News deserts are a big topic in our industry and a recurring theme in the national narrative about community newspapers.
Months ago, our chief operating officer, Heidi Wright, and I discussed Oregon’s news deserts with Steve Bass, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Bass wanted to talk about rural Oregon. Taking exception to Bass’s perspective, I asserted that Oregon’s biggest news desert was not east of the Cascades. It is in the heart of the Willamette Valley, in Eugene.
Since the sale of The Register-Guard four years ago, that once-great newspaper has been stripped of its assets, first by GateHouse Media and then by Gannett, with whom GateHouse merged. This is a common strategy among media companies that are owned by hedge funds. They make no pretense at seeking journalistic quality, while sucking revenue out of newspapers which no longer have sufficient reporting resources.
The Register-Guard’s decline has been especially lamentable, because, for decades, it was Oregon’s best newspaper. The blanket coverage of Lane County governments was legendary. It also maintained a robust opinion page.
After speaking to the Eugene City Club in July about the challenge of maintaining local journalism, Eugene residents have shared with me their mourning at The Register-Guard’s slide.
Within the Eugene market, there are three vital news outlets alongside the The Register-Guard. The Eugene Weekly, a free paper, has been publishing for some 50 years. The Oregon Daily Emerald is a free-standing nonprofit enterprise housed within the University of Oregon and is staffed mainly by students. Its coverage often extends well past campus borders into Eugene. And KLCC, the station of Lane County Community College, maintains a robust news presence.
It is especially startling that Eugene’s media landscape has been so transformed, because this highly literate city, with one of the state’s most robust universities and a history of civic engagement, has taken such a giant step backward.
So in what direction does the future lie for Eugene? I learned in college economics that there is a slumlord model that produces revenue for apartment house owners. But I cannot fathom how the endgame works for Gannett, once every ounce of reporting power has been squeezed out of their properties. They become so damaged that reviving them to a state of quality becomes financially prohibitive.
In an anniversary issue last September, the Eugene Weekly profiled its founders and wrote about the future. From reading that, it seems that the Weekly’s leadership is pleased to remain what it already has become. To respond to Eugene’s news vacuum, the Weekly need not attempt to replace The Register-Guard. But with an infusion of cash, the newspaper could enlarge its reporting and advertising sales resources. It could also learn audience engagement techniques to greatly enlarge its readership. But the message I read in that September issue of the Weekly sounded like moving in a new direction might well be a nonstarter.
The Daily Emerald presents a much different opportunity. There is a time-honored presence for a university journalism school producing a newspaper for its city. That is the renowned University of Missouri School of Journalism’s newspaper that has long served the city of Columbia. The University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media also publishes a newspaper for a readership well beyond the campus boundaries. Under president and publisher Bill Kunerth, the Emerald’s cash flow has increased markedly, from a big deficit to healthy. The Emerald’s high card is a stream of young talent, drawn to the university by its journalism school.
Eugene’s situation differs from Portland, where unfortunate decisions by the Newhouse family have greatly diminished The Oregonian’s quality and stature. But Willamette Week, approaching 50 years old, is an estimable challenger. Willamette Week distributes more newspapers inside Portland’s city limits than The Oregonian. Another competitor is the Portland Tribune and other Pamplin newspapers which surround Portland.
Another highly literate Oregon community, Ashland, presents another response to an implosion. In the wake of the closure of the Ashland Daily Tidings, a group of former news people started the digital newspaper, Ashland News. One of those, Paul Steinle, reports that, “Last year, Ashland.news was just an idea. Since Jan. 14 it has grown to more than 1,900 subscribers, producing nearly 900 local stories in its first year.”
For a new or reconfigured player to enter the Eugene market, leadership with community-minded money will be essential. It can be done.