Examiner says ‘goodbye’ after 22 years

In May 1995 a group of community-minded journalists unveiled a special preview edition of The Coupeville Examiner, a newspaper they hoped to launch to give Central Whidbey the voice it was seeking.

The special preview introduced the community to the future staff, who brought with them more than 30 years of combined journalistic experience.

The original five founding members of The Examiner were: Mary Kay Doody, who prior to The Examiner had worked as a reporter for the Everett Herald for two years and 15 years with the Whidbey News-Times; Gretchen Young, a Coupeville High School graduate who at the time had six years experience as a reporter for the Whidbey News-Times and as a freelancer; Keven Graves, who at the time had spent seven years previously at the Whidbey News-Times working in various positions from reporter to interim editor; Bill Wilson, a freelance writer at the time who also reported for the Whidbey News-Times and served as a book editor; and Laura Blankenship, the sole non-journalist in the group, brought 15 years of management experience.

In the preview edition, the group shared with the community its vision and mission, “to objectively report the news, provide a forum for frank and open discussion and to foster community pride and identity,” for a community newspaper and what it would need to succeed.

After conducting a community survey, more than 140 people at the time responded, saying they wanted Coupeville to have its own community newspaper.

“Overwhelming support of our project was expressed by survey respondents,” Graves wrote. “Eighty-one percent of those responding said they would subscribe to a Coupeville-based newspaper.”

Launching the first edition

With the support of the community through subscribers, advertisers and investors, Volume 1, Issue 1 of The Examiner published Friday, July 28.

At 16 pages, the first edition was chalked full of news that in and of itself marked the beginning of an era for Coupeville itself.

At the top of the front page of the first edition was an article written by Doody announcing then Coupeville Town Council member Nancy Conard was running for mayor.

“Barring an upset, Conard would be the first non-retiree to serve as Coupeville’s mayor in decades,” Doody wrote.

As history would play out, Conard would go on to win her first election and serve a total of 20 years as mayor before retiring at the end of 2016.

Also included in the first edition was an article featuring retiring mayor Will Jones, a preview of the upcoming Arts and Crafts Festival and other town, school and community news.

Early dismissal on Wednesdays was being implemented in the fall and an anonymous donor gave a third grant for $25,000 to the Coupeville Arts Center.

Community pages highlighted the wedding of Dylan McDanniel to Trudy Eaton at Coupeville United Methodist Church and honored longtime resident Nettie May Warren, who had passed away. The section also announced History Day advisor Mark Gale was awarded the Richard Farrell award.

The first edition was flush with ads from businesses spanning Oak Harbor to Langley, some long-gone Coupeville icons like Videoville to some of Coupeville’s longstanding businesses like Tyee, Toby’s and the Honey Bear.

The early years

Topics within The Examiner’s coverage over the years seem to cycle through, often repeating patterns from preserving history, business failings and successes, parking problems and government controversy.

In 1995, Examiner staff started covering attempts to form the Greenbank Community Council. An Aug. 4, 1995 article states 12 people were vying for seats on the council, and that the council’s formation would be voted on that November.

Topics cycled through often over the years including remembrance of the Penn Cove Orca capture of 1975, ongoing issues with the island’s ferry system and needs at the Coupeville Wharf.

Changes in leadership of key positions like Coupeville marshal, schools superintendent and elected officials were reported without fail.

The Examiner covered the community-minded fun stories like what made the jam lady tick, but didn’t shy away from the tough stories like when schools superintendent was arrested for driving under the influence and the district’s responding actions and his subsequent resignation.

The paper covered the hiring process for Town Marshall Jim Nutt in 1995 and Conard’s firing of him not long after in March 1996, writing detailed articles on the mayor’s reasons for the termination. The following week, The Examiner further detailed the mayor’s rehiring of him. Within the same year, Conard again fired Nutt and then hired Marshal Lenny Marlborough.

The Examiner covered tense community conversations over the fate of Greenbank Farm.

“Greenbank Farm as girls’ home? ‘First date’ with prospective buyer tense,’” one Jan. 12, 1996 headline stated.

In April 1996, the newspaper began reporting on discussions the Port of Coupeville was having with the Greenbank Farm Task Force about helping buy the farm.

Ongoing articles chronicled public response and support to buy the farm and those ensuing efforts through purchase completion in September 1997.

Water became a big topic of discussion for the Town in 1996, as drilling efforts failed to yield more water from Fort Casey wells. A moratorium was in place on hookups to the town’s water supply and town officials were actively seeking solutions to the town’s water supply needs.

Community input

The Examiner early on developed a lively opinion section, often filled with editorials, guest commentary, letters to the editor and movie reviews.

The newspaper provided a forum for the community to provide responses to articles and helped foster a dialogue within the community.

In 1996, an example of this was the ongoing saga then Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard had with Marshal Jim Nutt. After Conard fired Nutt for a second time in less than a year, The Examiner not only covered the issue objectively within its news pages, but provided space within its opinion section for both Conard and Nutt to write an open letters to residents, as well as printed letters from residents who supported both sides of the issue.

