‘We need to stay relevant’
August 8, 2014
Lewis family celebrates a century of country publishing at the Lynden Tribune
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Sol Lewis was a popular and talented writer for the New York World newspaper in New York City, when he “jumped deliberately to a town of 1,500 population, Lynden, WA, to become owner and editor of the Lynden Tribune,” according to an article in The American Magazine, an early 20th century periodical.
The article, published in 1908, extolled the virtues of country journalism and featured Sol’s evangelism for weekly newspapers such as the Lynden Tribune, which was described as a “very newsy paper of eight pages crammed full of ‘personals’ heralding that ‘F. Kuipers is ill,’ and ‘John Verduin has lost is dawg,’ and ‘John Fargo sold his gray colt to Bill McEwen.’ ”
Sol Lewis was quoted saying “I wish to goodness I could persuade more newspapermen to drop their puny, scrambling jobs in feverish city offices and get double the pay and triple the happiness in the country field.”
Sol went on to raise a family of true believers, and today his grandson, Mike Lewis, and Mike’s wife, Mary Jo, are at work planning an October party to celebrate the Lynden Tribune’s 100th Anniversary of Lewis family ownership.
Original plans to renovate the face of the old newspaper building were put on hold in favor of purchasing a new printing press and refurbishing the parking lot.
“We’re looking at having a parking lot party,” Mary Jo said, in an interview over speakerphone along with her husband.
Other plans include a serialized historic newspaper retrospective that will run from Aug. 20 through Oct. 22. They are also sponsoring a community landscaping effort, including the installation of planters throughout town. Historic markers placed around the community will chronicle the newspaper’s history.
The Lewises’ efforts are beginning to generate excitement in Lynden—a community of 12,000 residents snuggled up against the Canadian border, just 15 miles north of Bellingham, WA. The town lies along the banks of the picturesque Nooksack River, and the area is filled with raspberry, strawberry and blueberry farms. A prolific Dutch immigration in the mid-1900s led to an abundance of dairy farms, some of which are still operating. The area’s Dutch heritage is also reflected in the town’s architecture.
Keeping a newspaper in a family for 100 years, through three generations, is no small feat. Diligence, ingenuity and deep roots in a community go a long way, but it also takes courage, perseverance and money. The changes in the media landscape during the last two decades have forced the Lewises to adapt and evolve for survival. Along the way, they have conquered the challenges while holding onto the newspaper’s enduring qualities that have held true through the years.
Sol Lewis was born in San Francisco in 1888 with ink already in his veins. When he was 12, he moved with his family to Seattle.
As Mike tells the story, his grandfather, Sol, was intent on pursuing a career in newspapers, with an eye on attending the University of Washington. The university had no journalism curriculum at that time, so he worked in banking for two years after graduating high school, until the university developed its journalism school.
After earning his degree, Sol worked for a time as a professor at the University of Kansas, then made his way to New York City to take a job with the New York Daily World. He stayed there from 1910 until 1914.
Weary of big city journalism, Sol traveled back to the West Coast to look for a small newspaper to purchase. The Lynden Tribune, which had launched on June 9, 1908, was available. According to the American Magazine article, Sol bought the newspaper for $7,500, using borrowed money, and he became so successful he was able to pay off the entire loan in four years.
Sol was a well-known journalist with a great sense of humor, his grandson said. His nationally syndicated radio show and newspaper column “Parsnips Corners” painted a colorful look at small-town life and took him into homes all over the country. He possessed an optimistic, upbeat attitude and fully believed his fellow Americans could look forward to better tomorrows. As a newspaper owner, he flaunted his independence and loved having the freedom to write as he thought, and to do as he pleased.
Mike Lewis is grateful for the family traits his grandfather passed down to him through his father, Julian Lewis, and his uncle, Bill Lewis.
“My grandfather, father and uncle had a good sense of humor, and they were very independent and kind of ornery in the way they did things, and that has carried over to me,” Mike said.
He laments the decline of independent newspapers in today’s crowded media marketplace.
“There are not a lot of independent newspapers left,” he said. “My colleagues and mentors have left the business, retired, or sold their newspapers to bigger groups, and they don’t want to work in newspapers anymore.”
But like his grandfather, father and uncle who came before him, Mike is not afraid to try new things.
It was just after the turn of the 20th Century. World War I was looming, and Sol Lewis was thriving at his newspaper, selling classified ads and working to improve his community.
“He altered the philosophy of other publishers and influenced them to value their communities, too,” Mike said. “He was ahead of his time.”
Sol’s newspaper was one of the few businesses that made it through the Great Depression, and he helped his customers survive, letting his advertisers settle their bills with canned goods and chickens.
In 1953, at the age of 64, Sol died of a heart attack. Mike’s father and uncle were already working at the paper and carried on.
Mike laughed as he remembered the newspaper’s masthead around that time.
“The succession of publishers was never written up as a news item in the newspaper,” Mike said. “Their names simply appeared on the masthead. First Sol’s name was listed, then Bill was listed and then Julian was added—all three as co-publishers, and that’s how it was announced when they came on board.”
Mike, who spent his boyhood hanging around the newspaper, started officially working there in 1980 after graduating from Washington State University, taking over as publisher Jan. 1, 1992, the day after his father retired.
Today, Lewis Publishing Co. employs 35 people and publishes four newspapers, including the Lynden Tribune.
