Departing thoughts on newspapers, communities

When I arrived at The Herald in 1987 as assistant sports editor, I never would have believed I’d still be here almost a quarter century later. Such has been the draw of this industry, and this newspaper, on me.

I do believe change is a positive and necessary part of life, however. For me, the time has come to move on. Next week I’ll start a new career as a media and public relations liaison with the Snohomish County PUD, an organization I’ve long admired.

It’s a change I sought, and I’m excited about it. That doesn’t mean I’m glad to be leaving daily journalism. My experiences here in sports, news, and for the past decade as editorial page editor, have been fascinating, invigorating and endlessly gratifying.

Like other journalists, I’ve had the good fortune to work with, and cover, smart, talented and interesting people with a bent toward trying to make the world a better place.

It’s true that the industry is undergoing serious financial challenges. A dramatic transition to digital content delivery is under way, and the business model for newspapers large, medium and small has changed forever. Newspapers everywhere have cut staffing in recent years. The people who remain must do more with less, and morale, naturally, has suffered.

Join the club, you might be saying. The recession and slow recovery have left few workplaces, public or private, unscarred. I get that. I want every business to succeed.

But I truly believe a daily newspaper has a unique and crucial role to play in a community. Imagine what Snohomish County would be like without this one.

Who would keep an eye on government and inform you about what it’s doing, how it’s spending your tax dollars? How would you find out what’s going on in Olympia, in county courtrooms or in your local schools? Where would you read about new businesses that are opening, and existing ones that are innovating? Where would you get roundups of high school and other local sports results, or keep up so comprehensively on the growing Snohomish County arts scene? Where would you read uplifting stories about inspiring people — of which this community has many?

Newspapers and the communities they serve have a symbiotic relationship. A community can’t thrive without an effective source of news and information, and a newspaper can’t survive without a supportive community.

And a free, independent press can only remain that way if it’s privately financed and profitable.

If revenue from print advertising were sufficient to cover the costs of reporting the news and paying other expenses, as it was in the past, the old business model would still make sense. But advertisers have to spread their dollars among a wider variety of media these days, and readers are accessing newspaper content in many more ways than on newsprint. The old revenue streams can no longer support the breadth and depth of news coverage communities expect and deserve.

That’s why I’m convinced that newspapers can no longer afford to give away their digital content, as most have since they first launched websites. Communities that value local news need to be willing to pay something for it — as they have for years with print subscriptions.

The Herald hasn’t decided to go that route yet, and I don’t know exactly what charging for digital content would look like. But I don’t see how this vital community resource, or the thousands just like it around the world, can survive over the long haul without such revenue. Gathering news is an expensive enterprise.

Of course, newspapers must earn readers’ loyalty by making themselves an indispensable part of readers’ lives. They must innovate constantly to meet readers’ needs. I know the people at The Herald have the necessary ability to adapt, along with the talent and dedication it takes to put out consistently high quality products.

They know they’re stewards of a vital public trust. This newspaper was around long before any of us were here, and it should be important to all of us who care about Snohomish County’s present and future to see that it survives us, too.

Bob Bolerjack can be reached at

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