The community was as much a part of the newspaper as its writers, providing guest submissions, being the subject of community news, notes and articles. Some of those submissions spun off into greater things.

Irene Mueller’s column, “This & That,” which regularly appeared in the community pages and featured tidbits about the community, was later spun off into a book.

Stories in the early years

  • The Coupeville Arts Center raised $15,500 as part of its annual auction in 1996 just from the sale of a donated 1975 Rolls Royce. The auction in total raised $45,000 that year.
  • Coupeville resident Miles Johnson took his concern about rats to public officials — literally in 1996. The Examiner reported Johnson took dead rats, a growing problem in his neighborhood caused by neighbors feeding wildlife, and placed them on Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard’s and a county health official’s desks.
  • A snowy owl “invasion” in Central Whidbey was thrilling birders in 1996.
  • A 19-year-old Coupeville resident was arrested on suspicion of making bomb threats to the Coupeville Middle and High School in 1996.
  • A pre-dawn meteor in December 1996 prompted a spate of emergency calls to the Island County Sherrif’s office. Residents reported seeing a flare and even called to ask if a plane had gone down at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
  • A massive storm in January 1997 caused widespread damage and flooding, which forced town officials to send raw sewage into Penn Cove. The state and county health departments put a temporary ban on commercial and sports shellfish harvesting until the town’s treatment plant was operating normally and the cove could break the sewage down naturally.
  • Melting snow and heavy rains also caused a saturated bluff on Madrona Way west of Sherman Road to fail, closing Madrona to through traffic.
  • Much of the Central Whidbey community was shocked and outraged when a piece of history was torn down without notice — or a permit in February 1997. The historic Kineth farmhouse and barn, near Snakelum Point, were among some of the oldest structures in Washington, built in 1866 land claim by John and Jane Kineth.
  • Town of Coupeville was slapped with a lawsuit in March 199 by a group of citizens claiming the Town Council held an illegal meeting in relation to a proposal to build a duplex at the corner of Ninth and Clapp streets. The lawsuit was later dismissed.
  • Coupeville passed a police levy in March 1997, bringing 24 hour police coverage back to the town.
  • Twenty Ledgewood Beach residents protested a May 1997 Island County plan to back away from responsibility for the condition of the community’s unstable Driftwood Way. County public officials proposed declaring part of the road “primitive,” a designation carrying less responsibility that the county assumes for most of its roads.
  • In October 1997, The Examiner reported that a big budget Warner Brothers film starring Sandra Bullock was looking at filming in Coupeville. Mayor Nancy Conard met with a location manager who was scouting for the film “Practical Magic,” a comedy-romance. If selected for the film, the town would develop an “overall plan to manage the project,” Conard said. A permit was granted in November 1997, for Warner Brothers to begin shooting in March 1998. Additional 1997 articles highlight Nicole Kidman joining the cast as well as director Griffin Dunne and how downtown Coupeville started transforming into a movie set. The new year got off to a busy start with Hollywood calling for local residents to audition to fill non-speaking roles in the upcoming filming of “Practical Magic.” Buildings on Front Street used in the filming of Practical Magic got cosmetic upgrades that remained once filming wrapped. It was improvements to Coupeville’s “ugliest” building, the cinder-block building on the corner of Grace Street that had everyone cheering. Crews from Warner Brothers were in town the end of March 1998 preparing buildings for filming of “Practical Magic.” Through the entire production process, The Examiner kept the community up-to-date with how the exciting venture was going.
  • As crews worked to prepare for “Practical Magic,” another film was quietly working in another part of Central Whidbey. The 1860 Ferry House was being prepped for filming scenes for the film “Snow Falling on Cedars.”
  • A January 1998 article reports Penn Cove Shellfish filed a lawsuit the previous month seeking damages from Town of Coupeville and the Penn Cove Park Water District for lost profits after raw sewage was released into Penn Cove in January 1997. The company was unable to harvest mussels for two weeks as a result and sought nearly $45,000 in compensation.
  • The state Department of Ecology fined Coupeville a dairy farmer $12,000 for discharging untreated dairy waste into Puget Sound’s Admiralty Inlet in March 1998. He was fined after three complaints from the department and neighbors to stop the flow of manure to nearby ditches.
  • The beach at Ebey’s Landing was closed to shellfish harvesting due to public health concerns from manure contamination and potentially harmful levels of nitrates were detected in a water aquifer beneath Ebey’s Prairie.
  • Construction on South Main Street in May 1998 had some businesses complaining it was affecting sales.
  • Port of Coupeville considered the green space behind the Coupeville Library with the purpose of building a community center.
  • Engle Brothers Dairy, LLC, ceased operations in September 1998 due to “economic and environmental pressures had become too much to overcome,” the newspaper reported.
  • The entire Penn Cove Water District board quit in January 1999 and Island County was tasked with finding replacements.

A decade of change

The founding journalists of The Examiner stayed strong for the first several years of its creation. They filled the pages of each edition each week with news geared toward what their Central Whidbey audience wanted.

