A newspaper war. What side are you on?

Scott Wilson
Posted 4/24/19

The good people of Port Townsend and Jefferson County are witnessing the first salvos of what used to be called a newspaper war. That’s still at the heart of it, although it now includes news …

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A newspaper war. What side are you on?


The good people of Port Townsend and Jefferson County are witnessing the first salvos of what used to be called a newspaper war. That’s still at the heart of it, although it now includes news websites.

The Peninsula Daily News has added both news and advertising staff devoted exclusively to Jefferson County, adding muscle to an edition specifically zoned for this county. Jefferson County residents receive a version of the PDN full of Jefferson County stories; Clallam County residents receive a different version. The PDN zoned edition has been around for 25 years but tripling their Jefferson County news staff (to three) means they have almost as many reporters covering Jefferson County as does the Leader.

The PDN combines this with new advertising staff and the first of what will be a series of price breaks on subscriptions to build local readership. At one time the Leader had a four-to-one advantage in local readers; right now it’s three-to one. That’s a big margin and has easily made the Leader the best choice for advertisers or government agencies to reach local residents. I’ve always told advertisers that the PDN is a good choice if most of your customers come from Clallam County. Fewer than 20 percent of PDN readers (when I was last tracking the numbers) live in Jefferson County.


Be very, very careful

The Leader has gone through many changes in the last two and a half years since it moved into the hands of the Mullen family, led here by Lloyd Mullen, the publisher of what remains an independent local weekly newspaper. Some of those changes have been unsettling to longtime Leader readers and it’s not my job to defend them. There have also been improvements and upgrades. Both the financial health and, today, the newsroom of this locally based business are strong.

The newspaper war will bring benefits to both readers and advertisers. There will be more stories and more ad options. Each newspaper competitor will seek to earn your interest and your financial commitment.

But I urge you to take a long, sober view of the current dynamic, and to be very, very careful in the weeks and months ahead. There is much at stake and at risk from the decisions of readers and advertisers.

The Peninsula Daily News, once the independent homegrown newspaper of Port Angeles, has been owned by one chain or another since the 1990s and has, since late 2011, been owned by the largest chain in the Pacific Northwest. In Washington State it’s called Sound Publishing. Its parent company is Black Press, a behemoth of many small and a few large newspapers, based in British Columbia and Alberta.

Black Press owns more than 170 newspapers overall, and 49 in Washington State, as part of Sound.

David Black, a Victoria resident, has built this empire since 1975. In the last few years Black himself has turned his attention to a $22 billion oil refinery and transport project targeted at Kitimat, far north on the B.C. coast. The refinery would send 90 tankers a year to carry Canadian petroleum to Asia and is still in the permitting process. Black is a major investor and the biggest pubic booster of this project.

As the builder of a newspaper chain, Black succeeded by clustering newspapers together around a single printing and distribution facility, and consolidating staff to keep expenses low while revenues stay high.


War veterans

Black Press and Sound have not shied away from newspaper wars with independent local papers in order to shrink their competitor or put it out of business. They have very deep pockets and are smart at the business. They’ve been through this a dozen times, maybe more.

Black’s model has been successful in Washington State, where the Sound subsidiary has purchased most Washington newspapers that have come up for sale in the past three decades.

The list of newspapers that were once independent but are now inside the Sound portfolio is very long, and includes just about every newspaper within a two-hour drive of Jefferson County. Among them: The PDN, the Sequim Gazette, the Forks Forum, all of the weeklies in Kitsap County from towns like Poulsbo, Silverdale, Kingston, Port Orchard and Bainbridge Island; all of the weeklies on Whidbey Island, where they bought what was the sole independent competing newspaper – the Coupeville Examiner – just to shut it down.

They bought all the weeklies in the San Juans, driving one independent paper out of business. They own the weekly on Vashon Island, most of the weeklies in Pierce and King counties; the daily in Everett, the daily in Aberdeen, and they have a daily in Hawaii and in Juneau. Do a Google search on Sound or Black Press and you can see the whole list.

Terry Ward, listed as the PDN publisher and who, according to the PDN, is launching a “listening” campaign in Jefferson County, is actually a corporate vice president in charge of the Sound division that controls the PDN, the Sequim Gazette, the Forks Forum, the Aberdeen Daily World, all of the Kitsap weeklies and also Sound’s new newspaper acquisitions in Alaska – Juneau, Kenai and Homer. I’ve met him. He’s very capable. And very busy.

One of the few weeklies that is an exception to Sound’s control within 100 miles of Jefferson County is in Shelton – owned by Lloyd Mullen’s dad, Tom Mullen.

Speaking of the Mullens, it’s important to acknowledge the Leader’s ownership structure, to the best of my knowledge. Louis Mullen, Lloyd’s older brother who is based in Wyoming, owns three or four other community weeklies, mostly in Wyoming, and lives there. The Leader is the only newspaper of an independent company owned by Louis, Lloyd and a Wyoming attorney named Chris Wages. Tom Mullen is not part of this company but is an advisor. Lloyd lives in Port Townsend and is the publisher of a single newspaper: The Leader.


Sustaining independent media

Sound wanted to buy the Leader. Had it done so, it would have meant that one big company owned every print media outlet on the Olympic Peninsula, adding it to their stable of 50 others. All those “titles,” as Black Press calls them, look like diversity. But it’s one big company.

