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The Oregonian: Going the way of all newspapers?

The Portland paper is cutting print staff in favor of the paper's weakest link: its web site.
The Oregonian office in Portland - but not for much longer.

The Oregonian office in Portland - but not for much longer. Josh Bancroft/Flickr

The Oregon Live web site is often referred to in unflattering terms. Here it was presented during a tour in 2011.

The Oregon Live web site is often referred to in unflattering terms. Here it was presented during a tour in 2011. Sam Churchill/Flickr

Is Portland the future for newspapers everywhere? Perhaps. The Oregonian, the pioneer newspaper of the Pacific Northwest, announced Thursday it is reducing its daily print edition and moving more to online. Some print reporters will be replaced in favor of more digital expertise. The paper's news staff has already been savaged by cuts in recent years.

This move has been foreshadowed for most of a year, as the paper’s owners, Advance Publications, the former Newhouse family chain, have done surgery on its newspapers in New Orleans and Cleveland. Portland was a stronger market than either of the other cities, but it could not escape a similar fate. As far back as 2009, Crossccut writer Zach Rosenberg forecast troubles for The Oregonian.

The “Big O” as it is known in the trade, will continue to publish daily but papers will be home delivered only on Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and a sports-heavy Saturday paper. Otherwise, readers must rely on the paper's OregonLive.com site or the newsstand. The pattern mirrors what happened in New Orleans and Cleveland. The change takes effect Oct. 1.

What, if anything, does this mean for other large monopoly newspapers, such as the Blethen family-owned Seattle Times? The Hearst Corporation's voluntary euthanizing of the Post-Intelligencer was not a magic bullet for The Times. After the Newhouses killed the Oregon Journal back in 1982, The Oregonian enjoyed a monopoly for more than three decades. Having the city to itself was not enough.

Oregonian Publisher N. Christian Anderson III put an optimistic spin on the paper’s announcement this week: "This strategy will allow us to serve consumers in Oregon and Southwest Washington with more up-to-the-minute, robust news and information online and on mobile devices while continuing the strong enterprise and investigative reporting that The Oregonian and OregonLive.com are so well known for."

Enterprise and investigative reporting? By whom? A Friday follow-up story quoted Oregonian Editor Peter Bhatia telling newsroom employees that layoffs would be “significant.” He also promised a new newsroom of more than 90 reporters, “which is what we have today.” At its peak, during the editorship of Sandra Rowe, the Oregonian employed as many as 400 newsroom staffers.

Friday morning, Willamette Week announced the first of of 35 eventual layoffs, including longtime editorial columnist David Sarasohn, a lonely liberal voice on an increasingly conservative editorial page, and Scott Learn, who has done an excellent job covering the coal-export issue. The terminations of Sarasohn and Learn leave a real gap in the environmental and progressive side of The Oregonian.

If the paper does maintain its present staff size, it reflects the move to digital. There is some irony in this: The Oregonian’s strongest suit has been a talented staff of reporters and editors; its weakest link has been its web site, OregonLive.com.

It is not the end of The Oregonian, which has been around since 1850. But it is the end, clearly, of the paper’s domination of Oregon news media and of its own “golden age,” which began in 1993 with the editorship of Rowe. By the time she left in 2009, the aggressive news coverage she oversaw had already been eroded through staff reductions and the loss of several leading reporters. Rowe’s newsroom won five Pulitzer Prizes and she was known for the quality of her hires.

The Oregonian is the oldest and largest continuously published newspaper in the Northwest, with a daily circulation of 185,000 and 263,000 on Sunday. The Oregonian has always been a moderately conservative paper and culture. But the Rowe era was a go-go time when the Big O was widely cited in professional circles as one of the best dailies in the country.

I never worked for The Oregonian, but I grew up with it and knew dozens of its news people. From its founding until the end of World War II, it set the pace for Oregon newspapers. From the 1950s through the 1980s it became a stodgy, predictable product in a state that had much better, yet smaller dailies in Salem, Eugene, Medford and other towns. The Oregonian lost its edge, in part because inadequate pensions forced reporters and editors to stay on the job well past their sell dates. Aggressive reporters for smaller dailies ran circles around complacent competitors from the Big O.


