Local News and Civic Life in Oregon: The View from Journalists and Civic Leaders

While these numbers tell part of the story, we wanted to flesh out the picture of how things are changing in Oregon’s local news ecosystem. We interviewed over two dozen people, including journalists, editors and owners of Oregon’s media, along with various experts and leaders of civic and community organizations (see Appendix for a full listing of those who agreed to speak with us on the record). While the list of people we could potentially have spoken with is very long, we began with a manageable number of interviews with people who could share useful insights either from their perspective as key members of Oregon’s news media, or as key observers and participants in Oregon civic life. Recognizing that Oregon’s media – like many of the state’s other institutions – have long skewed overwhelmingly white and middle-class, we endeavored to include organizations that represent poorer, BIPOC, and immigrant communities.

The conversations with interviewees, held online, each lasted 30-45 minutes. Our interview script was straightforward, centering on three questions: 

  • Where are the big gaps in providing news and information to Oregon’s communities? 
  • What are the new, emerging sources of news and information – either as competitors, concerns, or as exciting developments? 
  • How do you see trends playing out in the mid- to long-term? What will the local media landscape in Oregon look like 20 years from now? 

Here we outline major themes that emerged across these interviews.

Gaps and Challenges in Oregon’s News Ecosystem: Shrinking Capacity to Cover Local News

In answer to our first question about gaps in news provision for Oregonians, many interviewees talked immediately about the economic challenges facing news organizations today. Journalists are trying to do their work with limited and dwindling resources, including time, staff, and budgets—a problem that has become more acute over time. Consequently, according to Willamette Week editor and publisher Mark Zusman, “The list of uncovered beats is far longer than the list of covered beats.” Many of those we spoke with would agree with Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, who told us, “I worry about the ill health of daily news.” 

Lee Shaker, Associate Professor of Communication at Portland State University and an expert on the civic importance of local news, observed that 15 years ago, answers to our question would have centered on the declining demand for local news, not the supply. Today, he said, there are big gaps in both. That supply gap was noted by almost every journalist we spoke with, with many noting that shrinking newsroom resources particularly affect communities that are already not as well-served by news.

According to Heidi Wright, chief operating officer of EO Media Group, “The smaller the community is … the more at risk the community health is because there simply are not enough resources to professionally produce journalism.” Some small communities are “a retirement away from becoming news deserts,” Wright said, and she noted that four Oregon newsrooms are currently approaching “the end of the owner’s career path,” with no succession plans clearly in place.  

Lisa Heyamoto, Director of Teaching & Learning at LION, Local Independent Online News Publishers, told us, “Small size newspaper folks… they’re just despairing. They just can hardly serve anybody because they’re so strapped. …I just think there must be so many people who are completely not even being served at all and it’s not necessarily for lack of trying [and] I think

some people who are being served are probably people who are used to being fairly well served [by media].” 

And Morgan Holm, Chief Content Officer for OPB, told us, “A lot of the small towns are really struggling. I mean a lot of them do have newspapers still but …the ones that are fortunate enough to still have some staff have almost no staff left.” Many newsrooms in smaller towns are “barely able to keep their heads above water just covering what’s happening in town,” Holm said, “between city council and school boards and whatever the county is doing and things like that. And it’s out of sight out of mind… People in Portland probably don’t give it a second thought if people in Klamath Falls are getting a decent news diet.” 

These resource challenges for Oregon’s newsrooms matter for the amount and depth of the local news Oregonians get. Many of our interviewees worried about news becoming increasingly shallow, and about the loss of “watchdog” journalism that keeps a close eye on government – a gap Willamette Week editor and publisher Mark Zusman described as “number one in terms of the yawning need.” Greg Retsinas, News Director at KGW, told us that when it comes to covering government, “there’s a lot to look for, a lot to learn. You need seasoned reporters, investigators, to dig in and we don’t have a lot of those working in the state, you know, just a few of them….We have two investigative reporters here and their to do list is probably 100 stories and… that’s 98 that probably won’t get done.”

