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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Water come to the News Desert: Bellingham’s New Cascadia News Launches

Bellingham, home to 100,000 people and the state’s third-largest public university, is a news desert. It has been so for a quarter-century, when folks noticed that staples like editorials, letters to the editor, and opinion columnists were gone from the Bellingham Herald. So was serious environmental coverage. Then reporters stopped showing up at city and county council meetings. A few years ago, local sports and elections disappeared.

The Herald has not been locally owned since 1967, but the Gannett corporation did a decent job of delivering local news until 2005, when the paper entered into a death spiral of other chains and finally fell into the hands of a ruthless hedge fund.

We Bellingham readers have been looking for an angel. Maybe, just maybe, he has arrived, with a sidekick locals will recognize. David Syre is wealthy, a longtime community power broker with scars to show for it, and at 80 years still wanting to be relevant. He paints (very well), and nurses his finances; he lives in a big house in the county. He’s a bit of a local legend as the developer of Bellis Fair Mall, which sucked the heart out of downtown in 1988. 

Alongside this colorful entrepreneur-turned-artist is your classic print-and-ink editor, with his own self-inflicted scars as a witty and acerbic critic of much that is corporate and undemocratic. Ron Judd, a fixture at the Seattle Times for three decades, moved to Bellingham about 20 years ago with his wife, Meri-Jo Borziller, also a journalist. The couple is well traveled on the area’s trails and streams; they fit in with the local vibe.

The product of this alliance is Cascadia Daily News, a blend of print and online local journalism. Its online version launched on Monday, Jan. 24; print will follow. Syre is the sole owner, and reportedly has invested nearly $2 million into the News. Judd will run the newsroom, and insists he alone will call the newsroom shots. He has a seasoned deputy editor in Elliott Almond, with two decades at the Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times.

Cascadia Daily News is online-only until perhaps March, when they will figure out just how to add a print supplement and advertising. Perhaps it’s the old news-guy thing in Judd, but Syre also confesses loving the smell of newsprint in the morning. 

We’ll see. Bellingham, as you would expect, trends young, many of whom have little familiarity with a print newspaper. It is, ultimately, the ability to draw young eyes to both screen and print that will tell the tale for Syre’s investment. This is a profit-making venture, but he insists he wants only to break even (he’s had experience losing his shirt, and it didn’t wear well). 

Online, Cascadia Daily News sparkles. The writing is crisp but personal, laced with quotes and human experience. Photography is excellent; the News has video capabilities, not yet exercised, and Judd envisions short clips rather than long conversations. Oh, yes, there is a Local Sports section, with excellent photography. This has been a “must” with Judd; I once heard him excoriate the Herald for dropping local sports—the core of small communities everywhere.

Cascadia Daily News, in its first week, looks like Whatcom County: trail bikes and a major piece on Galbraith Mountain, a local pub, recipes for seared carrots and their tops, spirited high school sports; but also coverage of industry and government – the shuttered Ferndale smelter, Amtrak non-service, a comprehensive look at flooding in northern Whatcom, with details on the Biden relief efforts. A piece on a shipping bottleneck at a FedEx site in Burlington was covered from a “consumer, not a business” viewpoint, noted Judd. 

Judd has done a good job of assembling a staff of nine full time reporters plus four paid interns. The staff leans young, female, and Western Washington University Journalism School (makes me proud, as a former department chair). Its older staffers have local ties but experience across the country. Judd says his first criteria was “people who could work together.”

What was missing in the first week? News of car crashes, minor crime, the homeless, and Covid. The “cop shop” mantra of the Herald has almost become embarrassing (“Whatcom man suspected of throwing rocks at passing truck” ohmigod!), and Judd doesn’t see such routine stories as an emphasis wanted by most local readers. CDN did cover the arrest of a murder suspect, but no car crashes or small fires in the first week. Judd is trying to avoid the use of “click bait” headlines (“Which Bellingham café is ready to open?”), which outside owners use to harvest data. 

Bellingham is a liberal town and, like Seattle, it enjoys process. Judd will need to find a way to cover city and county agencies without bogging down his small staff. CDN reporters have been asked to define their beats, a reversal of tradition that editors talk about but seldom try. Like many aspects of the first week, much is yet to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that the inaugural issues of Cascadia Daily News are so superior to current issues of the Bellingham Herald as to force the hedge fund owners of the Herald to look at their hole cards. This newspaper is a dead man walking. 

