017 after 62 years. It exists online.)

Town Hall

Brewster ended his occasional Seattle Times column after a three-year run in 2000. His topics ran the gamut: a critique of newly opened Experience Music Project (now, the Museum of Pop Culture); legislative funding of the University of Washington; presidential lies; panning the arboretum master plan; public library expansion; design of the new city hall; suggestions for improving mediocre media; ideas for saving threatened cultural institutions; and chiding leaders for failing to address the affordable housing crisis of 2000.

He was doing more than writing, however. Although the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera had their own performance halls, smaller music groups rented what was available. Brewster thought that those groups would enjoy sharing a home of their own.

Between 1991 and 1997, Brewster and a new investor group approached the congregation of the Christian Science church on First Hill about selling their historic 1923 building. The congregation wasn’t sure it wanted to sell, and rejected Brewster’s six offers over those years before Brewster finally secured an option to buy. In 1997, the congregation sold its home to Historic Seattle, which saves and repurposes historic buildings, and in 1998, Historic Seattle sold the building to Brewster’s group for $1.6 million. Brewster became executive director of what became the nonprofit Town Hall Seattle.

The organization’s concept was imported from New York’s 92nd Street Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), Brewster said. Now known as the 92n Street Y, it evolved from a religious social club to a place where people "connect through culture, arts, entertainment and conversation." (92nd Street Y). Not coincidentally, Town Hall Seattle’s mission is foster "an engaged community through civic, arts, and educational programs" (Town Hall Seattle). In announcing its creation in 1998, Brewster called it a "student union for adults" that would both save an "architectural treasure" and provide a home for "music and the music of ideas" ("Concert Hall to Replace Historic City Church"). As it evolved, Town Hall welcomed children’s events and cultural programs far beyond music. Its first event, in April 1999, was a two-hour discussion about Kosovo, then in the throes of a bloody war. About 460 people attended: "graying peaceniks, unbending rightists, unreconstructed leftists, and devoted humanitarians" ("Debate Hot ...").

Since then, it has hosted political debates, concerts, scientists, historians, novelists, poets, philosophers, economists, environmentalists, and even a self-described sociopath. In 2005, in large part because of his Town Hall efforts, Brewster received a Mayor’s Arts Award for being a "cultural catalyst," and the Municipal League honored him as citizen of the year. That same year, at 66, he resigned as executive director to start a new venture.

Crosscut, Folio, Post Alley

As the Web ascended in the early twenty-first century as a prime medium, taking with it advertisers and readers, print newspapers declined precipitously, of which the print editions of the Seattle P-I, The Weekly, and The Stranger were local casualties.

Brewster, again with financing from civic-minded investors, began his own online newspaper in 2007: Crosscut. He was concerned not just about the reduced competition for The Seattle Times and TV stations, but about "the growing fatalism of Seattle journalism" and the lack of "constructive journalism" that looks for solutions, not just problems ("Weekly's Founding Editor ..."). He intended Crosscut to be a for-profit venture, but after 18 months, he converted it to a nonprofit. "I'm very optimistic about this nonprofit model as a way out of the trap" of needing to rely on ads, he said. Although it wouldn’t turn ads away, Crosscut as a nonprofit could also receive tax-deductible donations and grants ("As Online Ads Slow ..."). 

Crosscut continued the kind of journalism Brewster liked, featuring strong writers with strong opinions about local issues. By 2015, however, Crosscut was running out of money and steam, and down to five employees, Brewster said. He arranged a merger of Crosscut with public TV station KCTS-9. The combined entity became Cascade Public Media, with more resources, more staff, and mixed-media collaboration. Brewster called it "one of the (rare) success stories in local media" (Brewster, "Media Merger ..."). Crosscut was renamed Cascade PBS.

