Posts Tagged ‘Whidbey News-Times’

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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It’s a shame. It really, truly is.

Back in the final days of 2020, my journalism mentor, Jim Waller, retired after his second, and final stint, as Sports Editor for the Whidbey News-Times.

Since he was actually pulling double duty and also crafting stories for their sister paper, The South Whidbey Record, his departure to North Carolina essentially ended sports coverage in Whidbey’s newspapers.

Now, his departure is not the shame.

And neither is the work of the current staff at those newspapers, with Jesse Stensland, Emily Gilbert, Karina Andrew, and Kira Erickson doing fine work.

The shame lies with the bean counters, whether they are at Sound Publishing or, ultimately, at Black Press in Canada.

We are 10 months past Waller’s retirement, and well into a very-active fall school sports season, and Whidbey’s newspapers have not hired a new Sports Editor, or a sports writer, or anything remotely close.

From Jan. 1, 2021 to today, I have published 713 largely Coupeville-centric stories, most of them sports-related, on this blog.

By contrast, the News-Times and Record, the “papers of record” for Whidbey, have largely pretended sports no longer exist.

In Coupeville. In Oak Harbor. In Langley. From Deception Pass Bridge to the Clinton ferry, poof, athletics be gone.

Now, for someone like myself, who worked for the Canadian-funded Whidbey papers back in the ’90s, seeing an ultra-thin eight-page paper (with $1.00 stamped on it) arrive in my landlord’s mailbox is shame enough.

To leaf through it and see nothing sports-related, other than a random photo or brief, rewritten press release, is a stake through the heart.

Go online and it’s no different.

And I get that the newspaper industry has radically changed since the ’90s. I understand, better than many, how much of a struggle it is now.

I also understand my own Don Quixote thing, tilting at windmills and publishing 8,720 small-town sports stories in a little over nine years, can’t and won’t be replicated by anyone who’s not willing to live fast and (really) stupid.

But for the Whidbey newspapers, publications which have endured for 100+ years, papers which have employed really good sports writers in the past, to give up, is beyond shameful.

Both the South Whidbey High School volleyball and girls soccer teams are enjoying outstanding seasons, and seem capable of making serious playoff runs.

Years from now, when the players on those teams look back, they aren’t going to have many published stories, in print or online, to marinate in.

How are Oak Harbor teams doing?

No clue, as I’m buried, writing 4-5 Coupeville-related stories per day, every day, and, unlike the past, the News-Times isn’t there to let me catch a quick update.

There have been times in recent months where people from the two schools I don’t cover have asked me if I would write stories for Oak Harbor and South Whidbey.

I feel their pain. I do.

But I can’t rescue the newspaper bean counters for not doing their job.

I’m too busy with Coupeville, the town which I have committed myself to, and the athletes, parents, coaches, and administrators here, who have supported this blog since 2012.

The current staff at the News-Times/Record is doing what it can to stay on top of Whidbey news. They seem to care a great deal.

But they need help.

The bean counters back at corporate, if they intend to keep these newspapers running, need to realize how important sports coverage is as a part of small-town journalism.

The cost of hiring another reporter, one to cover Oak Harbor and South Whidbey sports (and give me someone to shoot it out with in Coupeville), will not wreck your ledger.

What it will do is give additional advertisers in the North and South a reason to support your papers again.

What it will do is give teens a reason to ever look at your publications, and grandmas a reason to clip stories or print out your work from the internet.

What it will do is restore a proud tradition of Whidbey sports writing which has included the work of Wallie Funk, Jim Waller, Brian Zylstra, Jill Johnson, and a whole lot of others.

What it will do is get me, a guy you paid to write about sports from 1989-1994, off your back, at least for a bit.

Though, I have a long history of chafing Sound Publishing and Black Press, so emphasis on the word “bit…”

Whether you’re a bean counter or David Black, the mythical gazillionaire media mogul behind the curtain in Moose Jaw, as long as you’re running them, you damn well should respect the history of Whidbey’s newspapers.

Sports matter, greatly, when it comes to small-town journalism.

Stop shaming yourself, and act like you have a clue.

If nothing else, give me a competitor again. I dare you.

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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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Whidbey News-Times Sports Editor Jim Waller (right) listens as CHS coach David King talks basketball strategy. (Photo by JohnsPhotos.net)

The adult is leaving the room.

After a lifetime on Whidbey Island, years spent as a stellar athlete, teacher, coach, and journalist, Jim Waller is out the door Friday.

Retirement from his second stint as Sports Editor at the Whidbey News-Times sends him and wife Sandee off on a new adventure to North Carolina, where the grandkids await.