Solving the conundrum of local journalism has attracted the best brains in journalism and finance. The old option of merging with another paper or selling to a news group is pretty much dead. I don’t think we can count on federal subsidies surviving partisan pressures, although some tax measures may help.

Communities who really care about local news have a few basic options: forming a community group with deep pockets to launch a for-profit news platform; organizing on the NPR nonprofit model with aggressive public outreach and fundraising; or finding their very own McKenzie Scott or . . . David Syre? 

Bellingham boosters have previously shown little enthusiasm for putting together a newspaper, private or public, online or print. The city has more than its share of wealth, but they have other priorities.

Others have tried, with mixed success. The most credible is Salish Current,

the concept of Amy Nelson, with husband Mike Sato as executive editor. For a couple of years, they’ve attempted to expand a very modest budget to offer online news of Whatcom, San Juan, and Skagit counties. Their free-lancers have produced strong stories, primarily on environmental and marine topics. Any idea that they could play on the big stage, however, was quashed by Syre. There is a niche for the Current, to be determined, but it is not as a daily news service.

If the Herald struggles to its feet and survives, the community would still be left with an absentee owner, a hedge fund at that. The community is too small and the demand for journalism too weak for both the Herald and Cascadia Daily to co-exist for long. Local private ownership appears the best option, but to succeed. CDN must draw enough readers to attract advertisers and grants and donations. 

At this early point in the game, CDN will need a major marketing effort, something likely not in the toolbox of Judd or Syre. The big target will be young social-media groupies, who are not in the habit of local news, print or electronic. They will ultimately decide Cascadia Daily’s future.

Judd and his ambitious young staff will create a good journalistic product. But they must attract 20-40-year-old iPhone addicts, or, for that matter, older ‘Hamsters who have gotten sloppy about keeping up on their hometown, when they can take in the world on their cell phone.

Staffers will also need to get mud on their boots; more folks live in “the county” than in the city, and they want to preserve their rural economy and lifestyle. The rural area has a fine weekly in the Lewis family’s Lynden Tribune, but its focus is restricted. Somewhere in the search for coverage patterns, a priority must be topics and challenges that link town and country.

This is not a magic new model that can save local news; it’s been around for more than a century since a young man named Willie Hearst used his inheritance to start up a paper in San Francisco. Possibly, it could be an inspiration for other rich folks tired of one more island paradise, yacht, or professional sports team. At the least, it should give the City of Subdued Excitement something to get excited about.

Floyd McKay
Floyd McKay
Floyd J. McKay, emeritus professor of journalism at Western Washington University, covered Pacific Northwest politics as a reporter and opinion writer for four decades, primarily in Oregon. He was commentator/news analyst at KGW-TV (King Broadcasting) from 1970 to 1987. Previously a print reporter, he returned to print and online reporting and commentary from 2004 to 2017 with the Seattle Times Op-ed page and Crosscut.com. He is the author of Reporting the Oregon Story: How Activists and Visionaries Transformed a State (Oregon State University Press, 2016). He lives in Bellingham.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. This sounds similar to the situation where I live, in Ithaca, NY, which is a smaller and colder version of Bellingham, but with less water and more students. The Ithaca Journal, owned by Gannett since 1912, is now produced and published in Binghamton, and has just one local reporter, so often has no local news at all.

    In its place, we’ve seen the rise of Ithaca Voice (https://ithacavoice.com/), a nonprofit news site founded by Jeff Stein, who now reports on the White House for the Washington Post. It’s obviously different from CDN in that it’s nonprofit, and has no obvious plans for a print edition, but it has become the default source for quality local reporting.

    I grudgingly let my Ithaca Journal subscription lapse a few years ago, and I still can’t decide if it was the right thing to do or not. Local reporting is vital to keep a community smart and informed, but the IJ quit offering that, and doesn’t plan to go back to it. So do we just give up on print, and support the better alternative?

  2. Peter: towns like Ithica and Bellingham are really good locations for modest but professional news operations like Cascadia Daily News and the Ithaca Voice, because college towns, particularly small ones, draw very literate retirees, who can put a few bucks in the pot, whether nonprofit or privately funded. I’m not sure CDN needs a print edition, which would probably be a Saturday paper in boxes on the street; online seems to rule. It even works for me, ‘tho I do have the Seattle Times, which retains its quality.

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