Whidbey Island newspapers make history together

A handful of small publications on Whidbey Island have played an important role in the history of the area. The newspapers documented the people and events, but also focused attention on needs, promoted community projects, stoked outrage, occasionally made folks laugh, and perhaps most of all, educated readers about their own place in the world.

Newspapers on Whidbey Island have come and gone over the years, but the core publications are still going strong. The Whidbey News-Times and the South Whidbey Record moved to a combined office space in Coupeville this year in an effort to cut costs and increase efficiency.

The community is invited to celebrate this new step in Whidbey newspaper history at a ribbon cutting and grand opening of the office today at 5:30 p.m. at Coupe’s Village, 107 S. Main Street, suite E-101.

“Our newspapers have recorded the history of the island and will continue to do so,” Marcia Van Dyke, publisher of both newspapers, said Tuesday morning as she stacked 100-year-old bound editions of papers into new shelving. “We preserve it for all time. No other business does that.”

Coincidentally, the Island County Historical Museum in Coupeville has a new exhibit starting this week called “Industrious Islanders.” The exhibit details the different ways people made a living on Whidbey. There’s an interactive telecommunications exhibit courtesy of Whidbey Telecom, as well as displays about such industries as agriculture, logging and the military. The role of newspapers is noted with an antique printing press and framed copies of historic newspapers.

Rick Castellano, director, said the museum has an extensive collection of newspapers from the island. He said there were about a dozen “core newspapers,” beginning in the late 1800s, that merged, changed names or disappeared over the years.

“It’s been an ongoing evolution of these early papers,” he said.

The first newspaper on the island, according to historian George Kellogg, was the Island News, which was started by Sam Condon in 1884.

In the following century, newspapers on Whidbey were greatly shaped by a married couple, and years later, a couple of business partners.

In the 1930s, A. Glenn and Phyllis Smith owned and operated the three main newspapers on the island. The Oak Harbor News, which started as the Farm Bureau News in 1911 by H. L. Bowmer, covered the north end of the island. The Whidbey Record, originally the Whidby Record, covered the south end since 1923. In the middle was the older newspaper on the island, the Island County Times. The newspaper was established in Coupeville in 1891.

The Smiths merged the Island County Times and the Oak Harbor News in 1959, creating the Whidbey News-Times.

“This is the last issue of the proud old Island County News established in 1891 in Coupeville, and one of the oldest weeklies in the State of Washington,” Smith wrote in the Sept. 24, 1959 edition of the Island County News.

Then in 1964, business partners Wallie Funk and John Webber purchased the News-Times and the Record from the Smiths. Funk and Webber had been co-owners of the Anacortes American, but they lost it after a merger with the Skagit Valley Herald. As Funk explained, the Smiths would only sell to the two men who had made a reputation as “devoted newspaper types.”

The two college buddies had a 40-year partnership in the newspaper business.

“I was in charge of editorial content. He was in charge of the business side,” Funk said. “It was a relationship that worked well. Some marriages don’t last that long.”

As a news man, Funk said he covered an exciting time of great transition in Oak Harbor. Whidbey Island Naval Air Station was moving into the jet age. Both the base and the Navy grew by leaps and bounds.

Funk explained that they changed the Whidbey Record to the South Whidbey Record in 1981 in order to clarify the difference between the papers.

The reporters didn’t shy away from scandals, crime and politics, but Funk said his philosophy was that the newspapers should be advocates for the community. He stresses the newspaper’s great relationship with the Navy base.

“If it was a positive thing for the community, we’d go for it,” he said, pointing to the many projects the newspapers got behind, from the Whidbey Playhouse to the Vanderzicht Memorial Swimming Pool.

Funk became known for his prolific photography that filled the newsprint and documented the history of the time. But in the 1980s, the aging newspapermen decided to sell their papers. In 1988, they sold the Whidbey newspapers to Sound Publishing, a Canada-based news organization. But his staff, including the late editor and columnist Dorothy Neil and proofreader Nellie Williams, stayed with the paper.

Van Dyke said she’s inspired by the legacy of the newspapers.

“We watch, listen, observe and record,” she said. “We provide a launching pad for our entire community to come together and celebrate our awesomeness. We bring attention to our shortcomings, giving everyone the opportunity to participate in finding solutions. We often take a lot of criticism for it, but it comes with the territory. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

Jim Larsen was editor at the South Whidbey Record when Sound Publishing purchased the Record in 1988. He served as editor and publisher at the South Whidbey Record for the next 13 years and has been in his current position as editor of the Whidbey News-Times for eight years.

“It’s been fun to watch the positive changes made all over Whidbey Island,” Larsen said, “from Playground in the Park on South Whidbey to Veterans Memorial Stadium in Oak Harbor. The whole island is infused with the spirit of community involvement.”

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