Saying that, I’ll add that several Sound newspapers including the PDN do solid journalism. These are not hacks. They are professionals. I’ve known and respected many of them over the years. I even met David Black once, many years ago, when he stepped off his sailboat in Port Townsend Bay and came in to ask if I would ever sell the Leader. He was pleasant and is clearly a smart guy.

After working inside the Leader and promoting independent local journalism for almost 30 years, my wife Jennifer and I decided not to sell to Sound and Black Press. In fact we did not tell Sound we were ready to move this valuable community asset on to another owner until after the deal was closed. We wanted to keep the Leader independent, which we thought then and think today is in the best interest of readers and advertisers alike.

News competition is a good thing, but it disappears if one company owns everything, consolidates its newsroom and most of the rest of its staff and functions into a larger city, leaving only two or three people in the local storefront. That’s what happened to the once independent Sequim Gazette, bought by Sound in 2011 on the same day as the PDN.

Advertising competition is also a good thing. It means one company can’t set monopoly rates.

One of the reasons we liked the Mullen family is that they were, and are, fiercely independent. One of the reasons we liked Lloyd Mullen is that he moved into our community and he and his wife are making their home here. We felt fortunate to find a young person who had grown up in this industry and who wanted to plant roots in this county.


Making their move

What prompted Black Press and Sound to make their move on Jefferson County and on the Leader? I haven’t talked to Sound, but here’s some relevant background.

When we owned the Leader, we had a business relationship with Sound. We paid them to print our newspaper. We had a cross-sell arrangement where at times they would sell ads into the Leader, and we would sell ads into one or more of their newspapers. Our staff attended some of their training sessions. Sound was good at printing and at sales, and over the years we had good relationships with Sound people. We cooperated with them on some levels and competed on others.

Even then, however, it was an uneasy alliance. They were always the big guys. We were the little guys. At times they threatened us. Our strength? Our emphasis on good journalism, our community-building relationships, the loyalty and extent of our readership.

The Mullens recently ended the printing relationship with Sound. The Leader today is printed by Skagit Publishing in Mount Vernon, a rare independent company with its own printing press and good rates. Even earlier, Lloyd ended the cross-sell arrangement. Now that these business ties are severed, Sound is pouncing. Make no mistake, Sound Publishing and Black Press covet this county and the plan, if successful, is to diminish or close the Leader.


It’s up to you

Earlier I noted that the Leader is a strong business and, with its new editor Dean Miller and some great reporters like Lily Haight, has a stronger newsroom. It’s also important for advertisers to understand more about readership numbers. The Leader has about 6,000 households; the PDN in this county has somewhere shy of 2,000 households (last time I checked). Surveys say two thirds of PDN subscribers who live in this county are also Leader readers. That means the Leader reaches most of the PDN’s Jefferson County readers. Local households that are exclusively devoted to the PDN and not the Leader number between 300 to 400, according to a survey done four years ago.

Nonetheless, through numbers, through strong customer service, through strong journalism, it’s a fact that today’s Leader has to be judged on its own merits by the community it serves.

But I hope everyone – readers, advertisers, large community non-profits, county commissioners deciding on contracts for public notice advertising – will be slow to turn away from the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader. I hope they will be slow to turn toward the PDN, Sound Publishing and Black Press.

There have already been some major defections in our community. You can track them by seeing who is avidly embracing the PDN as it makes its big move.

Any one decision to sign on with Sound might make sense from an individual point of view. People have their legitimate gripes. New Leader management is learning as it goes. Sound offers certain advantages, especially on pricing. That’s part of the strategy.

Taken together, however, each individual decision is a step toward losing our independent local print media to a wealthy conglomerate with distant headquarters. If we lose it, I doubt we’ll get it back.

I should note that I don’t have a financial stake in the outcome of this newspaper war. We’ve been paid. However I have a deep civic stake in this. And you do, too.

Up until now, Sound Publishing and the PDN have been content to offer a regional daily that mixes in with the Leader’s weekly presence in Jefferson County. There is news competition, and there is ad competition. That’s been great for the readers and the county. It’s been a healthy mix.

What’s new is that Sound is now moving its full weight toward taking over this market and dominating Jefferson County’s media landscape the way it dominates Clallam, Kitsap, Island and San Juan counties already, and controls most of the weekly newspapers along the I-5 corridor. That’s the decision they have made, and we’re in the opening days of the gambit. I think they’re being greedy. The question now is how Jefferson County will respond. How you will respond.


Expanding the equation

I think readers and advertisers in Jefferson County should retain competitive local print news sources, and retain the local option.

Let me clearly state that this is a free enterprise equation, not a mandate. Sound Publishing and Black Press are not going to back off because I wish they would. You are not going to blindly support the Leader because I said so.

Today’s Leader has to earn your respect and trust with what they actually do, with the quality of stories they investigate and tell, and has to make sure that advertisers get good service and good results from their advertising.

But the free enterprise equation should be expanded to include whatever value you place on independent, locally based print media and journalism.

- Scott Wilson

(Scott Wilson and Jennifer James-Wilson were co-owners of the Leader with Frank and Pat Garred starting in 1989, and then sole publishers from 2002 until they retired from the business in 2016.)