Washington State’s Incredible Shrinking Print Newspapers


Back when I was a cub reporter in Olympia, there were so many journalists covering state government that two newsrooms were required to accommodate everyone. Sometimes, I wondered if it was also because there were so many irascible journalists that they had to be kept apart. It was a different era, to be sure.

I was fortunate to learn the craft from two of the best. Mike Layton was a long-time correspondent for The Seattle Post Intelligencer. A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, Layton was one tough guy. He struck terror into the hearts of legislators and government bureaucrats whom he believed were obfuscating or playing games with the people’s money. 

He also was missing the middle finger of one hand. The joke was that he lost it flipping the bird at one too many TV reporters. The correlation was never explained, but it’s true that he believed (unfairly) that TV reporters, as a lot, had lower-than-average IQs. When, as an Evergreen College intern, I started working for Layton, I could barely write a coherent sentence. He was demanding but patient, editing draft after draft. The payoff came a year later, when my first story was published in The P-I—all three paragraphs.

My other mentor was John White, chief of the Associated Press bureau in Olympia. With his white shoes, white belt, gravelly voice and a cigarette constantly dangling from his lips, White looked like a Mafia don. Once, when a state legislator started yelling at me in the elevator, White hauled me into his office and said: “Katz, what did you do this time?” I don’t remember the particular story, but when I explained the circumstances, White looked at me, with a glint in his eye, and said: “Next time, just tell me what you’re going to do before you do it.” Lesson learned.

There were other colorful characters, like Adele Ferguson of The Bremerton Sun (now Kitsap Sun.) She was the first woman to work as a fulltime reporter at the legislature, a position she held for 32 years. Cantankerous and coarse, she didn’t hesitate to skewer politicians of both parties. And she had the best sources in town. 

This generation of journalists has passed from the scene, as have their jobs. The P-I went out of the print business in 2009. The AP, which had three full-time reporters in Olympia when I was there, now has zero or one, depending on when you count. And the Kitsap Sun has no one in Olympia full time. 

Today, there are just a handful of newspaper reporters covering state government year-round, plus one new one, The Washington State Standard. What’s happened to the press corps in Olympia reflects the headwinds that newspapers across the country are facing as social media and other new digital platforms have emerged. This has led to a precipitous drop in the demand for printed newspapers and, in turn, revenue from classified and business ads.  

These trends, among others, recently prompted the troubled McClatchy chain to reduce the frequency of print editions of its four newspapers in Washington state. The Tri-City Herald downsized to two print editions a week last October. The Bellingham Herald went to two days in January. The News Tribune in Tacoma and The Olympian in the state capital will cut back to publishing print editions three days a week starting May 6. (The acquisition of McClatchy by a hedge fund in 2020 may be the culprit.) The Seattle Times is now the only newspaper in the state publishing print editions seven days a week. Kudos to them! 

And it’s not just the smaller newspapers that are feeling the strain. According to a 2022 report by the Northwestern University Medill Local News Initiative, 42 of the largest 100 newspapers in the U.S. deliver a print edition six or fewer times a week. And 11 are published only once or twice a week. Even more sobering, the country has lost almost a third of its newspapers since 2005. Most were weeklies, but 259 daily newsrooms also were shuttered between 2005 and 2023. 

Why does this matter? Because strong local newspapers help bind communities. They offer a credible source of local news and limit the spread of disinformation. And they provide a check on politicians, local governments, and the business community. Digital newspapers can deliver some of this. But reduced news coverage whittles away at the value newspapers have provided for so many years. (And there’s nothing like a print newspaper with a big front-page headline to underscore the importance of a story or to keep the powerful accountable.)

As a newspaper junkie and former journalist, I’m doing my small part to stem the tide by continuing to subscribe to the print edition of The Seattle Times, where I once slung ink. I admit that I check the paper’s iPhone app more frequently, while a week’s worth of papers sometimes piles up near the front door. I know better: the print edition is still a better read and I’m more informed when I read it.


  1. Thanks for your story, Dean, even though it offered a dismal tally of what’s happening to newspapers. The shame of surrender to hedge fund politics is heartrending. There’s little we can do except continue to support surviving outlets. I take two daily papers each day — Seattle Times and New York Times — – a bit of a luxury, but worth it to this news junkie.
    Thanks too for your memory of Mike Layton, a former much valued colleague. Best of all, I still treasure his memoir, told with unbelievable modesty and self depreciation. He was one of the greats.

