by Dan Richardson
A new city means new government, and that means more news coverage, especially from print publications. The region's two newspaper titans are looking from their respective headquarters over to a potentially huge core of readers, advertisers and action: The Spokane Valley. With its May incorporation vote, the newly created city has attracted the attention of the Cowles family, which owns the Spokesman-Review, and created new opportunity for the Hagadone Newspaper Company, which publishes a string of papers, including the Coeur d'Alene Press.
The Spokesman plans to energize its coverage of the Valley, which, with two weekly Valley inserts, is not insubstantial now. A likely scenario is a reorganization of the paper's Regional section into a more Valley-centric edition, sources say, the way they do for the Idaho Spokesman-Review.
"Yes, we are increasing our Valley coverage. The exact form that increased coverage could take could come in various formats," says Shaun O'L. Higgins, the paper's marketing director. "What I'm telling folks right now is the Spokesman has made a huge investment in the Valley... We'll be hiring and refocusing staff."
The Spokesman has maintained a Valley bureau for years, and reporters covered specific issues like incorporation and sewers. (The Valley bureau office was the one bombed some years back by racist militants.) The paper plans to hire at least five new positions initially, according to Jim Camden, a political reporter and the reporters' union representative. That's a happy change of direction following two rounds of staff layoffs in 2001.
"There's going to be a lot of new stories out there," says Camden. "We knew the Valley city council races were going to be among the best politically, so we are going to give them a lot of attention. There's going to be a lot of government infrastructure that will need to be formed out there, so it's going to be a plum assignment to watch that going on."
Higgins says the paper's expansion is a no-brainer: "What kind of newspaper would we be if, with these developments [in the Valley] we said, let's just cover it on the side? When news happens, we have to be there, and be there with everything we've got."
Hagadone's shadow - Many incorporation advocates bemoaned the possibility of Spokane's influence on the Valley's destiny, but Havana isn't the only border separating the new city and potential influence-peddlers. A few miles east rises the Coeur d'Alene Resort tower, and owner Duane B. Hagadone's reach could easily extend into the Valley.
The Valley is a rich vein for the news business, full of middle class families with the habit of reading papers and the wealth to support advertisers. Some of the Spokesman's highest subscriber percentages are in Valley neighborhoods, higher than places like Hillyard or Airway Heights, according to Higgins.
In late May, Hagadone, 69, announced a corporate reorganization that spun off his news and real estate holdings into four separate companies, and he relinquished day-to-day operations to managers. A week later, Hagadone Newspapers sold its 50 percent share in the Sioux City Journal for $59.3 million in cash, plus ownership of seven Montana weeklies, expanding the already sizeable Hagadone press empire, according to industry observer Cribb & amp; Associates.
That trade gives Hagadone Newspapers a bucket of cash, nearly $60 million, and a rare possibility to enter a market that's developing news from the ground up with the formation of a new Spokane Valley government. It is, as the Spokesman's Higgins says, a "very exciting time" for journalists. "It's a newsman's dream, and readers are going to be expecting us to be good."
Jim Thompson, president of Hagadone Newspapers, says his company is not planning to start a new paper in the Valley.
However, "We're certainly interested in growing our newspaper company," says Thompson. "We're actively looking for newspaper acquisition possibilities."
He notes that a number of papers cover and distribute in the Valley already, including the Spokesman-Review, The Inlander and a couple smaller local papers, the Liberty Lake Splash and the Valley News Herald. So is the market already saturated? Thompson demurs. "I don't know enough about the Valley to assess that."
Perhaps not, but Hagadone had his eyes westward before, in 1995, just after the Spokesman invaded Hagadone's turf by building a fancy new office in downtown Coeur d'Alene, he came within a hair of purchasing the Spokane Journal of Business. Created in 1986 by Spokesman assistant business editor Norman Thorpe and Scott Crytser of the now-defunct Spokane Business Examiner, the Journal of Business flourished in its market. A decade later, Hagadone made his offer, Thorpe recalls, but Crytser obtained financing from the Cowles to buy out Thorpe's shares in the corporation. In 1995, the Cowles purchased the Journal out from under Hagadone's nose.
