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The Whidbey News-Times currently shares a building with Garage of Blessings, a free thrift store.

Whidbey Island’s newspapers are in the market for a new boss.

RJ Benner, who was the Group Publisher and Sales Director with the Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record, didn’t make it to his one-year anniversary.

Instead, he’s now the Publisher and Advertising Director for the Aiken Standard in South Carolina, a position he started Sept. 12.

Benner replaced Keven R. Graves Sept. 13, 2021, after Sound Publishing, under the ownership of Canada’s Black Press, parted ways with the longtime Whidbey-based journalist.

Graves worked at the News-Times from 1986-1994, left to launch the rival Coupeville Examiner, then moved to Yelm in 1999 to run the Nisqually Valley News.

He returned to Whidbey in 2013, as Publisher and Executive Editor for Whidbey’s papers.

A former President of the Washington Newspapers Publishers Association, Graves led his staffs to an often-staggering number of awards, while also being one of my journalistic mentors.

His successor, who came from the sales and advertising side of the biz, worked in Arkansas and Oregon before briefly fronting Whidbey’s papers.

Benner’s run is among the shortest of any Publisher at the WNT, where familiar names such as Wallie Funk, Craig Dennis, or Marcia Smith appeared in the masthead for years.

Sound Publishing is notorious for scrubbing bylines off of online stories written by former employees.

Still, a search Wednesday night for RJ Benner on the News-Times web site still reveals five publisher columns and a shout-out to the food at the Braeburn.

Only one of the six articles is from 2022.

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Keven R. Graves

The Man (left), back in the days of the ‘stache. (Geoff Newton photo)

An earthquake just ripped through the world of Whidbey Island journalism.

Sound Publishing, which under the ownership of Canada’s Black Press, operates the Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record, has parted ways with Keven R. Graves, longtime Publisher and Executive Editor of those publications.

His final day at the papers was August 27, and he is now employed by Island County, aiding in its response to the ongoing pandemic.

Graves replacement is believed to be RJ Benner, and his first day on the job is expected to be Sept. 13.

While Graves followed a nearly lifelong news path, his replacement springs from the sales side of the industry.

A check of Benner’s LinkedIn page shows his most-recent job being Regional Director of Sales (Group Publisher) in Arkansas for the Gannett/USA Today Network.

Sound Publishing’s decision ends a long run for Graves with Whidbey’s newspapers, one which has played out across two time periods.

His most recent stint began in Feb. 2013, when he returned to Whidbey after working in Yelm.

Graves, who dipped his toes in the journalism waters as a teenager working with local newspaper legend Wallie Funk, was hired full-time after graduating in 1987 from Western Washington University with a Bachelors in Journalism.

He had a summer newsroom internship with the WNT in 1986, then worked from ’87 to mid-1994, first as a reporter, then an Assistant Editor under Fred Obee.

Graves and a group of fellow News-Times employees left to start their own newspaper, the Coupeville Examiner, which launched in May 1994.

After five years as Editor and Co-Publisher (alongside Mary Kay Doody), he and his family moved to Yelm, where he was employed as Publisher/Editor by the Nisqually Valley News from 1999-2013.

When he returned to Whidbey, Graves took control of the News-Times, Record, and the Whidbey (Coupeville) Examiner, which had been sold to Sound Publishing/Black Press during his time in Yelm.

The Examiner was retired in 2017, after a 22.5-year run.

Graves also held influential posts at a state level, working extensively with the Washington Newspapers Publishers Association.

He was a trustee from 2008-2012, served as First Vice President from 2012-2014, then did two terms as President of the WNPA.

During his newspaper career, Graves led multiple newsrooms in winning an often-staggering amount of awards, both for individual and team work.

This included taking home General Excellence, the highest WNPA honor for a newspaper, multiple times.

 

Full disclosure:

I worked with Graves at the Whidbey News-Times from 1990-1994, during which time I spent two years as a freelancer, and two years as Sports Editor.

I also wrote as a freelancer for the Examiner for much of its life, and my movie column ran in the Nisqually paper, among others, during his time there.

Even when I was driving him insane, he has been one of my main mentors.

He never shied away from tough stories, but also always looked to celebrate the positives to be found in small communities.

Graves stared down cultists in Yelm, and rarely lost his sense of humor even when a pack of poop-flinging “political bloggers” gave him their “Asshole of the Year” award here on Whidbey.

His name may no longer be on the masthead, but his impact on Whidbey journalism will endure.

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After camping in Coupeville for a decade-plus, the Whidbey News-Times moved back to its old home up in Oak Harbor in mid-2020, but no longer has the use of the entire building. (Photo property Garage of Blessings)

The living history of Whidbey Island no longer … lives on Whidbey.

It’s not a commonly-known fact, but the archives for the Whidbey News-Times, South Whidbey Record, and Coupeville/Whidbey Examiner all reside in Port Angeles these days, unable to be accessed by readers or journalists.

For the most part.

It’s a tale with no villains, however.

