On Jan. 24, a new digital and print publication, Cascadia Daily News (CDN), is scheduled to launch its online coverage, providing a second daily news source in Bellingham for the first time in nearly a hundred years.
Funded by longtime local businessman David Syre and headed by executive editor and former Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd, CDN’s emergence has the potential to vastly improve local news coverage.
How it might affect the existence of Bellingham’s legacy newspaper, the corporately owned Bellingham Herald, remains to be seen. Can the two co-exist peacefully and profitably, or is Bellingham headed toward some new kind of newspaper rivalry?
While both are for-profit enterprises deriving revenue from advertising and subscriptions, the business models differ significantly. The Herald has the economies of scale provided by ownership by The McClatchy Company, which is in turn owned by Chatham Asset Management. CDN has a single, local owner and a mission to be self-sustaining rather than necessarily profitable.
The two are not the only sources of information published in and for Whatcom County. Some publish original journalism exclusively; some draw heavily on press releases from government agencies and civic organizations; a few include for-pay articles for advertisers; some publish in Spanish; several specialize in interviews.
Established publications include weekly newspapers The Northern Light (Blaine), Lynden Tribune and Ferndale Record; monthlies Whatcom Watch and All Point Bulletin; online Whatcom Talk; point-of-view blogs such as Northwest Citizen, The Fourth Corner and Noisy Waters; and others. Commercial (KGMI) and public (e.g., KMRE and KAVZ) radio and podcasts provide audio options. (The long-running Cascadia Weekly, precursor to CDN, suspended publication in December.)
Relative newcomers on the scene are online newsrooms including not-for-profit Salish Current, and for-profit Whatcom News (formerly My Ferndale News) and Bellingham Metro News.
And then there is social media. In particular, Facebook is a popular source of curated feeds focused on special interests or particular localities. Its pages and groups are populated with personal comments and images, reposted news content from other sources and user discussions of news and events, generally without a transparent process for verifying reliability of coverage or commentary.
Tales of two papers
In the back pages of history, there is no shortage of newspapers that have waged war on one another over subscriptions and advertising revenue.
In the 1890s, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World engaged in a fierce circulation battle, leading both papers into the morally questionable realm of so-called yellow — sensationalistic and exaggerated — journalism in bids to outdo the other.
The 1890s saw the competition of The Spokane Daily Chronicle and The Spokesman-Review. In 1897, Spokesman publisher William H. Cowles acquired the Chronicle. Both papers were owned by the same company until the Chronicle’s final issue was published in 1992, though the two publications operated independently until the 1980s. Last summer, the Spokesman announced it would resume the Chronicle as a digital-only afternoon supplement.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, founded as the Seattle Gazette in 1863, preceded the Seattle Press-Times — now The Seattle Times —by 28 years. The papers operated as competitors until 1983, when a joint operating agreement allowed advertising, production, marketing and circulation of both papers to be controlled by the Times.
In 2003, the relationship turned sour when the Times tried to cancel the agreement, citing a clause allowing an end after three years of consecutive losses. The P-I’s owner, Hearst Corporation, sued; a trial court ruled in the P-I‘s favor. But two years and two appeals later, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against the P-I. The papers settled the disagreement in April 2007, jointly operating until the P-I‘s print edition ceased in March 2009. The online version is still in publication.
The battle in Bellingham
Bellingham’s own newspaper battle was waged primarily between The American Reveille and The Bellingham Herald.
The Reveille came first, initially published in 1883 Sehome as the Whatcom Reveille. The Herald began in 1890 as the Fairhaven Herald, serving residents of its namesake.
When Bellingham was incorporated in 1903 and the two papers’ markets merged, things got interesting.
That year, Samuel A. Perkins, publisher of The Tacoma Daily News and Ledger, became majority owner of the Herald, which officially became The Bellingham Herald. The next year, Joseph Blethen, founder of The Seattle Times, began publishing the Puget Sound American.
The American, the Reveille and the Herald competed in earnest, and — according to a Whatcom Museum article — intermittently changed their mastheads to assert their own superiority. In the March 17, 1906, edition of the American, a slogan proclaimed the paper as “the only Bellingham paper that dares to print the news.”
In December 1906, the American bought out the Reveille, creating a consolidated paper operating under three different names, with morning, evening and weekly editions.
The Herald and Reveille, and their wealthy owners, kept fighting for dominance, often losing money in the process. In January 1910, the Herald landed a blow to the Reveille, obtaining rights to the Associated Press Sunday morning news.