  2. The real paper newspaper is better information for me, too, but it has been a long time since I was a daily subscriber. Too much waste. There must be a better way, and it seems obvious that it would be online. Advertising has always had its screwy aspect – who ever read the big wad of junk inserted into the Sunday paper? Don’t let the geniuses responsible for that, engineer online advertising policy.

  3. We too take the print edition, but at a cost of $1,000/ year we have sometimes paused before writing the check.
    When away from town we go online, but still read the “print replica”. That way we at least have to read all the headlines, and not totally cherry pick for only the stories that agree with us.

  4. I left my hometown more than 60 years ago for the Big City, but I’m a long-time online-only subscriber to the newspaper. It’s fun to see what’s going on, and also confirms why I departed.

    David Felthous

  5. Like Jean, I still get the Seattle Times and the New York Times delivered seven days a week. And I still engage in the ritual of (at least) looking over the front pages of both each morning, to get a feel for what the local and national media think are the big stories, even though I read the vast majority of my news — including from those two papers — online.

    But I don’t think my kids have any interest in newspapers at all, they get their information in other (I assume less reliable) ways.

  6. According to The Washington Post, Gannett and McClatchy will drop the Associated Press as a news source for its nearly 230 newspapers. It’s a huge blow to AP, considered among the most reliable independent sources of news. Gannett and McClatchy are both owned by hedge funds.


  7. Note: Apologies for the length and, of course, I’ll leave it the Post Alley to decide whether to publish. I respect their decision.

    I saw in today’s Seattle Times (March 22) a story that the city is considering rolling back some wage guarantees of app-based delivery drivers. Apparently, these laws just took effect a few months ago.

    These days stories on the gig economy (especially the delivery-service version), the new tipping culture, and the troubles of American dailies are common, and where they intersect, I sometimes see commonalities and they put me in a reflective mood.

    I was in the delivery business, back in the early- to mid-1970s. I was 12 or maybe 13 and my parents one day told me my allowance was over and it was time I got a job. They suggested a paper route. I had the route for 3-4 years.

    The first year I delivered papers in the afternoon, after school, when I delivered The (Indianapolis) News. That route was 6 days/wk, excluding Sundays. Later, I traded that route for a Star route, the morning paper that included Sunday –or in modern parlance – it meant for me a 7/365 delivery schedule. If I was to go on vacation (rare) or weekend hike with the Scouts, I was responsible for finding my own relief pitcher. And this meant trading favors (“I’ll fill in for you on some future date”) or paying for them for a negotiated fee. They were always in the catbird seat in this transaction.

    Both papers were owned by the same publisher. I preferred The Star because it freed up my afternoons, but it meant getting up at 4:45-5:00 AM to get dressed and haul off 3-4 city blocks to the local distribution point. There, the Teamsters (I presume) dropped off the bundles of papers from their panel trucks at a little shack in the alley behind the liquor store. An adult manager in the shack opened the bundles and broke them down by count into routes. I’d find my stack, load them into the filthy canvas carrier bags, and deliver my route.

    I was still in grade school (and later, early high school). I tried to get in another hour of sleep after I returned from the morning route before I needed to get up for the school day. Again, in modern business-speak, we were the last leg of the supply chain for many of the newspaper’s home customers.

    The paperboys – and most of us were probably under 18 and, at least on the morning routes, were male – had an additional duty. We had to walk door-to-door every two weeks to “collect”. We were given little black-covered binder books which held sheets of small weekly receipt tickets printed on a perforated card stock for each home customer to collect the subscription fee. Most customers paid promptly and pleasantly, but it was often necessary to go back several times a week to find them home.

    A few customers, maybe 10%, were very difficult to find home. Maybe they travelled a lot, or kept odd hours due to job requirements. A typical route might have 40-50 customers, with 10-15 more on Sundays. After several unsuccessful collection tries for the ten-percenters, including trying them on Saturday mornings and afternoons, you’d just try to collect from them on the next biweekly go-around. This pattern might go on for several collection cycles. When you did finally make contact, sometimes you’d get chewed out for letting the bill get so high. Eventually, to avoid the angry dress-downs, there were times when I just tore weeks or months of tickets off the sheets for these customers and ate the cost myself. Resetting the clock, so to speak. I still had to pay for the papers I took when I left the distribution shack.

    My pay was the balance left over after I collected every two weeks and paid for the papers. In actuality, I pre-paid for the papers I was delivering on any given day the week or two before. When I collected, it was to pay for the next two weeks’ papers. The balance was not much, it varied on how well collecting went, maybe $15-25 per collection cycle I think. Grade school money, or early high school money.

    This was well before electronic billing was common, but I never understood why the newspaper company simply didn’t mail a monthly bill to subscribers and notify the carrier to stop delivery to non-paying customers. It made no sense to me. Tips, in general, came during Christmas season, in the form of a greeting card designed to hold a couple of crisp dollar bills and a short thank you note. Maybe an occasional 5-spot if you were lucky; a 10-spot if you were really lucky. With 40-60 customers, you might clear an additional $100 or more in that season.

    So, in essence, we reported to both the Supply Chain Division and the Finance Division (Accounts Payable, I suppose) of this (to me)“huge” news corporation. The Star and News also wanted us to go door-to-door on our routes to try to get non-subscribers to sign up. You know, in our spare time – after all, we’re already in the neighborhood. They tried to encourage us with gift points. With five new subscribers, I might qualify for a new, clean canvas delivery bag. With a few more sign-ons, maybe a new flashlight (for those dark morning deliveries???). I tried this a few times unsuccessfully and gave up. My heart wasn’t into it. I’m not good at sales. Besides, reporting to two divisions was enough. I drew the line at also reporting to the New Business Division. I was 14 y.o., give or take. I had homework to do.


    As an adult, I realize now I was probably not working directly for the newspaper company, but rather a contractor. The newspaper didn’t let you know this, but it makes more sense. Maybe it was someone who had contracted with the paper to service that last link in their supply chain for a particular region of the city. Probably owned and managed by a retiree from the paper, or employee using it as a side-gig to pull in a few extra dollars each month to help with personal expenses.

    This old delivery business model is not totally unlike Door Dash or Instacart. It had less modern tools (e.g. phones and apps). To be fair, it really wasn’t “gig work” either. We had a much less volatile customer base. Ours was a subscription-based model. Over the course of several months, we might lose one customer but gain two additional ones. This probably had as much to do with local real estate transactions as it did with service quality or price increases of the product. Modern delivery-based gig work is much more delivery-by-order (aka happenstance), and therefore more volatile. Travel differences are greater between deliveries. Similarities exists, but I recognize accurate comparisons are limited.

    When I read stories about modern delivery gig work or the new and evolving tipping etiquette in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Seattle Times – all papers I subscribe to electronically today – I think back to those days of delivering papers and the follow-on biweekly collecting task. These memories includes the pleasant summer mornings when it was light out with the heat of the Midwest summer day still hours away; the 5AM neighborhood raccoons, a pair sitting by the street gutter cisterns on each corner of 56th and Carrolton, the midpoint of my route, watching me zigzag door-to-door down the residential block delivering papers. Sixteen eyes, most mornings, focused directly at me, following my every step. Easy fellas, there’s eight of you and just one of me. I’m just the paper boy. Or, those dark winter Sunday mornings, snowbound after a storm the night before which rendered useless the yellow welded steel carts we borrowed (or rented, I can’t remember) from somewhere to deliver the heavy Sunday papers. We were left to our own devices to get the papers out to houses those snowy or slushy mornings. For me, it was usually stuffing my worn, inky canvas bags, more suitable for weekday editions, to the gills with the thick Sunday papers and tossing those bags on the back of the family sled. This usually required at least two trips to the alley shack and back to my route. The shack was at the distal end of my route. Snowy weekday deliveries were less problematic. For not more than $8-15 a week, at most. If that. 1970’s dollars.

    I also wonder if Door Dash, Instacart or some other web-based, on-demand delivery service have in their future business plans an aim to acquire more subscription-based delivery services as a way to grow and to balance the volatility of on-demand food and grocery services with more stable subscription-based services. I suspect they might have at least considered this concept. Maybe home newspaper deliveries aren’t worth the trouble.

    Finally, I wonder if the Seattle Times and other peer newspapers still providing home delivery of print editions have considered this possibility and the benefits or adverse impacts such a change to the delivery model might have on their business. I suppose they have, but who knows?

    It probably should be on their radar with plans on how to respond.


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