The Bellingham Herald has followed the path of many small and medium-sized papers around the country, with a reduced newsroom and diminished local coverage. The paper, part of the McClatchy chain, downsized out of its historic downtown headquarters a few years back.
Soon, the Herald may have a locally owned challenger.
Prominent businessman David Syre plans to begin publishing a daily online news site, with a weekly print edition, in January. He’s hired Ron Judd, a long-time Seattle Times reporter and columnist who’s lived in Bellingham for 20 years, as the executive editor. In an initial press release, he said his goal is to bring locally owned and independent daily journalism back to Whatcom County.
This venture, which currently goes by the name name Cascadia Newspaper Co., will be a for-profit publication, unlike many journalism startups.
“Generally people are becoming aware of the risks to them from inadequate or incorrect local news,” wrote Syre in a recent email interview. “People are aware of the need for local news and seeking solutions for a local news resurrection.”
The current corporate ownership structure for many papers doesn’t serve communities like Bellingham well. “Wall Street and chain news making is all about reduction in cost and rate of return,” he wrote.
The new venture, Judd said, is intended as a solution to what he and Syre consider a big civic problem.
“The real backdrop here is that Whatcom County, especially Bellingham, has been functionally a news desert for a while, before anything was called a news desert,” added Judd, who’s lived in Whatcom County for the last 20 years.
The Herald, which was founded in 1890, has gone through a succession of corporate owners: Gannett, Knight Ridder and since 2006, the McClatchy Company, which was taken over last year by the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management.
According to its staff list, The Herald has one editor and seven reporters. It doesn’t have local editorials on its website and has even dropped regular coverage of high school sports, several readers said. At most McClatchy papers, design work, copy editing and much of the production is outsourced or done at remote centers.
The Herald, with a daily circulation of 9,500, has the fourth smallest circulation of McClatchy’s 30 papers, company data shows. The editor of the Herald did not respond to an email request for an interview.
Other local journalists are trying to fill what they consider a local news vacuum, as well. In early 2020, Amy Nelson and Mike Sato started a nonprofit news site called Salish Current.
For now, Current relies on volunteers and freelancers to provide in-depth stories from Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan Counties, Nelson said. But they have hopes of expanding and adding paid staff. The Current doesn’t cover daily news, focusing instead on more issue-oriented reporting and doesn’t take ads.
“We started our publication in response to a pent up need for local news,” Nelson said.
She’s also interested in watching how Cascadia fares as a for-profit in the same environment. “We haven’t had a really engaged for-profit news organization in Bellingham for a long time,” she said.
Peggy Watt, a journalism professor at Western Washington University and member of the Salish Current’s board, she’s heartened by both efforts to expand local journalism. “I have been frustrated at the weakening of local journalism in a strong, vibrant, literate community like this,” she said. “I definitely think there’s an appetite for strong coverage out there.”
A recent study found there have been more than 700 new digital media startups in Canada and the U.S. in recent years, prompted in part by the failure or gutting of many local news outlets. Most are nonprofits, according to Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute.
“There’s a reason for that,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to make a profit and it’s easier to draw donations and support from local foundations and the community.“
In recent years, some local investors have bought newspapers from the big chains, although Edmonds said they often have to pay a premium for those papers. Those include The Press-Democrat in Santa Rosa, California and the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts. One of the most prominent attempts was a failed effort to buy the Baltimore Sun from the hedge fund that purchased the Tribune Publishing chain.
News startups don’t have an easy route to financial success. There’s a sense, said Edmonds, that you need to “go big or go home. You have to have a fairly substantial report and coverage to get people in the community to take notice.”
Syre initially estimated that transforming his Cascadia Weekly, an arts and entertainment paper, into a sustainable daily news operation would require about $1.5 million. Now he thinks the figure may be lower. He notes that he has the resources to run it without taking on any debt or “other interventions.”
Syre, whose family has lived in Whatcom County for 120 years, owns Trillium Corporation, a development company with large timber and real estate holdings. It weathered years of controversy to build the Bellis Fair Mall, helped develop Semiahmoo Resort near Blaine and once held vast timber holdings in Chile’s remote Tierra del Fuego region. Syre is also a major philanthropist in the county.
Syre is no longer active in Trillium, instead focusing almost entirely on his work as an artist creating large-scale paintings, sculptures and art installations.
Judd says the newsroom will start with a staff of about 6 reporters and editors. Eventually, there will be a paywall, with subscribers receiving the printed weekly in the mail. The print edition is key, he said, because it carries advertising and “it’s an important way to showcase your work and put it in people’s hands.”
For the moment, Judd hasn’t nailed down the full scope of what the site will cover, though it will include both “the nuts and bolts” of daily news and enterprise reporting.
Key institutions in Whatcom County, such as local government and Western Washington University, get little media scrutiny these days, according to Judd. He noted for example that the Herald reporters did a good job covering the COVID pandemic locally, but there was no critical digging into the county’s response to the crisis.
“That’s a niche we are really going to try to fill,” he said. “That kind of enterprise reporting.”