Yesterday's Paper

How the King County Journal lost its way in suburbia.

The impending sale of the King County Journal does not bode well for the future of daily newspapering on the Eastside.

The paper (which owns the presses that print Seattle Weekly) has been struggling for years, and the desperation sale of a daily in the digital age, in a hotly contested market, seems like a long shot for the buyer. Despite being born in a booming edge-city market, the Journal has long fought to maintain a foothold in the crabgrass frontier, and in recent years, owner Peter Horvitz has been fighting a series of negative trends with cost cutting and improvisation that rival Gen. George B. McClellan's strategic retreats from Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign.

The paper that is now the King County Journal came late in the cycle of daily newspaper expansion. The Eastside branch of a complicated family newspaper tree was sprouted from the merger of two weeklies—the Kirkland-based East Side Journal and the ultra-right-wing Bellevue American—to become the Bellevue Journal-American in 1976, the first new daily newspaper in Washington in six decades. It was the brainchild of the urbane John McClelland Jr., owner of a family chain based in Longview. He saw great growth and potential on the Eastside before a lot of other media people did. He believed the best way to serve the market was by investing heavily in editorial content. Being a newsman himself, in the early years he wanted the J-A to compete with The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as a full-fledged third daily in the metro market. He didn't have second-city dreams. He backed the monthly Washington magazine in 1984 (I was managing editor) and hit The New York Times best-seller list with a one-shot book based on his Longview Daily News' Pulitzer Prize–winning coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption. He saw his Bellevue publishing base as a way to launch more ambitious efforts.

But his flagship's battles were local. Brush wars with the Times turned nasty over the years, most memorably when, in 2000, Times Publisher Frank Blethen sent the infamous "fuck you to death" note to Horvitz during the newspaper strike.

McClelland sold the rechristened Eastside Journal-American, and various new owners cut costs and trimmed ambitions to help the bottom line. The Times customized its suburban editions to offer more targeted, local news and used its joint operating agreement monopoly to grab ads and circulation. After Horvitz bought the chain in the early 1990s, the market turned even tougher. Circulation slumped, the Internet arrived, and the entire daily newspaper business went into a slide. And that was before Craigslist.

High-tech folks were swarming to the Eastside, and they weren't reading the paper. Despite the Eastside's massive growth, not only did the Journal's market share decline, its real circulation plummeted. Losses mounted, and Horvitz eventually combined the paper with the South County Journal into the present King County Journal, a measure that may have saved money but declared loyalty to a region that pretty much only exists on paper. People in Medina don't give a damn about people in Kent, and vice versa. The combined circulation of the two Journals was 66,000 in 1994; it's now down to 40,000.

One of the frustrating things about the Journal has been a tendency to be late to the game in producing a paper for an increasingly sophisticated market. It's long read like your dad's slippers-and-pipe suburban rag, the journalistic equivalent of Chace's Pancake Corral, a Bellevue diner with the down-home feel of a 1960s suburban golfer's rec room. Quite late, the Journal had few reporters covering the emergence of Microsoft or Nintendo—stories of national import that were in the Journal's backyard. And you'd think a newspaper in the heart of the Silicon Forest would have a state-of-the-art Web site, but the Journal's has always been a clunker.

In short, the Journal is yesterday's paper. Even its onetime HQ, Bellevue, the most rapidly urbanizing area in the region, is turning into a mini-Seattle.

I witnessed—and took advantage of—the Journal's slowness to respond to the changing suburbs as editor of Seattle Weekly's sibling, Eastsideweek, in 1990. We were finding lots of urban readers there, at first people who worked in Seattle and slept in Redmond, and soon, thousands of folks who slept in Seattle and worked in Redmond. The Eastside wasn't just becoming a more socially liberal, tolerant suburb, it was a place where smart, innovative people were making their careers. Eastsideweek was on the right track, but our then-owner pulled the plug in 1998 in a switch of strategy.

That left an opening for the Journal, but economic pressures and, I think, its inherently unhip mentality blinded its leaders to the opportunity.

Maybe it was inevitable. There is much unhip stuff to cover in local news. But the changing suburbs and demographics call for a kind of smartness and attitude that appeals to more urbanized suburbanites. The Seattle dailies have adapted better; the Weekly has a suburban foothold. But keeping intelligent, busy readers informed is tough. It's not easy to keep up with folks who subscribe to The Economist and want the same standards from their local papers. And what does local even mean in a world where people's sense of place is often defined by the multiple orbits of the mobile suburban family?

I hope in its next incarnation, the Journal can give the region the suburban daily paper it deserves, but it may be too late.

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