Is there a market for serious reporting that seeks the truth?
You might think the Olympian would be a robust and widely read paper. It covers the state capital, after all. In fact, the Olympian has been the focus of frustration for its lack of meaningful reporting for over 50 years. 1970 found the paper “silent on problems and initiatives concerning race relations, gender, growth management, waste reduction and the environment.” As for politics, “legislative sessions right here might have happened on another planet.”
Some citizens tried to fill some gaps by creating The Link, a hand printed newsletter that lasted three years with a few hundred subscribers. The Daily Olympian failed to improve its record, earning a nickname derived from its initial: “The Daily O” became the “Daily Zero.”
The paper’s management subscribed to the “sports, crime and feel good features” school of journalism.
But there were plenty of people in town who wanted to know what was going on. People who wanted to participate in government and equally important, keep an eye on the business+government enterprise.
Enter some DIY “citizen journalists” who aimed to cover at least some of the overlooked issues. Works in Progress started as a free monthly in 1990. Green Pages, covering environmental issues was around from 2002 to 2015. Progressives decided to develop their own information source with TC-ProNet from 2003 through 2012. Janine Gates singlehandedly produced Little Hollywood from 2009-2019. From 2008-09 there was a newsletter called Oly2012 providing detailed coverage of a hugely controversial attempt to remake Olympia’s downtown core, including an upzone of Capital Lake waterfront and proposals for a parking garage.
Most of these volunteer-produced papers came to an end, but they testify that there is a demand for real news and information.
It turns out that there are papers—existing, new and revamped—that propose to meet that demand. In contrast with the Olympian, long owned by a chain and since 2020 by a hedge fund, these papers are independent.
The Vancouver Columbian. This family-owned paper delivers a print-edition 5 days a week in addition to its online paper. In April 2022, the paper initiated a Community Funded Journalism project with support from three charitable funds as well as crowdsourcing. The project will fund additional reporters at The Columbian, “allowing the reporting staff to specialize and dig deeper under the surface of stories.”
The Columbian’s website contains this statement: “We are committed to providing truthful, non-biased news to our community: an essential service for a healthy democracy. The Columbian reporters are the storytellers and the recorders of Clark County. They are the scouts invited into our community’s homes, streets, workplaces, wildlands and government buildings to seek the truth and report it.”
The Whatcom Watch. This is a grassroots environmental newspaper in Bellingham that also provides detailed coverage of city and county votes on key issues. It was started 30 years ago by three individuals concerned about environmental degradation, urban sprawl and quality of life issues who felt increasingly voiceless. Local political leaders and bureaucrats often sided with large industries and private economic interests. The Bellingham Herald overlooked or over-simplified these issues. Individual volunteers write the Whatcom Watch’s articles, handle layout and editing and serve as regular reporters of city actions. The paper is distributed free each month, supported by sustaining subscribers, other contributors and advertising.
Cascadia Daily News. This paper was started in 2022 to provide local news coverage of civic institutions. The “legacy paper” in Bellingham is owned by the same hedge fund that owns The Olympian. CDN produces a continuously updated website followed by a weekly print edition. The owner, editors and journalists believe that “providing a common basis of fact and opinion for the community is critical to the maintenance of democracy.” Cascadia Daily News staff members are full-time journalists who live and work in Whatcom County. The paper began as a publication of Cascadia Newspapers LLC, wholly owned and funded by fourth-generation Whatcom County resident David Syre. (Syre’s Trillium Corporation was a major developer in Bellingham and environs.)
The long slow demise of The Olympian
The Gannett Company acquired The Daily Olympian in 1971 (later changing the name to The Olympian). The paper stayed with the Gannett chain until 2005, when it was traded to the Knight-Ridder chain. But less than one year later, the Knight-Ridder chain was bought by the McClatchy Company (some say a small whale swallowed by a dolphin). This would prove a fatal blow. McClatchy paid Knight-Ridder $4.5 billion and took on another $2 billion in debt obligations—setting the stage for major financial problems. Despite cutting its workforce by 80% over the next 12 years McClatchy had to file for bankruptcy in 2019. The new owner is a hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management. Hedge funds tend to have very different financial motivations than newspapers. Or at least independent newspapers.