Small Town Free Press

For a couple of years before we moved from Los Angeles County (pop. gazillions) to Port Townsend, WA (pop. 9k), I read the weekly newspaper online as a way to familiarize myself with Washington’s issues and interests.  I also read online papers from other towns in the Olympic Peninsula region, since I didn’t know where I would end up getting work and moving to.  None of the other papers had the individuality and kinetic drive of the homegrown paper in PT.

There are so many things about the Port Townsend Leader/ that make reading it unique and exciting.  It’s been published here continuously since 1889, always owned, operated and written by local folks.  About ten years ago, the University of Washington recognized what a special window into history the Leader is, and they digitized copies from the early 20th Century into a high-quality searchable format.  I’ve been supplementing my understanding of what gives my town its specific kind of personality by reading how it was a hundred years ago.

The paper’s current offices are in a historic sandstone edifice built by one of the town’s original entrepreneurs in 1874.  It served as the Jefferson County Courthouse for a decade in the 1880s.  The Leader moved there in 1917.  It’s now the oldest occupied two-story masonry building in the state of Washington.

The PT Leader offers local features and investigative reporting, written in a crisp, direct style.  They publish arts reviews that are not fluff pieces, and op-ed columns written by individuals of different age groups.  The online edition includes embedded videos about events, the colorful characters living here, and links to merchants.  I like the fact that there are always some positive stories.  There are angels, saints and heroes in every town, along with the crime, politics and budget crises.  Too many newspapers seem to have forgotten that.

What I like best of all is the dynamic interactivity of responses from readers.  Where other area papers will publish 3-5 letters in a specific section, The Leader publishes a hundred or more responses per week.  Readers go online and comment on Letters to the Editor, but also on any other article.  The best online comments sometimes appear in the following week’s print edition, continuing the lively debate.  You get to know all the local gadflies, and see a wide range of points of view.  I learned the value of comments from reading the Leader before I began a blog.

“It’s easy enough to identify debits and credits in this era of recession. Declining revenue (sales tax, property tax and what-all) is more the problem than expenditures. Any economist worth his salt also will state that spending as freely as is reasonably possible and getting money into circulation contributes heavily to recovery. Penny-pinching on programs nurturing the general population in order to further fill the vaults of the rich is just plain stupid and non-productive in mean times such as these.”

— Tom Camfield (from his blog in The Leader’s online edition)

Compared to the sloganeering and mis-spelled insults typical of comments sections on national news web sites, these interchanges are mostly substantive, even when they are displays of personal agenda.  It’s like being in a boisterous town hall meeting each week.  Defeated politicians return to offer opinions on how to solve today’s problems.  Local activists plead their causes.  Respondents give thanks for those who’ve helped them through difficulty, and eulogize the dead.  It’s a cornucopia of life’s flavors and colors.  It gives me great joy to see this level of involvement and participation in the exercise of a free press.

(In case you are a comment geek like me, HERE 8 is a link to a current controversy over what form of city government readers think we should have.  It’s a miniature version of the national political debate over spending priorities.)

As much as I like exploring the editions online, I have to admit it’s also a pleasure to sit with a good cup of coffee in the roadhouse near work, where all the waitresses know my name, and take my time reading a real, printed paper.  There are only two pages of letters in the print edition, but I don’t mind.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Small Town Free Press

  1. Each locale is distinct and special, and how wonderful that you gained that understanding before you even moved there!
    I didn’t appreciate the role history plays in shaping today, until we moved to the UK. I quickly realized that when I read a paper, or listened to the news, I understood most of the English words, but I couldn’t put them into a context that made any sense. After a year of study, we understood much more of what we heard and read!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Margie. That’s such an interesting process, the way we gradually adjust to and come to understand the places we live. I sometimes wonder if the sense of the place given to me through the paper was a factor in my getting hired here. I knew this town’s concerns and preferences far better than those in Port Orchard, where I was also interviewing. Perhaps those I spoke with got more of a nonverbal message that I already belonged here.

  2. Tom Camfield

    Nice article. I’ve been a Port Townsend resident almost 83 years. For 44 1/2 of those years I was associated with the Leader (1944-1988), except for such distractions as college, the army during the Korean War, and several years as a publisher in California. At the Leader, I began as a part-time printer’s devil at age 15. After that I was a printer, advertising manager, photographer, reporter, sports editor, darkroom technician–even manager and publisher pro-tem for a couple of years (some 50 years ago). There even was a time that I filled all of those shoes simultaneously to some degree.

    Times have changed, to say the very least, and in modern years, the Leader has forged forward, urging the cutting edge of journalism to get out of its way! It also has remained locally-owned and independent, yet also is surviving during the present economic downturn . . . and in an era which is seeing the failure of much of the print media in an electronic age. The paper’s nearest neighbors are being gobbled up by corporate chains, and I take a bit of personal pride these days for having been part of the foundation of this area champion of the Free Press that so far has endured for 122 years.

    • Yeah, I read about that (in the Leader of course). Canadians owning the small town papers in WA? I like their sense of humor, but still…

      There’s a resilient energy in PT that I appreciate very much, and the town’s survival through difficult patches has often confirmed it. You seem to be part of that tribe, Tom, those with a pioneering and progressive spirit. I wrote about it back when the Blues Fest was happening, during the national display of pettiness over raising the Debt Ceiling:

      http://invisiblemikey.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/small-town-graded-down-blues/

      (Tom was nice enough to email me off-blog to offer his approval and encouragement, after I quoted him in this post. I think I should interview him about local history sometime soon! Maybe get he and our wives together, and buy ‘em all dinner?)

      • @Mikey, YES, DO THAT. Eighty-three years? Catch that man! Whatever else we call important or “urgent” in our lives today, nothing is as important and urgent as recording, or at least hearing, the memories of those who preceded us into this world. This post exemplifies what I like most about you, Mikey.

        @Tom – “urging the cutting edge of journalism to get out of its way” = brilliant :)

  3. This was a really interesting post as always! I’m glad that something like this exists that actually finds the heart of its community. I also love that it’s available both online and in print; nothing really compares to the experience of reading the news :)

    • Thanks, Anna. It’s a remarkable paper, and would be in any size town. The fact that it’s here in a little place makes it even more special. If only TV News were as in-depth as print. It used to be more so, once upon a time.

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