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Jun 23, 8:02 a.m. Inappropriate

I very much enjoyed reading this thoughtful analysis, Mr. McKay. I have noticed a significant decline in the quality of news coming from The Oregonian since Rowe's departure and am truly saddened at the additional changes ahead.

Poynter published a short piece about this, speculating how the other regional news media in the area might benefit.

A daily newspaper that promotes a conservative editorial slant does not serve its predominately progressive consumers well. Just ask The Seattle Times.

I am watching The Columbian with renewed interest: how will this SW Washington daily step up to fill the void?

gaia

Posted Wed, Jun 26, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

You will watch a long time to see the Columbian "step up."

Newsroom cuts are significant after its owner over-extended, bought a nice new building before the recession, and then lost it to bankruptcy. This result is significant newsroom cuts and a young, underpaid staff. It is not a metropolitan newspaper, and paid circulation has dropped significantly. My guess is that the Oregonian's paid circulation in Clark County is greater than the Columbian.

In fairness, political reporting has improved. Stephanie Rice, Stevie Mathieu, Erik Hidle, and columnist John Laird, are solid reporters blessed with an abundance of new material. Don Benton. The Clark County Commissioners who hired him for his "people skills." The Republican party taken over by the tea party. Need I say more?

I am thinking the Columbian will soon go the way of the Oregonian.

Posted Sun, Jun 23, 5:41 p.m. Inappropriate

An excellent article. A friend of mine is one of the Newhouse family. She notes that "The organization is not a chain, and its business was always called Advance Publications because Sam’s first property was the Staten Island Advance." Here's a passage from the NY Times about the company:

"In 1922 Sam was ready to grow. He used his own savings, borrowed what little he could from his siblings, and persuaded Judge Lazarus to join him in a new venture. For $98,000, Judge Lazarus and Sam bought 51 percent of a much larger newspaper--the Staten Island Advance."

While there are a few other nits to be picked, the piece circles around but does not land on the central question: How is the public to pay for content? It really doesn't matter if the content is delivered via dead trees or a tablet. One way or the other the reporter in Olympia or Salem must be paid. And edited. And allowed the time to grow into the job, get the contacts and experience to do the job at a high professional level.

I'd be happy to pay for online content at the Seattle Times and Oregonian. I'm not willing to pay for the substandard content they now provide. I gladly pay for the NYT because it's good. I won't pay for the current content of just about all local "papers." If these companies show that they are willing to invest in their newsrooms, something that they show an unwillingness to do, I will support them. Otherwise they won't get a dime from me. Consequently, writing this is guilting me to send a contribution to Crosscut!

psnewman

Posted Sun, Jun 23, 7:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm a fan of newspapers, especially good ones, of which there are very few remaining. I suspect that the "Big O" will occupy the same space on the bottom of the bird cage beside the daily "0". Trying to make up the difference via the internet is a hit or miss proposition. In most cases it's more miss than hit.

And another thing, what's with this "Trending Stories" category? I've noticed that some news stories trend on Crosscut with a life expectancy equal to Christmas fruit cake, and several of them started life as stale as one. I used to write this off as lack of good filler, but anymore I'm leaning towards the IT staff has been hitting the bong with more vigor during breaks. Why? Because it seems to happen on a more regular basis since the passage of I-502.

Djinn

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

As a 31-year veteran of journalism mostly at medium and large metros, we have to look at ourselves and our egos as to why bigger papers are failing while -- surprise - small papers are not just growing but thriving.

Big papers are no longer owned by people but by media groups. They operate more based on a bottom line instead of the pursuit of truth and protection of the Constitution.

(The reason I was drawn to Crosscut is because of its non-profit status which allows the staff to worry about journalism and not profits.)

As for us editorial types, it seems like the bigger the paper I worked at, the less reader-focused we became. While we were sending a dozen reporters to watch The Governator scratch his nose, some guy at a little daily broke Octomom. Same with the city manager in Bell, Erin Brokovich, the American Taliban, Enron...the list goes on.

Since moving to a rural area, I have happily found that people here welcome some real journalism, pretty pictures, a laugh and a lively, balanced op-ed page. My style, as it's always been, is to make the rounds at the coffee benders, coach a ball team, lecture at the schools, teach a journalism classes, walk instead of driving, basically meld into the communities I cover. I found that most real readers could care less about the City Hall and Chamber Crowd. More accurately, they know what's wrong at City Hall and are waiting to tell me about it so I can expose it.

