Local news coverage is dying.
The latest casualty — the entire staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. All 161 of them, , including reporters and editors, are losing their jobs.
On May 2, the Times-Picayune’s rival, the New Orleans Advocate, bought the Times-Picayune and plans to merge the papers under a single masthead and website. The seller — Advance Local Media LLC, the parent of Oregonian Media Group. Even winning two Pulitzers for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina didn’t serve the Times-Picayune.
Randy Siegel, CEO of Advance Local, assured the New York Post’s Keith J. Kelly that the sale of the Times-Picayune was a one-time thing. But what if it’s not? Is The Oregonian/OregonLive at risk, too?
Daily newspapers like the Times-Picayune and The Oregonian were once pervasive throughout the United States, with many communities having both a morning and evening paper, and sometimes a weekly local paper as well. But daily local newspapers are now in decline, dealing with cratering circulation, a reduction in print editions and drastic staff cuts.
According to the Wall St. Journal, nearly 1,800 US newspapers shut down between 2004 and 2018, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies. Hundreds of communities have lost their local newspapers. Between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no news coverage at all, according to the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.
It was once unthinkable that papers such as the Cincinnati Post, the Albuquerque Tribune, the New York Sun, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Tampa Tribune would close, but they are all gone now. Nicco Mele, former director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, predicts that half of remaining titles will disappear within the next two years.
Newspaper consumption in Oregon is already dropping precipitously, with daily and weekly circulation combined falling from 1.4 million in 2004 to 796,000 in 2019, the UNC Center says.
Some of the remaining Oregon papers are what the UNC Center calls “ghosts” because their newsroom staffing has been so dramatically pared back, often by more than half, that the remaining journalists cannot adequately cover their communities.
In January 2018, when Willamette Week broke that The Oregonian was laying off another 11 newsroom staffers, the Portland Mercury observed, “After repeated rounds of layoffs, it’s hard to imagine The Oregonian having anywhere else to cut. But the news business’s grim prognosis marches on, so the cuts continue.”
“For those inclined to point fingers at The Oregonian or our parent company Advanced Publications: Ad revenue across our industry continues to plummet precipitously. Layoffs in local newsrooms are happening everywhere. And it fucking sucks,” Oregonian reporter Shane D. Kavanaugh tweeted.
Compared with its breadth and depth in the 1990s, The Oregonian/OregonLive has become a ghost. When I was a business reporter at The Oregonian in the 1980s and 1990s, the business team of reporters and editors was a robust 8-10 individuals covering a panoply of topics from energy and healthcare to labor and retail. OregonLive’s list of staff today includes just one reporter, Mike Rogoway, specifically devoted to business coverage , unless you also count Jeff Manning, who is listed as a reporter covering Health Care Business, OHSU.
Sports coverage is still robust, with 12 reporters and editors, but just one reporter, Gordon Friedman, is specifically assigned to covering everything going on at Portland City Hall.
When the Jan. 2018 layoffs were announced, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s editor and vice president of content, Mark Katches, said to the paper’s staff, “You’re probably asking yourself, when will these cuts end? I wish I could answer that. Although we have made progress growing our digital audience while also producing award-winning, and important journalism, the revenue picture continues to pose challenges for our company – as is the case across the media landscape.”
In August 2018, Katches abandoned ship himself to take a new job as executive editor of the Tampa Bay Times, another paper that has had its own struggles both before and since it acquired its competitor, the Tampa Tribune, in 2016 .
With all the strife in the newspaper business, is The Oregonian/OregonLive ripe for the same fate as the Times-Picayune.
Don’t think it can’t happen.