Local news can matter once more
My first job as a reporter was to go to the town of Auburn and just hang around. I had no training; no clue how to find stories. I wandered downtown, loitered...
Seattle Times staff columnist
My first job as a reporter was to go to the town of Auburn and just hang around.
I had no training; no clue how to find stories. I wandered downtown, loitered around City Hall. The then-mayor, Bob Roegner, once got so sick of my hapless hovering he flicked a cigarette butt at me and ordered me, with a four-letter verb, to go away. The little paper I worked for had a one-room office on Main Street. When I was completely at a loss, I would sit in there and wait for an Auburnite to walk by, then practically accost them for any scrap of news.
It wasn't glamorous. I screwed up more than once. But I learned a lot about Auburn and put it into the paper.
There was the ex-minister and pedophile who moved back to town. A controversial city plan to shut down a string of bars. A gold bullion dealer raided for money laundering. A local doctor caught having sex with patients.
Later, I wrote about the resurgence of the Muckleshoot Tribe. About the novel ecological plan underlying the Emerald Downs horse-racing track. About how a giant discount mall can truly test a century-old downtown.
Today I'm wondering: Does anyone need to know about stuff like this? Does it matter?
I'm wondering because the little paper is dead. When I worked there it was called the Valley Daily News. Today it's part of an odd suburban amalgam called the King County Journal, circulating from Algona up to Woodinville. The last issue will be Sunday, Jan. 21.
It's a version of the familiar obituary: Changing tastes leads to fewer readers leads to lower ad revenues. The daily paper of the suburbs is no more.
It didn't fail because it was a bad paper. It wasn't great, either. What made it matter, once, was that it was the pulse of the Green River Valley towns of Kent, Renton and Auburn.
It covered community fairs. Printed death notices and high-school box scores and the police blotter. Watchdogged local government. Wrote up everything hometown, from heroes to rezones.
That kind of small-town newspapering is considered boring today. Unhip. Supposedly we're all too globalized or tuned into Web video clips to want such provincial news.
My own view is the opposite. I think intensely local, professionally gathered news is due for a comeback. It's the one thing you can't get anywhere else. The story of the death of the Valley Daily News is that it blew it when it combined with its partner, the Bellevue Journal-American, into one amorphous, suburban blob.
The problem was: The paper was no longer local enough.
We'll soon find out if that's true. The new owners plan to publish twice-weekly community papers in Auburn, Kent, Bellevue and other suburbs.
Supposedly they'll be like the papers those cities had 50 years ago, when they were small towns. Once again there will be a reporter or two, making barely minimum wage, hanging around the city halls and Rotary clubs.
Is it too old-fashioned to work? Maybe. But big papers like mine ought to take notice. This could be the year newspapers started going back to the future to save themselves.
Danny Westneat's column appears Thursday and Sunday.
Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 206-464-2086
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