Concerns over Oregon’s newspaper future

Patrick Emerson PhD ,
OSU Economist
Oregon Economics Blog

I fear for The Oregonian, but do not delight in its demise – in fact the exact opposite is true: I think investigative journalism is a incredibly valuable public good and I worry that society is undervaluing it and squandering it as the print journalism business model dies as I have said many times here on this blog.

That said I am very worried about the future of the Oregonian and here are a few reasons why:

One: The move into being a digital first company would inspire a lot more confidence if they hadn’t shown over the last decade that they are so completely inept at it.  I realize that a lot of this is the way Advance structured the separate “OregonLive” operation, but the “OregonLive website, even after the extensive overhaul, is one of the worst sites I have ever used for news.  And this, by the way is the sum total of Advance’s economies of scale and scope strategy – is identical to the other advance sites, most notably So what makes Advance believe that they can suddenly, by switching focus, become great at it?  They have had more than a decade already with terrible results.

The slow switch to a digital first model has been painful to live through.  Horribly written and seemingly unedited stories pop up on OregonLive as soon as possible only to go through many mutations and eventually end up as the finished product (usually edited successfully, but not always) in the print paper.  On line there may be two or three versions of the story still on OregonLive (but of course if you try to use their search function for them you will find none) and a number of ancillary bits to wade through (let’s give them VIDEO!!).  O reporters suddenly pop up on social media and desperately try and get a twitter following so they can show their editors how hip and 21st century they are. [Here is a tip – too late for most I am afraid – follow EVERYBODY and just go and find irrelevant, amusing, pithy stuff on the internets and tweet them all the time]

Two: which leads us to comparative advantage.  If the new business model is to be based on on-line page views and the ad revenue they generate (did I just say that?) readers need to come to the O and not other places.  Why would they do that?  The ONLY valuable asset (now that the printing presses and ops are worthless) the Oregonian has is its name and reputation.  I still turn to the O for the authoritative word, but there is not much of a reason to anymore except that I am old and slow to adapt.  The human capital at the O, upon which its reputation is based, has been completely gutted.  Reporting is a science and art that takes many years to perfect.  Over the years reporters learn how the systems work, learn how to get the information, develop contacts and sources, etc.  The digital age has not been kind to the O in its efforts to shed legacy costs (read: high salaries and pensions) as all the of the new fresh faced journalism school grads they hire quickly have their faces up with there digital byline and a website full of reporters who look like they are writing for the high school paper is not something that enhances the reputation of the O as much as destroys it.

So there is no reason, I am afraid, that folks will turn to the digital O for news when there are so many other sources.  True, maybe there will be no serious competition, for which society will suffer no doubt, but then there also may be too little viewership to support it anyway.  For if the O’s business model is successful, there will be competition, but if it is a looser, they will have the market to themselves.

Three: being driven by the eyeballs on pages business model means being driven by more fluff and less serious investigative journalism.  The most read stories as of this morning on OregonLive?:

  1. Bumblebee memorial scheduled for Sunday at Wilsonville Target
  2. Canzano: Trail Blazers pass draft test, but face tricky free agency
  3. Quick: CJ McCollum provides his first assist on his first day with the Trail Blazers
  4. Trail Blazers nab unexpectedly available Allen Crabbe, Jeff Withey in second round
  5. Blazers Insider: Although LaMarcus Aldridge wants out of Portland, don’t expect it to happen Thursday

Okay so the sports part of OregonLive might be able to sustain itself…

Perhaps the most ironic thing is that the very week after which all of the changes to the Oregonian were announced, they roll out one of those long-form investigative journalism Pulitzer-fishing pieces that is certainly a relic of the bygone era.  You can almost hear the discussion in the editor’s room: “well, hell, he has done all of this work, let’s just get the thing published quick before Advance can round-file it.”  Hell, Les Zaitz has only 470 twitter followers, there is no room for a reporter with so few twitter followers in the new Oregon…(Joe Rose, master of the new form, has more than 6,700, so maybe commuting news will sustain itself too).  Besides, who the hell cares about Pulitzers anymore?  Not the kiddos looking for Blazer draft news…  So what it really does is serve as a stark reminder of what we have lost.

So what would I do?  I honestly don’t know so though this reads like a relentless criticism, it isn’t.  I don’t have any good answers.  This is more about my worry that this strategy will not work.  Hell, even the New York Times couldn’t make open access profitable.  Can an old-style newsroom still exist and what are the implications for a democracy that depends so heavily on the fourth estate if they can’t?

Or maybe I am all wrong – maybe we don’t need the MSM in this new digital world.  Maybe blogs, press releases and the occasional look in from wire services is enough.  I doubt it.

So here is hoping that the new digital Oregonian will be a success and that we can still count on one place where real, original, investigative reporting thrives.  If not we will all be the poorer for it.

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