In 1997, with 24 shareholders to support, the paper gained even more support by winning the bid for becoming the Town of Coupeville’s official newspaper. With that title, came additional financial support through advertising legal revenue.

The original owners were down to Graves and Doody in 1999. The new year kicked off with the paper being renamed the Whidbey Reporter.

Graves sold his ownership into the paper to Doody in May 1999 and she solely ran the newspaper from 1999 to 2006.

It changed names again, and was The Coupeville Examiner in October 2006, when another former Whidbey News-Times alumni, Kasia Pierzga, bought it from Doody. During Pierzga’s ownership, the paper changed names to its current name and in February 2007 the paper changed from a broadsheet to tabloid format and started running some color front pages.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Whidbey Island, particularly Coupeville and the central part of the island,” Pierzga wrote in her first publisher’s column. “I made a point of keeping in touch with friends here, and I appreciate having the opportunity to return and make new friends, as well.

“A newspaper with good reporters and a public-spirited owner can serve as a catalyst that brings a community together. My goal is to grow this paper into a valuable asset for the entire community, and with the support of our readers and advertisers, I’m confident we’ll succeed.”

Pierzga ran The Examiner until 2012 when she sold it to Sound Publishing, which owns the other two newspaper on Whidbey Island. She served as publisher for Whidbey News Group until the end of 2012. Graves returned as publisher in February 2013.

Highlights of the next generation

  • In February 2006, Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard’s hours and pay were unanimously increased by town council from part time, $29,500 a year to a full-time, $58,012 position. The increase was in response to Conard taking on additional administrative responsibilities.
  • The Coupeville Boys and Girls Club opened in March 2006 in the old fire station on North Main Street. A community grand opening was held to celebrate the new facility.
  • Coupeville School District broke ground in April 2006 on the new Coupeville High School. The $15-million facility was slated to welcome its first class in the fall of 2007.
  • Coupeville residents Gene and Janet Zema donated 40 acres of wildlife-rich property at Crockett Lake to the Whidbey Camano Land Trust. The donation was added to part of the Land Trust’s conservation efforts at the lake.
  • Fire crews responded to a fire in June 2006 at the Mad Crab, evacuating diners before extinguishing a small fire in the chimney flue.
  • Island County approved Coupeville’s expanded water service, allowing the town to serve customer’s further beyond town limits.
  • Port of Coupeville negotiated for several months with the Greenbank Farm Management group after nonprofit requested ending a 10-year lease and reverting management of the farm back to the port. During the summer of 2006, deadlines were set to terminate contracts at the end of the year. By August, the management group changed its mind and said it would continue management through the end of its contract until 2014.
  • Coupeville attorney Molly McPherson and her husband Derek Wolfe won a $7.4 million lottery while vacationing in Oregon.
  • Harvest operations were once again shut down at Penn Cove Shellfish after a problem with the town’s sewage pump caused untreated sewage to release into the cove. The business said the temporary closure hurt the business and its 53 employees.
  • Coupeville Marine Megan McClung, 34, was the first female officcer to die in Iraq. She was killed by a roadside bomb Dec. 6, 2006.
  • Hurricane-force winds toppled a barn once owned by town namesake, Capt. Thomas Coupe.
  • An application to change the old Miriam’s Cafe on South Main from medium-density residential to commercial use went before Skagit County Superior Court in early 2007. The four-year saga was met with ongoing controversy because some in the community wanted the area used for a community park.
  • Whidbey’s last dairy farm closed and its cows departed the island in a dozen semi trucks in May 2007 after the Sherman-Bishop Farms sold off its herd to a farm in Idaho.
  • Bob Engle’s historic family barn burned to the ground May 17, 2007. The barn was built in 1936 by Wilbur Sherman.
  • Nancy Conard faced her only challenger in 2007 in the five elections she ran for mayor. Gordon Burton challenged Conard but lost.
  • A houseboat that spent more than two month stranded in Penn Cove was finally towed away by tugboat in June 2007.
  • David Penrod was sworn in as Coupeville marshal in July 2007.
  • A derelict fishing vessel, Deep Sea, that had been tied up and abandoned near the mussel rafts in Penn Cove for four months caught fire May 12, 2011 and sank. It sat at the bottom of the cove for three weeks, spilling more than 5,000 gallons of fuel before it was raised and towed. The incident cost state and federal agencies millions of dollars. The cause of the fire was deemed arson.
  • A March 2013 landslide in the Ledgewood Beach community caught national attention. The incident happened in the early morning hours, causing emergency responders to evacuate residents and close areas around Driftwood Way for a time.
  • Nancy Conard announced in March 2015 that she will not seek reelection after serving 20 years as Coupeville’s mayor. Longtime councilwoman Molly Hughes runs unopposed.

This month, Whidbey News Group Publisher Keven Graves announced the Jan. 19 edition of The Whidbey Examiner will be its last.

“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,” Graves wrote in his announcement. “The paper became a point of pride for Coupeville, a part of its unique and special identity.

“Although The Examiner will no longer be published, it will continue to live through its sister newspapers. Our commitment to Coupeville won’t change.”