Spokane's 'Spokesman-Review' Is Still The Talk Of The Town

SPOKANE, Wash. -- For all the talk of the waning influence of newspapers, it's hard to find a more important institution here than this small city's daily broadsheet, The Spokesman-Review.

In just the last decade, reporters and editors revealed that Mayor Jim West, a Republican who opposed gay rights, maintained a profile on and allegedly molested young men. The mayor was recalled from office for the first time in Spokane's history. The paper focused relentlessly on the story of Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled janitor whose death in March 2006 after a confrontation with police officers at the store where he worked was later ruled a homicide. One of the officers, Karl Thompson, will stand trial on criminal charges beginning next month.

Even the family that has owned the paper since 1892, and the newsroom's coverage of their business interests, came under scrutiny at one point. The redevelopment of River Square Park, a mall complex, was led by the Cowles family and critics said the paper didn't report aggressively enough on the public-private deal, especially the taxpayer financing of the adjacent garage, from which the family's company reportedly made tens of millions of dollars.

Critics wrote scathing columns in Spokane's alternative weekly, the Inlander. At one point, William Stimson, a journalism professor at Eastern Washington University, wrote, "The Spokesman-Review is a firm believer in full disclosure, at least for most people."

Ultimately, the 51-year-old publisher, Stacey Cowles, who is part of the fourth generation of his family to run the organization, commissioned an independent study of the paper's coverage of the matter. The analysis, released in 2007, was critical of the relationship between the editorial and business sides of the paper, and led Cowles himself to write a defense of the editorial staff that was published on the same day.

Now, as papers in other metropolitan areas change hands and make deep cuts, some of the most vociferous critics of The Spokesman-Review are eager to highlight its strengths.

"We can be somewhat prissy around here," Professor Stimson said in an interview. "But we are very lucky to have this paper."

Still, Spokane probably won't have a daily Spokesman-Review in the same form for much longer. Circulation for the paper, which hit its peak in 1994 at about 117,000, has fallen to less than 70,000 today. Cowles says the newspaper's revenue is down about 50 percent from its top mark in 1997. He's had to cut his payroll more than in half, to 354 employees from 790, and he expects that the paper will eventually come out only three times per week.

Cowles, a boyish-looking, soft-spoken man who took over the paper after his father died of a heart attack in 1992, has piled his desk with newspapers and magazines. The view from his office is of the parking lot above the paper's production plant. But even he said he can't "run this as a charity."

Having passed on lucrative opportunities to sell the paper in better times, the Cowles family now hopes that online and mobile revenues will increase soon. For now, inserted advertisements bring in more money than display ads in the paper, and there's very little revenue coming from its website.

But there is hope that the paper will stay in family hands, long after almost all other papers of its size have been sold to conglomerates of one kind or another. In part that's because the Cowles family has diversified its assets over several generations. But also because their investment in the paper is emotional as well as financial. As Cowles says, the family sees its role in town as defined by the paper, and there's no sign of that changing soon. The topic of Cowles' college-age son's senior project in high school? The future of journalism.

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