Cascadia Daily News, a Bellingham news startup, is getting a makeover. That’s a fairly quick redo, since the gutsy news startup was just launched in January 2022; the weekly print edition was added several weeks later in March. The promising launch turned the Bellingham area into a “three-newsroom town.”
Cascadia is moving its weekly print edition from Wednesdays to Fridays. That changeover amounts to more than just shifting print publication days. Cascadia is also revising its masthead, adjusting the news mix, and focusing on becoming profitable.
Overseeing the reboot is Executive Editor Ron Judd, a Western Washington grad who returned home after three decades at the Seattle Times. As Judd told me (a former Times colleague), “This seemed like a good time to make some changes with a new managing editor coming aboard.” The new managing editor, Rhonda Prast, most recently led investigations at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and has worked at the Idaho Statesman, Kansas City Star, Minneapolis News-Tribune, and Seattle Times.
Prast replaces former managing editor Staci Baird, who’s been promoted to run Cascadia’s business operation. A newsie recently observed that journalism is the only profession that all but prohibits practitioners from knowing how the business works. Baird, whose new title is “business manager,” may be the exception to the rule. Her background with outfits like Lucas Arts gave her a heavy dose of financial savvy.
In line with the Wednesday-to-Friday swap, Cascadia will revise its print news content focusing less on breaking news and more on context. Judd said, “We’ll feature stories with shelf life, more in-depth stories and photos – we have two professional photographers on staff.” Judd plans to continue weekly columns (some serious and some not so much) as well as more than half a page of letters.
Cascadia’s changes come following a market study that asked about reader preferences. One example: changing to Friday publication responds to readers who said they often put the print edition aside to read on the weekend. Judd said, “Fridays also are better for staff and they sit close to me. We’re four to five feet apart in the small newsroom with no partitions.”
Cascadia Daily is a rare beast among startups bringing local news to underserved markets. Most new ventures are digital-only nonprofits that rely on help from public-spirited donors. Cascadia (CDN) instead is a for-profit venture. (It now has around 3,000 print and on-line subscribers, as well as readers who pick up the print edition at local outlets.) If the enterprise succeeds in becoming profitable, Cascadia could become a model for ventures in other communities.
The news organization owes its inception to an untypical owner. David Syre is a fourth-generation Whatcom businessman who made his fortune in timber and real estate. As Judd tells the story, Syre came to him and said, “Let’s start a newspaper.” Syre bankrolled the enterprise, but remained hands off, leaving editorial policy to Judd and his staff.
Queried about the backstory, Syre explained, “About 15 years ago I invested in a local paper called Cascadia Weekly. In March of 2020 (when the pandemic struck) the paper had no advertisers or money.” Instead of closing, Syre bought out a minority owner and then commissioned a market study. The survey found local news in demand, but no one willing to pay for it. That’s when Syre recruited Judd, a veteran Seattle Times reporter and columnist who’d been teaching journalism at Western Washington.
Syre said, “We renamed the paper Cascadia Daily News and began publication with a strong focus on local. After one year of publication, another study is showing 80 to 90 percent satisfaction with our efforts. Presently we are making some changes and focusing on revenue.”
No longer involved in Trillium, his timber/real estate business, Syre is busy pursuing a second career as a multi-media artist and owner of Gallery Syre in Bellingham. His large acrylic paintings and drawings have been exhibited on both coasts and in Europe and South America.
So far Syre has dropped some $2 million into Cascadia. With 12 staffers involved in the operation, it is an expensive proposition. However, Syre believes customer satisfaction will lead to significant increases in advertising and subscription revenue. He also talks about becoming a media company and venturing into other venues like a regional magazine and on-line chats. While the goal is to achieve financial sustainability, Syre stated via email that “we have no plans for demise.”
Inevitably there will be an end to subsidies, something that Editor Judd recognizes. He says, “We’ve been giving away 5,000 copies a week, but now that we’re past the introductory launch, we’ll need to start charging.”
The newspaper’s makeover and its drive to become more profitable seems likely to shift the dynamic with Cascadia’s competition, the Bellingham Herald, established in 1903, as well as with the non-for-profit Salish Current, which doesn’t charge for on-line access and enjoys widespread backing in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties.
Cascadia competes directly with the Herald for local stories. Editor Judd concedes the McClatchy-owned paper “does what it can with a limited staff.” He points out that the venerable publication mixes national (wire) in with local news, while Cascadia’s news mix “is almost the opposite.” He concludes, “We’re fortunate enough to have a patient owner. We’ve been given this gift; now we need to work on getting to the right place. There are no guarantees, but, if it can happen anywhere, it could happen here.”