There’s no telling how far a newspaper will fall. When I started as a reporter at The Bellingham Herald in 2011, some 25 people were working in the newsroom, including six news reporters, five news editors of various ranks, a sports department, and three people on the photo desk.
The numbers sound gaudy today, but those were gloomy times. Rather than looking forward to annual raises, everyone got effective pay cuts in the form of two-week mandatory, unpaid furloughs. The company stopped matching 401(k) contributions. The axe hung over all of us and struck several. Some copy editors were bought out. (Shortly after I left, the copy desk was eliminated altogether. Page design was outsourced to California.) Two of the three photography positions were eliminated before I left, in November 2015.
During my four years, we kept saying to each other, “We’re cut down to the bone. McClatchy can’t continue to cut and expect us to do our job,”—that is, telling the meaningful, significant stories of Whatcom County.
How far has The Bellingham Herald fallen in nine years? Today, the newsroom has seven people: the editor, four reporters, one reporter/backup editor, and a photographer/videographer. And we thought we were stretched thin with 25 staffers.
“The job of newspapers is to keep community informed but also to hold power to account,” reporter Denver Pratt said during a recent interview. Pratt covers courts and the criminal justice system, and has been with the Herald for three-plus years. “We do that, but I think we could do that better if we had a more robust staff. We’re covering the community as best we can. Obviously, there’s always room to improve.”
COVID-19 has added another challenge. Members of the Herald’s news team are isolated from one another as they work at home through the pandemic lockdowns. Still, they have produced some quality stories. Dave Rasbach’s coverage of the fatal outbreak at Shuksan Healthcare Center comes to mind. It culminated in a moving piece published on May 3.
As Editor Julie Shirley wrote in fall 2019, during a series of pitches to get people to buy digital subscriptions, the Herald still has the largest staff of reporters in Whatcom County. One would expect Shirley to shore up confidence in the Herald’s work among readers and, more importantly, potential subscribers. The Herald needs digital subscribers. Ads are no longer going to pay the bills at newspapers, and if print isn’t dead quite yet, it’s definitely in hospice care. “Our future is digital,” Shirley wrote in October 2019. And the number of digital subscribers was growing, Shirley announced at the time. (The subscriber base also got a bump in 2020, thanks to the elections and COVID-19.)
What Shirley didn’t mention in her pitches was how badly McClatchy had bungled everything.
No one local is to blame for The Bellingham Herald’s decline. The newspaper is a tiny part of a dysfunctional corporate machine. And if you want to buy into the notion that corporations are evil, at least for the sake of a metaphor, then McClatchy just descended into a new level of hell this year, when it was taken over by a hedge fund. The people who work in the Herald’s newsroom who aren’t management—or a large majority of them, at least—have decided to take a stand. They’re forming a union. The aim is to salvage something for themselves, of course, but also to make sure Whatcom County gets the newspaper it needs and deserves.
On one level, The Bellingham Herald has endured the same crisis as other newspapers around the world. The rise of the internet gave the public another source of information besides the ink-on-dead-tree medium that had served Americans so admirably for centuries. (OK, to be historically accurate, newspapers 150-plus years ago were printed on rags.) The internet siphoned away newspapers’ revenue streams. First, Craigslist replaced the highly lucrative classified ads in the 2000s, and then Google and Facebook gobbled up the lion’s share of online ad revenue in the 2010s.
If McClatchy’s problem was limited to just the internet, then things wouldn’t have been so bad at The Bellingham Herald. But in 2006, McClatchy made a bad business decision that ultimately proved fatal. It bought the much bigger Knight Ridder newspaper chain for $4.5 billion, in addition to taking on about $2 billion of Knight Ridder’s debt. That was about the same year that ad revenues started declining at Knight Ridder as well as essentially every other newspaper company in the U.S. McClatchy had to borrow more money to stay afloat over the next dozen years.
Eventually, McClatchy was drowning in its own debt and pension obligations, despite aggressive staff cuts since the Knight Ridder acquisition. The Washington Post reported that McClatchy reduced its newspaper workforce by more than 80 percent between 2006 and 2018, from 15,378 to 2,800. The Bellingham Herald was not alone in feeling the pain of loss.
McClatchy, owners of the Herald, 28 other U.S. newspapers, and the McClatchy DC news agency, declared bankruptcy in February 2020. By September, McClatchy was owned and controlled by its biggest creditor, a hedge fund called Chatham Asset Management.
