A Small Town’s Wish: Its Own Newspaper!

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

In parts of rural Washington state, physicians are so scarce that small towns often actively campaign for them. They hold town meetings, hire recruiters, and advertise housing subsidies and signing bonuses. Earlier this year, for instance, Pomeroy, population 1,400, budgeted $50,000 to find someone to replace Dr. Syed Zafar, a Bangladeshi who served three years as the town’s only physician to qualify for American citizenship under a federal program.

But when the community leaders of Selah in Upper Yakima Valley called a big meeting the other day, their purpose was bringing something else to town: A weekly newspaper.

April Leslie, president of the Selah Chamber of Commerce, organized the meeting. She distributed flyers around town that stated plainly the frustration of many Selah residents: “Are you tired of not getting enough information about our local communities? Relying only on the Yakima Herald? … Here is your opportunity.”

The Yakima Herald-Republic certainly covers Selah, a bedroom community that is maybe five minutes from the Yakima city limits. But, Herald-Republic Publisher Mike Shepard readily concedes, his paper covers Selah like a daily — the dominant Yakima Valley daily. ?I?m the first one to acknowledge, having spent 12 years in community newspapers (before going to the daily) that the newspapers can be very different,? he said. ?We emphasize local news, more than most dailies.?

But what give-us-a-newspaper meeting organizer Leslie wants is a paper that will give every soccer score, and run pictures of town parades, and the church blood drives. Why, she tells me, the FCCLA chapter from Selah went to Tennessee and won the nationals — and there wasn?t a word about it in the Herald-Republic! She was talking about Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, the student organization.

Some three dozen or so people showed up at the civic center for the newspaper meeting, including the mayor, city councilmen, pastors, Kiwanis Club guys. The Herald-Republic also showed up. (Big shout-out to reporter Rod Antone, whose article alerted me to this story.)

There would have been more attendance, Leslie thinks, but she didn?t realize that it was scheduled for the same night as the ?Mr. SHS? completion, when a Selah High School senior is selected for the annual honor.

?See, we didn?t know — we don’t have a newspaper,? she said.

Selah, home to Tree Top apple juice, has a strong small-town community feel, but residents have to depend on word of mouth and e-mail trees to spread news of community events.

Leslie and some other community people contacted Sam Small, the operations for Yakima Valley Newspapers. ?How they got my name I don?t know,? he said, though his publishing company is a natural. Yakima Valley publishes a paid weekly in nearby Toppenish, plus a free-distribution Spanish-language weekly that?s getting competition from a more recent Herald-Republic product, and a monthly business journal.

Small was impressed with the size of the crowd — ?considering there was no advertising for it,? he added.

It turned out to be, basically, a self-appointed focus group. ?We really got a chance to have the public tell us what they wanted,? Small said, ?instead of what we usually do in newspaper of trying to figure out what might appeal to them.?

One thing they liked, besides, of course, local news warmed Small?s heart: ?They wanted advertising, color and advertising, those were two things that came up (repeatedly).?

Like a good Chamber of Commerce president, April Leslie, a financial advisor with Edward Jones & Co., can recite all the business improvements in Selah. The new strip malls. The growing mix of retail.

And now that Small has started taking a look at Selah, so can he. ?It?s the most affluent area in Yakima Valley,? he said. ?It is a bedroom community, but it?s getting more retail. It?s getting some more banks. A few restaurants. Some decent-sized car lots. It?s definitely a good market.?

Pumped up after the meeting — “I definitely felt good leaving that place, that?s for sure? — Small told the Herald-Reporter?s Antone that the chances his group will start a Selah weekly were nine on a scale of 10.

Yakima Valley is still crunching the numbers, and checking out the market, calculating what it would need in terms of editorial and sales staff.

It?s no lock. A Selah weekly folded years ago, and the Herald-Republic for a little while published a local section called ?Voices of Selah.? While it continues to publish other localized ?Voices of ?? sections, Selah?s was silenced three or four years ago.

Small says Yakima Valley is still ?looking at it very strongly,? but wants to be sure all the elements will work.

If nothing else, organizer April Leslie figures, the meeting got the attention of the Herald-Republic.

?The articles have definitely increased since we had the meeting,? she said. ?They had a big picture of our parade the other day. They never have that.?

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