Are Seattle’s neighborhood papers all washed up?

One man's odyssey through the backstreets of Seattle journalism, from 'students in the news' and the policeblotter to fighting City Hall and winning

In a profession that loses people every day, Stan Stapp and Trudy Weckworth just keep coming back for more. Stapp, 81, literally grew up above a community newspaper: His older brother, Milton, ran the North Central Outlook in the basement of the family home on Woodlawn Avenue N in Wallingford. Stan, who later joined his brother at the Outlook, was absent from Seattle newspaper columns for almost a decade after he sold the paper in 1974 (although part of his “break” was spent starting up a monthly Anacortes newspaper after he temporarily relocated there). He resumed his column writing for the Fremont Forum in the mid-1980s, continuing in The Seattle Press until shortly after its sale. His column now appears monthly in Seattle’s newest community newspaper, The Jet City Maven.

Weckworth was a late convert to the community-newspaper religion. She was in her late thirties and had already run a restaurant, been employed as a bookkeeper, and worked for the Seattle School District by the time she hired on at the North Central Outlook. A general office helper at the start, she quickly talked the Stapps into letting her write a few feature stories; before long, she was the paper’s ace reporter. But Weckworth, 86, is best known as a police reporter and the fact gatherer for HASH, the punchy, present-tense police beat column that Milton Stapp wrote for various North End community papers until his death in 1991. Weckworth took over the column, which still appears in The Seattle Press (she also writes a beat column for the Ballard News-Tribune).

As one of Seattle’s most experienced community newspaper reporters, Tim St. Clair’s r鳵m頩s typically untypical. A former US Congress aide and state of Utah bureaucrat, he also had experience as a staff writer for a national boating publication when he relocated to Seattle in 1988 to set up shop as a freelance writer. After a year of that, he was glad to hook up with the West Seattle Herald as a staff reporter—a position he still holds.

Although they provide a steady paycheck, community newspapers aren’t known for high salaries. The recent wave of sympathy for Washington teachers and their paltry $24,000 starting salary hasn’t made it to small newsrooms, where many professionals with several years of service are paid considerably less. “You’ve got to want to do it,” St. Clair says of his profession. “You can’t be a materialistic person.”

It took the combination of a community newspaper on the sales block, some money in his bank account, and his between-jobs status to make a media mogul out of 59-year-old Tom Herriman. “I said to myself, ‘This confluence of events will never happen again,'” he recalls—so he took the plunge and bought the 25,000-circulation Seattle Press, an every-other-Wednesday tabloid distributed in North Seattle.

In the year that editor/publisher Herriman has operated the Press, the paper has shifted to in-the-computer composition, added full-color photographs on the front page, and created an impressive Web site. But what Tom is excited about at the time of his interview is a story on bird watching by four sixth-graders. Their teacher submitted it, hoping Tom might fit it in his paper; he put it on the front page. “That’s something a daily paper can’t do,” says Herriman proudly.

Terry Denton, who with wife, Elizabeth White, owned and published The Seattle Press from 1986 until its sale to Herriman, vividly remembers his introduction to community papers, in the form of the Fremont Forum. At first, Denton wasn’t much impressed with the crudely laid-out little paper, “but there were really interesting things about my neighborhood, which was a neighborhood I hadn’t lived in before. It connected you with the place that you live.”

Although the daily papers sometimes printed neighborhood stories, they weren’t “the kind of thing that makes you connect.” What little television coverage neighborhoods get tends to focus on crime or fires. Denton, a former college faculty member with a doctorate in sociology, wasn’t destined to remain an interested observer for long. He and White acquired the Fremont Forum, changed the paper’s name to the North Seattle Press, and later founded a second paper, the monthly Lake Union Review (the Press and Review were merged in 1994 as The Seattle Press). “As cities grow larger and larger, if you don’t have something that connects you to the neighborhood, people aren’t going to be involved,” he says.

Jack Arends is a 19-year journalism veteran, a rare community newspaper editor with extensive work experience at both dailies and weeklies. His interview, however, was held in a decidedly non-journalistic location—the cafeteria at Georgetown’s Boeing Plant no. 2.

Last summer, Arends stepped down as editor of the Queen Anne News and signed on with Boeing as an independent communications contractor. “You just reach a point in your life when you have to worry about other things—like saving for retirement or having weekends off,” he says.

He knows about burnout as well. “To put the kind of quality you want to put in your work—it does require sacrifice,” he notes. “I could see the danger approaching. I didn’t want to become somebody who just kind of mailed it in.”

