Over the past decade or more, Oregon’s newsrooms have been seriously challenged, and some have closed altogether. Many that remain have tried to innovate in ways that will make their work more relevant and sustainable in a rapidly-changing world. As one report from 2019 on shifting practices in newsrooms around the Pacific Northwest said, “there is a widespread recognition that for newsrooms to survive, they need to adapt and evolve.”1Damian Radcliffe and Destiny Alvarez, “Shifting practices for a stronger tomorrow: Local journalism in the Pacific Northwest,” Agora Journalism Center (2019), p. 9. That report identified a number of ways newsrooms around the Pacific Northwest were striving to evolve, including by making the most of limited resources, working to build trust with the public, and intentionally changing newsroom routines and news formats to better suit the public’s needs. While a complete review of all those efforts is beyond our scope in this report, we offer a glimpse here into a few of the organizations, projects, and initiatives our sources mentioned as pointing toward hopeful pathways forward for Oregon’s local news ecosystem.
Our conversations highlighted that, amidst all the challenges, emerging innovations promise potential improvements. The consensus seemed to be that simply trying to restore the the kind of journalism that once existed in the state is neither possible nor necessarily a good idea, given changes to the larger media system, and the problematic ways mainstream news media tend to cover (or to ignore) underserved communities. As Kaia Sand of Street Roots put it: “I’m trying to figure out how to dream ahead, where I’m talking about what we’ve lost without being nostalgic for what was wrong with it.”
In this section, we highlight some of the developments and innovations that may point toward the next phase in the evolution of Oregon’s information ecosystem. Although at least one interviewee we spoke with observed that “it feels like there’s sort of less innovation and less excitement going on in the media industry here,” many also pointed to what another interviewee described as a “germination of experiments” across Oregon – new outlets and newsroom collaborations that that might help build a strengthened information ecosystem of the future.
Creating New News Outlets
Oregon’s news ecosystem is marked not just by losses in traditional media outlets, but also by the emergence of small-scale hyperlocal news outlets around the state, often started and staffed by late-career journalists. These emerging outlets in Oregon reflect a national trend. Project Oasis out of the University of North Carolina found that 266 digital native local news organizations started up around the country between 2015 and 2020, an increase of nearly 50%. (One-in-seven overall have emerged in areas that are so-called “news deserts”, though none listed in that report were in news deserts in the West). That number included several start-ups here in Oregon, including the Banks Post (founded in 2016) and the Salem Reporter (founded in 2018). Overall, according to Project Oasis, “a growing group of small, independent online news organizations are helping to fill local news gaps,” though they also “operate in a challenging financial environment.”2 The report also found that, according to self-reports, 3/5 are already sustainable or believe they are on a path to sustainability, but many are bootstrapped, self-funded by founders, and/or reliant on a single source of revenue. Most are tiny, many with no full-time staff beyond the owner/founder, and many were launched solely with the owners’ personal finances.
A few hyper-local start-ups mentioned by our interviewees include the Columbia Gorge News, discussed above, along with YachatsNews and the Highway 58 Herald. The latter two are nonprofits, reflecting a growing trend nationally.3Laura Hazard Owen, “Local sites are driving the growth of nonprofit news, new research shows,” Nieman Lab (27 July 2022); Naomi Forman-Katz, Elisa Shearer and Katerina Eva Matsa, “Nonprofit news outlets are playing a growing role in statehouse coverage,” Pew Research Center (29 April 2022).
Started in early 2019 by longtime journalist Quinton Smith, YachatsNews features coverage of community issues such as retaining local firefighters, dealing with local homelessness, and controversial development projects. The publication’s “About” page states that “Residents of Yachats and south Lincoln County are very interested and involved in their community – and very demanding of it. But the demise of traditional media and news coverage by even the smallest newspapers has left a void of clear, contextual, straight news reporting to help people understand what is going on.” It says that it now receives over 100,000 page views per month and its “breadth of coverage has grown from just the Yachats area, to Waldport, some overall Lincoln County issues, and to reporting on the mysteries of that great body of water just to the west.”4YachatsNews, “Welcome to YachatsNews.com,” (n.d.).
