In Port Townsend, a Small-Town Newspaper Revives

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Pick up the latest Port Townsend Leader and chances are Brian Kelly will have written the lead story.  And usually ten more on topics ranging from Covid vaccines to the police blotter and high school football.

Kelly will also have designed the pages, shot photographs and written an unsigned editorial — because he is also the editor. For all I know, he may also sell ads and deliver the paper to your mailbox.

Ask Kelly about this and he grins: “It all comes with the territory.”

The Leader is no one-man show.  Kelly now has help with reporters Nick Twietmeyer and most recently Alli Patton. But they’re still spread thinly.  A typical edition consists of 25 staff-produced articles totaling about 20,000 words.  Books  have been published with fewer words. And the minute this week’s paper goes to press, they start all over again.

The good news is the Leader has begun to restore solid local journalism to a town where readers had begun to wonder if they would ever see it again. Two years ago, the 120-year-old weekly was a mess.  The staff of six seasoned journalists left soon after longtime editor-publisher Scott Wilson sold the business in September 2016.  The new editor was well-intended but over her head.  The staff knew little about the community, and showed it weekly with missed stories, mind-boggling typos and grammatical snafus.

Dean Miller took over in 2019 and things got better, but then he too moved on.

A year ago, new owner Lloyd Mullen, who grew up in a newspaper family in Wyoming, hired a publisher. Donna Etchey, a business-savvy veteran who had managed community newspapers in Kitsap County, arrived in mid-March — on the very day the state shut down to deal with the pandemic.

Restaurants, movie theaters and bars that had been steady advertisers promptly closed their doors, and stopped buying ads. Readers who were accustomed to buying their Wednesday paper at the local coffee shop were staying home.  

Etchey’s first step was to find an editor.  A few weeks later, she ran into Kelly, a one-man staff at the Bainbridge Island Review, owned by Sound Publishing.  Etchey had worked with Kelly in Kitsap County, admired his work and offered him the job.

Publisher Donna Etchey, left, and editor Brian Kelly at the Leader Building front door, where they hope to continue the the long tradition of community journalism in Port Townsend.
(Ross Anderson photo)

Kelly is a compact 55-year-old who grew up in “a family that cherished newspapers.” He learned photography in the Army and studied at Oregon’s highly respected school of journalism.  He worked briefly at the Seattle Times, but labored most of the last 25 years at smaller papers ranging from Everett to Whidbey and Bainbridge.

Now he works out of the Leader’s historic, ivy-covered building just off Water Street, commuting daily from his Bainbridge home until he finds a PT house he can afford.

While it’s greatly improved, the Leader has not regained the local and professional stature it earned during Wilson’s quarter century at the helm.  Despite the economic and cultural handicaps of running a small-town weekly, Wilson had maintained a staff deeply committed to their craft and their community.  And it showed in the weekly product.

Etchey and Kelly know the region well, but they’re both new to Port Townsend, and lack the institutional memory that comes with tenure.  “That’s compounded by the pandemic,” Kelly says.  “We can’t go out and meet the people we need to know.”

And, with newspapers struggling across the nation, it may never get there. There aren’t enough reporters in the building, nor hours in the day.

The March 3 edition, for example, had stories on the Shipwrights Regatta, the flap over the Port Ludlow fire chief, the hiring of new PT and Chimacum school superintendents, police arrests, city council pay increases and much more.  A typical story runs about 800 to 1000 words, and the reporter is expected to research and write 10 or more per week. I worked in newspapers for 40 years, and never was asked to produce at that rate.  It can be done, but not with the depth and polish that readers would like. 

The Leader has some huge advantages over most small papers, the main one being an aging community made up largely of retirees who still read and respect newspaper journalism. Etchey says the weekly circulation dropped only slightly last year and levelled at 6200 – a remarkable figure in a county of just 30,000 people.   Single-copy sales from newspaper boxes dropped by more than 400, but that was partially offset by substantial growth in online subscribers, she says.

Thanks to federal Covid relief, the paper didn’t lose money in 2020, Etchey says. She has lured advertisers back with a variety of incentives. And recently the Jefferson County commissioners voted to return the county’s legal notices contract to the Leader after a year of contracting with the Peninsula Daily News.

The Leader’s survival fits with broader, statewide and national trends, says Fred Obee, a former Leader editor who now serves as director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents small publishers. Sound Publishing, the Canadian company that owns the Peninsula Daily News, had bought up some 50 papers in the region, most of them small suburban weeklies that depend heavily on revenue from advertising inserts for chain stores like Walmart.  Those inserts have largely disappeared, Obee says, which led to shutting down many papers.

“Covid clobbered Sound Publishing,” says Kelly, who worked many years for the company.

The papers that survive are mostly small-town weeklies that don’t depend on national advertisers, and where readers have few alternative sources for local information.  Some smaller papers actually solicited donations to keep themselves afloat, and readers responded, Obee says.

The Leader didn’t try that, but Etchey and Kelly are looking for ways to deliver good local journalism without antagonizing the readers and advertisers they need to keep publishing.  In-depth journalism not only takes more time, but it is also more likely to offend somebody — be it advertisers or readers. And making people mad is not good business.

In a small town, that is a delicate balance, Obee says. “It all comes down to the relationship between a newspaper and a community that values real journalism.”

This story first appeared in our partner publication Rainshadow Northwest

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Ross Anderson is a founding member of the Rainshadow Journal collective. He retired to Port Townsend after 30 years of journalism at the Seattle Times.

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