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Willamette Week was founded in 1974 by Ronald A. Buel, who served as its first publisher. It was later owned by the Eugene Register-Guard, which sold it in the fall of 1983 to Richard H. Meeker and Mark Zusman, who took the positions of publisher and editor, respectively. Meeker had been one of the paper's first reporters, starting in 1974, and Zusman had joined the paper as a business writer in 1982. Meeker and Zusman formed City of Roses Newspaper Company to publish WW and a sister publication, Fresh Weekly, a free guide to local arts and entertainment. WW had a paid circulation at that time, with about 12,000 subscribers.
A major change was made in January 1984, when Fresh Weekly was merged into WW, the paper's print run was increased to 50,000 and paid circulation was discontinued, with WW thereafter being distributed free. WW increased circulation to 90,000 copies by 2007. Circulation has declined to 50,000 by March 2020.
In June 2015, Richard Meeker stepped down as Willamette Weeks publisher, after more than 31 years in the position. Editor Mark Zusman succeeded him as publisher, while also retaining the editorship. Meeker planned to continue working for the City of Roses Newspaper Company, WW's owner.
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Prior to his death in 2010, cartoonist John Callahan's long-running comic "Callahan" appeared weekly in the paper, for almost 30 years.
Since 1984, the paper has been free; as of 2007 over 80% of its revenue was generated through display advertising. For 2007, its revenue was expected to be about $6.25 million, a four or five percent increase over 2006, a growth that occurred in spite of a significant decline in classified advertising that the publisher attributed to competition from Craigslist. Its pre-tax profit in 2006 was around 5%, a third to a half of what large mass-media companies require.
Notable stories first reported by WW include:
In 2009, reporting that then-City Commissioner Sam Adams engaged in a sexual relationship with a legislative intern, Beau Breedlove. Rumors of a relationship between the two men had circulated during Adams' campaign for mayor, but Adams denied any sexual relationship. Only after Willamette Week contacted Adams for comment on an upcoming story did he admit publicly that there had been a sexual relationship. However, he stipulated that there had been no relationship between them until after Breedlove turned 18. Adams said he'd previously lied about the relationship in order to avoid feeding negative stereotypes of gay men as somehow predatory.
In 2008, Willamette Week's Beth Slovic drew a conclusion that former senator Gordon Smith employed undocumented workers at his frozen-foods processing operation in Eastern Oregon while acknowledging that she has no definitive proof.
In 2015, then Governor John Kitzhaber's fiancee, Cylvia Hayes confirmed Willamette Weeks' report that she married an 18 year old Ethiopian immigrant in 1997 in exchange for a $5,000 payment so he could keep his residency to attend school in United States.
A number of notable journalists, writers and artists have worked at Willamette Week over the past several decades, including: