Garry Kampen, a retired computer scientist and former Seattle University instructor who lives in the Eastside town of Newcastle, wrote a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times-owned Issaquah Press in July, wondering about the unannounced firing of one of the suburban weekly's reporters, Jim Feehan. He worked for the Press and wrote mainly for one of its subsidiary publications, the Newcastle News.
Kampen's letter stated he'd heard the following about Feehan's departure: "[Newcastle] City Manager John Starbard wrote a letter to the Seattle Times (which owns the Issaquah Press, which publishes the Newcastle News) accusing News reporter Jim Feehan of bias and inaccurate reporting. The Times passed the buck to Issaquah Press publisher Debbie Berto, who met with the City Manager and subsequently fired Mr. Feehan, the only reporter for the monthly News."
With "potential massive debt (and tax increases) for a new city hall and other multi-million-dollar projects," Kampen said of Newcastle, an historic coal town-cum-Seattle bedroom community (pop. 9,900), "open public discussion is essential between now and the election. If the city manager and his allies hold the only megaphone, and the Press rolls over, we're in trouble."
Kampen's letter, which frets over a "police state" mentality taking hold in Newcastle, has yet to be published. "In my view, Feehan was fired for covering the news," Kampen says. "I guess that was his sin, being a real journalist." Berto, the Press publisher, insists that's not true. While she's unable to discuss specific personnel issues, she says, "I will tell you [Feehan's] leaving here has nothing to do with the letter that was written to us about Jim. There wasn't much that the city manager told me that concerned me."
Starbard, Newcastle's city manager, didn't respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment for this story, nor did Seattle Times editorial page editor Ryan Blethen, who sent Starbard's email to Berto for resolution.
But Feehan, now jobless, says Kampen has the story right."The email and a letter arrived, and I was terminated shortly thereafter," he says. "I was thrown under the bus to appease a city manager, [who] felt there was a lack of happy news projecting a positive image of the city."
Until he was fired in late June, Feehan was paid $16-an-hour to cover Newcastle goings-on and perform some editing chores for the small News, published 12 times a year. He also wrote for the Press and several other sister publications. The small-town fare included city budgets, local festivals, and new street signs--"not exactly investigative reporting," Feehan laughs. A 25-year newspaper veteran whose stops included dailies in Eugene, Everett, and Centralia, Feehan, 52, thinks the city manager's complaint "probably had a big impact on Berto" because it was routed through Blethen, whose family owns the Times Co. chain.
Feehan concedes that he had earlier been told during his nearly three-year tenure that he lacked some required editing skills. And Rob Sargent, a Newcastle resident and board member of the local Chamber of Commerce who supports Feehan, says the reporter had publicly passed around the Starbard-Blethen-Berto correspondence before he was fired, "and that probably had something to do with the termination"--although the city manager's email and letters are public record and can therefore be viewed by anyone. Publisher Berto wouldn't discuss either issue as possible termination factors.
The correspondence, obtained by Seattle Weekly, shows Starbard obviously wanted Freehan to find work elsewhere. On June 16, Starbard titled an email to Blethen "Disservice to Seattle Times," and claimed the Times "has a serious issue of credibility, bias and inaccuracy with the Newcastle News in general and its reporter, Jim Feehan, specifically." He claimed Feehan didn't check his facts, preferred to get information from city council members "he endorsed in the last election," failed to meaningfully cover "major city events that reflect positively on the city," and had his "own political agenda." "This is being done in the name of the Seattle Times," Starbard added.
These are complaints most reporters and editors have heard in towns large and small, and the examples cited by Starbard include disagreement over placement of stories in the paper and differences of opinion over what should have been reported--both subjective editorial decisions. On June 19, Blethen wrote Starbard to tell him he was forwarding the email to Berto, whom Blethen classified as "the best person to take this up with." Starbard wrote back to say he'd set up a meeting with Berto, and Blethen responded with a note about the Times' newspapers being run independently, and typing, apparently hastily, "Problems between newspapers and City Hall is [sic] very common. I know because I have covered a number of City Halls. Even when the relationship is good, it can be very tense."
Starbard, who brought along his police chief, Melinda Irvine, met with Berto shortly thereafter, and wrote her a five-page, single-spaced letter elaborating on his original complaints. He cited two apparent errors by Feehan, and objected to the content in some stories and lack of coverage of others. He sent a copy of the letter to Blethen as well. A few days later, Feehan says, he was called into the Press publisher's office and terminated.
"It wasn't a discussion about quantity or quality [of copy], and I had not received any warnings," Feehan recalls. "I was fired, and at that point, having already seen the letter and emails, I wasn't surprised." The city spent thousands of dollars advertising in the News, he adds, and "there was always an underlying current in the [newspaper's] office that you had to be careful about not offending the city, or they pulled their ads."
Sargent, the Chamber member who admits a dislike for Starbard's management, thinks City Hall "expected Feehan to be a mouthpiece, just print their press releases verbatim," and says that issue persists today. Feehan, though, is trying to put it all in his rearview mirror as he looks for work in a severely downsized newspaper market.
"It's a bitter pill," he says. "But I just want to move on--just report."