The Oregonian: Going the way of all newspapers?

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

Rowe changed that. Fresh from the Virginian-Pilot, she brought in talented young people and changed a newsroom culture that one former staffer called “sclerotic.”

“Good people tend to do good work,” reflected Robert Landauer, who headed the editorial page under Rowe. His views of the Rowe era were echoed by several present and former staffers with whom I spoke Thursday.

“I don’t think you know when you’re in a heyday until it’s over,” said Erin Hoover Barnett, a Rowe protégé who was a Pulitzer finalist, adding: "It's definitely over.” Her husband, Galen, a retired Oregonian editor, termed the atmosphere under Rowe “an expectation of excellence.” As an example of that culture of excellence, many staffers from that era point to reporter Richard Read's story about the economic journey of a French fry, from an Eastern Washington potato field all the way to Japan, a saga that won a Pulitzer.

That period was good for newspapers in general. Then along came the Internet, decimating traditional newspaper revenue sources such as classified advertising and auto sales, and giving readers new sources for news. Some newspapers adapted with top-quality web sites that attracted readers and revenue; The Oregonian failed the web quality test.

OregonLive.com is a kludgy, poorly organized disaster. One of the nation’s top experts on news web sites, Joshua Benton of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, told Willamette Week last year, “There’s a part of me that wants to applaud them for trying something substantially different. But I don’t have a lot of faith in Advance’s ability to do anything worthwhile on the web. Their sites are among the worst in newspaper journalism. Their sites are always broken. They’re clunky. They all look like they were built in 1998.”

Advance Publication's online efforts have been dubbed “hamster wheels,” a term coined by Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman to describe sites that pile on more stories produced by fewer reporters working under greater pressure with fewer, less-experienced editors. “The hamster wheel isn’t speed, it’s motion for motion’s sake," said Starkman, " . . . volume without thought.”

“The online publication as it is is bad," observed former Oregonian reporter Dan Horsch in an online post. "Unedited stories with typos and missing information happen far too often. It is not a digital newspaper, but rather a list of random stories, often half of them about sports. The decision is a sad one, and I believe it will be a mistake.”

So The Oregonian has cast its fate online. The operative question is whether the management that ordered a ruthless scything of an already reduced newsroom will be equally tough in dealing with those who manage its “1998-era” web site.

Another hurdle for the Bog O: Many people just don’t like it. Its web site won't benefit from the kind of institutional loyalty that some papers (the P-I for example) enjoyed for at least a time online.

But even its critics should take little solace in the comeuppance of a once mighty newspaper. There will be fewer full-time professional journalists chasing news in Portland than at any time in many decades.

“I don’t see this as an enhancement,” said Wayne Thompson. “It’s a really sad day.”

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