The Columbian celebrates 125th anniversary

The newspaper marks a milestone in a time of uncertainty

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

Published:

 
See complete coverage of The Columbian's 125th anniversary: http://www.columbian.com/125years/

One hundred and twenty-five years ago this week, on Oct. 10, 1890, the Vancouver Columbian introduced itself to its readers for the first time.

A story simply headlined “SALUTATORY” opened in the stilted prose of that era: “In entering the arena The Columbian has no vain-glorious proclamation to make,” the new weekly wrote modestly to the county’s 11,617 residents. It continued:

“In the independent expression of view on all subjects it will, of course, be impossible to please everybody, and we trust no one will expect us to sacrifice the public interests for any individual or class. We have come not for that, but to do battle for the rights and interests of the people — the people at large — and especially the great masses who need the redress of wrong, whose labor is the basis of our wealth, and whose fidelity is the best guarantee of free institutions.”

Twelve-and-a-half decades later, Clark County’s population is just over 450,000. Businesses and entire industries have come and gone. The news industry, of which The Columbian is a part, has expanded into the worlds of radio, television, the Internet, the mobile device. These days, more people get their news online than from ink on paper.

The Columbian’s prosperity has always been closely tied to that of the community it serves. New people and new jobs in the community brought more readers and advertisers to The Columbian. The newspaper shared in the community’s hard times. That deep bond between the community and its local newspaper remains, but new technologies that emerged in the past quarter-century have given readers and advertisers more choices. Some of those choices — computer, tablet and smartphone — have expanded The Columbian’s audience, but those digital outlets produce far fewer advertising dollars than print.

Yet after 125 years, The Columbian remains one of Clark County’s longest-running businesses, having survived and prospered under several generations of local ownership by the Campbell family. As a fourth generation of that family prepares for yet another familial transition, the path to a prosperous future for The Columbian is unclear.

The Columbian has had to find its new role in a world reshaped by digital technology. It joins newspapers nationwide that are looking for ways to continue their primary mission by cutting costs and experimenting with new revenue models. None have found a path to long-term financial stability. Ken Doctor, one of the nation’s most prominent newspaper industry analysts, believes that smaller community papers are on a stronger footing moving forward than big metropolitan dailies. Although he’s hopeful about ideas being tested by some big dailies, Doctor believes locally owned community newspapers are in a relatively strong position to return to financial health.

“It’s not that much of an audience problem, it’s more of a business problem,” said Doctor, whose consulting firm is called Newsonomics. Newspapers such as The Columbian, he suggested, should continue and expand their community involvement while embracing the best business and financial practices that emerge from experimentation within the industry.

Scott Campbell, the newspaper’s publisher since 1987, said he, his wife and his sons intend to forge ahead. The Columbian, he said, still plays a vital role in Clark County’s civic life. He evokes the sense of purpose articulated in the newspaper’s message to readers in 1890: that The Columbian should do battle for the rights and interests of the people.

“I want to maintain the ability to do what we have been doing,” said Campbell. “I want us to be strong enough to do important stories even if they offend people.”

’10 times worse’

Like any newspaper, The Columbian’s role in this community is far richer than just providing a voice for the voiceless. A good newspaper entertains, inspires, informs, educates. At times, it reflects community consensus; at other times, it challenges outworn ways of thinking.

The Columbian has done all of that and more in its 125 years. During the newspaper’s first 100 years, Clark County grew from a small outpost with a large historic fort to an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse fed by the harnessed power of the Columbia River. The county’s paper mills, aluminum plants and World War II Kaiser Shipyard provided jobs and prosperity. With more good times than bad through generations of economic transitions, families flocked to a county that offered good schools and quality of life as the rural landscape slowly gave way to suburbia.

The past 25 years were mostly a time of prosperity fed in large part by suburban growth and the business it spawned in health care, education and construction, among other fields. The county’s population nearly doubled, from about 238,000 to 450,000. Camas and east Vancouver became hubs for technology employers who filled an employment void as natural resources and traditional manufacturing jobs faded. The Columbian’s annual year-end reports routinely highlighted explosive job and population growth as the year’s top stories.

The year-end summary of 1991, to pick just one example from the early boom years of the last quarter-century, reflects the fundamental transition that was taking place in the county. In with the new: In Vancouver’s downtown, two new Class A office buildings opened — Main Place and the First Interstate Tower. Sharp, Underwriters Laboratories, Kyocera, and SEH America all were either planning or building new technology-based operations. Out with the old: Vancouver Extrusion Co., the last remnant of the once-dominant Alcoa aluminum company, closed the doors on 51 years of Alcoa operations in the county.

The county’s unemployment rate dipped briefly to 3.2 percent in 1997, a year in which the county attracted 13,300 new residents. Unemployment climbed to 7.3 percent during the 2001 recession, a mere breeze compared with the hurricane of the Great Recession in the decade later.