Brewster ended his tenure at Cascade/Crosscut in 2019, but it hadn’t been a monogamous relationship. In 2014, he had founded the nonprofit Folio: Seattle Athenaeum, a private library open to anyone willing to subscribe. (In 2024, individual subscriptions were $150 a year, half that for students.) "We have the advantage of intimacy and homogeneity," Brewster said. "Libraries are increasingly community centers, with a not-so-intense focus on the book. We’re trying to create something that is really book-centered" ("Subscription Library ..."). Subscription libraries weren’t a new concept. The oldest in the U.S. was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1732.

Folio moved from its original space in the downtown YMCA to Pike Place Market in 2018. A year later, Brewster stepped down as its president. That year, he began another online publication, Post Alley. Although it had a donor, not investor, fronting the website costs, Post Alley is a writers’ collective, and the 55 writers (in 2024) contribute their time, writing, and editing. The site is "aimed at helping fill gaps in local journalism and exploring new ways of delivering quality reporting and commentary. It taps an extensive talent pool of 'displaced journalists,' experts and informed citizens – many of whom lack ready platforms for their work" ("About Post Alley"). As a co-managing editor, Brewster and his colleagues coach young writers and meet weekly in what they call a "loosely organized newsroom where stories can be surfaced and debated." The top goal is to "raise the bar, have fun, give voice and companionship to experienced writers, challenge the monoculture of Seattle media, bottle the eclectic ferment of modern Seattle, and create a site that attracts some of the best writers and thinkers" ("About Post Alley").

Post Alley writers are a who-was-who of Seattle journalism: alumni from the Times and P-I including Joel Connelly, Dick Lilly, Art Thiel, and Mindy Cameron; journalists and former City Council members Jean Godden and Nick Licata; Peabody Award–winning producer Barry Mitzman, bookstore owner Peter Miller; KING broadcaster Mike James; and former Republican Party chair-turned-independent Chris Vance. As for Brewster, in 2024’s first four months, he wrote about the Eastside arts scene; questioned whether Seattle was growing too fast; the Seattle Symphony’s search for a new music director; redesigning Seattle Center; President Joe Biden’s foreign policy; a history of how Crosscut became Cascade PBS; the state of newspaper ownership; and leadership turnover in arts groups.

The future

At age 84, Brewster still had a bucket list.

Borrowing from the New York Institute of the Humanities, he wanted to assemble get-togethers of artists and leading intellectuals for "discourse." With a seeming turn of city government from identity politics to more of a civic revival, he wanted to encourage younger people to participate in a more traditional good-government orientation that valued compromise and reform. He also was working with the arts community, exploring how they could present in "microform," with smaller spaces and lower overhead (Brewster interview).

He was optimistic about the media, while observing that they’re in a period of "creative destruction." Peoples’ appetite for news and writing about it won’t go away, he said. He didn’t know what the ultimate formula would be for broad-based trusted journalism, but he was willing to "give it some time." It’s a period of experimentation, and the "cacophony of voices" is democratic and healthy, he said "(Brewster interview). He was less optimistic about Seattle’s future. Being a "compassionate and virtuous" city, Seattle bet on human services at the expense of infrastructure and making the city function and function safely. The future, he guessed, would be a series of high-security enclaves: Pike Place Market flooded with tourists and security, and people living in high-security neighborhoods like Broadmoor (Brewster interview).

"The fundamental problem is an absence of leaders," a series of weak mayors, no real leader in business, no leader in urban design, he said. "Seattle is averse to leaders" because it associates them with strong-armed politicians like Chicago’s late Mayor Richard J. Daley, and New York’s nineteenth-century Boss Tweed. "We don’t teach civic history" – working together and compromising for the greater good. It was an approach Seattle enjoyed in the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century and in the 1960s, when leaders like Jim Ellis persuaded voters to approve the clean-up of Lake Washington, a regional transit agency, and the lidding of I-5 (Brewster interview). Seattle, he said, is "pretty resistant to change and pretty skeptical when new ideas come. After the idea proves itself, then everyone likes it and takes credit for that. It’s not the easiest place to introduce a new idea" ("On the Even of His Latest Project ...").


