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Business impacts of coronavirus leave Olympic Peninsula’s West End without a print newspaper

The West End of the Olympic Peninsula has lost its only local newspaper reporter and its only local paper, the Forks Forum, has suspended print publication.

The paper, published since 1931, has converted to an online-only edition as the novel coronavirus reaps another victim among the state’s print media.

Business shutdowns due to the coronavirus have bled critical advertising from local publications all over the state. Staffs are being slashed and some publications are fighting for their lives just as local news surges in importance.

The Forks Forum is the only print newspaper locally reported from some of the state’s most remote logging, fishing, farming and reservation communities. The paper’s only staff member, Editor Christi Baron, has been furloughed until April 24 until a final decision is made about whether to continue locally produced publication. The change was announced by Publisher Terry Ward March 24.

“Significantly decreased advertising revenue, directly resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, has forced Sound Publishing to make this incredibly difficult decision to temporarily reduce staff and suspend print publication … we patiently await the day when we may resume print publication of your local newspaper,” Ward wrote in a post on the Forks Forum’s Facebook page.

Some doubted print publication would ever resume. “It’s not temporary,” said Lissy Andros, executive director of the Forks Chamber of Commerce. The newspaper’s website now will be reported out of the newsroom of the Peninsula Daily News in Port Angeles. That is no substitute for a locally reported and produced paper in the community, Andros said.

“This is awful for our community, especially at a time like this, we need to stay in touch more than ever,” Andros said. “We have a lot of elderly people that are not online, and people in enrolled tribal communities that do not have internet access. This is their lifeline.”

Forks is a rural community with a population of about 3,500, the largest of the Peninsula’s West End communities, including Sekiu and Clallam Bay, Neah Bay, Beaver, La Push, Hoh and more. Best known to many as a location for shooting of the film “Twilight” and its role in the state’s timber wars, the Forks community is close-knit. It is the kind of place where people came together to donate $70,000 for a van to give residents of the local long-term care facility a way to get out and about. The annual scholarship drive for high school students routinely pulls in six figures.

The Forks Forum, a weekly broadsheet distributed free through the mail to about 5,000 local homes each week, has always been at the center of those efforts. The paper also has paid out-of-town subscribers — and some locals say they now want the chance to pay rather than lose their paper. “I wish we had been asked,” Andros said. “I’d buy a subscription. I’d buy five.”

The paper has always emphasized hyper-local coverage. “We are just really homey, we cover the kids’ basketball, what the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] is up to,” said Baron, who also is the town’s historian. She regularly includes historic photos and write-ups in the paper. She got her start at the paper seven years ago, after a stint as a local columnist she heard about when playing clarinet in the local orchestra.

“This happened so suddenly there wasn’t even a chance to say goodbye,” said Baron, a fourth-generation Forks resident. “There has been a real outpouring from the community,” she said by phone from the paper’s office, where she was packing up in case she never goes back. “People can get their other types of news anywhere. We are the hometown paper.”

Andy Pursley, pastor at Forks Assembly of God, said he knows elderly people in the community are not going to get the same connection online. “Having the paper makes them feel part of the community,” Pursley said. “It is a paper that loves its community, and it is so historical, it takes us back in time and shows us our local history.”

Bruce Paul, is the fourth-generation owner of Forks Outfitters, the largest store within 60 miles. It’s the place for everything from double-knee Carrhart work pants to the week’s groceries, a Lotto ticket, hunting license or plant starts at the garden center. The store is the paper’s largest advertiser, and relies on the print edition to stay connected to local customers. “It goes to every mailbox in our area,” Paul said.

“It’s terribly important to the local community,” Paul said of the paper.

Melissa Eyle, a Yakama tribal member who grew up in Forks, said internet access is so spotty on the Hoh, Makah and Quileute reservations that online access to the paper is no substitute for the print edition.  “And it’s the only local paper for that region.”

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