Since 2004, 1400 local newspapers have closed. And since 2008, 33,000 newspaper jobs have been terminated. We are now seeing the lowest paid newspaper circulation since 1940. These grim statistics are what local media is faced with today.
Over the past month, The Corvallis Advocate has collaborated with other Mid-Valley news groups to hold a community conversation on local journalism. Speakers included Eugene Weekly Editor Camilla Mortenson, KLCC Director Jim Rondeau, Jennifer Moody of Orange Media Network, Editor-in-Chief of the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald Mike McInally, and former editor of the Democrat-Herald and current editor and publisher of HH-Today Hasso Hering. Joining them in the discussion were Advocate Editor-in-Chief Stevie Beisswanger and Publisher Steve Schultz.
All representatives agreed that the media landscape has changed over the past decade. Moody said that when she started in 1995, the Democrat Herald published six days a week, with a roughly 12 hour news cycle. By January 2019, publication had increased to seven days a week, including a Sunday paper, and also adding a website, and Facebook and Twitter accounts. Likewise, the proliferation of live content has resulted in a 24 hour news cycle.
Despite this increased workload, newsrooms have been steadily losing staff. The number of newspaper employees nationwide has been reduced by 47% since 2008. Neither the Gazette-Times nor the Democrat-Herald were spared from this trend, as Moody and McInally attested. Over a decade ago, both papers boasted six reporters and three photographers. Since then, their staff has been effectively halved. Similarly, Rondeau commented that “Salem’s gone down from 60 to 13 beat reporters.”
Beisswanger, McInally, and Schultz lamented the effect this has had on news coverage. “We have to be a little choosier,” McInally said. “I know there are stories out there we’re not getting to… It kills me to say to somebody, ‘I just don’t think we can get to that.’”
With so many papers short-handed and the rapid pace of contemporary news, the quality of coverage has also suffered. “The first thing to go is context,” said Moody. “You can’t make that last phone call, you can’t attend that meeting across town, you can’t run out to that fire in Jefferson. Coverage suffers, background suffers, small errors creep up.”
As for Eugene, Mortensen said “Our main resource challenge is from the purchase of the [Register-Guard]. Eugene Weekly gets a lof of ‘why aren’t you covering that?’”
Even with reduced staff, there’s still the question of who’s going to pay for local journalism. According to Pew, only 14% of Americans say they have paid for local news. Those who choose not to pay cite the wide availability of free content, a mindset disputed by Moody.
“What we do has monetary value,” she said. “If you ask us to go and collect the information from all the various agencies, to go through it and circle what’s going to be relevant and meaningful to you, to make the calls to get the extra context, to ask the extra questions, to put that together in a publishable format and get that out to readers, that costs money.”
The importance of advertising as a source of revenue was emphasized by Schultz. According to Pew, ad revenues have gone down by 13% over the past year, and newspaper advertising overall has declined by 67% since 2005.
Adding to that is the loss of local advertisers. Schultz gave the example of live music venues. Now that roughly half the venues in Corvallis have closed, he explained, the remaining locations don’t feel the need to advertise, as there’s less competition. He then called upon the audience to hold businesses accountable.
“If you’re on Facebook and you see the ad from the local dentist, and it’s somebody you do business with, ask them ‘Could you be supporting local media?’ Let them know your concerns.”
Then there’s the matter of print’s survival as a medium, which is far from assured. Hasso Hering’s prediction was less than optimistic. “I don’t know anyone under 40 who takes a paper. So when we are dead, the paper is gonna be gone. That’s it.” His opinion is supported by Pew: only 13% of Americans prefer print as a news source, the majority of them are over 65.
Schultz, on the other hand, argued that print is downright necessary for long-form investigative reporting. “For 500 words, online is fine. But for a longer, deep dive, we can put it online but it really needs to be in print for reader engagement.”
Beisswanger thinks the medium could be revitalized by more interactive papers. “I want you to be able to write in [to The Advocate], and really interact with it in a more intimate way.” Furthermore, she expressed a commitment to “reaching beyond the page” through community events. In light of the turnout generated by these discussions, it seems a wise policy.
While the future remains uncertain, all involved affirmed their dedication to the practice of local journalism. As McInally put it, “You want to be able to look back at the end of the year and say ‘Yeah, I sat in on a lot of city council meetings, and that’s really important, but I also did these four or five or six stories that really said something important about the community.”
Perhaps the best take on the state of press came from Moody: “I think that there will always be a need for journalism. I tell students that if we didn’t exist, someone would invent us.”
By Brandon Urey