Mirroring the national trends outlined above, the supply of local news has declined in Oregon too.
A study of news deserts around the United States in 2020 identified over 20 newspapers that had closed or merged in Oregon since 2004, and identified two Oregon counties (Sherman, with a land area of 831 miles and a of population of less than 1,700, and Wheeler, with a land area of over 1,700 miles and a population of just over 1,400) that had no local newspaper. That report also identified 15 Oregon counties that each had only one newspaper – though the report also identified several digital news outlets, public radio stations, and news outlets serving Black and Latino communities in particular that help to fill that void.1 Abernathy, “News deserts.” A more recent study by the journalism organization Poynter identified two additional recent newspaper closures in Oregon: The Umpqua Post in Reedsport, which closed in June of 2020, and the Philomath Express, which closed in September of 2020.2 Kristen Hare, “More than 100 local newsrooms closed during the coronavirus pandemic,” Poynter (2 December 2021).
Additionally, we found further closures, such as Chemeketa Community College’s student-run newspaper The Courier, which closed in December of 2020, and the Dead Mountain Echo in Oakridge, which closed in November of 2020. Others changed their circulation models to meet budgetary and resource constraints, such as Portland’s Black-owned newspaper The Skanner moving to online only production in January of 2020, and Eastern Oregon University’s student-run KEOL radio station moving to a podcast-only model in July of 2021. As we were preparing this report, another news desert threatened to emerge in Oregon when the editor and reporters at the Herald and News in Klamath Falls left the newsroom, citing low pay and a workload too heavy for them to produce quality news (see below).3Allison Frost, “Herald and News regrouping after loss of all its news staff,” Oregon Public Broadcasting (7 March 2022). And, mirroring a larger nationwide trend, in September of this year, the Medford Mail Tribune announced it would no longer print and deliver a physical newspaper, moving all of its content online. Announcing the news, owner Steven Saslow said, “I made a commitment to the Rogue Valley to keep a printed newspaper as long as we could break even. We eclipsed that a long time ago.”4 AP News, “Newspaper in Medford, Oregon to cease print publication” (21 September 2022).
These losses have hit less-populated areas of the state particularly hard, as the data we present below shows. As the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism (FORJ) observes,
“In Oregon, nearly a quarter of the state’s newspapers have shuttered since 2004. Two rural counties are news deserts and 16 more are left with only one news organization to cover hundreds of square miles. Just as concerning, more than 50 percent of Oregon’s incorporated cities lack a local news source to report on community government and business activities…”5Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism, (n.d.), para 2.
The shrinking number of local news outlets in Oregon is connected to declining audiences and a declining public willingness to pay for news – and perhaps, to general unawareness of the financial challenges many newsrooms are facing.6 Damian Radcliffe, “Local news outlets can fill the media trust gap – but the public needs to pony up,” The Conversation (19 November 2019) To cite just one example, daily circulation of the Eugene Register-Guard reportedly dropped from nearly 80,000 in the year 2000 to under 20,000 in early 2022.7 Bob Keefer, “TRIPS for Journalism: You can now support local journalism around Eugene with tax-deductible donations to a new foundation started by EW,” Eugene Weekly (3 March 2022).
The number of paid subscribers for some newspapers in Oregon, such as some of the Pamplin Media Group papers, is reportedly stable or even growing. The Oregonian’s editor, Therese Bottomly, recently wrote in a newsletter to readers that her paper attracts 9 million unique online visitors monthly, on average, along with nearly 20,000 digital subscribers to their web outlet, OregonLive. But newsrooms even at those outlets are struggling due to a precipitous drop in print advertising, which started during the so-called Great Recession of 2008 and accelerated during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, many print publications depended on grocery and retail store inserts, which generated significant revenue with almost no labor costs, but those have now in many cases largely disappeared.
Many of the newsrooms that remain across Oregon have experienced sharp declines in revenues and staff, and some local news outlets that were locally owned have been acquired by national companies – developments that may further threaten the production of quality local news.