AS THE PEOPLE ABOVE vividly demonstrate, mavericks of one kind or another have kept the vibrant world of Seattle’s community newspapers alive almost since the city’s founding. (For the purposes of this story, a “community newspaper” is defined as a non-daily publication aimed at covering a small geographic area—usually a neighborhood—although many of the observations made here also apply to ethnic newspapers and other small publications.) Fighting daunting socio-economic trends and the pressures of competition from deep-pocketed media companies, such papers find a way to survive—and even, in some cases, thrive—in a way possible only for legitimate labors of love. Even the biggest threat to a community paper’s survival—burnout and better jobs for owners and staffers alike—can’t quite kill off the drive to own, operate, and publish a news-and-opinion source for neighborhoods. Although Arends, who roughly doubled his salary by switching jobs, says the rising cost of housing in Seattle puts home ownership well beyond the reach of a neighborhood newspaper editor, there always seems to be someone ready to pick up where the departed have left off.

Beyond presenting the traditional elements of community papers—the bulletin-board-like calendar pages, police beat reports, business briefs, gardening columns, and local “students in the news”—these publications serve as an irreplaceable news source for readers interested in the 95 percent of stories that slip under the radar of Seattle’s behemoth dailies. And many times, daily and community papers write stories on the same topics—city government news, for example—but do it in a different way. “We cover it,” The Seattle Press‘ Tom Herriman says, “from angles that the dailies don’t.”

Or can’t. A daily newspaper can’t localize the way the West Seattle Herald did recently when it covered the school construction bond’s progress by spotlighting developments at the few affected local schools. It can’t match the singular focus of The South District Journal‘s weekly dispatches on the debate over whether the Rainier Valley rail link will be built underground or at grade. It can’t match the depth of columns, stories, and letters to the editor that have made the Queen Anne News the best information source on the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation’s effort to build a culture center at Discovery Park.

Lacking the distraction of large sums of money to be made, community newspapers can instead focus on the interests of the creators and their communities. This can make for a combination of better local coverage and whimsical changes of direction that are refreshing in comparison with the timid and torpid rate of change in corporate-owned publications. Seattle Press publisher Herriman, the former editor of regional and national labor newspapers, keeps a sharp eye out for the issues of working people, while giving coverage to both big-city political issues and smaller neighborhood news stories and features. And he made the switch from traditional black-and-white photography to full color on a whim after he had taken a set of color photos at a Fremont sidewalk chalk art competition last October. “They were just so beautiful,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to publish them in black-and-white.”

The West Seattle Herald‘s Tim St. Clair brings a sense of mission to his work that is rooted entirely in love of his community, for which he is determined to be the major communication source. “There’s really a sense of West Seattle as a distinct place,” he says. He constantly runs across folks whose families have lived in the neighborhood for three or four generations. “I think that’s what it takes for a community paper to succeed—that sense of community.”

The Herald is perhaps Seattle’s best example of a neighborhood newspaper in the small-town model. Almost every headline includes the name of one of the small neighborhoods in the paper’s coverage area: Admiral, Delridge, Westwood. The coverage is relentlessly local, with briefs on neighborhood land use projects, stories on local arts groups, and coverage of the sports teams at the two area high schools. “There’s plenty of smaller stories that mean something to people at the street level that other papers ignore,” says St. Clair.

Daily newspapers have made off-and-on efforts to compete by publishing zoned editions featuring weekly local news coverage. However, interest in zone coverage is waning generally across the country—and specifically in Seattle, where the daily Seattle Times has unceremoniously abandoned its decadelong experiment with zoned editions.

Diana Kramer, executive director of Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, says daily papers seem more intent now on warding off competition from electronic media than challenging the community papers on their home turf. “As people develop alternative sources for news, we’re seeing more and more of that attention going to the Internet,” she says. “Yet there is no alternative I’m aware of for local news.”

With the recent closure of the Seattle Times-owned Downtown Source, the Seattle city market for community papers has been left to two chains, two energetic independents, and a trio of odd hybrids. The Pacific Media Group (now called Pacific Publishing Co.) owns eight papers, and Robinson Newspapers has the West Seattle Herald and Ballard News-Tribune; The Seattle Press and North Seattle’s Jet City Maven are the only two stand-alone community papers, with the remaining publications being the struggling-but-surviving Regrade Dispatch, the monthly Pike Place Market News, and the International Examiner (a combination of an International District neighborhood paper and an Asian community publication).

IT DOESN’T TAKE a lot of pushing to get introspective musings from community newspaper publishers and editors, who take advantage of editorials and columns to reflect on their chosen profession at a rate that makes the self-absorbed Seattle Times seem laid-back by comparison. The South District Journal‘s Dennis Fitzgerald marked that newspaper’s switch to a new design format with just such an editorial, stating that “Our mission is to foster a sense of place in a world where placelessness—the Anywhere USA of suburbs and strip malls—sometimes seems to be gaining the upper hand.”

