Review publisher to retire Jan. 31
January 29, 2014
New: Jan. 29, 2:22 p.m.
When Debbie Berto assumed the helm of The Issaquah Press in the early 1970s, she was only a couple years out of college and had no managerial experience. To top it off, she was just 24 and pregnant with her first child. But her boss saw something in her that made him confident he’d made the right choice.
“I never had any training in business management,” Berto admitted. “The Press was losing money in those early years, so John Murray didn’t have much to lose by putting me in charge. It wasn’t long before he predicted that I would retire from The Press. I couldn’t imagine that that was possible.”
Now, 40 years later, Berto is indeed ready to retire, having worked all the way up from advertising representative to publisher of the 114-year-old newspaper.
General Manager Joe Heslet will oversee operations. Berto will continue as a member of the editorial board.
During her 40-year career, she started publication of the Sammamish Review, Newcastle News and SnoValley Star newspapers, four websites, and numerous award-winning magazines and special sections.
All the weekly newspapers have had their share of top professional journalism awards, including community service. The Issaquah Press is considered one of the best community newspapers in the Northwest, and was in 2007 named the Best Non-Daily in the nation.
Berto has worked for three different owners — Murray Publishing Co., Pacific Media Group and The Seattle Times Co.
While building successful newspapers was the priority, she also took her commitment to community service seriously. Last May, Berto was named to the Issaquah Hall of Fame, the city’s top honor.
In 1983, she was named Issaquah Business Person of the Year. In 1985, she received the Founder’s Award for her role in starting Issaquah Women Professionals. In 1993, she was Citizen of the Year. Washington Newspaper Publishers Association honored her with the Master Editor Publisher Award in 2003.
Berto has also been involved in almost every aspect of Issaquah for four decades, including the Salmon Days Festival, Issaquah Celebrations Committee, Issaquah Chamber of Commerce, Businesses for a Skyport Solution, Kiwanis Club of Issaquah, the downtown LID that led to new street lights and Depot Park, the Design Commission, Performing Arts Advisory Committee, Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, United Way, Friends of Youth, Pickering Farm Advisory Committee, Issaquah for Katrina Relief, CERT, Issaquah Human Services Commission, Issaquah Community Services, Sammi Awards, Issaquah History Museums and Lake Sammamish State Park Advisory Committee.
In the beginning
Berto came to The Press in 1973 with a journalism degree from Central Washington State College. She was hired to sell advertising four days a week and work as a reporter on Tuesdays.
“Editor Don Frey had to be in Seattle to lay out the paper on Tuesdays,” Berto recalled. “He was a one-man show, so I covered news while he was gone.”
Two years later, The Press’ manager left and Seattle owner John Murray appointed Berto and Frey co-managers. A year later, Frey took another job and Berto was left to run The Press and the Issaquah Valley Shopper.
“I learned early on that the best ideas are stolen,” she said. “I took those best ideas and put them to work here.”
The Press was on Front Street in a ramshackle building that was part cement block, part wooden garage. In 1988, Berto convinced Murray to do something about the building.
“It was quite a day when the building was crushed,” she said. “The staff was giddy with glee as we watched it get razed.”
In four months, the current building on Front Street, designed to look like an older newspaper office, was built. After 25 years, the company moved last year to its current space in the Cascade Business Park.
Making a difference
“The heart of a great journalist is someone who wants to make a difference,” Berto said. “I’ve been privileged to work with so many wonderful journalists who do make a difference in the communities we serve. It’s a passion, a calling.”
Berto has won many editorial writing awards during her career. Three examples stand out.
“Saving the Issaquah fish hatchery is a great example,” she said.
In the early 1990s, the salmon hatchery was put on the list for possible closure. It was the week before Salmon Days and The Press announced the news on the front page.
“We ran a petition under our editorial and it caught fire,” Berto said. “The petition was circulated all during Salmon Days, and the community took up the fight. While many people deserve credit for revitalizing the hatchery we see today, I’m proud that The Issaquah Press saw a need for leadership and didn’t hesitate.”
It was a similar story with Pickering Farm, when the city acquired the property from developers and accepted a contract from King County to turn it into a regional recycling center.
“It was an unacceptable use for the historic farm,” Berto said. “Recycled toilets and a giant worm bin were planned. No way. The Press kept up the editorials and rallied others to get involved. The rest is history. Issaquah wouldn’t be the same without this venue for the public market, weddings and community events.”
Aside from editorials, Berto often got personally involved.
She cites when the county proposed building a garbage incinerator on Grand Ridge, about where Swedish/Issaquah is now located.
“After writing about it, I got involved with the chamber of commerce’s Kick Ash committee. We made and sold Kick Ash buttons at a public hearing,” she said. “So many people turned out for the hearing that it had to be moved to the middle school. Note, there is no incinerator in Issaquah.”
The next chapter
Berto said she is certain of the company’s future.
“Joe Heslet joined our staff as general manager three months ago and he is a terrific leader for the newspapers, bringing his experience at the Puget Sound Business Journal and KOMO/KVI radio,” Berto said. “And our team in news, sales and production will continue doing the excellent work they always do. It’s the right time for me to step aside.”
In addition to being a consultant to the paper during the transition, Berto said she will be even more involved in the community.
She is currently on the board of directors for Friends of Lake Sammamish State Park, Issaquah Community Services and the Kiwanis Club of Issaquah.
“I am going to be actively working to help the state park get a really amazing ADA-accessible playground,” she said.
With six grandchildren nearby and a love of traveling, she and her husband Tom plan to be very busy “pursuing happiness,” she said, without the 24/7 responsibility that comes with being publisher.
“Thank you readers, leaders and the hundreds of colleagues I’ve been privileged to work with,” she said. “It’s been an amazing journey.”
If you go
Community open house
honoring Debbie Berto
2:30-4:30 p.m. Feb. 6
Tibbetts Creek Manor
750 17th Ave. N.W.