The Oregonian: bailing but not sinking

Portland's biggest newspaper is in better shape than its Seattle peers, but tight budgets and a loser website are taking a toll
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Portland, Ore. (Wikipedia)

Portland's biggest newspaper is in better shape than its Seattle peers, but tight budgets and a loser website are taking a toll

On Jan. 14th, National Public Radio'ꀙs Planet Money aired this sad news: Newspaper delivery people are having a hard time getting the morning paper to your door because the papers that were once heavy enough to land with a distinctive thud, are now so light that they fall short. As metaphors go, that's hard to beat.

The Oregonian, like Seattle's dailies, is sorely missing the days when the carriers could hear that reassuring sound. Chris Broderick, the paper's politics and accountability editor, says while it's impossible to predict what papers like his will look like in five years: "The large, general circulation newspaper is probably an endangered species." All over the country, editors, reporters and circulation managers are echoing Broderick. Both veteran and new journalists watch as the era of print-dominant media is ending, and the consequences are yet to be wholly understood.

So, what to make of this in Portland? This economic and social hub of Oregon has a rich print-media landscape. It doesn't have competing dailies (few American cities do any more) but is home to one major daily, the Oregonian, and a number of noted free weeklies, including Willamette Week, Portland Tribune, Portland Mercury (an offshoot of Seattle's The Stranger) and Just Out. When I moved here last year, I adopted the Oregonian as my new daily, and like countless other relocating journalists, looked into freelancing for the paper. Only to collide with the worst job market in recent history. So I wondered: What does all this mean to my now-hometown newspaper?

Oregonian Executive Editor Peter Bhatia describes the business today as a sort of perfect storm. "It'ꀙs not an easy time, and Portland traditionally has been a very strong market for media. But everybody'ꀙs fighting it right now, largely because of the economy. I mean, we'ꀙre already dealing with the internet transitions, and then the tsunami, if you will, comes along and it just makes things that much more difficult."

The Oregonian is the regional media behemoth. It was started in 1850 as the Weekly Oregonian, less than a decade after the city it serves was founded, and has been in continuous publication ever since. Samuel Newhouse bought the Oregonian in 1950 for the then-record sum of $5.8 million, the first acquisition of what has become a sprawling media empire. Though the Newhouse family'ꀙs financial details are closely held, they have very deep pockets, some fabled properties such as The New Yorker, and have largely managed to avoid the travails of similar media empires. Several of their papers are burdened with considerable debts; the Oregonian is reportedly not among them. The Oregonian has won seven Pulitzer Prizes, five of them within the last eight years.

Yet advertising revenues here have fallen steadily and substantially, thanks in part to the free classified ads on Craigslist that bedevil newspapers across the country. The consequences here are highly visible. The Oregonian once had regular correspondents as far away as Japan, and now fields a lone correspondent outside of its distribution area, in Washington, D.C. Another of the casualties has been weekly zoned sections which are bundled in the Thursday paper for readers outside metro Portland. "I think we had six or seven weekly [zoned editions], now we have three," said Broderick.

Where the Oregonian is taking the biggest hit is in institutional knowledge and investigative resources, areas in which it has outstripped its competitors by a mile. The nonunion newsroom is in a position quite different from many of its peers: As part of a labor agreement four decades ago it is forbidden from layoffs due to "economic conditions or the introduction of new technology." But nonetheless notable journalists and staffers have been trickling out the door for years, and an extensive round of buyouts and retirements in late 2008 resulted in the simultaneous departure of senior staff members with hundreds of years of combined experience. As former architecture and art columnist Randy Gragg put it: "You can'ꀙt lose people like that and not have problems."

One of the key strengths of the Oregonian has been the ability for reporters to immerse themselves in a beat or subject area. (The team-based newsroom structure supporting this was a major innovation in the industry, ushered in here by Editor Sandra Rowe in the early 1990s.) Broderick says other news organizations' personnel are 'ꀜthrown around, they move around a lot, [they] just don'ꀙt develop the sources, the expertise, they don'ꀙt have the knowledge'ꀝ they need to develop and report on important issues.

Yet even to a relatively new reader of the Oregonian, it seems clear that the paper has been put in the position of doing just that. Several staff writers have recently been plucked from their longtime beats and reassigned to report on unrelated topics for which they had little experience and noticeably less enthusiasm.

Yet even some of the most dour of the remaining staff who spoke with me were quick to point out that the Oregonian is better off than many of its peers. True enough. In a 2007 survey by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, The Oregonian ranked 26th in terms of total circulation among American newspapers, a position it has more or less held in the face of universally declining circulation.

An oft-referenced problem is the Oregonian'ꀙs struggle to leverage new technologies. The paper does not have a website of its own; official content is posted to The website is operated by Advance Internet, a subsidiary of the Newhouse-owned parent company. Though the distinction is fine to outside observers, the result has been that the Oregonian is stuck with a site that is badly designed, hard to navigate, and not representative of the day's newspaper. Little of the print Oregonian'ꀙs front page makes it to the top of the website, where most space is taken up by what is kindly called soft news. The site is also noticeably devoid of multimedia and social networking opportunities, deal killers for readers under 30. (Maybe 40.)

Even for a relative newcomer, it's disappointing to see what the venerable Oregonian has come to. Bhatia and others speak cryptically about great things coming to the website &mdash and add (accurately) that today's is better than past iterations by leaps and bounds. But the longer the awkward paper/website fusion goes on, the more damage is done. The historic changes that threaten all print dailies might not kill the Oregonian, but its failure to capitalize on what it has left certainly will.


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