CitySpeak: Community Journalism Post-Pandemic

Correction: In our summation of the CitySpeak Forum on Journalism, two quotes were originally attributed to Jennifer Moody when they were made by Camilla Mortensen. Our apologies, and the errors have been fixed.

In the first CitySpeak of 2021, we gathered nine professionals in the publishing industry to talk about where journalism is going post-COVID. 

We began with people teaching journalism locally. The first panel to speak included Jennifer Moody – a journalism advisor to Orange Media Network at Oregon State University, Rob Priewe – a journalism instructor at Linn Benton Community College, and Jillian St. Jacques – an OSU senior journalism instructor and coordinator of the applied journalism minor program.

How has the Pandemic Affected Student Journalism? 

Moody remembers the day that she and her staff left the “bullpen” – where reporters gather to go over story progress and pitch new ideas – in March of 2020. She worked with the students to move as much as possible online then to learn what they needed to make it work. “Everyday’s a new adventure with technology,” she said. 

Priewe sees that shift away from print as something his students have appreciated. The PDF version of a full-color image that would, in traditional print copy, be converted to blacks and grays is hard to give up. He believes that their distribution model has likely changed for good. 

“When I look at everything that this paper has done in spite of this pandemic,” St. Jacques said, “the online version is doing as well if not better than before.” He also feels that the sheer number of stories in the air right now has made the students at OSU better at covering the news. 

What’s the Future of Journalism? Will it be in Technology? 

While St. Jacques sees the future as a step back into the community aspects of journalism both professionally and in academic models, Moody and Priewe see things on a shakier ground.  Moody said that she doesn’t think we’ll see print much longer, and she doesn’t see that as a bad thing.  

“What is broken is the pay model,” Moody said. Including that she sees younger journalists as having an advantage in that they have lived in the digital world longer than any group before them. Their experience with web sites, short videos, and the art of getting a good sound clip is a distinct advantage. 

Priewe sees the advantage of technology as one where a journalist can have the dream career and dream home at the same time. “I’m really excited for my students in that regard,” he said. 

News sources, according to St. Jacques, are where younger journalists have an advantage. Being able to get that immediate news from Reddit or Twitter will turn the paradigm on its head. 

The Publishers Panel & The Pandemic 

We then moved to people on the publishing side of journalism. The second panel included Editor of Eugene Weekly Camilla Mortensen, Editor of the Portland Mercury Steve Humphrey, Editor of The Daily Barometer Jaycee Kalama, President of EO Media Stephen Forrester, Station Manager of KLCC Jim Rondeau, and Publisher of The Corvallis Advocate Steven Schultz. 

Pre-pandemic, Mortensen said the Eugene Weekly printed an average of 38,000 copies each week, and through the pandemic have continued to print 30,000 copies per week with the aid of Paycheck Protection Program loans, grants from Facebook and Google, and about $14,000 in contributions from the community. 

Humphrey, who founded the Portland Mercury in 2000, has shifted that publication from a 50 page hard copy with 60,000 subscribers to an entirely online product. They had to lay off six of nine editors at the paper, as well as asking for contributions from their readership. One thing that sets the Portland Mercury apart was they began a streaming model for live comedy shows, live music, and panel discussions, which helped sustain them to a stable place today. 

The youngest on the panel, Kalama is a student at OSU and the Editor-in-Chief of the award winning student newspaper. Notably, Kalama led the paper through a tumultuous year that not only held a pandemic and presidential election, but was filled with Black Lives Matter protests and the resignation of OSU president F. King Alexander.  “It’s been a very interesting year, a very active year,” she said.  

Not only has Kalama held her paper together when students couldn’t be in the same room, but she had to do it while all of her reporters had to relearn how to learn by going to class completely online. She offered up one of the most poignant observations, saying that “journalists are just the voice behind the coverage” and that she often receives emails filled with hate while seeing her fellow student journalists crumble under the stress.  