As newspapers everywhere have shrunk, “that’s left opportunities for little places, you know, like Yachats News,” said owner and editor Smith. “It’s a fractured landscape that allows little things like mine to happen.” Speaking in November, 2021, Smith said “There’s lots of opportunities for things that I’m doing, but the question of course is can it be monetized or should it be and how should it be.” In June 2022, Smith announced a fundraising campaign to raise money to hire a reporter, and in July, the outlet reported it had raised almost $56,000 for that purpose.5 YachatsNews, “Thank you! Readers donate nearly $56,000 over five weeks to help YachatsNews sustain local effort and hire a reporter” (7 July 2022).
|Businessman and former Marine George Custer was a founding member of the board of directors for The Highway 58 Herald, a nonprofit outlet headquartered in Oakridge that provides “news and information for all communities along the 87-mile scenic corridor through the Oregon Cascades.”6“About Highway 58 Herald: Our mission, our pledge,” (n.d.). Founding editor Doug Bates wrote in his welcome letter on the site that the all-volunteer outlet aims “to provide professional news reporting and vital information as a free service to communities along one of Oregon’s busiest mountain highways. We have come together to fill a glaring news vacuum in a beautiful landscape where traditional media aren’t just withering but are vanishing altogether.”7“Highway 58 Herald: Greetings from the founding editor” (n.d.). According to an editor’s note on the post, Bates has since resigned from his position at the site.|
Interviewed on OPB’s Think Out Loud in January of 2022, Custer said, “We felt it an emergency that we start getting the news out to the people of Oakridge…and other communities around here” after their local newspaper closed. “It was apparent that social media had taken kind of a death grip on our communities and we felt an absolute need to first of all be a watchdog on our city government and that the people need local information both on a daily basis and particularly in times of emergency.” The site relies on his and others’ volunteer time and on donations, since, Custer explained, advertising dollars in such a small community can’t sustain a news site: “We’re holding on by a shoestring but by golly we’re going to keep this thing going.”8Allison Frost, “More than 70 local news outlets opened in the U.S. during the pandemic – including some in Oregon,” OPB (13 January 2022).
Along with these kinds of hyperlocal start-ups filling some news gaps in local communities, other new outlets are focusing on statewide and regional issues affecting Oregon. Some examples are Columbia Insight, Underscore, and The Way, an online publication from OR 360 Media, all of which are nonprofits, with varying levels of external funding.
Based in Hood River and started in 2015, Columbia Insight covers local environmental issues in the Columbia Gorge region. Some of its popular articles have examined innovative technologies to restore access to clean water for Warm Springs residents (“Warm Springs Is Creating Drinking Water Out of Thin Air”) and the aftermath of the 2017 Eagle Creek fires (“Why Four years Later the Trees Still Aren’t Coming Back”). Its self-described mission is “to inform and inspire readers with original, balanced journalism about environmental issues affecting the Columbia River Basin. We publish stories that highlight the connection between the environment and all the people who call this place home.”9 “About Columbia Insight” (n.d.).
Publisher Susan Hess told us “At the time I started this, which unfortunately holds just as true today… newspapers were losing revenue, they were cutting size, and the first people they were cutting were the environmental reporters… At the same time, the population’s booming, we have this climate crisis. I just thought ‘God, I’ve got to do something.’ And, so, you know, however little it is, I’m going to try.”
