It’s not like in the movies, where you run in and shout “stop the presses!” In real life the presses tend to stop on you.
So it is this week, when the presses will roll the final time for yet another community newspaper. Now called Westside Seattle, the paper is an amalgam of the old West Seattle Herald, which has been around for 98 years, and the even older Ballard News-Tribune, which debuted in 1891.
“We have ink imprinted like an extra letter in our DNA,” says Pat Robinson, 69, one of the brothers who has been helping run the papers, along with their late father Jerry Robinson, since he first bought the White Center News in 1952.
The story of how it’s ending isn’t really news at this point. Craigslist then Google then local blogs competing and then boom, a pandemic to finish it off. The paper, the family says, was still eking out a profit as recently as 2019, but by the end had dwindled to a single reporter.
“Printing on dead trees, it isn’t sustainable anymore,” says Ken Robinson, 76, who wrote his first column for the family newspapers when he was 11.
The second to last issue, dated April 23, contains hyperlocal news about a fire, about a summer festival in West Seattle being canceled and a historical stone cottage saved from the wrecking ball. The paper had in recent years also been running columns by former Seattle Times columnist Jean Godden.
At their peak, in the late 1980s, the Robinson family ran five community papers, including the thrice-weekly Federal Way News. Here’s how much the newspaper business has shrunk: they incredibly had 400 employees.
It’s hard to describe to younger people how wrapped up all of this was in community identity. At one point the Ballard News-Tribune was delivered automatically to every address in Ballard. That part of town had its own distinct flavor, ya sure ya betcha, but part of the reason was that everybody there shared at least one common source of information.
“To be brutally honest, we were stuck in the print model, of a slower take on the news, and we couldn’t adapt,” says Pat Robinson. He added they hope to continue some news content online, or as an email newsletter.
Thirteen community newspapers statewide have gone under in the pandemic, according to the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. From a high of 130 neighborhood papers in the 1990s, it’s now down to 65, says Fred Obee, a former editor of the Port Townsend Leader who runs that association.
These losses are personal to me. These little papers were a mass training ground for the entire industry.
The first story I ever got paid for was in the Ballard News-Tribune, in 1989, when it was technically not yet owned by the Robinsons, but by their accountant, Don Glockner. I walked into the office, which back then was on Market Street, and tried to convince the editor, a guy named Matt Erlich, that I could bring aggressive reporting and dazzling writing to his fine publication.
OK, he said, surprisingly. Go to this night meeting and write it up. If it works out, we’ll pay you $10.
I looked up the result in the archives. “Ballardites hear about budget,” read my first headline. Not exactly going viral, that one.
I hadn’t misspelled any names, though. So next I got to write about some Ballardites who had found gold in a meteorite. And then about how some water pipes in the Ballard locks were grinding up baby salmon. I also learned the craft of doing what was by far most-read feature in the paper, the police blotter.
I was off and running in the world of small stories, and began writing for other tiny papers around town. But I realize now my career ladder goes like this: Ballard News-Tribune (going). Capitol Hill Times (gone, at least for now). West Seattle Herald (going). Northwest Sports Review (gone). Valley Daily News in Kent (gone). Bellevue Journal-American (gone). Seattle Times south bureau (gone). Seattle Times Washington, D.C., bureau (gone).
Every rung of my career ladder is missing, except the one I’m standing on.
“Maybe it’s you?” my current editor suggested. He laughed merrily at that until it dawned on him this means he could be next.
“The Times, the P-I, The Spokesman-Review — they were filled with reporters who had come through our doors, just like you,” says Pat Robinson. “We’ve always been very proud of the role we had as the farm team.”
The Seattle Times’ stellar transportation reporter Mike Lindblom is another who got his start there, writing his first stories for the West Seattle Herald (about everything from electric rates to high school basketball).
It’s always sad to me when a little paper shuts down, but this isn’t meant to be solely a wake. Seattle’s got exciting rising media in the mix as well, such as Converge, Omari Salisbury’s “local news for the Northwest’s Black community,” and a host of hyperlocal blogs (capitolhillseattle.com is a standout). There are also vital community papers that aren’t shutting down, such as Assunta Ng’s Northwest Asian Weekly.
This next week, though, marks the end for some century-old local institutions. There’s zero doubt the news will go on, including being told by a more diverse array of voices — and hopefully for 100 more years.
But an invaluable proving ground, a ready-made apprenticeship shop, is withering. I’m not sure how that last part is going to be replaced.