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CDN’s own ‘shared commitment’

A pledge to expand accountability journalism in NW Washington

By Ron Judd Executive Editor

One string of words in a current guest commentary by officials at local health care provider PeaceHealth struck home: “Our shared commitment.” 

Whatcom County’s dominant health care organization was announcing its decision to restore a canceled palliative care program, simultaneously pledging to rebuild what appeared to be crumbling bridges with the community. It was a necessary response.

Readers have identified PeaceHealth’s management proclivities as a top local issue in local elections, as part of our Citizens Agenda process. CDN reporters and editors have been busy in recent days putting questions about the matter to candidates for Whatcom County executive and council, mayor of Bellingham, and others. 

But the headline phrase stuck in my brain for another reason: We, too, have a “shared commitment”: a bond I hope we are forming with readers and the public over accountability journalism. 

When CDN was born less than two years ago, central to its raison d’etre was filling a gap in independent, professional-level journalism that maintains an informed electorate — the essential fuel of representative democracy.

It’s not a stretch to say that concept was threatened in the U.S. on our birthday and remains so as we approach our second in January. While it’s fun to entertain and cajole, we wouldn’t be here otherwise.

The beating heart of that civic promise is accountability journalism. Holding institutions accountable is a buzz phrase in the field these days, but an old concept — one of which I remind myself, daily, glancing at a copy of Lincoln Steffens’ “The Shame of the Cities” on my office bookshelf. 

CDN in its fledgling days didn’t accomplish as much of it as the editor would have preferred. Much of that was by necessity — we’ve built a seven-day online/print publication here literally from scratch, a task far more complicated than most folks would imagine.

In the complex, challenging world of modern media, it’s one that few people even undertake. A fledging publisher in today’s journalism market — at least one who expects to make a significant splash, launching a product with a broad coverage scheme created by a crew of professionals paid well enough to live where they work — faces a large initial investment, likely followed by years of subsidy while building toward sustainability. 

We were fortunate to have an enthusiastic participant in that gambit and civic commitment. It’s always been assumed that the public would have to step up, via subscriptions, to turn this experiment into a lasting local institution. That remains the case; I remain bullish on our chances.

Back to the central point: Starting a new publication is complicated and time-consuming. We spent most of our initial year just establishing ourselves with a reliable publication schedule that brings to readers the sort of broad coverage we now provide. Startups and headaches are soulmates.

But our hardworking newsroom has found time in between dousing fires to produce ample doses of true accountability journalism, all of which I am tremendously proud. It’s a demonstration of our own “shared commitment” with our partners — readers — to illuminate problems, present solutions, and hold the power structures that surround us to account. A sampling:

We examined the causes and impacts of historic floods that devastated parts of our region in November 2021, setting the stage for a public reexamination of approaches to flood mitigation and reparation in an age of increasingly catastrophic weather. We dissected what qualified, and likely still does, as a child care crisis in our midst

We delved deeply into the slaying by Sedro-Woolley police of a motorist shot dead for failure to stop at a tire-strip roadblock. We pored over the records of environmental damage and safety concerns at Plantation Rifle Range. We provided investigative coverage of, and commentary on, a hazing scandal in the football program at Sehome High School — a story with long historical roots that we continue to report. 

More recently, along with student journalists and community radio partner KMRE, we examined the modern-day troubles — and possible future prospects of — Whatcom County’s decrepit jail, slated for replacement via a November tax measure. 

And, not to be forgotten: We reported the deep community anger over programs eliminated recently by PeaceHealth. We then provided an open-door community forum for that rage to spill out into the public. That’s part of our accountability mission, as well.

I think it’s safe to say the provider’s decision to restore its palliative care program would have been unlikely without a public forum for that passionate rebuke. These very pages (Opinion and Letters) provided that platform; it’s one our “local” competitor, McClatchy’s Bellingham Herald, sees as an unnecessary expense.

Our news decisions continue to be made on State Street, not Wall Street. My vow: CDN’s work in this “shared commitment” is a mere start that we intend to aggressively build upon. While other publications are in full retreat, CDN’s ownership has doubled down on its civic experiment. 

We recently added an experienced managing editor, Rhonda Prast, with extensive chops in leading investigations. Her influence, coupled with the skills of our entire newsroom team, can already be seen in deeply reported daily stories (see our recent wildfire coverage). 

And our newsroom is adding even more human firepower: Former intern and recent Western Washington University grad Finn Wendt, starting this week, will bolster our already award-winning visuals crew. And arriving soon is another talented reporter, Charlotte Alden, a former CDN intern, the 2022 Student Journalist of the Year in Canada, and our new general assignment/enterprise reporter.

We welcome these new teammates and hand them a mission: Improve our breaking news acumen and expand the sort of accountability journalism we hope to become known for to the farther reaches of this special place we call Cascadia. 

Here’s hoping that more and more of you join us in the “shared commitment” to truth, transparency and accountability. We’re working hard every day to hold up our end. 

Ron Judd’s column appears on Fridays; ronjudd@cascadiadaily.com; @roncjudd. Have an idea for an accountability story? Email newstips@cascadiadaily.com.

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