Moreover, newsrooms that are stretched thin find it harder than ever to cover issues from a truly local perspective. Our interviewees noted this problem in particular for Oregon’s rural, coastal, and historically marginalized communities:

“As bad as things are in the valley, I think things are even worse once you get outside of the Willamette Valley, as far as resources. And even within the rural parts of the valley…newsrooms that used to have 25 journalists are down to three, and they’re covering vast geographic areas. And they’re just saying they literally cannot get to––physically––they cannot physically get to the areas that they used to cover because they’d spend all day driving.” 

John Schrag, Executive Editor of Pamplin Media Group

“There’s hundreds of stories out there in each community and…a lot of them aren’t being done.”

Yachats News owner and editor Quinton Smith

“I think we basically outsource the entirety of Eastern Oregon to the Bend Bulletin and a handful of dedicated but short-staffed outlets … if you really want good journalism then you need a journalist who knows that community and who’s a part of that community.”

Kevin Frazier, founder and former editor of The Way

The gap in local news coverage is also felt in terms of inadequate pay and training for journalists. Many reporters lack the time and resources to do their jobs well, let alone update their skills or dig deeper into stories. As John Schrag, executive editor of Pamplin Media Group put it, “Everyone wants more bodies.” But, he continued, “the newsroom leaders I’ve talked to from rural areas say number one it’s hard to hire people to come to rural communities and it’s hard to retain them. Not so much because of the environment––it’s the pay.” Echoing that theme, Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, said, “People are working hard, journalists are already trying to figure out how to not work 70 hours a week.”

For newsrooms large and small, a sense of being overwhelmed and exhausted was palpable, especially given the enormous stories unfolding in our state in the past two years. As Therese Bottomly of The Oregonian put it:

“Last year is such a blur between the pandemic and then … we staffed the [racial justice] protests for more than 150 nights. And then we had the wildfires in September, the historic wildfires. And then we had the election, so it was just  kind of an exhausting year and… I think everybody still is feeling the effects of that, and then this summer we still have the pandemic and we had the unprecedented heat wave that killed 116 people in Oregon. So it just feels like the fire hose never ends.”

Many we spoke with saw this challenging moment as a time for newsrooms to re-think standard practices in order to better manage limited resources and meet community information needs. Veteran journalist and publisher Les Zaitz spoke about this challenge:

“We’re still sort of trapped in the past…And we all wring our hands about where we’re going and …we just keep doing the same thing [though] we might dress it up differently. You know, we might put different curtains on our windows, but the house is still the same….We gotta be much smarter. If a community’s gonna give me resources to put three journalists to work well, I better make sure every hour that they’re working for the community is productive and effective and…is something that people care about.”

Inclusiveness Urgently Needed, but Capacity Remains Thin

Newsrooms’ resource challenges also matter for the inclusiveness of local news coverage. Our interviewees worried that Oregon’s LatinX and Spanish-speaking communities are seriously overlooked in most news coverage, as are Oregon’s Black and Native American communities. As Caitlin Baggott Davis of the North Star Civic Foundation put it, “I just don’t think we have enough journalists …and that as a result the journalists who are in the field are spread thin … there isn’t budget for [multiple] journalists to cover things from different points of view.”

A continuing reality is that Oregon’s newsrooms struggle with how to cover minority communities. As the editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, Les Zaitz said he was “terribly frustrated with trying to figure out how to cover the Latino community. Not report just on but for it. … I think that is so essential to what we need to do in our profession in Oregon if we’re going to appropriately report on a growing segment of our population.” Local journalist and media-maker Bruce Poinsette pointed out how the state’s leading news organizations have no Black editors and few if any Black reporters, meaning that “Many of us … haven’t had other black editors” to work with and learn from. For BIPOC journalists and storytellers, he said, consistent and sustained funding and professional development is needed.