|Underscore’s mission is to “produce impactful, revelatory stories that might otherwise go unreported and unheard, with a special focus on Indian Country and other marginalized coverage areas.” Noting that “newsrooms are closing at an alarming rate, leaving many communities without the news and information they need to thrive,” Underscore aims to “elevat[e] underrepresented voices to foster conversation, interrupt stereotypes, untangle complex issues and promote a better understanding of one another.” Its operational model is to “maintain a small newsroom that delivers the most impact by bridging the gap between underreported communities and rural, tribal and legacy media newsrooms in Oregon.”10Underscore, “Who we are” (n.d.). Operating with grant funding from Oregon’s Meyer Memorial Trust, the national organization Democracy Fund, and the Facebook Journalism Project, among others, this year, Underscore was selected as a Report for America newsroom, a national project funded by Meta (formerly Facebook), the Knight Foundation, and other major corporations and philanthropies, making it eligible for a funded position for one emerging journalist.|
|Oregon 360 Media is a for-profit collaboration among three Oregonians (Kevin Frazier, Ben Bowman, and Alex Titus) who are not journalists by training, but who set out to create “a civic community that has a set of shared information and a space where we can have shared conversation,” according to Bowman. Its offerings include a blog Frazier created called The Way, which gathers essays on state issues from contributors with a range of political viewpoints; The Bridge, an issues-focused, cross-partisan podcast started by Bowman and Titus; and The Liftoff, a subscriber-supported weekly newsletter on, as Bowman puts it, “everything you need to know about Oregon politics.” Bowman says the three partners in OR 360 Media “disagree on most major policy issues” but share a sense that there’s a big gap in the state’s media ecosystem. Says Bowman, “In the 90s you could probably just read the Oregonian and know everything going on in Salem. But now there isn’t any one news outlet doing that—it’s a hodge podge system” that makes it harder for Oregonians to find information and context on state and local issues. Moreover, Frazier says, “A lot of Oregonians just don’t have a platform” that links different parts of the state and isn’t beholden to legacy media and advertising interests. As a result, he says, “It’s really hard for Oregonians to find context” and to share information and dialogue that crosses party lines. Notably, the blog, podcast, and newsletter all feature commentary that is not defined by journalistic norms of objectivity, aiming instead to present readers a range of viewpoints. The organization currently operates on volunteer labor of the three partners plus contributing writers; as of this writing, the organization was launching some grant-writing and finalizing arrangements with its first advertiser.|
These diverse Oregon start-ups share at least one commonality: The question of sustainability. As Jackleen de La Harpe, founding executive director of Underscore, describes it, “One challenge many newsrooms—nonprofit and for profit—struggle with [is] money. News and information is necessary and needed, but how can newsrooms be sustained economically? …Will we be able to fund Underscore for the long haul?” While some start-ups like Underscore have been helped by foundations and corporations (Project Oasis estimates that 20% of small digital news start-ups receive philanthropic funding11Project Oasis, p. 9.), some sources we spoke with wondered about the sustainability of that kind of support, and about the larger picture of maximizing impact for Oregon. Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, mused, “With all of the amounts of money flowing from foundations and even corporations to support and sustain…local journalism — there’s all sorts of experiments and iterations and various issues with success. And I worry that the resources…become dissipated instead of focused on what an assessment might tell you is — here’s what you need.” Moreover, at least one source we spoke with wondered whether smaller start-ups can make real impacts on policy, especially at the state level, since “they don’t have a large enough platform and a large enough audience to make a difference.” How, in other words, can local news generate large-scale public attention in today’s fragmented media landscape?
Overall, our interviews provided nuance to the picture sketched by our quantitative mapping of Oregon’s news outlets. While the Oregon news and information ecosystem is struggling to adapt to a changed environment, hyperlocal and other specialized start-ups are filling some critical gaps that were created by the shrinkage, closure, or consolidation of traditional newspapers or – in the case of outlets like Underscore – by the media’s historical blind eye to entire communities. In some cases, foundations and corporations funders are helping; in other cases, owners, editors and journalists are donating their time to create news for their community. Whether these experiments can survive, grow, and make a bigger impact remains to be seen.
Beyond individual start-ups, many of the journalists we spoke with also talked about the promise of more collaboration across newsrooms. With resources stretched thin at most outlets, working collaboratively offers a way to produce more quality content that can be shared across many audiences, engage new audiences, and enable better accountability reporting.12Nieman Lab, “We asked journalists to share what it’s like working with other newsrooms. Here’s what they said” (27 July 2022).
According to a framework developed by the Center for Collaborative Media at Montclair State University, collaborative journalism initiatives can be either one-time or finite in nature, or ongoing or open-ended. They can also involve various levels of coordination among newsrooms, ranging from projects in which each partner newsroom creates content independently, to projects involving collaboratively-produced content, to larger-scale collaborative arrangements across organizations. “Collaboration is challenging at any level,” observes Agora Journalism Center director Andrew DeVigal. But “everyone knows that these days, most newsrooms are hard-pressed to cover the day’s news as fully as the public deserves. Shifting from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance can widen the lens of what’s possible.”13Andrew De Vigal, “Shifting from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance widens the lens of what’s possible,” Oregon Capitol Chronicle (15 May 2022).
