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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