Chatham came out of the gate saying the right things, as quoted in a report from McClatchy DC:
“McClatchy is a storied franchise with a rich tradition of serving the interests of local communities across the country. Now, more than ever, investing in independent journalism is imperative to ensuring the public is informed about critical issues impacting regions nationwide. We are proud to serve as stewards of the business as it continues to provide consumers with important news and information from a newfound position of strength.”
As Poynter reported when the Chatham acquisition was announced, McClatchy’s position of strength would come from being relieved of much of its debt burden. Still, no one can know what Chatham bosses have in mind for the McClatchy papers. They may have used nice words in the McClatchy takeover announcement, but Chatham’s actions in Canada are giving employees at The Bellingham Herald reason to be worried. When Chatham took over Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, in 2016, the hedge fund proceeded to kill 30 newspapers and lay off 1,600 employees. Among the staffers who remained, salaries and benefits were cut, according to a New York Times report.
“They say that they’re committed to local journalism,” Pratt said. “With us unionizing, that’s a way for us to hold them to those words.”
More than 90 percent of union-eligible employees at the Herald, The News Tribune in Tacoma, The Olympian, and the Tri-City Herald support organizing a union called the Washington State NewsGuild.
“Right now we don’t have any say in our working conditions, or any of the decisions that get made about staffing levels or pay,” Pratt said. “Now we will have a voice, someone who is fighting for us and our best interests, and not just the company’s bottom line. We get to bargain with them and make sure we can ensure our communities are still being covered by local journalists at local papers.”
Staff at the four papers are waiting for McClatchy to say whether it will voluntarily accept the union. Shirley, who last year took the title of general manager at The Bellingham Herald, declined to comment for this story, directing questions to Jeanne Segal, McClatchy’s communications director. Segal said she had nothing to add to a statement she gave Poynter for an article published Dec. 17:
“We appreciate the passion and dedication of the reporters at The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and the Tri-City Herald and respect their aim to form a union. We recognize that it’s not an easy time to be a journalist. We value the tremendous work they have produced in these unprecedented times and together with them share a dedication to the mission of local journalism.”
Support for the union is strong enough among employees at the four papers that they will be able to form the union, even without McClatchy’s blessing.
During Chatham’s short tenure so far, there have been some positive developments. The hedge fund relented to union pressure and granted paid parental leave to employees at all McClatchy newspapers in 2021, Segal said.
“There is this willingness to listen to newsrooms with unions that, for us, was sort of a turning point,” News Tribune reporter Josephine Peterson said, regarding conversations the newspaper’s staffers had with each other about whether to organize.
Another positive development for workers: McClatchy shelved a plan to tie a reporter’s pay to the number of clicks her stories get, after The Sacramento Bee’s union fought the idea. If it seems reasonable to you that reporters should get raises if they hit a certain click quota, check out this tweet from the Sacramento Bee News Guild: “Journalism that serves the community takes time and care. Countless interviews. Late-night meetings. Stacks of records. The pursuit of clicks is something different.”
Without union representation, reporters at The Bellingham Herald and the other Washington papers aren’t shielded from click-for-pay, what I would call a cynical move to put dollars ahead of a newspaper’s mission to serve its community.
Bellingham Herald employees don’t yet have a list of demands they’re ready to bring to the bargaining table. “We want to make sure everyone’s voice is included,” Pratt said.
Personally, Pratt said she wants adequate pay. “Some of us can barely afford our rent and barely afford to live in the communities we cover, and that’s inexcusable.”
Pratt also wants to push management for a more diverse newsroom, a sentiment echoed by staff in Tacoma.
“We don’t reflect the communities that we cover, and that obviously comes through in our coverage,” Pratt said. “I think we have an opportunity with the union to make that better.”
Matt Driscoll, a reporter and columnist at the News Tribune, put it this way: “Our newsroom is overwhelmingly white and straight, I would say, so that’s something we want to make better.”
The fledgling Washington State NewsGuild is after more than better pay or a broader range of voices inside the newsroom. The aim, its members say, is to keep journalism going strong in their communities.
“While our unionization efforts are very much for us, they’re very much for our communities,” Pratt said. “We’re doing this because we care about them.”
“Reporters are supposed to hold power to account,” she emphasized. “We want to ensure that they will be here for decades and decades.”
CORRECTION: This version corrects the status of McClatchy’s paid parental leave policy. It will apply to all McClatchy papers, not just union-represented newspapers in California and Florida.