Oregon has seen several varieties of collaborative journalism in recent years, ranging from small and informal to larger-scale and ongoing.
Lisa Heyamoto, Director of Teaching & Learning at Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION), described an example of informal, open-ended collaboration: a group of reporters who cover education in Oregon who communicate regularly using the Slack platform. “They have this really tight-knit group,” Heyamoto said, “and what they understand is that, you know, they can all do their work in isolation, but especially when they’re covering statewide education initiatives…they can work together to do something better than what they all could do on their own.”
An early example of “ongoing and separate” newsroom collaboration here in Oregon is the Northwest News Partnership. Created by Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2013 with support from the Oregon Community Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the initiative has created ongoing content-sharing relationships across the state. This has allowed stories produced by one organization to gain wider exposure both in other regions of the state and across platforms, such as OPB stories that appear on local newspaper websites, and stories from local reporting partners that are shared by OPB via broadcasts and email newsletter. OPB is continuing to seek opportunities to report collectively and create in-depth statewide reporting projects. This collaborative reporting could then have greater statewide public impact through broad distribution among the wide group of partner news organizations.
An example of “finite” collaboration involving independent news production based on shared resources happened in 2019, when 40 of Oregon’s newsrooms worked together on a project called Breaking the Silence to “highlight the public health crisis of death by suicide” in Oregon. Working from a common set of data, the participating newsrooms produced nearly 100 stories, segments and editorials that were made available to all participating outlets and to the public via the project website. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the story-sharing elements of that collaboration were tried again, when participating newsrooms shared their pandemic coverage with other news outlets free of charge.
More recently, over 60 newsrooms around the state participated in a collaborative effort to improve coverage of Oregon’s gubernatorial race. Participating newsrooms shared the work of gathering responses to a series of policy questions from primary election candidates. The candidate responses were then incorporated into a side-by-side candidate guide embedded on each participating outlet’s website. This effort evolved into the Oregon Media Collaborative, offering readers around the state a curated, searchable list of election coverage by participating newsrooms.
Formal, ongoing, distributive collaboration is baked into the operating model of the Oregon Capital Chronicle, founded in 2021. It publishes stories using a Creative Commons license, which allows other outlets to republish them for free. A recent internet search for the term “Oregon Capital Chronicle” shows that many Oregon outlets are utilizing this resource, including the Philomath News, Eugene Weekly, Highway 58 Herald, Gales Creek Journal and YachatsNews, among others.
According to Therese Bottomly, editor of The Oregonian, “One of the really remarkable differences in the last several years for me has been the level of collaboration among former competitors. But collaborations like these, our interviewees said, require support and resources to work well (a point that the Center for Collaborative Media’s research also highlights). As Willamette Week’s Mark Zusman put it, “We have no shortage of people that want to collaborate with us. But they don’t have resources, we don’t have resources.” As Lisa Heyamoto of LION pointed out, in some areas of the country there are more institutional frameworks to support newsroom collaboration. In Oregon, such collaboration is still largely do-it-yourself.
One effort to provide a firmer framework for ongoing, statewide collaborative journalism is the Oregon News Exploration (ONE), a group of reporters and editors (led by long-time journalists Emily Harris, Lee van der Voo, and John Schrag) who have been working together since 2019 to envision a non-profit newsroom that would, in their words, “amplify and augment the resources of existing news organizations and coordinate their shared efforts.” Such a newsroom would, in their vision, leverage the strengths of Oregon’s remaining news outlets to undertake the kinds of resource-intensive investigative journalism that many newsrooms can no longer afford to do on their own. An integral part of this vision is not only to create a framework for ongoing collaborative reporting, but to provide needed training to journalists and to intentionally diversify Oregon journalism. With philanthropic funding through the Oregon Community Foundation, along with private donations, ONE has interviewed journalists from all career stages–importantly, including BIPOC journalists–to understand the challenges they and the communities they serve face. Working with the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, ONE has also commissioned survey research and focus groups to better understand Oregonians’ information needs. As of this writing, their effort continues.