The next year, the Reveille was sold to a syndicate of local businessmen. By this time, many people were tired of the paper tussle, with a Herald editorial saying the battle had “become a stench in the nostrils of everybody.”
In March 1927, the Herald reported the Reveille had been absorbed, leaving Bellingham with just one newspaper.
Over the decades, the Herald‘s ownership changed. Federated Publications bought the paper from the Perkins family in 1967. Four years later, Federated merged with the Gannett Corporation and maintained the paper until 2005, when Knight-Ridder took ownership for a single year before being acquired by McClatchy in 2006. In 2020, Chatham became owner of McClatchy by winning a bankruptcy court auction.
Decline — and opportunity
One man who watched much of it happen is 90-year-old R.E. “Ted” Stannard, an emeritus professor of journalism at Western Washington University who helped found the college’s journalism department over 50 years ago.
“It was inevitable that it would decline,” said Stannard of the Herald, noting the diminishment of traditional business models in the age of the internet and, with it, the amount of local coverage many papers like the Herald have offered in recent years. Newspapers have seen dramatic losses in traditional revenue streams such as classified advertising, local and national advertising, and legal notices, and have cut newsroom staff accordingly.
The present, however, also represents substantial opportunity for those experimenting to find the right formula for effective journalism in a media landscape that looks nothing like the one Stannard grew up in.
Today, as news gathering organizations are themselves increasingly under siege, Judd sees CDN‘s mission as attempting to reinvigorate trust in local journalism at a time when both misinformation and distrust of journalists are widespread.
“Part of our job is going to be cutting through what is a lot of circulating propaganda from political factors,” he said. “We’re being born in a time when there’s active hostility toward journalism and toward factual information, and that’s the battle and the war that I see first and foremost on our plate.”
Having an additional news organization in Bellingham may improve the news product of both entities, Judd said — something he believes he saw in Seattle. The folding of the P-I, he said, changed the news environment a bit.
“I think the Times maintained a pretty high standard without the competition, but the competition was just something that kept us on edge and kept us smarter and more aggressive and on our toes,” Judd said.
Farming and politics
Salish Current did not receive responses to requests for comment by representatives of the Bellingham Herald and the Lynden Tribune declined to comment on CDN’s entry into the local news environment.
But others in the community think CDN may contribute in areas where they see that Herald coverage has been lacking.
Henry Bierlink, executive director for the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, expressed hope that CDN will provide increased coverage of the county’s small towns, as well as agriculture.
Chuck Robinson, former owner of Village Books, said he wants to see coverage of government meetings, while Derek Moscato, an associate professor of journalism at WWU, sees CDN as having a chance to contextualize local news in relation to broader developments outside their coverage area.
Ted Wolf, board member for local environmental nonprofit RE Sources, hopes the new publication can go toe-to-toe with the Herald in certain areas, especially in environmental reporting.
“The opportunity for Cascadia Daily News is to bring back some of the things that have gradually withered on the vine at the Herald,” he said, noting opinion columns and reader feedback in particular. “It’s super-important to readers and to the community as a forum for exchanging ideas.”
Even those at local governmental agencies are enthusiastic to have a second publication acting as a community watchdog.
“Ultimately, it’s a good thing to have multiple publications competing to get the scoop,” said Jed Holmes, Whatcom County’s community outreach facilitator. “I’ll be thrilled to have a few more energetic journalists chasing down leads and building thoughtful narratives around the challenges we face in local government.”
Big enough for two?
Not everyone is certain that the two-newspaper town will work out in everyone’s favor.
Bierlink said he’d love to believe that local news and investigative journalism can be profitable, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
“I don’t see a win-win scenario,” he said.
CDN’s first print edition is scheduled to hit newsstands in March. Judd said CDN will initially provide free access to its website and print edition to draw interest. Eventually, paywalls and subscriptions will commence, but some online content deemed to be of public service will remain unblocked.
Judd also said Syre has made clear to him that success of CDN is more about self-sustainability than profit.
“This is not a thing that the publisher is doing to make money for the publisher,” he said. “It’s the thing that the publisher is doing to try to create a self-sustaining model that will really benefit the community. I think what Syre has done here is given the public the gift of a professional news organization at a time when very few people would invest in that kind of a business.”
While the future of local news remains to be written, it is clear that there will at least be more journalists around to write it.
— Reported by Matt Benoit
Read more: “Community Voices / Erosion in local news threatens democracy,” Salish Current, Nov. 27, 2020
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