For nearly all of the past 30 years, ownership of the Methow Valley News has resided in just three publishers: Lee Hicks from 1994-2001, Paul Butler from 2001-2011, and yours truly since I purchased the paper from Paul 11 years ago. Lee had been a shareholder in the local group that owned the paper for many years before he bought out the rest of the co-owners, so his connection goes back even farther.
From one perspective, you could call that stability. The paper hasn’t changed hands frequently, and the owners have demonstrated a commitment to local control and a strong grounding in the Methow Valley community. However else readers felt about the paper, they could count on a certain consistency of approach. From another perspective, you could call that predictable. But readers do like to know what to expect, and I have tried to follow the lead of the newspaper’s owners over the past 118 years in providing what they need.
By some standards, I’m a rookie — in the grander scheme of things, 10 years isn’t a long time to own a small weekly paper. Many of my colleagues in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, of which I am a member, have headed their papers for decades, in some cases as part of multi-generational ownership. Talk about firmly embedded. I admire them more with every passing year because I understand and appreciate what it takes to endure that long while maintaining the necessary energy, enthusiasm and commitment.
I officially took over the paper on July 4, 2011, what I have called my “personal independence day.” I used to tell a now-stale joke that the town throws a parade for me every year. If I ever had that much ego, I’ve had it thrashed out of me over the past decade-plus-one. Ultimately, a small-town newspaper is never about the owner, no matter how much presence and influence they may accumulate. It’s always about the community and its well-being. I’ve never thought of myself as personally “important.” The community is important. The newspaper is important to the community. Therefore, the job of publisher is important, so I try to do it as well as I can. Someday there will be another publisher, and I hope they view the job the same way.
About the time I purchased the Methow Valley News, the newspaper industry’s gradual slippage in revenues and readership became a catastrophic landslide. Dozens of daily and weekly newspapers around the country simply shriveled up and died, leaving communities underserved by responsible local journalism. Other papers were swept up by conglomerates that slashed their staffs, truncated their content and minimized their presence.
The Methow Valley News hasn’t been decimated in the same way, but it has been affected by national trends in readership and ad revenues. Owning this paper has been constantly challenging in terms of income, staffing and keeping up with the remarkable amount of news the Methow Valley generates. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people who were not only talented and dedicated but also genuine human beings. They are the real story behind whatever success the paper has enjoyed.
We’ve also had a few hiccups that I wasn’t sure we how we would muddle through. We survived, barely, an embezzlement episode that drained so much cash it nearly did us in. A few years later, we are recovered — we don’t own anyone money and have a bank account that gives us a little breathing room. PPP loans and some amazingly generous donations from readers also were a huge help. But it was a tough couple of years.
I’ve also gone through some health challenges, a few years ago and during the past 10 months, that affected how I was able to do this important job. The staff stepped up, and here we are.
Right now we have other staffing challenges in front of us that are frankly daunting, because of the industry-wide difficulty in filling vital newspaper jobs. We run on a pretty thin margin with little in the way of backup, and when it comes to attracting talent we have the disadvantage of being in a small, remote market. We’ve always managed to figure something out, so I’m hopeful we will again this time — but it’s admittedly a little scary.
Meantime, I will take a short break from the anxiety of “now what” and celebrate 11 years that have gone by more quickly than I could have imagined. Those years have been gratifying, illuminating and inspirational. After 50 years of working in the newspaper and magazine business, I can’t imagine wanting to do this anyplace other than the Methow Valley.