I am also convinced (regardless of oregonlive's ancient-looking site) the conveyance system is not as important as the content, consistency and balance.

Just one veteran's rant.

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 10:37 a.m. Inappropriate

I so agree: quality of content is what matters, not the medium.

I hold news consumers responsible in part for the decline in responsible journalism. If we don't demand better, we get less.

gaia

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 10:48 a.m. Inappropriate

A good piece by the highly respected Mr. McKay. While Advance did "kill" The Oregon Journal in 1982, the move ultimately led to a strong newspaper, as many Journal staffers later would say. A lot of talent was put together to produce a better single newspaper than either had been. Certainly, the golden age did begin with Sandy Rowe and her expectation of excellence. She hired Peter Bhatia and any number of fine journalists, and came to appreciate the talent on hand, reporters such as Richard Read being a prime example. (I believe that Rich had to sell his idea for the french fry story, but they did listen.) Those were great time to be a part of The Oregonian. (One correction: The last name is spelled Hortsch, but thanks for the reference and quote.)

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 11:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Dan, I am an appreciative fan of your work at The Oregonian, especially as public editor. The loss of our news ombudsmen and women has contributed to the loss of trust in media reporting, I believe. Good to see your name pop up here. :)

gaia

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 11:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Many thank yous....

Posted Mon, Jun 24, 2:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Good piece, Floyd McKay.

vlivertarian: As another ranting veteran, I'd say there's some truth to what you say about the failings of bigger newspapers. But the fact is, most smaller papers also now are owned by media chains -- even a preponderance of weeklies here in the Northwest. Most of them are successful (and for that we should be thankful) not because they're the vanguards of truth and free speech, but because they have pooled production resources in monopoly advertising markets. (If you want to get an earful about the "bottom line," talk to any reporter at a small daily owned by a chain, staff cut beyond bone to maintain profit margin.)

Metro dailies have been affected far more dramatically by the advertising market forces that have crippled print media in general. Again, not to contest your descriptions of their failures, but many of them that are failing, or have failed, have readership groups that seem generally happy with their content. Just not willing to pay enough for it.

rjudd

Posted Wed, Jun 26, 4:37 p.m. Inappropriate

For those of you still following the Saga on Broadway, the Willamette Week's back story--linked to on our Clicker and also available http://www.wweek.com/portland/article-20836-black-and-white-and-red-all-over.html provides some interesting background and comments. My fear is that the Oregonian is where local television news was in the mid-1970s in Portland; on the cusp of being run by consultants who had no experience in journalism. They, too, had measured the audience, sliced and diced it and came up with a way to reach younger viewers. It worked for a while, reporters were "live" (consider the alternative), and we tried gimmicks I shrink to remember. After a while those prized eyeballs went elsewhere, ultimately to social media. Local television news is largely a joke today. Can the Oregonian be nimble enough to follow the trend of the moment among those prized viewers they can pitch to advertisers? From this distance, it still looks like it will depend upon their willingness to add their digital guru to the scrap heap. But wait--the guri is a Newhouse! Gadzooks Batman, that may not be so easy!

Posted Thu, Jun 27, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I read the WW article this week and it adds good information to the big picture of this sad story. There is a real struggle going on to save ethical, responsible journalism and I fear we are losing the battle. We are starting to get a sampling of what our lives are like without it, and I, for one, do not like some of the changes I see.

Capturing and holding the attention of news consumers is a challenge in our social media world. We all are becoming de-sensitized by the increasing presence of sensational reporting and beginning to accept (and demand) so much less from journalists.

gaia

Posted Thu, Jun 27, 10:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Boy howdy! It's pretty hard capturing and holding the attention of news consumers who's information IQs are determined by how many Facebook "friends" they have. Ever see the future farce "Idiocracy?" Sure seems like the premise is accurate. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0387808/synopsis

Jones

Posted Thu, Jun 27, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

OOPS!!! That's "whose," not "who's." I think I just got fired. :)

Jones

Posted Thu, Jun 27, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Well said, gaia.

rjudd

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