For the latest example of local newspapers’ struggle, and the need to find new ways to sustain journalism, look to Yakima.
The Seattle Times Company last week announced that it’s selling the Yakima Herald-Republic’s downtown building. It’s closing the Yakima press and consolidating printing at the Walla-Walla Union Bulletin, which it also owns.
This is excruciating — about 50 full and part-time employees are losing jobs — but necessary to sustain the business, Times executives told me. Yakima publishes a daily paper serving four counties and a weekly Spanish language newspaper.
This is also sadly common. From Bellingham to Chicago to Miami, newspaper headquarters and printing facilities have been sold as the industry contracted over the last decade.
“There used to be a couple dozen presses in the state, now we’re down to a half dozen, maybe,” said Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington. “They’re consolidating and they’re running them as efficiently as they possibly can.”
In some cases, remote investors are milking assets of faded newspaper companies, which may be more valuable than the news franchises.
If communities are lucky, as Seattle has been, proceeds of property sales are used to sustain the enterprise until better models for funding journalism emerge.
That’s why The Times sold its large printing facility in Bothell last year and consolidated publishing operations at its press in Kent. Earlier it sold its historic South Lake Union headquarters and moved to leased offices.
Now it’s happening in Yakima. News and business employees, already working remotely because of the pandemic, will move to leased offices as printing shifts to Walla Walla, 130 miles away.
I should disclose that my boss is Times Publisher Frank Blethen, the Union-Bulletin printed my college newspaper and my first daily newspaper job was in Yakima, so I’m sympathetic to all involved.
I’m also sentimental about these buildings. The old Yakima press used to be near the newsroom, so you could smell the ink, feel the machinery running and see the folks in stained coveralls who really put out the paper.
Wanting to preserve them seems selfish, though, when I think about the families selling heirlooms to keep the business alive.
“It’s truly painful to have to cut back,” Blethen said. “But if you don’t cut back then you have no chance of surviving and keeping something good there for the public. We’re going to do everything we can to try to make that happen.”
This highlights the urgent need for federal assistance to prevent local news organizations from becoming extinct, and to find ways to sustain the industry and the critical role it plays.
Proposals are percolating in Congress. One would provide tax credits to help sustain journalism jobs. Another would address the imbalance of power between tech giants like Google and Facebook, by allowing news organizations to collectively bargain with them.
Also being considered are ways to permanently support news outlets with a grant program, echoing a postal subsidy the nation’s founders enacted to support a free press they considered essential.
“If we got tax credits or we got grants, particularly the tax credits … then we’d be able to support our existing newsroom, perhaps an expanding newsroom,” Alan Fisco, Times president, told me
Blethen said his family bought the Yakima paper 29 years ago after successive out-of-state chains disinvested in it.
“We only bought it because we wanted to bring it back in state and reinvest in it,” he said.
It went from being one of Washington’s worst papers to one that dominated state newspaper awards in its category, he added. It also won prestigious national awards, including a George Polk Award for coverage of a deadly wildfire.
“They have done some fine work and some fine investigative work, we’re very proud of that,” Blethen said. “The economics have changed so much we can’t have some of the same costs like those printing costs that we had. But we’re going to do everything we can to see the different ways we can preserve really good content there.”
For some, such as retired Yakima City Editor Craig Troianello, that legacy tempers disappointment in the building sale.
“The Times had shielded us from the kind of cuts that we have seen at other newspapers,” said Troianello, who won a Gerald Loeb Award for coverage of China’s apple industry and its effect on Washington.
Blethen said a slow decline in the Yakima business began a decade ago and accelerated in 2020. Nationally, newsrooms saw record layoffs last year, after losing half their jobs the previous decade.
The Herald-Republic wasn’t profitable last year, with advertising sales falling 30% and commercial printing revenue down 40%.
With a TV station ending its sublease, there’s excess space and press capacity.
Such situations are pushing newspapers to play a brutal game of musical chairs.
In November, the East Oregonian newspaper closed its press, after printing papers in Pendleton since 1875.
Its owners had acquired the Bend and Redmond, Oregon, newspapers in a 2019 bankruptcy auction. They sold the Bend facility and shifted production to the Central Oregonian in Prineville, which has a new press.
Then Pendleton’s relatively new press went to the Union-Bulletin. As part of the deal, the Union-Bulletin will print the East Oregonian, as well as the Yakima Herald-Republic once the dust settles.
This song can only play so long, and there aren’t many chairs left to remove. It’s time for Congress and the Biden Administration to help local newspapers survive.