Yet while collaborations are an increasingly critical way to augment the capacity of individual newsrooms to produce local news, collaboration alone may not be enough to address the underlying losses in the state’s news infrastructure. Even van der Voo, who was among the earliest of Oregon journalists to pioneer collaborative journalism during her time at Investigate West, told us that “no amount of collaboration” will be able, on its own, to overcome those gaps. We return below to examples from around the country of state-level efforts to inject new resources to invigorate the local news ecosystem.
Regional and National Journalism Support Organizations
Over the past several years, efforts around the country to mobilize and coordinate support for local journalism have gained steam. In fact, one academic study recently described a constellation of efforts large and small across the country as an emerging “trust-building” network, a “constellation of corporations, technology companies, government bodies, non-profits, consultants, programs, projects, journalists and other journalistic agents” seeking to fundamentally transform how journalism is produced, all with an eye toward making journalism more relevant and trusted.14 Sue Robinson and Regina G. Lawrence, “The Trust-Building News Ecosystem: Changing journalist roles & skill sets,” presented at the International Communication Association annual meeting, May 2022.
Some efforts focus on sustaining existing local outlets and supporting the creation of new outlets. Here in Oregon, the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism (FORJ) is “committed to preserving professional journalism in rural Oregon.”15Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism (n.d.). A nonprofit led by journalists, FORJ offers training and support in capacity building, fundraising, and financial sustainability to newspapers around the state. (FORJ has also mapped Oregon’s remaining rural news publications.) Beyond Oregon, Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION) provides resources like a weekly newsletter with tips for nonprofit news entrepreneurs. The National Trust for Local News takes a different approach. Modeled on the concept of land trusts, it works with communities to transform the ownership structure of local news organizations to make them more economically sustainable.
Larger national entities are playing a role in bolstering local news in Oregon as well. Google News Initiative (GNI) publishes a Startups Playbook that walks would-be news entrepreneurs through the steps of identifying their audience, creating a business model, and building out their news product. GNI also provides grant opportunities to local newsrooms, such as one that supported the Eugene Weekly to increase its coverage of rural and underrepresented communities. On the nonprofit side, the Institute for Nonprofit News has created an extensive set of guides for creating or converting to a news nonprofit. Report for America is currently supporting five reporting jobs at outlets around the state (the Statesman Journal, The Oregonian, Underscore, and at the Associated Press statehouse beat); another five were supported since 2018, including at the Herald & News in Klamath Falls, the Malheur Enterprise, and Willamette Week. Meanwhile, the American Journalism Project, which calls itself a “venture philanthropy” and has reportedly raised over $90 million to fund local journalism, has helped funnel philanthropic and corporate donor funds (such as from the Meta [formerly Facebook] Journalism Project) to newsrooms around the country, including, here in Oregon, Underscore.
While these journalism support initiatives are undoubtedly valuable, a recurring theme in our conversations with journalists was that setting aside time and money to grow innovations is tough to do when the market for local journalism is so uncertain. While models for innovation are popping up nationwide, finding the bandwidth to study and emulate them can be hard. Some of our sources told us that newsrooms may feel stretched too thin to take full advantage of the help and resources offered by various support organizations.
As Susan Hess, publisher of Columbia Insight, put it to us, support organizations are “all putting out things every day. You know you could do nothing but read their emails and newsletters. I mean you really, you could devote every waking moment to just reading things from” them, Hess said. “They’re wonderful, but they all take time.” Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, agreed: “There are a lot of really hard working people in this arena with a lot of good ideas. Here’s the challenge, I think, is, I could spend eight hours a day reading professional journals or looking at other websites and getting ideas. And I just don’t have the time for that and most people don’t.”
This is where a more coordinated, larger-scale effort to reinvigorate Oregon’s news and information infrastructure could be especially important and impactful. As Lisa Heyamoto of LION said, “I’m really interested in states who are harnessing all of that,” Heyamoto said, “and helping create pipelines for funding and partnerships and things like that. You see that a ton in North Carolina you see that a ton in Pennsylvania. And so I think there’s room for that in a state like Oregon.”