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Three years since the birth of our local news startup: Much progress, more to do

Constantly evolving, Cascadia Daily News' original commitment remains rock solid

The Skagit Publishing press in Mount Vernon prints the A section of Cascadia Daily News on a conveyor.
The Skagit Publishing press in Mount Vernon prints the A section of Cascadia Daily News on its first press run in March 2022. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ron Judd Executive Editor

As with most things time-related, it doesn’t seem possible. But the calendar doesn’t lie.

July marks the third anniversary of the first sparks of creation of Cascadia Daily News, an ongoing experiment in filling a vacuum for robust local news coverage.

We didn’t begin publishing online until January 2022. But nearly 37 months have passed since I was first contacted in summer 2021 by David Syre, CDN’s sole owner. His intriguing pitch to me: leave a longstanding job at The Seattle Times to launch an entirely new publication, from scratch, in my longtime backyard.

Big decision, but I made the leap. I mean, who gets that chance?

Three years later, would I do it again? Absolutely.

Very few parts of the project have turned out exactly as I expected. I learn something new ever single day. It’s been a remarkable amount of work for our small-but-dedicated staff. But no regrets here, aside from the long list of Things I Wish I’d Known.

Writing as I am on Independence Day, it seems fitting to look back on those three years of forging a path for independent news, and offer up a state of the project:

The mission remains. We started out admitting a bias: “We are unapologetically pro-democracy.” CDN was created to help fill a critical need for reliable, independent, trusted information, then primarily in Bellingham and Whatcom County. We dreamed of building a newsroom serving as a watchdog over local institutions, helping an informed electorate make critical decisions to defend representative democracy — threatened then, and still.

We try to do many other things that make us a well-rounded publication in the spirit of a traditional daily newspaper. But our original focus remains Job One here.

Most people get it! We have been gratified to see the degree to which this effort has been embraced, from day one, by our community. We also feel seen somewhat in our trade, where peers across the western U.S. have honored CDN’s work, and bestowed upon us reporting fellows from highly competitive programs (watch for another announcement soon).

Our all-local news staff has grown from nine regulars at launch to 16 full- or part-timers at present, plus a cadre of important local contributors. CDN’s business office staff has more than doubled. The newsroom is constantly exploring new partnerships.

While chain-owned news organizations shrivel, our audience has grown with us, both in numbers and trust, quickly stepping up to play its own critical role: The tips we get about stories started out as simple, general pleas to “dig around.” Today they are more prolific, more detailed and information-laden thanks to brave souls stepping forward. We are humbled by that trust; it is essential to our success.

It’s a tough business. We began with an optimistic premise, in the form of a question: Given what amounts to a front-funded, professional daily news source, would residents of a tuned-in, growing region be willing to pay enough directly, through subscriptions, and indirectly, via support of advertisers, to support it? (The goal here has never been profit, but generating sufficient revenue to become a self-sustaining community asset.)

Answer: Steady progress, but still an open question. CDN treasures the growing support from local subscribers and advertisers, many of whom backed us sight-unseen. But we’re still a long way from self-sustainability, let alone profitability, at our present size and scope.

I remain bullish on the notion that if this enterprise can work anywhere, it will work in Northwest Washington. But it’s going to take more people jumping on the train.

I often say, and increasingly believe, that our primary hurdle is not so much competition from other media (which we welcome), but from the broadly held, wildly-mistaken notion that professional journalism should somehow be free, magically produced by volunteers.

It isn’t. Never has been. Won’t be. You get what you pay for — if you’re lucky enough to even find it on sale in your market.

News mission partially accomplished. While the future remains unknown, let’s pause to appreciate the present. In less than three years, our region has gone from a pending news desert to a community with real journalistic competition. That exists in very few markets anywhere in the United States, especially our size; it makes us proud and is a credit to our supporters.

Limited love from local institutions. CDN’s arrival — and refusal to stop asking hard questions, or go away — seems to have created a sort of slow-moving ripple through local institutions, public and private.

As a Bellingham resident for nearly three decades, I have long observed how much the public good (remember that?) has been degraded by the institutional arrogance that sprouts from the lack of a robust news watchdog. It allowed local leaders to ignore what once was a routine question asked before major decisions: How is this going to look in the newspaper?

Vestiges of that remain, but I see the pendulum swinging. With more regular, probing reporting — both by us and other media that have worked alongside with renewed interest — public processes are demonstrably changing. Our work has had impact. We expect to create more.

Not everyone gets it. A personal observation: Not everyone is accustomed to living alongside a news organization with some degree of pluck. My own opinion pieces, written in the tradition of a metro columnist, in tones ranging from mirthful to angry, have seemed baffling to a few folks. They’ve drawn (anonymous, of course) complaints for being far-right, far-left (both expected) — and somehow indicative of hatred for the place I live (less expected, and absurd).

At any rate, that’s part of the deal. I’ve heard from some readers during a career launched in the late 1980s that they’ve hated to read me, faithfully, for a couple decades. Works for me.

Promises kept. I’ve never been much of a suck-up, so take this as gospel: A primary condition, granted without being asked for in launching this venture, was that CDN’s news pages would be vigorously transparent. And that our owner, with long roots here in business and philanthropy, would give not even an appearance of determining news content.

That commitment has been honored.

We started out boasting that our news and operational decisions are made by journalists on State Street, not bean counters on Wall Street. That remains the case — exclusively because of our owner’s bedrock belief, and steadfast commitment, that trusted journalism must remain free from business conflicts, real or imagined.

Readers are welcome to agree or not with our coverage decisions, but rest assured that they are our own.

Given the big picture in a teetering democracy, that’s a chunk of independence worthy of fireworks.

Ron Judd's column appears weekly;; @roncjudd.

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