After 22 years, The Examiner will cease publication

In May 1994, I was one of the five people who founded The Whidbey Examiner, a newspaper that was launched to serve the Coupeville and Central Whidbey community.

Four of the “Founding Five” were journalists, but only one of us had any sort of business experience.

Journalism was our calling, and we wanted to make a difference through our reporting. And that, I believe, was accomplished by the staff throughout the years, earning industry awards for local coverage, editorials and design. The paper became a point of pride for Coupeville, a part of its unique and special identity.

But there was always the matter of paying for such a labor of love.

A newspaper is a business, and the Founding Five didn’t jump into this enterprise without a solid plan. We gathered feedback from numerous members of the community, talked with business owners at the time, visited other small newspapers in the area and did our due diligence.

We moved forward, confident that we had the community’s backing.

Sadly, however, after the Jan. 19 edition rolls off the press, The Examiner will publish no more, bringing to a close one chapter, and setting the stage for a new era of coverage for ever-evolving Coupeville.

For 22 years, The Examiner published without fail week after week. First, as a shareholder-funded venture buoyed by dedicated and valued volunteers and a whole lot of unpaid hours put in by the Founding Five. Next, it was under the sole proprietorship of Kasia Pierzga, another former reporter. Finally, it became a part of the Whidbey News Group family.

The decision to close The Examiner wasn’t easy, just as starting it wasn’t taken lightly. But it is the right decision at the proper time.

From the day the Founding Five launched “the little newspaper that could,” there were significant challenges. Throughout its relatively brief history, those challenges remained in one form or another. Like three of my fellow co-founders before me, I left The Examiner in 1999 because of the harsh economic realities. We were paying the paper’s rent, utilities, hired staffers, press bills, state B&O and federal taxes and, finally, dividing up the few dollars that might be remaining to the one of us who needed it the most.

The Examiner was brought into the Whidbey News Group fold in 2012, shortly before I returned to the island as the group publisher. My career came full circle. I had high hopes for the newspaper I had helped to start.

But I soon learned that many of the same obstacles remained, with some significant new ones thrown in.

Rather than seeing the acquisition of The Examiner by the Whidbey News Group as a vital step in keeping the newspaper alive, we were aware of concerns that some were fearing Coupeville’s paper was “gobbled up” by the “big fish” — that its identity might be lost.

What it really meant was that the newspaper was brought under the same roof as the Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record, and would share editorial, creative, administrative and circulation staffs. It’s editorial voice would remain uniquely Coupeville.

Makes sense, right?

It also meant that there additional expenses — suddenly, employees of The Examiner were receiving paid vacation, sick leave, work-related expenses, medical and vision benefits and 401k options.

Pretty great, right? Those who have worked for smaller publications like The Examiner are keenly aware that these benefits aren’t the norm.

Though the editorial staff worked hard to ensure there was unique content in every issue of The Examiner, some complained that news was being duplicated in the News-Times, while others said there wasn’t enough Coupeville news in the News-Times.

To address the concerns, we tried different structures, among them having staff dedicated solely to Examiner coverage. We found ourselves in the position of holding big Coupeville news stories in order to break them in The Examiner. For reporters and editors, who want to get the news out as soon as possible, this was an untenable predicament.

The Examiner editor and reporters even went so far as to keep their story lists a secret from the News-Times and Record staffs.

Regardless, readership for The Examiner dipped while subscriber numbers for the News-Times and The Record soared during each quarter of 2016. In fact, subscriber numbers for those two papers rebounded to levels not seen in years. We also saw merchants on Central Whidbey increasingly opting to advertise in the News-Times and The Record.

When The Examiner was launched in 1994, it was with the full backing of the community, but the community has changed and evolved. The Internet brought increased competition for advertising dollars. At one point or another, the notion of trying something different — whether or not it offers verifiable circulation or covers any sort of real news — proved alluring to some.

The Examiner was no longer perceived as the shiny penny, nor as the mighty underdog.

Ultimately, you cannot force a community to support its newspaper. Businesses cannot be forced to place ads. Readers cannot be mandated to subscribe or pick up their local paper at the newsstands. Without that support, a newspaper doesn’t stand a chance.

Thus the decision to cease publication of The Examiner, and this letter to our most loyal readers and advertisers. Throughout my career, I’ve learned that, when presented with the facts, people have always understood even the toughest decisions.

Although The Examiner will no longer be published, it will continue to live through its sister newspapers. Our commitment to Coupeville won’t change. We will be covering the same news, features, events, meetings and sports. Our longtime columnist, highly-respected journalism veteran Harry Anderson, has graciously agreed to bring his column to the News-Times.

To reflect the unique identity of Coupeville, we are introducing designated pages in both our Wednesday and Saturday editions of the News-Times dedicated to Central Whidbey coverage.

If there’s a major Coupeville story it will appear on the front page, of course. That’s how breaking news should work.

Current subscribers of The Examiner will see their subscriptions moved over to the News-Times or The Record, depending on where they live on Central Whidbey. Coupeville already has strong News-Times and Record readerships. The biggest change is they will be getting their news twice a week instead of just once. And instead of being mailed to subscribers like The Examiner, carriers will deliver their News-Times and Record to homes.

Yes, the closure of The Examiner is sad and disappointing, but it is also an opportunity to bring down any walls between the communities and publish Coupeville news in a way that best serves all subscribers and advertisers.

That is our commitment to you.

• Keven R. Graves is executive editor and publisher of the Whidbey News Group. You can email questions, comments and concerns to him at kgraves@whidbeynewsgroup.com