You can put a price tag on placelessness by looking at the experience of “placeless” companies who have tried to take over the place-rooted community newspaper market. The Seattle Times was never able to turn a profit on the community newspapers it purchased in Federal Way and Highline, in part because residents of these sprawling bedroom communities tend to identify with distinct cities like Seattle or Tacoma rather the vast suburban area surrounding their homes, and in part because the Times‘ community ties with these places were contrived.

Pacific Publishing hasn’t fared much better. When Texas investors, led by current PMG publisher Tom Haley, formed the company in 1990 by buying the Flaherty chain of community newspapers, the Queen Anne News became PMG’s unquestioned flagship. Unlike the Flaherty papers, the News had been a stand-alone operation for many years, under the ownership of former state legislator John Murray. Most important—in bottom-line terms, at least—the News had enjoyed a long tradition of local advertising from Queen Anne and Magnolia businesses, including the two advertising cornerstones of the classic community newspaper: grocery-store display ads and real estate classifieds. Pacific Media quickly cut costs throughout the company by closing local newspaper offices and trimming staffs, pairing papers in adjacent neighborhoods under a single editor, and filling its columns with copy written by student journalists from the University of Washington News Lab. But the News was exempted at first, allowed to keep its own office, its own publisher, and a two-person news staff. Thus when Arends, then senior editor for the Kitsap Newspaper Group, was offered the Queen Anne job in 1993 by publisher Mike Dillon, “I said, ‘Hey, give me 20 seconds to think it over.'”

Economic reality set in shortly thereafter, and the News ended up going the way of the other PMG papers, first leaving its longtime office on Galer Street for quarters near the Seattle Center, and last year finally moving into the chain’s Belltown headquarters. Pacific Media, which had shelled out more than $1 million for its newspaper purchases and guaranteed generous payments over time to the Flaherty ownership, started to feel financially squeezed during the economic slowdown of the mid-1990s. PMG and Flaherty found themselves in court in 1994, when the cash-poor PMG was unable to keep up with its payment schedule (the suit was settled two years later).

“When I started [at the News], we had an office on top of the hill, complete with a cat,” recalls Arends. “For me, [the move to Belltown] was a blow. When you move out of the individual office and into the plant . . . you just lose some of that Norman Rockwell quality—that personal feel.” Within four months of the move, he left the industry.

Among the complex urban-life forces driving community papers out of business are dramatic changes in their advertising climate. Grocery stores, for example—once the bread and butter of a community paper’s advertising base—have switched to direct-mail circulars or inserts (which now find their way into home-delivered copies of daily newspapers just as often as they appear in community weeklies). Direct-mail coupon packages have stolen away ads from many restaurants and community businesses. Even the Queen Anne News, with perhaps the city’s most loyal advertisers, has lost one of its two major grocery accounts. Other longtime advertisers, like the local pharmacy, have been squeezed out of business themselves by megaretailers. Mergers and acquisitions also play into the mix: QFC was bought out by Portland’s Fred Meyer, which itself was sold to Cincinnati’s Kroger grocery chain. “You’ve got a situation where the businesses in the neighborhood are still loyal to the paper and still buy ads—there’s just fewer of those businesses around,” says Arends.

Former Seattle Press publisher Denton points out that many small-business owners simply can’t afford to advertise. “For a lot of little businesses, their front door is their main advertising,” he says. He cites a neighborhood restaurant he visited where the owners had invested their life savings—nearly $50,000—in renovating the building and purchasing equipment to open the business, but hadn’t budgeted a penny for advertising. One of his later innovations at the Press was a special $99 rate for businesses to buy a one-column inch ad for a year (26 issues), so they’d at least have a regular presence in the paper. “It didn’t work,” he notes sadly.

Chain ownership—the inevitable business fix for cash-hungry stand-alone enterprises—has repeatedly proven a poor fit with the Seattle community newspaper market. Long a web of various family-owned weeklies, the city’s community papers were bought out in the early 1970s by a large national media company owned by a trio of millionaires. As Seattle TODAY, the chain managed to work itself into the financial graveyard inside of two years. Stan Stapp, whose family founded Wallingford’s North Central Outlook more than 70 years ago, says that the chain owners were intent on competing with the dailies for the big-money accounts, and made the fatal error of ignoring the small neighborhood business customers they had inherited. “They alienated all the advertisers,” says Stapp. “They didn’t pay attention to anyone putting in a 2×2 ad, which was the basis of our being.”

