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Something for lawmakers to consider: state of Oregon local journalism

Two big slices of news about Oregon newspapers fell shortly after Memorial Day, sending shock waves across the state.

One was the sale of one of the largest Oregon newspaper groups, Portland-based Pamplin Media, and the other was the announcement of major cutbacks in another, EOMedia, which owns the Bend Bulletin and other newspapers. Both show the immediate urgency for finding a way to rescue community news in Oregon – sooner, not later. Among other things, the Oregon Legislature urgently needs to take up the subject in its next session.

Consider where Oregon newspapers were just 12 years ago, when Steve Bagwell of the McMinnville News-Register and I co-wrote a book, called “New Editions,” about the recent history and prospects for newspapers in the Northwest. We counted 82 paid-subscription, general circulation newspapers, 16 of them dailies, in Portland, Eugene, Salem, Bend, Medford, Albany, Corvallis, Pendleton, Astoria, Ashland, Ontario, Coos Bay, The Dalles, La Grande, Roseburg and Baker City.

Since then an economic hurricane, a perfect storm, swept through the ranks of those newspapers. Many of the dailies that are published six or seven days a week now publish three or four days a week if they’re not gone completely. The large business office buildings they occupied nearly all have been sold, along with nearly all newspaper presses, and increasing numbers of newspapers now consist of one or two reporters working out of their homes, with no office support at all. Some Oregon newspapers have been sold to investor groups, and where the papers still are actual print papers, they’re far smaller.

That has largely been the case with Pamplin Media Group, which owned 22 newspapers from Prineville to Forest Grove and Madras to Portland, more than any other owner in the state. Their operations and staff have diminished, But they have continued to publish on regular weekly schedules with reports about their communities.

On June 1, all of those papers were sold to Carpenter Media Group of Natchez, Mississippi, which, until recently, mainly had focused on southern-state newspapers. Pamplin is not its only major recent purchase, even in the Northwest, however. Last year, with backing from two Canadian investment companies, it bought 150 newspapers and other media from Black Press Media of Surrey in British Columbia and included dozens of Washington state newspapers. Carpenter is now by far the largest newspaper owner in the Northwest.

It appears to be operated by former executives of the Booth Newspapers group, but other than reports about its many purchases there’s little public information about it – or where the money for all these massive buys is coming from. Carpenter has been buying large papers as well as small ones, including the dailies in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Everett, Washington. What that means for Oregon’s largest collection of newspapers is far from clear.

The development with EOMedia didn’t involve a change of ownership, but it did mark a drastic change of operations.

EO Media Group, named for one of its papers, the East Oregonian of Pendleton, publishes a dozen newspapers in the state, most east of the Cascades. Operated by the Forrester family of Astoria, it has been a rescuer in recent years of community newspapers. In 2019, it took over the Bend Bulletin, which had been in bankruptcy, and kept it running. When the daily Mail Tribune of Medford shut down, EO started a new paper there, Rogue Valley Times.

EO said on June 3 that it will cut its 185 employees by 28, end print editions at the papers in La Grande, Hermiston, Baker City, John Day, and Enterprise, and reduce the number of editions per week at Medford, Bend, and Pendleton.

The areas in Oregon that are news deserts – or at least extremely arid regions – are expanding rapidly. And considering the scope of these recent large developments, the collapse of Oregon’s newspapers seems to be picking up speed rather than slowing.

Oregonians need news reports to decide how to vote and participate in their communities, and the businesses that have made that possible are dissolving rapidly. This amounts to a real, immediate crisis for the government and society in Oregon, as it does in many other places.

The answers are far from clear.

The Oregon Legislature did devote some attention to the problem last session with House Bill 2605. The proposal would have prompted a study of the situation but it didn’t never had a floor vote. Still, that was a good start. Next year, it ought to mark out serious time and attention to figuring out how to help Oregon citizens keep up with the news around them, so the system of self-governance we have had for generations can continue to function.


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