The Columbian shared in the wealth of the good times of that era even as the underpinnings of the newspaper industry were eroding, almost unnoticed. In 1994, latching onto the mushrooming Internet, The Columbian launched a rudimentary website. The technology was seen as more opportunity than threat. Through the boom year of 2006 and into the more forboding 2007, The Columbian remained “very prosperous,” Campbell said.

By 2006, having completed a buyout of extended family members’ stake in The Columbian, Campbell was ready to diversify the company’s financial base. His strategy was to plunge into the city’s then-booming real estate market with one of the finest office buildings ever built in Vancouver. Much of it would be leased to business tenants.

“We vetted it six ways to Sunday,” he recalled.

But the economy took an ominous turn. By late 2007, a collapsing economy — which cut much deeper in Clark County than in the region, state, or nation –put an end to the hopes and dreams of many residents and businesses. The Columbian’s six-floor, $40 million office building, completed in January 2008, could not have opened at a worse time in the economic cycle.

“It was 10 times worse than our worst-case scenario,” Campbell said.

Campbell moved The Columbian back to its old newsroom at 701 W. Eighth St. after just 11 months in the new building. It was a time of the most severe retrenchment in the newspaper’s history; more than 100 positions were eliminated through a series of layoffs. Faced with heavy debt on its new building, The Columbian filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. The filing came at a low point for the county’s economy: unemployment peaked at 14.7 percent, businesses shut down and home foreclosure auctions outside the county courthouse became commonplace. The economy recovered, slowly, over the next five years. The Columbian’s showcase building, which had been handed over to the bank, became Vancouver’s new City Hall.

Locally owned

Lou Brancaccio arrived at The Columbian in 1997, and he became editor upon Tom Koenninger’s retirement in 2000. Brancaccio, who had spent much of his career with news giant Gannett, joined a generation of newspaper editors whose duties included not only managing news coverage but also responding to the threats and opportunities of the digital era.

“At first, newspapers resented and were fearful of the Internet, and later they came to embrace it,” Brancaccio said. “We had to adjust to the changing financial dynamics of the industry.”

The Columbian, like most newspapers, has adjusted by investing in new staff dedicated to building the newspaper’s presence on its website and social media. The newspaper now delivers news to readers more rapidly than ever, posting many stories online before they hit the print edition.

But online advertisements bring in only a tiny fraction of the revenue generated by print ads, so the newspaper also has had to keep its costs down. The Columbian’s news staff is down by 40 percent from its 2008 peak.

While The Columbian will not publicly disclose revenue figures, newspapers industrywide have seen their revenues cut by about half from their peak.

“We have had to work smarter to do the things that are most important,” Brancaccio said. “We are still a quality newspaper.”

Brancaccio believes The Columbian’s deeply rooted local ownership is an advantage during the industry’s difficult times.

“There is a culture that’s developed about the value of locally owned businesses, and we fall into that culture,” he said.

Doctor, the newspaper industry analyst, agrees. Some chains that operate midsize newspapers are in what Doctor calls “the milking phase,” pulling out as much income as they can but making no bets beyond the year 2020. But small and midsize family-owned newspapers come at their financial challenges differently, he believes, because they have more ties to their communities and have earned more loyalty from their readers.

“In some ways for (ownership) families, the crunch is financial and somewhat spiritual,” he said. “It’s a tough business. Do they have the stamina to stay in it, and if they have the financial wherewithal, do they see light at the end of the tunnel?”

Doctor believes community-based newspapers need to take a long view of their prospects and be willing to innovate. Raising prices for print subscriptions and charging for online news are short-term solutions, he said, but newspapers need to develop new advertising models and consider special events and services that strengthen their bonds with their communities. All daily newspapers face tough decisions: by 2025, Doctor predicted, very few newspapers will offer seven-day print publications.

Family challenge

The challenge of leading The Columbian of the future now falls to members of the Campbell family. Scott and Jody Campbell’s three adult sons — Ben, Will, and Ross — all have an ownership stake in the company. Ben Campbell, 27, has worked at The Columbian for four years and leads a division called Sprout Digital, which specializes in website design and search engine optimization. Will Campbell, 24, recently interned at The Columbian and is headed to journalism school at his father’s alma mater, the University of Oregon. Ross, 22, is a student at Washington State University in Pullman.

Ben Campbell says his interests are more on the business side of The Columbian’s dual personality, while Will Campbell is eager to jump into the world of news. Both expect to keep alive the bond between the Clark County community and the newspaper that launched inauspiciously on Oct. 10, 1890, through a fourth generation of family ownership.

“The company has always been good at trying out new ideas,” Ben Campbell said. “If we do that, we’ll be here another 125 years.”