John Schrag echoed those concerns with respect to Native American communities: “As legacy media organizations,” he said, “we have not done a very good job of covering tribal issues. I don’t think that’s unique to Oregon but it’s certainly something I’ve heard from more than one newsroom leader, which is, we have a significant tribal population in our geographic area and we’ve not done a very good job.” Jackleen de La Harpe, founding executive director of Underscore, a digital news site that focuses on Indian Country and other marginalized coverage areas, told us, “Historically, indigenous people haven’t been covered well—if at all—by mainstream or legacy media…If you don’t have a voice and you’re not seen, then you’re essentially rendered invisible. And if you’re invisible …in news coverage, that is a form of structural racism.”The news gap – both in terms of who is covered and how by mainstream news, and in terms of access to news – is also true for Oregon’s immigrant communities. For example, Therese Bottomly of The Oregonian described how “There’s a very large Russian language speaking community in East Portland and East Vancouver, like 130,000 people who listen to Russian language radio. And there’s a gentleman … who called me and he said, can I, you know, read one story a day and translate it? And I said sure. But those are kind of …informal collaborations that are in service to getting the word out to more people but …it’s a little too ad hoc. There’s no real long term strategic plan” for how to provide news more regularly to these communities. 

This theme was echoed regarding how to reach readers in Oregon’s rural areas, where internet coverage is uneven. According to Jackleen de La Harpe at Underscore, “The lack of broadband in rural areas is a huge problem for accessing media…the majority of news is delivered digitally, so a good Internet connection is essential to be informed.” 

Fragmentation, Disinformation, and Mistrust

While the “supply gap” loomed large for many of our interviewees, they also were deeply concerned about the flip side of that problem: lagging public demand for journalism. Despite a recent OVBC survey showing that about two-thirds of Oregonians pay at least some attention to local news, our interviewees described a kind of tectonic shift that has separated mainstream news from a public that increasingly turns elsewhere for news and information. “So many of us are getting our news from so many places that are self-curated and hard to track,” said Adam Davis, executive director of Oregon Humanities. Caitlin Baggott Davis of the North Star Civic Foundation observed, “There are a lot of people, and not just teenagers, who, you know, no longer look at the New York Times website, never mind the newspaper, but instead are seeing what’s showing up in their [social media] feed.”  

As professor Lee Shaker of Portland State University, who’s been studying civic engagement and news for many years, put it, in part due to the decline of local news outlets and in part due to the fragmentation and proliferation of other media sources, people are “cobbling things together …. And this is one of the challenges for a less engaged audience member.” He added, 

“You know, students, ask me all the time, because I teach about things that relate to this and they hear these lectures and they start to think to themselves yes, you’re right this does really matter, I do care about public safety and safe drinking water and schools for my kids….So where do you get information? And then I have to tell them, well I use 10 different things….I mean like it’s like the whole unwieldy mess, to try and figure out what’s going on.” 

In today’s fragmented media environment with declining levels of trust in media, the people we talked with are concerned that Oregonians are having a harder time staying informed. Some worry that the combination of losses of traditional news outlets and the new panoply of online sources will exacerbate public confusion and the media trust problem. Consequently, it’s harder now for people to have a shared sense of the state’s problems. Adam Davis, co-founder of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center and founder of the polling firm DHM, has been documenting public opinion trends in Oregon for decades. Davis (not related to Adam Davis of Oregon Humanities) said flatly, “Just generally speaking, people’s general feelings about the media are probably more negative than I’ve ever seen.” And he described to us a decreasing public familiarity with leaders and issues and increasing reliance on social media that is creating “a perfect storm for declining civic health.”  

At the same time, Davis noted that social media is here to stay and has become an important part of many peoples’ news diets, for better or for worse. For example, he pointed to the social media platform Nextdoor, which is “replacing community for many people; it is really their only connection to neighbors and is responsible for whatever level of awareness and knowledge they have about their neighborhood and, more broadly, local issues.” Similarly, Daniel McArdle-Jaimes, a public information officer with the city of Portland, told us that WhatsApp groups seem to increasingly be seen as safe channels for various communities to share information. His observations were echoed by Jessica Lagunas of Latino Network, who pointed to Facebook groups and WhatsApp as main channels of information for the communities her organization serves.

