The family-owned daily was in the midst of an energetic drive to challenge competitors such as the Valley Herald and the Coeur d'Alene Press for news, readers and ads.
"That was kind of a golden era for newspapers," says Shaun O'L. Higgins, director of sales and marketing for The Spokesman-Review. "The late '80s, early '90s was a pretty sweet time."
Today, a week after announcing as many as 40 employees throughout the company could be facing layoffs, the Spokesman has almost no reporters left in its Valley and North Idaho bureaus. By the end of this month, the paper announces, it will publish only one edition every day.
"I don't think it's really a pullback in many ways," says Stacey Cowles, fourth-generation publisher of The Spokesman-Review. "We're going to be focusing on where our strengths are. People always look to us for regional news and stories of regional significance in both Spokane and Coeur d'Alene."
Up until the early 1980s, The Spokesman-Review did not have a dedicated Idaho edition, or staff, and had roughly 20,000 subscribers in North Idaho. After 25 years of throwing staff and capital resources into North Idaho, and providing a dedicated Idaho edition, circulation in recent years had declined to the 17,000 range.
"I think that's accurate," Cowles says. "Part of our problem in North Idaho was we would take the Spokane news out. A lot of readers said that was the reason they subscribed was to get Spokane news."
Some readers in the Panhandle, however, have taken a sharply different view on a couple of Spokesman blogs, particularly the popular Huckleberries Online.
"I get both papers," writes a poster under the name Eric Seaman. "Spokesman for news type things and [Coeur d'Alene] Press for local. ... The spokesman kind of reeks to much of Spokane even in the Idaho version and that's kind of a drag."
A regular poster at HBO, MamaJD, writes, "I will not be subscribing to the CdA Press. It has proven in more ways than one to be slanted and partial. I am extremely disappointed with Steve Smith's decision to drop support for CdA area. I value the SR's commitment to journalism and objectivity."
Another regular, called "green libertarian," praises the Spokesman for its recent court challenges that knocked hundreds of e-mails and public documents into the open that the Kootenai County prosecutor was refusing to release. "This is an important public watchdogging function," green libertarian writes, wondering who will fill this role now.
Cowles and Editor Steve Smith say that by going to one edition, the Spokesman will focus on being a regional paper. Stories of regional significance will be run for all readers, Cowles says. Hyper-local news will still be covered in the weekly "Voices" sections, Smith adds. The neighborhood-oriented sections circulate in south and north Spokane, Spokane Valley, Post Falls and Kootenai County.
Smith says a reorganization of remaining staff will be completed by mid-November. The newsroom has lost 21 employees so far, 15 to involuntary layoffs, and the marketing, production and business departments are expected to lose the remaining jobs to reach the announced total of 30 to 40.<
Despite the lack of circulation gains over the last quarter century in North Idaho, Cowles says, "We have been very successful in cracking the advertising market there. Advertisers in that market want to reach over the border and attract readers from the Washington side."
Cowles says the paper will be able to zone North Idaho advertising at least six days a week. To do this, the paper will "replate a couple of pages," that is, create pages with Idaho-specific ads for the North Idaho subscribers, he says.
Cowles says the newspaper is not for sale. He acknowledges the paper is making a profit but says the layoffs are not about greed. A persistent number cited by a variety of Cowles employees over the years places the profit margin at roughly 13 percent, a figure neither Cowles nor Higgins would verify. Over the past decade, some dailies, especially those in chains like Gannett, have been making double that profit margin or more.
The lack of verifiable numbers frustrates members of the newsroom union. "They tell us that after these layoffs they are still $200,000 over... but $200,000 over what? "They don't have to show us what. So how much did losing 20 people save?" asks Spokane Editorial Society President Erica Curless.
"The argument of cutting off an arm [the bureaus] to save the body, from a business perspective that probably makes sense," says Curless, who works in the North Idaho bureau. "Do I agree with it? No. There has always been a rift between the journalist side and the business side. From a journalist perspective, Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint and the Valley are the fastest growing areas in the region, and we should be back here covering it. In a perfect journalist world, we would be covering it."
The layoffs -- as well as recent revenue-generating efforts to allow front-page advertisements -- are needed because The Spokesman-Review, like daily newspapers across the country, faces significant challenges, Cowles and Higgins say.
"This is a transition period," says Cowles. "We are not going to disappear, but we are certainly having to change our shape and the way we do business."
Not too long ago, he says, the Crescent department store alone accounted for 10 percent of the paper's advertising. Now, community-rooted stores like the Crescent have all but vanished. Their replacements -- Target, Home Depot and Costco -- do no local-paper advertising, instead inserting circulars that are preprinted elsewhere and cost a fraction of on-page ads.
"Everybody is wringing their hands," Cowles says. "It's not greed, it's a question of prudent management. If you owned a stock and it lost a third of its value and you had another stock that didn't, what would you do? You'd sell the stock that wasn't keeping up. I don't want that to be an option for this newspaper.
"What we are trying to do," Cowles adds, "is look at the future as we make adjustments to give us a stable platform for the next three to five years."
Kevin Taylor is a former Spokesman-Review employee.