Pacific Media, which has focused its advertising efforts on its run-through classified ad section—a section that runs in all its papers—probably has its best set of neighborhood editors since purchasing the chain in 1990. But like any community chain, it is always a couple of resignations away from another period of reinventing itself.

GIVEN THE TREMENDOUS LIMITATIONS of the business, why would anyone start a community newspaper nowadays? To judge from the recent experience of Clayton and Susan Park, co-editors/publishers of the monthly Jet City Maven, the answer is a complicated mix of editorial-entrepreneurial drive and the desire of neighborhood denizens for a paper that speaks to and for them. Originally the husband-wife team had envisioned publishing a neighborhood newsletter in the Licton Springs area of North Seattle. But as they discussed their plans with people in the community, the project quickly acquired a life of its own. Although The Seattle Press and the two North End Pacific Media papers (the University Herald and North Central Outlook) include the far north neighborhoods in their coverage areas, most of those papers’ circulations and ad bases lie south of Green Lake.

So the Parks’ plans for a community paper found an enthusiastic reception. On the eve of the first issue, the product became a newsprint tabloid, with a coverage area expanded to include the Maple Leaf and Northgate neighborhoods, plus the business-heavy commercial areas around Green Lake. Lake City was added after Susan went to the city’s Northeast Neighborhood Service Center to introduce herself, and was steered to a group of Lake City businesspeople eager to see a paper in their neighborhood. The Maven was launched in March 1997 as an every-other-month paper, then switched to monthly publication with its third issue. Its circulation is now 18,000, about a quarter of which are mailed to homes, with the rest left at area businesses, community centers, and libraries.

Clayton, whose r鳵m頩ncludes stints with the North Seattle Press, Pike Place Market News (as founding editor), and Puget Sound Business Journal, had originally intended to run the paper full-time. But after he was offered a position as business editor of Bellevue’s daily Eastside Journal, it was Susan who ended up quitting her job and taking the helm. An experienced newspaper designer, Susan had no problem handling production duties, but was in for a crash course in functioning as her paper’s public face. She immediately became a familiar figure at community group meetings and began the tough, unfamiliar work of selling advertising. “We came into a cold territory that has not advertised in a community newspaper for a long time,” she says.

She learned in short order that financial fatalism is an integral part of community newspaper camaraderie. Now, when she nostalgically mentions making $14 an hour in her former job as a Seattle Times production worker, Stan Stapp jokes, “So you went from 14 down to zero.” Jack Arends contributes a riddle: “How do you make a small fortune in community newspapers? Start with a large fortune.”

But Susan Park never lets such conversations dwell for long on money. “I’d like to talk about how much fun I’m having,” she announces one day, cutting into yet another conversation about newspaper finances. “I’m definitely achieving my goal of doing something that’s fulfilling and creative. I don’t get paid much money at this point—but I have a pretty good life.”

As Stan Stapp watches the fledgling Jet City Maven rise up to carry on a tradition that has sustained him through his entire life, he now argues that small neighborhood papers will always have an appeal, especially as the other communications media—daily newspapers, television—get bigger and more impersonal. He cites the Maven‘s neighborhood focus as its reason for being. “When I go through their paper, it’s almost 100 percent local—they do a good job on that,” he says.

Still, there is no end of big competition. According to the Veronis, Suhler & Associates Communications Industry Forecast, the number of weekly papers is growing (from 8,760 in 1992 to 9,050 in 1997), although most of these new papers tend to serve developing suburban areas and have circulations of 10,000 copies or less. The most spectacular—and, to community papers, the most dangerous—growth in the industry is in alternative newsweeklies, such as Seattle Weekly and The Stranger. During that same five-year period, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies saw a rise in member circulation from 4.3 million to 6.9 million copies each week, and an advertising growth from $174 million to $374 million.

The big change locally is in the circulation numbers. Ten years ago, Seattle Weekly was a 33,000-paid-circulation publication, and The Stranger‘s founders were still Wisconsin college boys. Now, the two alternatives distribute more than 700,000 free copies in an average month, as compared to fewer than 500,000 copies for all Seattle’s community newspapers combined.

Small wonder that Trudy Weckworth is sometimes dubious about the future of the community press. She cites the growing loss of circulation even among major daily newspapers, and the trend of people relying on television for their news. But in voicing her fears for the future, she inadvertently gives expression to a certain yearning in communities that may prove reason enough for these papers to find a way to survive. “I do have the feeling that we’re certainly going to miss community newspapers if they cease to exist,” she says, “because there’s nothing like them if they’re done properly.”

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