Although Grandfather Sol Lewis fancied himself as a country editor, Mike loves to sell advertising. Mary Jo loves sales, too, and she focuses on marketing the newspaper’s commercial printing business and creating special sections.
“I love working with people, and I also love developing new business,” she said.
One hundred years into continuous ownership and still going strong, the couple are enduring in this new world of changing media platforms.
“We need to stay relevant, and we are trying to do that,” Mike said. “Back in the day, the newspaper was the only game in town, but today, we are still publishing weekly, while adding daily updates to our website. Managing social media, including tweeting, keeps us on our toes.”
The newspaper also has a Facebook presence with nearly 700 likes and its Twitter feed has more than 500 followers.
During the past century and through three generations of Lewis ownership, the Lynden Tribune retains characteristics that will always be relevant no matter how much technology invades the traditional business model.
Mike and Mary Jo maintain a positive focus on community and a commitment to shopping locally, even when it may be more convenient to visit the big boxes.
“We were localvores before that trend became popular,” Mary Jo said. “We continue to shop locally and encourage others to do the same because we want our community’s businesses to succeed.”
Mike attributes the newspaper’s longevity to its long-held conservative business practices.
“We didn’t get carried away or expand too quickly, and that’s the one reason we’re still here,” he said. “We did not assume a lot of debt, and as a local, independent newspaper, we have the ability to be fiscally conservative.”
A few years ago, the Lewis family contracted with University of Oregon journalism professor, Stephen Asbury, to redesign the newspaper. They looked at other community newspapers and studied the way they presented the news, complemented their websites, and kept readers engaged.
Today’s modern Lynden Tribune focuses on magazine-style narrative journalism, with lots of feature articles. The proliferation of sports both in schools and in the community, has led to a growth in sports features, too. Local government, breaking news, and box scores are easily inserted into the newspaper’s Web edition.
As Mike sees it, technology has brought huge, almost insurmountable changes.
From the day the newspaper industry converted to desktop publishing to the world of online media, Mike has felt weighed down by the challenges. He and Mary Jo frequently discuss the future.
The Lewises have two sons. One is pursuing a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Alabama, with plans to become a professor and author. The other son is an aspiring sports journalist.
“I am not going to pressure them to carry on the family business,” Mike said. “I tell them to follow their passion and their dreams.”
Mike is in his 35th year at the newspaper and Mary Jo has worked there for 29 years.
“When my dad was my age—56, he and my uncle were so excited to have me come on board and bring my youthful energy, passion and enthusiasm,” Mike said. “I’m still happy to be a part of this business, and business has been good, even during the recent recession. But with the changing marketplace, there are no guarantees.”
Although Mike Lewis may not be able to guarantee the future of his newspapers, or any newspapers for that matter, he can guarantee one thing—as long as he stays active in the industry, he will remain ornery and independent, spending every day working to benefit his readers and his community.
Grandpa Sol would be proud of his grandson—the country publisher.
What is your newspaper’s circulation? Lynden Tribune—5,400 paid; Ferndale Record—1,400 paid; Whatcom Extra (our TMC)—12,000.
Frequency of publication: Weekly.
Mission statement: We operate on the basic philosophy and principles that were laid out by my grandfather, Sol Lewis. He stood for “decency, tolerance, fair play and tried to approach every situation in a positive manner.” It proved to be a good formula as it allowed him to make it through the Great Depression and laid a strong newspaper foundation that his sons William and Julian continued to build upon. Since 1980, I, along with my wife, Mary Jo, have dedicated our careers to trying to make our community a better place to live.
What is your role with the newspaper? I am the owner and president of Lewis Publishing Co. Inc. I serve as the publisher of the Lynden Tribune and Ferndale Record and oversee our commercial printing operation.
How many people are on your staff? 32.
What is the most rewarding aspect of owning a long-running family newspaper? I am very proud that in October of this year we are celebrating 100 years of ownership in the Lewis family. I was aware (and somewhat terrified) of the statistic that two out of three third generation family businesses fail, but that did not deter me from going forward and buying out my Uncle in 1984 and my father seven years later. The reason we have been successful is the wonderful employees we have working for us. We take great satisfaction in creating a work environment that has a family-like feeling and places value on each and every job in the company. I am very proud that my wife has been along my side for nearly 30 years of my 34-plus years in this business.
What are your top goals for the next six months? To continue to maintain relevance in the lives of our readers. To continue to try and grow revenues. To continue to be a good steward of the company and be forward-thinking in our approach to how we deliver the news and cover our communities.
What are your newspapers’ biggest challenges? To continue to be an important part of our reader’s lives. Whether it be in print, online, mobile apps, etc., we need to embrace technology, including social media, and deliver news within the framework of a model that will sustain us into the future and, hopefully a fourth generation.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? We are the community watchdog. But at the same time, we are a strong community advocate. We are not afraid to take a stand if we think it is in the best interest of the community. We will not back down from delving into an issue that might be divisive, first reporting on it objectively, and then possibly taking an editorial stand on the issue.
What you love to hear from readers: Thank you for taking the time to cover our event. Thank you for making us aware of that issue.
What you hate to hear from readers: “I didn’t see it in the Tribune (Record).”
One thing you’d never change: Our commitment to the community and our efforts, every week, to be considered, their community newspaper.