Just a story of how newspapers, especially those operating with long histories and limited storage space, have had to adapt.

So, yes, as I try and pull together the last 100+ years of Coupeville athletics into a semi-coherent story, the lack of local newspaper archives (public or private), does make that self-appointed job a bit tougher.

But there are reasons, valid ones, for why we are where we are today.

For those that don’t know, these archives I speak of are primarily comprised of bound volumes of the newspapers, with the earliest dating back 125+ years.

Depending on the thickness of the papers at the time, the volumes vary between six months and a year.

Which meant during my own days at the Whidbey News-Times (1990-1994), or my current vagabond years, I could usually pluck out say, “January-June, 1963,” blow off the dust, and leaf through history.

For the general public, that ended around 2013, when the inherent brittleness of old newspapers became a concern and the archives were restricted to employee access only.

“I was finding pieces of the oldest editions on the floor and volumes left in unacceptable condition after they were viewed by the public, despite posted notices of how to treat the books,” said WNT Publisher Keven Graves.

“We have had one user of the archive who wore gloves and, as she handled the volumes, would make museum-quality repairs to them as she went. That was greatly appreciated.”

Even after the archives were closed, I was granted the occasional dispensation, allowed to investigate stuff if I was super-careful and refrained from eating soup while leafing.

When the pandemic hit, that went away however, with access to the WNT building restricted to current employees.

As long as they weren’t eating soup while leafing…

While many newspapers transferred their product to microfiche back in the day, that was only done sporadically on Whidbey.

As the years went by, doing a whole-sale update became much too expensive.

“Because of the extent of the archives, the cost of putting everything on microfiche was prohibitive,” Graves said. “There were years when we did have the current volumes put on microfiche, but I haven’t located those, and we no longer have a microfiche reader.

“I’m not aware of when the microfiche copies were discontinued, but I suspect it was during the last office relocation to Coupeville (10+ years ago).”

Sno-Isle libraries currently have some WNT editions on microfiche, but it’s an extremely-limited amount.

During the height of the pandemic, the News-Times relocated its offices back to Oak Harbor, returning to the building at 800 SE Barrington Drive where I worked in the ’90s.

Back then, the newspaper occupied the entire two-story building, with printing presses active on-site.

Today, the bottom floor is occupied by the Garage of Blessings thrift store, limiting the newspaper to the smaller top floor.

Finding room for the news staff, plus advertising salespeople, was tricky enough, without trying to schlep heavy bound volumes along for the trip.

“We had absolutely no room for the archives anymore,” Graves said. “We downsized substantially last year in the midst of the pandemic.

“While we wanted all or some of the archives on site for our own research purposes, it just wasn’t feasible,” he added. “Also, the weight of the archives in one place on a second floor unit was a bit of a concern.”

Compounding the problem is that the archives aren’t just the bound volumes.

Writers and photographers, including Whidbey legends such as Wallie Funk, Dorothy Neil, and Jim Waller, have been collecting all sorts of historical stuff for decades.

“Relocating the archives offsite was never the desired result of downsizing our office, but given the circumstances, it was really our only one,” Graves said. “In addition to the newspaper back volumes themselves, there are photo archives comprised of dated and notated negatives/proof sheets.

“There were also some administrative archives that required storage,” he added.

“Lastly, that amount of storage in a space this much smaller could ultimately present a fire and safety hazard because of inadequate space for storage. It would have looked like a hoarder’s dream.”

When it became clear the archives would have to be sent elsewhere, they were “laid flat, wrapped, and protected,” and are now “stored in appropriate conditions until their return someday to the Island.”

In my mind, I’d like to imagine the Port Angeles facility looking like the sprawling warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The newspaper archives are wheeled in, then locked away with the Ark of the Covenant, assorted UFO doo-dads, and a photo or two of Graves himself back from when he was rockin’ the ‘stache in the ’80s.

“I feel the need, the need for ‘stache!!” (Geoff Newton photo)

Mr. Responsible shoots that idea down, however.

“Unlikely,” Graves said with a chuckle. “I haven’t seen it, but I was assured they will be well-protected and preserved until we can bring them on site again someday.”

With the archives off-Island, one seemingly-valid question is how that affects the current News-Times and Record staff, which is largely comprised of young reporters who did not grow up here, and don’t necessarily have an extensive knowledge of Whidbey’s past.

This can be worked around, however, Graves said.

“Most background that we need is within the past 10 years, which is available on our websites,” he said.

“Beyond that, if needed, a reporter could make the arrangements to make the trip to the peninsula to do research. That hasn’t been necessary during this past year.”

Graves, who worked at the News-Times as a young reporter and assistant editor, before going on to run newspapers in other areas before his return to Whidbey, can also be tapped as an asset.

As can WNT editor Jesse Stensland, who has put in two-decades-plus at the paper.

“Between Jessie and I, we have fairly comprehensive knowledge/background dating back to 1986,” Graves said. “This serves as a reasonable starting point for reporters if they need to gather background.”

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