Meanwhile, many interviewees voiced alarm about rising levels of misinformation and disinformation—including disinformation aimed at the mainstream media. Greg Retsinas of KGW reported that, “In our newsroom that’s our number one threat….The disinformation toward media is just relentless, relentless, and I think the last year of the vaccine rollout has shown that…it can’t be underestimated, the strength of that.” John Schrag of Pamplin Media Group concurred: “There’s a deep concern about the lack of information and then there’s a growing concern about misinformation and this confusion over what is news, what is not news.”  

As a consequence, many talked about a growing sense that Oregonians are struggling to separate truth from falsehood and are living in different realities defined by their media choices – a problem that is particularly concerning among communities who are underserved by the news media to begin with. As a former communications manager for a Portland-based community organization told us, “We still struggle with misinformation a lot… I think primarily it’s because of this widespread lack of access [of] a lot of community members…It’s been a huge challenge.” Daniel McArdle-Jaimes, public information officer with the city of Portland, reframed the problem in terms of building media literacy and communication skills: “How can we create our own local media competency, as it relates to deciphering good information from bad information? We need to look into…getting more media competency and literacy, and expanding the skills that are so desperately lacking, especially with our young people and those who primarily receive their information via social media.”   

Overall, our interviewees worry that Oregonians lack a shared, trusted place to get news and information, to hear multiple views, and to discuss issues. Moreover, according to at least one person we interviewed, “A lot of Oregonians just don’t have a platform” for expressing their views that links different parts of the state and isn’t beholden to commercial or advertising interests.” Other observations we heard included these:

“There’s so many silos – that’s just such a challenge in the current media landscape that everyone just gets the info that they want.”. 

Allie Yee, Co-Executive Director at APANO Communities United Fund

“I can’t think of many things that aren’t being talked about. It’s more that people aren’t aware who’s talking about them, or where they’re being talked about … we don’t quite know where to have the shared conversation together about this stuff.”

Adam Davis, executive director of Oregon Humanities

“There used to be a sort of a shared mental map in communities…everybody walking into [the governor’s briefing] room had read the Oregonian. … People don’t carry those shared mental maps around anymore. They’ve got the NextDoor map or the Facebook map….there are still good media sources out there but it’s much more fragmented.”

Mac Prichard, president, Prichard Communications

At the same time, some we talked with reminded us that as Oregon grapples with today’s fragmented media system, we need to cultivate attention to the multiple perspectives and experiences of diverse publics. For example, Allie Yee at APANO Communities United Fund warned against “the danger of a single narrative,” referring to the concept popularized by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her 2009 Ted Talk.  Lacking access to inclusive and trusted news is a real problem, our sources said, but so is nostalgia for a supposedly more unified Oregon. Historically, the sense among majority publics of being “on the same page” has often overlooked the different perspectives and realities of marginalized communities. Reaching for a single shared picture of reality shared by all Oregonians is, from this perspective, neither possible nor desirable. The challenge is to create more sharing of perspectives and experiences in hopes of creating a larger, if more complex, picture of reality.

Declining Civic Health in Oregon?

Overall, our conversations with the more than two dozen Oregonians we interviewed left a deep impression of a state whose residents are having trouble connecting with public life and with one another – and a state that may lack some of the civic capacity it needs to meet its challenges.  

More broadly, these journalists, experts, and civic leaders worried about the fabric of democratic society in Oregon – and our nation. John Schrag, Executive Editor of Pamplin Media Group, said, “Those people who are paying attention to civic life and the free flow of information know that something is wrong.” “Following the 2020 elections…there’s very little that we can accomplish if we don’t strengthen our democracy first,” said Caitlin Baggott Davis, Executive Director at North Star Civic Foundation. “This is an opportunity-rich environment, which I think is code for an environment in which there’s a lot of need.”

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