Exporting politics - Reporters write about politics, and their articles help form a region's image of itself and its civic life.
Through their editorial policies and opinion pages, newspaper publishers can also shape politics, or at least get involved. In Spokane city, for example, the Spokesman has reflected the Cowles family business interests, including stable government, downtown development and specific projects like River Park Square.
The S-R is the most obvious, but not the only paper to choose sides: The Local Planet Weekly is aligned with the Corker-Rodgers-Eugster insurgent faction, writing up those city council members' thoughts and deeds in glowing terms on a weekly basis. The publication is continually praising its political friends -- like capitalists-slash-political-donors Bernard Daines and Metropolitan Mortgage - while damning its enemies. (Number one on its list is Spokane Mayor John Powers.)
So non-journalist interests influence those newspapers. Some questions for Valley residents are, will newspapers covering civic affairs there choose sides, too? And, if so, will Valley residents be swayed one way or the other? At this early stage, it's not even clear if there will be sides, or what issues will delineate the political races.
There are some indications that Spokane's factions may export their political visions to the Valley. (The Spokesman pulled its punches during the incorporation campaign, however, by not taking a position either for or against the formation of the new city.) And the Cowles have a stake, as their Inland Empire Paper Co. owns significant parcels of property along the length of the Valley.
As for the anti-Cowles, anti-establishment faction, some members are also looking to the Valley for political purposes. Most telling is that Metropolitan Mortgage, its political activist V.P. Erik Skaggs and a PAC that Skaggs controls gave more than $29,000 to the pro-incorporation campaign, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. Skaggs tells The Inlander that his group has not contributed to anyone running for Valley city council, and if they do, it will only be in small amounts.
As an involved citizen, Skaggs knows that "news coverage is a critical part of any campaign or political activity. How the valley is covered is going to be very important."
The Valley's residents have their own history, attitudes and vision, says Skaggs. "I don't think the Valley is burdened by entrenched, long-term special interest groups [like Spokane]. They haven't been forming for the past 100 years, unlike the city."
Met Mortgage just helped give a little push, along with dozens of others, says Skaggs. "All the Valley needed was to become its own community and take control of its own destiny."
What about The Inlander, Spokane's second-largest newspaper after the Spokesman?
"We want to continue to follow the story. We've had some good stuff on the efforts to incorporate the Valley over the last nine years," says Editor and Publisher Ted S. McGregor, Jr., adding, "The Inlander opposed it on the editorial page, but that doesn't mean we have a point of view to maintain in our stories. We aim to play the role of a traditional newspaper, with no agenda, just providing a place for a variety of voices to be heard. We certainly wish the new city well... Our coverage will embrace this and ask, 'What's progress and what's not?' "
Hometown Players - Smaller papers have staked claims in Valley news coverage. Hometown players like the Valley News Herald and the Liberty Lake Splash have published local papers, sometimes for years, like small mammals running between the feet of dinosaurs.
One of the interesting market questions will be, can these papers survive if the bigger news companies find rich pickings in the Valley?
Neither the News Herald nor the Splash say they have plans to expand coverage in the wake of incorporation. Mostly, they can't afford to. (The Inlander also has no plans to radically increase staffing or distribution because of Valley incorporation.) Mike Huffman, the News Herald's managing editor, says that publication (part of a small regional chain that includes the Cheney Free Press) will continue writing good local stories and weathering any financial storm.
"The Valley News Herald has been around in one form or another for 80 years. It's a community newspaper that covers the Valley regardless of what everybody else is doing," says Huffman. "I think [incorporation] for us is just a lot more interesting news coming down." And a lot more meetings to cover.
But the Spokesman is looking ambitious, spending money, hiring reporters and rolling out some kind of Valley edition, so a newsman like Huffman can't be entirely blithe about the possibility of a hungry and powerful competitor eating his paper for lunch.
"We know the Spokesman's going to slam us every week. They come out every day. All we can do is tell good community stories, so people want to pick us up, too," says Huffman. "I think that we have a certain advantage in that we have a mission not to take over the world."