Journalists would much rather report the news than be in it.
We don’t always get what we want, though, and last week, The Bulletin reported that its parent company, Bend-based Western Communications, has filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code. We also told readers to expect some changes in the coming months designed to create an economically sustainable and locally focused product.
Readers who value local news coverage, I expect, would like to know more about the industry and the place of locally owned news organizations like The Bulletin within it. Perhaps more importantly, they might like to know whether there’s something they can do to preserve what it is they value.
There is something they can do, and I’ll talk about it below. But first, some context.
The primary driver of the news industry’s upheaval in recent years involves advertising revenue. At one time, abundant ad revenue allowed news organizations to provide broad news coverage without charging readers much for it. Then, digital advertising behemoths like Facebook and Google came along and disrupted that model, substantially reducing the advertising dollars that support news coverage.
That disruption has had some predictable consequences. News organizations have had to cut costs — primarily newsprint and staff — even as they’ve had to raise the cost of their products.
Such changes frustrate readers, who recognize that they’re paying more for less. This underlying frustration makes periodic service problems like missed papers more difficult to stomach.
Trust me, we get it.
What, then, does the future hold?
Nobody knows, but here’s my best guess.
Advertising will continue to be a significant source of revenue for many news organizations, including The Bulletin. But the old days aren’t coming back. The Bulletin’s advertising department has worked hard to adapt to print and digital environments. But it isn’t exactly easy to thrive in a jungle dominated by Google, Facebook and the like.
Circulation revenue, which comes from readers, will provide a larger share of our revenue. At The New York Times, for instance, reader payments (aka circulation revenue) now account for 60 percent of revenue, according to The Atlantic. Not long ago, advertising accounted for 60 percent of revenue.
As our funding model evolves, our products, as distributed in print and online, will be refined to deliver what it is our readers value at a price they are willing to pay. There’s an equilibrium out there for The Bulletin, and it will involve less newsprint and wire service articles from elsewhere, and a sustained focus on local news.
I hope it also involves local ownership for many years to come. And if you value local news, you should value local ownership, as well.
The Bulletin has been owned by members of the Bend-based Chandler family for decades, and that longstanding community presence informs what we do here. You may or may not agree with The Bulletin’s editorials, its use of New York Times content or any of a number of choices reflected by the yellow-bagged bundle that lands in your driveway every morning (and by its electronic equivalent). There’s no question, though, that The Bulletin continues to provide the area’s most complete locally focused news report.
Whether they’re writing about faulty fire systems in local schools, exposing political candidates’ lies in the Voters Pamphlet or digging into the consequences of herbicide misuse, The Bulletin’s reporters simply do work nobody else in Central Oregon does.
What, then, can Central Oregonians who value locally focused journalism do?
Subscribe or continue to do so. Urge other people who care about local news coverage to do so as well.
Consider giving a Bulletin subscription as a gift. Is that ugly sweater going to make your community a better-informed place?
Above all, understand that dedicated community journalism will rely increasingly upon readers willing to support it.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.