Last month, Oregon’s Medford Mail Tribune announced it would no longer print and deliver a physical newspaper, and that it was moving all of its content online. Owner Steven Saslow said, “I made a commitment to the Rogue Valley to keep a printed newspaper as long as we could break even. We eclipsed that a long time ago.”
Fortunately for the residents of Medford, the Tribune only shuttered their print operation. In other parts of the state, news outlets have shut their doors altogether—sometimes quite suddenly. Former Hood River News publisher Chelsea Marr described her experience this way:
“I think newspapers overall, all over the nation, … at least in smaller communities, were already teetering on [the] edge. When COVID hit, it just really slammed us. [Ownership] had been trying to sell … for a while … but then when COVID hit, we were just really struggling, and they said, ‘we’re going to close down.’ It was quick. I let employees know on Thursday and by the following Tuesday, it was the 31st of March, and that was our last day.”
These stories aren’t news. They mirror well-documented trends around the country. For over two decades, the newspaper business in particular has hemorrhaged jobs, beats, outlets, sometimes leaving behind so called “news deserts” – communities without access to a local paper – and “ghost newspapers” – papers too weakened by shrinking budgets to truly produce much local news.
Now, a related story is emerging. According to an accumulating mound of empirical evidence, communities that lack robust local news also tend to experience lower rates of civic engagement, and higher rates of polarization and corruption. As political scientists Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless put it in their recent book News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement, while “a robust local news media by no means ensures good government, its absence almost guarantees worse government.”
Shriveling local news also leads to a diminished sense of community connection. Having access to and keeping up with local news is correlated with a stronger sense of community attachment and higher community satisfaction.
Journalists have long believed their work to be essential to democracy, but now, the empirical case is increasingly clear. Sustaining a robust local news ecosystem is as critical to community civic health as clean air and water are to the physical health of communities.
At the Agora Journalism Center, we are concerned about this link between civic health and local news, so we decided to create a process for tracking losses — and gains — in our state’s civic infrastructure of news and information. Last week, we released a study titled “Assessing Oregon’s Local News & Information Ecosystem: Connecting news, information, and civic health.”
Our findings are deeply concerning.
Oregon has long been a desirable place to live. Renowned natural beauty along with growing high-tech and creative industries, a free-thinking culture, and forward-thinking urban infrastructure created decades ago made Oregon a top destination for visitors and residents. But while the state continues to attract newcomers, its prospects are marred by a history and the present reality of racial injustice; by rampant houselessness, climbing housing prices, rising gun violence, and one of the highest rates of mental illness in the country; by disappearing water supplies, increasingly severe wildfires, and record-setting weather extremes; and by a deepening rural-urban divide — including efforts in some corners of the state to sever ties with Oregon altogether. Not to mention the lingering effects of racial justice protests that rocked Portland in 2020, putting the city’s troubles front and center in the national news.
In many respects, Oregon is like other states around the country: Seriously challenged.
As Oregon voters prepare to elect their local and state leadership in November—including the first gubernatorial election in a generation that does not include an incumbent, and the first in 40 years in which the Democratic and Republican candidates are running neck and neck — the complex challenges our state faces require deep citizen engagement and a steady supply of factual and deeply-reported news and information.
We decided that the time was ripe to examine the health of Oregon’s news and information ecosystem, to assess how communities around the state might come to understand local issues and the experiences and perspectives of their fellow community members.
A truly holistic assessment would be a massive undertaking, but we needed to start somewhere. We were guided by other models for this kind of work, such as a framework developed by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University that mapped local news outlets in New Jersey. (In terms of media markets, New Jersey is quite different from Oregon, though, with denser and more overlapping media markets). We decided to start by counting and mapping all of Oregon’s outlets that are regularly producing original news about state or local civic affairs.
This sounds like a simple task, but we were mindful of the pitfalls and limitations of mapping local news and information systems. After all, newspapers are not the only producers of local news, and news outlets of all kinds are only one source of local information. Civic and community organizations also play a critical role, not to mention the ever-present influence of social media. Therefore, our data in this first effort is really a snapshot and a necessarily incomplete picture of Oregon’s local news ecosystem, which is why we built in a feedback mechanism for journalists and for more general readers.