Over the years, as I’ve bounced around the world of Whidbey journalism, writing thousands of stories for multiple publications while never really settling down, one constant has been true.

When he was writing, Waller was the dad sitting in the big leather chair, peering over his paper every so often to tell us, in dulcet tones, the news of the world.

And I was the Dennis the Menace-style kid, even at 49, tottering atop the fence outside his house, screaming “Hey, you wanna know what I just heard?????,” before falling off and landing on my head.

We made a good Mutt and Jeff team, especially in postgame interviews with coaches.

Waller would ask a deep question about in-game strategy, drawing on decades of knowledge and the gravitas which comes with being a member of a real coaches Hall of Fame.

Then, I would follow up by channeling Chris Farley hyperventilating while interviewing someone like Paul McCartney on SNL.

“So, yeah, that one time, when Ethan Spark went flying out of bounds chasing the basketball, and he like completely wiped out the water jug, and liquid and bodies went flying everywhere, and people were screaming like the alien invasion was underway, that was kinda cool, wasn’t it???”

And now you want me — ME???? — to be the elder statesman of Whidbey sports journalism?

Yeah, that’ll give Willie Smith the cold sweats at night…

To think, if it wasn’t for Waller, all those words I’ve typed (and a few that I was paid for) probably wouldn’t have happened.

When my dad moved the family to Whidbey, I was in the middle of my senior year at Tumwater High School, with vague thoughts of becoming a chef.

Which is odd, since I wasn’t especially talented at anything other than joining my friend Ray Jacoby in eating “liberated” cookie dough from the freezer at the New Market Vocational Skills Center.

Forced to take an extra semester at Oak Harbor High School, I signed up for journalism — even though you were supposed to have been pre-approved, which I certainly wasn’t.

I had all of two stories from my time at the super-unfunded THS newspaper (Terry Pullen, our principal, forever an ass), and they probably didn’t scream future sports writer or film critic.

One was an editorial calling for Ted Bundy to be fried in the electric chair, the other was an in-depth look at child porn and sex abuse.

Because we were baiting the principal, who promptly erased the rest of our $1.12 worth of funding.

Best/worst memory of that second story was conducting an interview with a naturally-suspicious police detective as I began to suffer incredibly bad food poisoning after eating from the skills center’s salad bar.

Somehow, I didn’t hurl until right AFTER the interview, but I like to think anyone else in the Thurston County Sheriff Department Office parking lot that day will never forget the horror and the wonder.

But anyway, using my two newspaper clips, I somehow convinced Waller to let me stay in his class, inadvertently launching a 30-year “career.”

He was the one who let me irritate the student body by writing self-righteous angry young man editorials in the OHHS newspaper — which was well-funded — and the one who got me my first story in the News-Times.

From there, Waller was always around, as a sounding board, a mentor, and someone to emulate.

There have been moments when I have come close to honoring his serene, smart style — and a lot where I ranted and raved and burnt bridges (while I was standing on them), testing the patience of many an editor.

When I moved into doing Coupeville Sports, with no one to stifle me (or save me from myself), he was there, having returned to the News-Times for a second run after retirement as a coach and teacher.

Since I often attacked the Canadian owners of the local papers, after they inspired me to launch this blog by erasing hundreds upon hundreds of my bylined stories from their publication web sites, there were some who thought I viewed Waller as a rival.

Not in the least.

He was my mentor, journalistic idol, friend, and the man who always paid when we went out for our semi-regular lunches at The Pizza Factory.

I brought gossip, he brought reason and insight, and, when I have allowed his patient guidance to sink in, it has always made me a better writer, reporter, and person.

My arc through the world of journalism has never been an easy one — I am very likely the only Sports Editor of a twice-weekly paper to leave that job to go work on … mussel rafts in Penn Cove.

Stupid at 23. Stupid at 49. Notice a trend here?

Through it all, through the News-Times, the Examiner, Coupeville Sports, the various movie columns and fly-by-night papers, careening from giddy highs to moments when I’ve been (rightfully) kicked out of Coupeville’s press box and banned from the gyms of rival schools, Waller was the calm voice of reason.

He never tried to change my writing style, or my antisocial tendencies.

But he was always there, with knowledge, with reason, with subtle guidance, if I would take it.

Days before his departure, our final pizza party came at an outdoor picnic table thanks to the pandemic.

While the surroundings were different, the meal wasn’t.

I told dumb stories, to which he gave a smile and nod. And he answered questions, filled in gaps in my knowledge, and offered encouragement, all without ever pushing too hard.

My journalism career has been its own weird thing, but it never would have happened without Jim Waller.

He was the spark, the support crew, and the audience, all rolled into one.

And, for that, I will always be grateful.

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