They dared to cover the news and went out of business

In an era of news staff cutbacks all over, the upstart weekly Whatcom Independent in Bellingham calls it quits.
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(Jon Sayer)

In an era of news staff cutbacks all over, the upstart weekly Whatcom Independent in Bellingham calls it quits.

In the newsroom of the Whatcom Independent, there sits a bell, like the ones you see at hotels next to signs reading, "tap for service." Every week after the editors put the paper to bed — or finish it and send a digital copy to the printers — they ring the bell to the applause of anyone left in the room.

The bell rang for the last time in June. The weekly newspaper covering Whatcom County published its last issue June 12. This ended a five-year attempt by a group of five owners — only one of which had any prior experience at a newspaper — and a staff of part-timers and volunteers to run a newspaper that was free of agenda or corporate ownership.

The Independent's owners started the paper in 2003 because they were dissatisfied with the level of news coverage in The Bellingham Herald, the dominant daily in Whatcom County, said publisher and co-owner Peter Mullen.

As Indy Editor Sheri Ward wrote in her goodbye column in the last issue, part of the paper's mission statement read, "[the] thrust of our reporting will be on our government agencies rather than private enterprises or individuals, because an open and unfettered press is essential to a free people." Skim through the last issue of the Indy [PDF], as some call it here, and you will see what she means. The lead article is an interview with Bellingham's new mayor about his first six months in office. There is an article about pollution in a local bay and one about the impacts of a recent city council decision. There is a list of twenty different public meetings, including the dates, times, and locations. The opinion section spans three pages and features articles from community activists and politicians.

It often led to dry writing and topics that may not have interested a large audience, but the information was there.

"It had information in it, news and hard news, that wasn't available elsewhere," avid Independent reader Earl Cilley said.

Mullen said between 20,000 to 25,000 people read the Independent every week. "From the very first few months, [readership] hit what it was and didn't change. As far as we can tell, it was a group of people who wanted the product we were putting out," Mullen said. "They were starved for the news. That's what they said when they called in."

Unfortunately, those readers weren't enough to attract the advertiser support needed to keep the paper afloat.

"We were hoping, business-wise, that it would become a sustainable enterprise. It didn't quite make it," co-owner and former publisher John Servais said.

Mullen said the owners originally expected to invest between $60,000 and $100,000 before the paper could stand on its own two feet. They ended up spending more than half a million between them before calling it quits.

"When we started, we said we would give it five years. Well, we are at the five-year mark now," Mullen said. The owners ended up with most of the workload and cost. They couldn't keep it up much longer.

Mullen said they didn't want to give up on the dream of independent news. So they published an article in May calling for someone else to take over the paper. There were some takers, he said, but the owners didn't feel any of them fit the bill. Some had the time, but not the money necessary to contribute meaningfully to the paper. Some had the money, but wanted to use the paper to push their own agenda. An agenda is something none of them wanted the Indy to have, Mullen said.

"It's time to pass the baton," Ward wrote in her last column. "Unfortunately, at this point, there's nobody on the receiving end of that pass."

There are other weeklies in Bellingham. There is Cascadia Weekly, an entertainment magazine, and the Bellingham Business Journal. But neither of these publications covered hard, government news to any large extent, Mullen said. Out in the county, there is the Lynden Tribune and its associated papers, but they don't cover Bellingham.

The only other "news" papers in town are the daily, The Bellingham Herald, and the student newspaper at Western Washington University, The Western Front. The Herald announced on July 17 that it would lay off 13 employees in accordance with workforce reductions nationwide by the Herald's parent company, McClatchy. Four of these jobs will be cut from the newsroom, meaning less local news is going to be covered in Whatcom County. "As we close, that's the big question mark," Servais said. "Who's going to fill in the gap? Or is it going to be just the Herald?"


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