Nevertheless, our data show that, after years of closures, contractions and consolidations, Oregonians are unequally served by local news media. Some communities, particularly in Oregon’s marginalized and less populated regions, have few places to turn for truly local news. Indeed, we found eight out of Oregon’s 36 counties that have only one or two outlets that contain civic affairs reporting—and in some cases, one of those outlets was a public radio rebroadcasting station that may not be producing its own news content.
In this respect, Oregon isn’t very different from many states around the country, as journalism scholar Nikki Usher documents in her recent book News for the Rich, White, and Blue – except that some of Oregon’s counties cover vast physical distances with sparse populations.
We also contextualized our quantitative data by conducting interviews with over two dozen journalists, experts, and civic leaders. We found that they are deeply worried about the state’s ability to grapple with its mounting challenges at a time when the number of news outlets is declining, news audiences are shrinking and misinformation is on the rise. The underlying infrastructure for producing local news has been weakened by two decades of losses of newsrooms and reporting jobs. News organizations today, from the smallest all-volunteer hyperlocal websites to the largest legacy newsrooms, often sense they are swimming against the tide of economic, technological, political and cultural changes that threaten the long-term viability of local news production.
Again, this mirrors trends across the country. But unlike certain regions of the country that receive close attention, Oregon (like some other smaller states and those far from the Eastern seaboard) is often overlooked by the major national funders and journalism support organizations.
Given the picture that emerged from our research, we concluded that larger-scale interventions may be needed to create a stronger civic information infrastructure. Yes, many of Oregon’s legacy news outlets are finding ways to adapt, innovate and grow, even in an increasingly tough environment, and digital start-ups are filling important news gaps for some communities. But the critical importance of local news to civic health calls for organized and intentional investment. In the report, we put the following ideas on the table:
- Create a statewide framework for ongoing, integrated newsroom support and collaboration that increases the underlying pool of journalistic resources. Oregon’s newsrooms have moved toward greater collaboration over the past decade. In 2019, for example, 40 newsrooms worked together on a project called Breaking the Silence to “highlight the public health crisis of death by suicide” in Oregon. But such collaboration is still largely start-from-scratch. Successful models for newsroom collaboration need to be adapted to the unique features of Oregon, and resources identified to make that adaptation happen in a sustainable way.
- Adapting and learning from models being tried in New Mexico, Colorado, and New Jersey, create a state-wide local news innovation hub with collaboration across universities and other institutions. This hub would work to leverage support from journalistic support organizations and foundations to grow the state’s infrastructure of local news through close community collaboration and other critical support for newsrooms large and small.
- Identify and activate potential sources of sustained funding for local news – including reimagining the role of public funding in creating a healthy local news infrastructure. Advocating for government funding for media is a fraught topic, given American attachment to the idea that the First Amendment ties the federal government’s hands regarding the local news crisis. Notably, most federal and state-level efforts involve indirect rather than direct government subsidies to local media, such as the tax breaks envisioned in HR 7640, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which attracted more than 70 co-sponsors from both parties. At the state level, perhaps the most creative and effective effort so far happened in New Jersey, where in 2018 the state legislature passed a Civic Information Bill creating state-level funding to spur innovation and transformation of local news, overseen by an appointed 15-member nonprofit New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. The Consortium is a collaboration of five of the state’s leading universities overseen by a board appointed by the governor, legislature, participating universities as well as technology and community groups. As of early 2022, the consortium had distributed $1.35 million in public funds to initiatives aimed at serving the public’s evolving information needs.
- Create opportunities for ongoing research across institutions. Our report has offered an important first step here in Oregon, but much more needs to be learned about our local news ecosystem, and key statistics (e.g. staff sizes, circulation data, declining and emerging beats, etc.) need to be tracked over time. Researchers can do more to pinpoint gaps and emerging strengths in local news around Oregon and to document successful innovations—and importantly, larger-scale research could more systematically compare local news ecosystems across the country.
The evidence is increasingly clear that the civic health of communities is tied to the fate of local news. Quality, accessible local news truly is a public good. We hope our report will spur renewed conversation and concrete action by newsrooms, journalistic support organizations, philanthropists and other funders, institutions of higher education, and policymakers in Oregon and beyond.
You can read the full report here.