David Brewster interview with author Don Glickstein, Hi Spot Café, Seattle, April 16, 2024; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bullitt, Stimson (1919-2009)” (by Joel Connelly); “Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels presents third annual Mayor's Arts Awards …” (by Jen Kagan); “The Weekly begins publication in Seattle …” (by David Wilma); “Town Hall Seattle” (by Dotty DeCoster), “Shaping Seattle’s Central Waterfront, Part 2 (by Jennifer Ott); Royer, Charles (b. 1939) (by Frank Chesley); (accessed April 1–25, 2024); Mark Baumgarten, “On the Eve of His Latest Project, David Brewster Takes on the Skeptics,” The Seattle Weekly, January 19, 2016, accessed April 1, 2024 (; “Brewster, David C.,” accessed March 31, 2024 (; “David Brewster,” LinkedIn (; Charles E. Brown, “Argus, Seattle’s Oldest Weekly Newspaper, May Fold Soon," The Seattle Times, October 28, 1983, p. B-6; Alf Collins, “Odd Parcels,” Ibid., September 7, 1975, p. D-8; “Our Weekly Wash,” Ibid., January 15, 1984, Pacific Magazine p. 2; David Brewster, “Why Times, P-I Plan Isn't In Public Interest,” Ibid., January 30, 1981, p. A-11; James E. Lalonde, “Liberal Journalism Is Still Alive in Publisher's Heart and Pages,” Ibid., February 3, 1986, p. D-1; James E. Lalonde, “518 Weeklys Later …,” Ibid., April 1, 1986, p. F-1; Rick Anderson, “Won’t Be Long ‘til Brewster Says He's One of Us," Ibid., January 4, 1989, p. B-1; Eric Pryne and Walter Hatch, “The Royer Years,” Ibid., December 24, 1989, p. B-2; Advertisement, Hermes Travel, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 14, 1982, p. F-4; Chuck Taylor, “Seattle Weekly Being Sold to Owners of Village Voice,” The Seattle Times, April 14, 1997, p. A-1; Mark Matassa, “100 People of Influence,” July 9, 1995, Ibid., Pacific Magazine, p. 16; John Hinterberger, “Brewster Designs a Watering Hole," Ibid., May 18, 1983, p. G-1; Joel Connelly, “Seattle’s Idea Man, Brewster, May Not Be Done Yet,” Ibid., May 18, 2005, p. A-2; Emmett Watson, “Church Becomes a Pulpit for the Civic Community,” Ibid., November 2, 1999, p. B-3; Mindy Cameron, “Has The Womens' Vote Finally Run Out of Steam?" Ibid., September 28, 1997, p. B-6; Melinda Bargreen, “Concert Hall to Replace Historic City Church,” Ibid., April 9, 1998, p. B-1; Jean Godden, “Debate Hot, But Civility Reigns,” Ibid., April 16, 1999, p. B-1; Eric Pryne, “Weekly's Founding Editor to Start Web Newspaper,” Ibid., February 14, 2007, p. E-1; Stuart Eskenazi, “As Online Ads Slow, News Site Crosscut Hopes to be Nonprofit,” Ibid., November 18, 2008, p. A-20; “About the 92nd Street Y, New York,” 92nd Street Y, accessed April 23, 2024 (; “Who We Are,” Town Hall Seattle accessed April 23, 20214 (; David Brewster, “Media Merger Success Story …” Cascade Public Media, October 6, 2021, accessed April 23, 2024 (; Mary Ann Gwinn, “Subscription Library to Offer Not Just Books -- Quiet Too," The Seattle Times, May 24, 2015, p. H-5; “About Post Alley,” Post Alley website accessed April 23, 2024 (; “David Brewster,” Post Alley website accessed April 15, 20214 (

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