Forrester is the one person in the room who manages more than one newspaper. EO Media is a family-owned company with papers throughout the Pacific Northwest. He prides his organization with being forward looking, which made a transition to online easier for his newspapers than for most – including his advertising staff who have been able to sell in spite of the pandemic. Forrester’s motto is “When you’re the size that we are, it’s essential that you punch above your weight.”  

In a comment that rang true for the others on the panels, Forrester spoke of community papers as what people are truly in need of. He said that a community is better off with a family owned newspaper than one owned by a hedge fund – listing the Corvallis Gazette-Times and the Eugene Register-Guard as examples of the latter. He also prided himself with rescuing the Bend Bulletin which was facing bankruptcy in 2012. 

Rondeau was the one person on panel who works in the nonprofit sector – KLCC being one of the three major public radio stations in Oregon. Being a live show meant that someone had to be in the building every day, with the rest of the staff working from home to keep everyone safe. “As terrible as COVID has been,” Rondeau said, “it’s really freed our minds to change the model.” 

Owner of The Advocate, Schultz spoke about his childhood love for the news, which led him to begin his paper. The pandemic did change things, most notably the move to an all online model where a long form article – Schultz’s ideal reporting model – didn’t work well. “Having a sense of humor has helped,” he said. 

The Paywall Issue 

As many readers already know, most online papers have paywalls to keep people from reading the content for free. One audience question concerned whether or not news should be free for all – equating it to SNAP benefits to feed or Medicare to care for the poor. 

Forrester said, “We do open the gate when there’s an emergency, but we have to pay for our product.” Meaning, of course, that the publishers had the responsibility for paying the wages for their staff.   

“The economics of it are that the business community isn’t going to support us being completely free,” Schultz said. He mentioned the Gofundme-like calls to support a local bar or restaurant in danger of closing due to the pandemic, and reminded viewers that local papers are also having difficulties. 

Moody chimed in with an example: “If you’re hungry and you have food in your kitchen but you don’t feel like cooking and order a pizza, you’re expected to pay for that pizza.” 

How Can Media be Trusted? 

One viewer asked how the media can offer meaningful coverage of police violence in the country when the media itself is not trusted.  

Kalama spoke up with an example of how, when tasked with the job of reporting about the Black Lives Matter movement, reporters cannot go to the police for their “take on it.” She sees it as doing harm because it appears as though the journalist is discounting the perspective of the protestors.  

Humphreys agreed. He sees it as a matter of not getting the opinion of the people in power, but the opinion of those who are impacted by an issue.  

The Non-Profit Issue 

Many people get their news from not-for-profit publications. Mortensen spoke up, saying that the Eugene Weekly wouldn’t go that direction because it would mean they would no longer be able to do endorsements, which are one of her readers’ favorite issues. 

Schultz agreed with that reasoning, saying endorsements are critical for local newspapers. Partly because a journalist might have information the average citizen doesn’t, but also because it lets the readers know where a paper’s bias lies. As an example, he brings up the gubernatorial race between Kate Brown and Knute Buehler wherein The Advocate endorsed Brown and the Gazette-Times endorsed Buehler. 

Rondeau sees things differently, saying his organization doesn’t have to please advertisers or readers, leaving them free to follow the stories they believe are most important.  

Biggest Takeaways About Local Journalism 

For Rondeau, the biggest takeaway about all media is to choose your news source carefully. He mentioned that many people will get their news from Facebook, and if that’s what they like then they should make sure that the news is well vetted, fact checked, and accurate. He said, “Continuing a healthy journalism cycle is important to our way of life.” 

Mortensen reminded people that no one gets into journalism to hurt the world. “If we dig up dirt, it’s to make things better and to make a difference.” 

Kalama followed that with a reminder that “Journalists aren’t always evil.” 

And Schultz said, “You do your job thoroughly and people will respect it, even if they don’t like it.” 

To watch CitySpeak in full, please check out the link here. 

CitySpeak Forums are presented free of charge to the public, and are co-presented by City Club of Corvallis and The Corvallis Advocate. Sponsors include Peak Sports and First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op. 

By Sally K Lehman