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CDN’s 2024 watchword remains the same: ‘Impact’

A look back, and strong forward focus on even more substantial local news

Laura Healy and Joane Larson Ischer stop for a photo and hold up their varsity letters from the school during an awards ceremony at Carver Gymnasium on May 20
Laura Healy and Joane Larson Ischer stop for a photo and hold up their varsity letters from the school during an awards ceremony at Carver Gymnasium on May 20 (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ron Judd Executive Editor

“Impact.” 

The word is uttered weekly at Friday planning meetings in our Bellingham newsroom when deciding which stories we should cover with our small news staff: “What’s the impact on our audience? Does one story have more potential impact than another?”

More broadly, the word is a measuring stick for occasional reviews of our work, writ large: What impact has creating a news organization from scratch had on its community in two years of existence? 

With 2023 slithering out the back door, and with CDN’s two-year birthday approaching in late January, it’s a good time to take stock — and look ahead.

We spent much of our first year kicking tires, snuffing technical fires, and doing all the things that come with building a news organization from the ground up. CDN’s work over that timespan clearly had impact; readers and local sources told us so. Many public officials and agencies around Whatcom County, where we focused our early efforts to fill a gaping news vacuum, begrudgingly accepted the fact that an additional watchdog was sniffing around.

That process accelerated throughout 2023. Thanks to hard work from our newsroom, tips and subscriptions from readers, and the continued commitment to local news by our private local owner, CDN built staff and expanded its scope while other chain-owned news organizations shriveled. 

Those efforts have combined to further establish CDN as a dependable, ambitious news outlet that’s in it for the long haul. 

That process continues. While we still wrestle with coverage holes and face financial challenges, our ambitions for 2024 are sky high. But our 2023 record — a local news organization’s impact — are worth noting before the past year slips into history. A broader accounting of our work will be found in today’s editions. But consider a few highlights — examples of the cause-and-effect between strong local news and civic progress.

Health care

The coverage that unfolded in our news pages, and, especially, on our Opinion page, via a healthy flow of letters and guest commentaries, gave voice to countless Whatcom County residents with strong opinions about gaps in services — and what they called broken promises — by PeaceHealth, the near-monopoly local health care provider.

Angst over PeaceHealth’s axing of its palliative care and allergy clinic services, crystallized on CDN’s pages, turned to significant backlash against the company, which pulled an about-face and promised, at least, to restore the palliative care program. We’ll be watching for follow-through.

This spilled over into CDN’s award-winning Citizens Agenda project, which for the second year crowdsourced topics of conversation for candidates for public office: Two of the five-most-pressing questions selected by our readers were aimed directly at the Vancouver, Clark County-based “not for profit” company. We put those questions to candidates in a way that ensures the exploits of PeaceHealth will remain on the front burner for the coming year. 

Our newsroom, and its Opinion page, will keep it there as long as necessary.

Election insight

CDN also threw much of its person power this summer into what we hoped would be insightful, probing and comprehensive election coverage, based on that Citizens Agenda platform. Our editorial board interviewed candidates for public office in person for deep conversations about important local topics, and this year, in the interest of transparency, we made those interviews available on YouTube, thanks to production help by KMRE Community Radio

CDN also provided paywall-free coverage of the November election as a public service. Readers told us consistently that it helped them make educated choices.

One of CDN’s key impacts on the election, I believe, was something not labeled “election” coverage at all — our comprehensive, explanatory series about the critical state of emergency surrounding the decrepit Whatcom County Jail in downtown Bellingham.

I was proud of the way the series, “Beyond Bars,” explored not just the obvious problems of an overcrowded, ill-maintained jail, but the social conditions that give rise to the problem of large-scale incarceration, and an examination of possible solutions. Many of our readers cited the series as critical in their decision to support a tax measure to build a new jail and support jail-diversion programs, when they had voted “no” on similar proposals before. 

That’s impact.

In general, we hope our election-coverage provided not just timely information about the election itself, but a platform of the most-pressing public issues facing incoming office holders in key positions, such as the mayor of Bellingham and Whatcom County sheriff.

Public accountability

CDN stepped up on countless occasions to call out public agencies for behavior which, as a lifelong journalist and 24-year Bellingham resident, I can attest often went unnoticed in recent years. 

Just a few examples: The combined forces of news coverage and editorial scrutiny of management decisions made in Bellingham Public Schools headquarters continues to receive strong community feedback. 

So, too, did our investigation into a hero’s parade given to a fired police detective who now faces charges of misuse of public funds, and a deep dive into the troubled history — and damning environmental legacy — of the Whatcom County-operated Plantation Rifle Range south of Bellingham, whose future remains in doubt. 

Later in the year, after the devastating wildfires on Maui, we gave deep coverage to a wildfire sparked in heavy forest along Lake Whatcom, with an eye toward the larger subject of the potential for urban wildland fires in our warming-planet future. The status of fire plans for all major local governments was less than encouraging. We will keep asking.

We’re also keeping a close watch on what’s occurring on Bellingham’s “working waterfront,” both through a series of special-report pieces on the past, present and future of waterfront jobs, and increasingly on the management of many of those lands by the Port of Bellingham.

Homelessness and housing affordability

The two interrelated civic conundrums about modern life in Whatcom County and environs consumed a fair share of our time — and an even larger share of our concern — in 2023, putting both matters squarely on our agenda for 2024. So, too, did the matter of safe housing and fair rental policies for those who have a roof over their heads, by way of reining in negligent landlords. All will be coverage priorities in the coming year. 

We’ve also boosted our plans and staffing to continue to cover the crisis of addiction to substances such as fentanyl and other dangerous and readily available drugs, which have devastated local communities.

Special Reports, special results

One of CDN’s most-impressive Special Reports from late 2022, a series of stories about the impact of federal Title IX legislation on female athletes in Northwest Washington, created a wave of momentum that washed all the way into 2023. After a wave of communications among former local athletes drawn together through that series, Western Washington University subsequently provided a feel-good chance for them to reconvene, with a ceremony and gathering to confer long-overlooked “varsity letters” to more than 200 women who had toiled in relative anonymity during their collegiate sports careers. 

We took great pride in covering that heartwarming event, and reslished our small role in bringing that, and other, subjects to the broader public table for others to act upon. It’s the ideal role, in my mind, for a local news organization. 

Likewise, it was fun and insightful at year’s end to explore the lives of two former local residents, Don Hume and Gordy Adam, who were key members of the 1936 University of Washington rowing crew featured in “The Boys in the Boat.” 

Our goal, as always: broad-based, professional coverage

As a staff we also seized the opportunity to shine a light on other community touchstones through our coverage of sports, religion and culture, the arts, cherished community traditions like Ski to Sea, our trademark Faces in the Crowd features, and important but largely unseen subcommunities, such as the legions of stubbornly committed recreational bowlers and pickleball fanatics among us. (You never know when there might be one sitting next to you.)

Impact, all of it — the result of countless hours of effort from a news organization small in numbers but high in ambition, whose workers live in and love their community.

We hope that community is a better one, with stronger connective tissue, at least in some small part because of additional strong, independent local journalism. That, in fact, is what keeps us going. Our aim is to make those ties ever more-binding, by building upon the encouraging reader support we already see on a daily basis. 

Happy New Year to our readers, and here’s to a stronger, even-more-engaged 2024 — a year that will bring expanded coverage and improved delivery methods for all CDN products. Help us out by dropping a line to share some info with the hometown news team at newstips@cascadiadailynews. Trust us: Impact is sweeter when you can call it your own.

Ron Judd’s column appears on Fridays; ronjudd@cascadiadaily.com; @roncjudd.

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