For some Oregon news outlets, disruptions and closures have hit suddenly, hastened by the COVID pandemic. For example, Chelsea Marr, formerly with Eagle Newspapers, described to us her experience as publisher of the Hood River News:
“When COVID came on, as you know, businesses were really just shuttered. I mean, they couldn’t be open, they had limited hours, restaurants … had to close their doors. So all of those businesses that we rely on for revenue stopped advertising. And then you’ve got some of your bigger ones like your grocery stores, that, even though they didn’t close they couldn’t keep their shelves full. So they weren’t advertising either. So the inserts, the advertising, all of that really stopped. And we really got hit hard.
…I think newspapers overall, all over the nation, probably I could say, at least in smaller communities, were already teetering on that edge. When COVID hit, it just really slammed us. And so Eagle [Newspapers] had been trying to sell…for a while …but then when COVID hit, we were just really struggling, and they said ‘we’re going to close down.’ It was quick. I let employees know on Thursday and by the following Tuesday, it was the 31st of March, and that was our last day.”
Reviving Legacy Outlets and Creating New Outlets
The news is not all bad for Oregon’s local news outlets, however. For example, Oregon Public Broadcasting has reportedly added 15 new journalism-related positions over the past 5 years thanks to a philanthropic campaign, allowing for greater coverage of areas outside the Willamette Valley such as Pendleton and Bend. They have also added several more positions through organic growth and some shorter-term positions via grant funding.
At the same time, some newspapers around the state have survived (even if sometimes in altered form) by being acquired by Oregon buyers. Ultimately, Marr herself purchased the Hood River News along with The Dalles Chronicle and several other publications serving the Columbia Gorge and converted them into one Gorge-wide weekly print publication, the Columbia Gorge News. Writer Trisha Walker later told Columbia Gorge News readers, “I know that the combined newspaper is different than what you are used to. It’s not what I’m used to, either. We are now covering five counties in a weekly paper.” But “the paper you are holding now would not exist had [Marr] not stepped up.”8Trisha Walker, “Behind the scenes: Requesting grace as newspaper navigates some big changes,” Columbia Gorge News (24 June 2020).
There are other cases as well of Oregonians working together to purchase and repurpose news outlets that were in danger of going out of business or losing their distinctive local focus, such as the purchase in 2019 of the 100-year-old Bend Bulletin when its parent company faced bankruptcy. Purchased by locally-based EO Media Group, the Bulletin, along with the Redmond Spokesman, was brought back from the brink of extinction with the help of local community leaders who helped to raise funds.
Another example of Oregonians stepping up to bolster the local news ecosystem is the creation in 2014 of the Oregon Capitol Bureau by the Pamplin Media Group, which owns over two dozen newspapers in the Portland metropolitan area and central Oregon, and EO Media Group, which now owns 17 newspapers throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington. The Bureau publishes the Oregon Capitol Insider, designed “to counter a disturbing decline in independent news coverage of state government.”9 Oregon Capitol Insider, “About us” (n.d.). (A report in 2018 found that the Salem press corps shrunk by nearly two-thirds since 2005, from 37 reporters to only 13 in that year’s legislative session.)10 Anna Marum, “Oregon’s dwindling statehouse reporters are ‘treading water,’” Columbia Journalism Review (2018), June 13. The Bureau grew to include the Salem Reporter, a subscription-based digital news service started in 2018 by veteran journalist and publisher Les Zaitz. As discussed further below, these entities are playing an important role in revivifying coverage of Oregon politics and government.
Meanwhile, some legacy outlets are adapting to the changed economic environment by reincorporating as nonprofits, partnering with nonprofits to allow them to accept contributed revenue, and/or establishing a membership model. Earlier this year, for example, the Eugene Weekly established the nonprofit Twin Rivers Institute for Press Sustainability (TRIPS), which enables it to collect tax-deductible donations to sustain small news outlets in and around Eugene.11 Keefer, “TRIPS for Journalism.” Willamette Week established a fiscal sponsorship with a nonprofit foundation to create an Investigative and Enterprise Fund, and created a membership organization, Friends of Willamette Week.
In the next section, we present a more thorough map of the current state of local news in Oregon. Later in this report, we return to more examples of news start-ups and other innovations that are shaping the near-term and perhaps long-term future of Oregon’s local news and information infrastructure.