When The Seattle Times launched the Save the Free Press initiative, it was with an eye toward bolstering local news sources that serve a critical role in a healthy democracy. Changing business models, big-tech monopolies, public apathy, newspaper chains and hedge funds all threaten the vitality of the local free press.
Yet in the search for solutions, we sometimes forget that the local free press is more than just metro and regional newspapers. News publications come in all shapes and sizes, and it is a mistake to fixate on just one end of the continuum. Smaller community newspapers that print only weekly or monthly editions are no less precious to the communities they serve than their larger counterparts.
I got to thinking about those community papers this week thanks to an email from reader Georgia Gardner. She praised The Northern Light, a weekly community newspaper in Blaine that she reads regularly. She wrote about the paper’s great work and the challenges it faces.
I wanted to learn more, so I called Patrick Grubb. He and his wife, Louise Mugar, co-own the Point Roberts Press, which publishes both The Northern Light and the All Point Bulletin. The latter is a monthly serving Point Roberts.
For those unfamiliar with Blaine and Point Roberts, head north. Blaine is the last town on Interstate 5 before you cross into Canada.
To reach Point Roberts, keep heading north, drive around Boundary Bay, and then head south. You’ll wind up in Point Roberts, the tip of a Canadian peninsula that stretches a couple of miles south of the 49th parallel into the United States. These days, the closure of the Canadian border has isolated the community there.
Small community newspapers like The Northern Light and the All Point Bulletin tend to be shoestring operations. Both are distributed for free by mail to every home in their respective communities, and rely mostly on advertising and supplemental publications to pay the bills.
The fact that the papers go to every home and onto stands in local businesses popular with tourists appeals to advertisers. That sort of market saturation is hard to find. Even so, Facebook, Google and Craigslist have cut into advertising revenue over the years.
When COVID-19 hit, advertising and tourist traffic fell off. The Point Roberts Press secured a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to help keep paying about 10 employees. Two are full-time reporters, one is a paid reporting intern from Western Washington University and one is a freelancer who does most of the reporting in Point Roberts.
After PPP and other aid dried up, Grubb appealed directly to readers for help. He asked them to make a one-time $24 donation.
“We got a very, very good response,” Grubb said. “Much more than I would have expected. It has been instrumental in helping us weather this.”
I’m not surprised the response was strong. Readers in those communities have been getting a lot of valuable content for free. Readers like Gardner know what they’d lose if their community papers go belly-up.
“The mission of the papers is basically to provide local news,” Grubb explained. “We’re talking micro news, we’re talking the Blaine School District, we’re talking about the things that probably wouldn’t be covered by the larger daily in our area, The Bellingham Herald.”
There are tens of thousands of local governments in the United States. Daily newspapers report on many of them, but no paper can get to the outlying ones regularly, especially in this time of cutbacks. That coverage falls to community newspapers. It’s not Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, but it’s essential journalism for residents, taxpayers and voters.
And every once in a while, it is something more. In January, The Northern Light broke news about an internal memorandum related to Customs and Border Protection officers’ detaining Americans of Middle Eastern heritage at the Canadian border.
Grubb can see the border crossing from his office window. “It’s not often that a little rinky-dink newspaper gets to break something that turns out to be national news,” he said.
The Northern Light won 31 Washington Newspaper Publishers Association awards this year.
Grubb is optimistic about the future. He believes that The Northern Light and All Point Bulletin will survive the current economic stress, but it will continue to evolve.
That’s good news for Blaine and Point Roberts. They deserve a local free press as much as any other community.