Bellingham Herald continues slide to irrelevance

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Our local daily newspaper, the Bellingham Herald, continues to decline in its usefulness and value to citizens and residents of Bellingham and Whatcom County. The Herald, one of the lowest circulation papers of the 29 dailys owned by McClatchy, is under increasingly stringent financial requirements as McClatchy approaches probable bankruptcy.

The latest example of poor to non-existent reporting is our Primary Election campaign going on now.

On Wednesday, the Herald editors apparently forgot to post even the barest announcement or reminder of that evening’s Bill Mize political forum - the most important forum of the Primary campaign. After chiding on this blog Wed morn, they posted a notice online about 11 am. The forum was sparsely attended, no doubt partly due to the lack of notice.

Then Thursday they printed a brief article saying reporting on the forum would be in Friday’s paper because the 9 pm forum ending was too late for Thursday’s paper. Since the Herald can no longer afford their own printing presses, the paper is printed down in Mount Vernon and apparently this requires a much longer lead time. Our daily paper is no longer able to report evening meetings - thus no longer able to report daily news.

On Friday the Herald article on the forum sported the headline “Rural zoning not a hit” and the subhead “City, county, port hopefuls bash proposal”. However the article had not a word about Port and City candidates. It did not even report on County candidates in three district races. It only reported on the At-Large race. The headline had it wrong. Did the headline editor even read the article before writing the head? And what about reporting on the two vigorous Port primary races? Nada. There was room for a story and large photo on that same news page about a self published book and its author - cheap to report but of no value at all to voters and not even news. A puff piece as it is called in the business.

Now Saturday, today’s Herald, has not a word of reporting on the campaigns. Perhaps Sunday will have something. But we can get this reporting from a semi-weekly newspaper. Or even a weekly.

Increasingly the Herald reporters do not work weekends which means the articles for Monday are written on Friday. With political reporter Sam Taylor now on vacation we can expect something by him tomorrow, Sunday, and maybe Monday morning - articles that will contain news that is several days old. And we will then see no political coverage for over a week. Yet there is a forum next Tuesday - the last before ballots arrive.

The real blame for this belongs with McClatchy. In a struggle to survive the parent company has been slashing costs in a ruthless manner - and the Herald is totally under the control of McClatchy. Thus no overtime by reporters, less weekend work, not enough reporters, not enough editors and not enough pages to even barely report important news. The much reduced staff left at the Herald struggle to put out an increasingly skinny paper each day.

But the Herald is to blame for bias in covering the campaign. The Port reporter, John Stark, has assured the two Port Commissioners that he will not report on the forums sponsored by the challengers if the incumbent commissioners do not attend those forums. Thus we have forums with up to 100 people and the four Port challengers but the sitting commissioners can ignore these forums knowing the Herald will protect them from any critical reporting. Stark is also not reporting the hottest issue in the Port campaign - that Commissioner Scott Walker favored his employer BP Refinery with $180 million in low interest bonds over the past 10 years while shorting all other businesses in the county with only $13 million.

This coming week we will receive our Primary election ballots in the mail. The Herald is now scheduling primary candidates for interviews the week after. So we can expect some endorsements by the Herald about two weeks after we have received our ballots. And these “endorsements” will be by editors who have not attended any of the forums. And reporters who favor incumbents in very obvious ways.

Our Cascadia Weekly thus becomes increasingly valuable to us. Tim Johnson has been writing some excellent articles and opinion pieces about the Port and our local planning issues. Tim gets out there to talk with elected officials, local government staff and residents who are impacted. He doesn’t fill out a time sheet each day but rather works long hours to investigate and learn fully about local issues. He knows what he is writing about. We can - and I often do - disagree with Tim’s stuff, but he is now more important than ever in helping us to be informed. When I was the publisher of the Whatcom Independent we competed with Tim. But the Indy is gone and the Weekly is now our hope as far as a printed newspaper is concerned. The Herald reporters and editors are becoming more and more isolated from the realities of our local politics.

I should mention KGMI. Tracy Ellis did a great job covering the Bill Mize forum and their online posting has great sound clips interwoven with Tracy’s comments. They also posted the entire audio file if you want to listen for yourself.

I do not expect the Herald to last another year under McClatchy. The inside info is a couple of local well off guys are negotiating to buy it and return it to local control. We shall see.

Here at NwCitizen we will do what we can. Our writers are all active, involved and knowledgeable residents. But we cannot substitute for paid reporters and full time editors. For that we have the Herald and the Weekly - and increasingly only the Weekly. And, of course, the excellent monthly Whatcom Watch.

About John Servais

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

John Servais

Jul 26, 2009

Sunday - and not a word in the Herald about the election.  No reporting on any races - neither city, county nor port.  Nothing about Tuesday’s forum.  Nothing about ballots being mailed on Wednesday.  Before next Sunday’s paper, perhaps 20% of voters will have cast their ballots.  Sunday’s paper is more widely read than the daily. 

The point?  The Herald has abandoned its responsibility to our community.  It is now a publication in survival mode that is thinking only of the minimum needed to present a charade - a fake picture - of a daily newspaper.  It has been going downhill for several years and continues to do so - passing this election season into almost uselessness to us voters.

Tomorrow, Monday, we’ll see if any election articles appear - articles that will have been written last Thursday or Friday.  Three or four days ahead of time - like a weekly newspaper.

Tuesday’s forum?  7 pm at the American Museum of Radio and Electricity, 1312 Bay Street in downtown Bellingham.  Expect the Port challengers, the county at-large candidates and maybe the Bellingham 6th ward candidates - all in primary elections.  It would be nice to see the sitting port commissioners and a Herald reporter - but don’t expect it.


Tip Johnson

Jul 26, 2009

I think it is way beyond useless.  It verges on dangerous.

When it is discovered that the employer of a commissioner gets over 90% of nearly $200 million tax-exempt, low-interests loans issued over the last ten years, that is news.  When it is further discovered that there is no record of any outreach to other Whatcom County businesses, that is scandalous.

When a Commissioner reveals that he has made a business of building steel buildings on Port leases approved by the commission, that is news.  When he tries to say “I can think of one” and is then prompted to remember several more, that is scandalous.

We can read of corruption among elected officials in Hoboken, but not Bellingham.

A real newspaper would ask for complete disclosure, check the facts and report the story.

By neglecting to follow up and report on election developments like these, they leave voters dangerously uninformed about the candidate.  That increases the risk of re-election and continued corruption.

Is that what the Herald wants?


John Servais

Jul 27, 2009

Monday - and not a word about the election in this morning’s Herald.  Nor even a single Almanac listing of the candidate forum on Tuesday.

They use valuable news space to remind us there is a Toast Masters meeting on Tuesday - which they explain can help improve public speaking and communication skills.  How ironic.  But not a word about any candidate nor about ballots being mailed this week.