Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Media: Hard to Call it the Tricycle Herald

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - I have an interesting relationship with the Tri-City Herald newspaper. It was the first newspaper to ever publish my picture in 1986--which was nice, except for the fact that the word "geeks" appeared in a headline immediately above my head. It was pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that the editors had decided I was a geek.

When I actually lived in this area for a summer in 1996, the Tri-City Herald was my daily paper, as it was for everyone else that rode our bus to work, and we talked about what was in it on a regular basis. Our bus driver regularly referred to it as "the Tricycle Herald" which just seemed the perfect moniker for a newspaper that felt less substantive than the stuffy big-city papers from the New York Times to the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

Fast forward more than a decade and a very different picture appears. The Tri-City Herald hasn't changed much. It still runs thorough stories on the local community, and in the Internet era has even become a national source on topics of elevated interest locally, such as nuclear waste storage (because of the local Hanford Nuclear Reservation) and the sport of unlimited hydroplane racing (because of the annual race held the last weekend of July). Furthermore, it runs a healthy dose of opinion and news stories from other McClatchy chain papers (the Herald was acquired by McClatchy in 1979) and gives substantial space to local letters to the editor.

In contrast, most bigger-city papers are badly struggling and many are mere shells of their former selves, with radically fewer employees and pages of printed matter available each day. The Tri-City Herald no longer seems like a borderline-juvenile operation, but compares favorably to newspapers serving much larger areas. The big city papers--those that still exist, anyway--are usually little larger than the Tri-City Herald and don't seem to have much more content.

So why is the Herald faring better than other papers? I presume the fact that the area is growing in population (not much over 100,000 in 1996 to more than 225,000 today) doesn't hurt, but I suspect it's a comparative lack of alternatives--Internet sites like Yelp are not as commonplace in Tri-Cities. In fact, in casual conversation, it seemed that the most popular web site with local information was the Tri-City Herald's. Likely, as the area grows, other sites will move in and the Herald will come under a similar stress to that faced in larger cities.

This outlook underscores that not all is well with the Tri-City Herald as it is under the same pressures to reduce costs and staff as other McClatchy chain papers. At least one staffer left to become a political spokesperson fearing layoffs. Still, in the current media landscape, I don't feel comfortable dismissing it as the "Tricycle Herald" anymore.

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