An abuse of power: Oregon Democrats and the short session

When Governor Brown signed the new minimum wage law on March 2 she hailed it as an example of Oregon’s collaborative spirit. Far from it.

The Democrats have been using this year’s short session to run the Legislature like an authoritarian one-party state. That’s what happens when one party is in control for so long.

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In one case, the Democrats steamrolled Republicans and rammed a minimum wage bill, SB 1532, through the Legislature in just one month.

The Senate passed the bill 16-12, with the vote going strictly along party lines. The House vote was 32-26, with every Republican again voting no.

Under this major law that will impact workers and employers across the state, the base state minimum wage will rise to $9.75 on July 1. Wages will then rise at different rates in in three geographic areas, with the Portland area reaching $14.75 in 2022.

Then there’s what The Oregonian has called “one of the most far-reaching pieces of energy legislation the state has ever seen.”

On March 1, the Democrats rammed through the House on almost a strict party-line vote, the latest version of a controversial bill that would end the use of coal to provide power to Oregonians within two decades and expand the use of renewables to 50% of the power supply by 2040. Republicans then repeatedly failed to derail the legislation, after which all but one Democrat voted to pass the bill, overwhelming the no votes of 12 Republicans (one didn’t vote).

In this case, it wasn’t only the Republicans that were shut out of the process; so was the Oregon Public Utility Commission. The Oregonian reported that state utility regulators say they were shut out when it came time to craft the legislation and when members of the Commission tried to voice their concerns publicly, the governor’s office muzzled them.

To top it off, Democrats have abused the short Legislative session itself.

When voters approved Measure 71, providing for annual legislative sessions, in 2010, there was a general expectation that the short sessions would deal with emergencies and lower-impact bills, leaving the longer sessions for comprehensive and high-impact bills where deliberation and public input would be required.

Democrats have cast that approach aside this short session and run amok with major partisan legislation.

Apparently its true, to slightly rephrase Mark Twain’s observation, that “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the Oregon Legislature is in session.”

 

 

The long, slow, agonizing death of The Oregonian

newspaperdeath 

Top veteran reporters leaving. Circulation shrinking. Local bureaus closing. Regional papers consolidating. Daily print editions disappearing. Morale sinking.

It’s come to this at our once-proud and prominent newspaper, The Oregonian.

Founded in 1850 as a four page weekly, its first issue printed in a log shack on SW First and Morrison, The Oregonian has a long and storied history.

The headquarters of The Oregonian from 1892 to 1948.

The headquarters of The Oregonian from 1892 to 1948.

In June 1948, The newspaper moved to a new building on Southwest Broadway.

In June 1948, The newspaper moved to a new building on Southwest Broadway.

Daily newspapers like 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.

When Advance Publications bought The Oregonian in 1950 for $5.6 million, its daily circulation was 214,916. The Portland Metro Area’s population that year totaled 704,829.

Coincidentally, a significant challenge to the newspaper industry’s business model, dependent on print advertising, also began about this time. Although there’s a tendency today to attribute the decline of newspapers to the Internet, it might better be tied to the advent of television, which sucked away advertising dollars that covered costs and generated profits.

In 1950, five years after the advent of commercial television in the United States, television penetration of U.S. households was only 9.0%. By 1955 it was up to 64.5% and by 1960 87.1 percent. As TV penetration grew, newspapers’ share of ad revenue shrank.

Newspapers commanded 37 percent of all U.S. advertising revenues in 1950. By 1960, that share had shrunk to 31 percent, the first downward shift in newspaper advertising since the depression. During that same 10-year period, TV’s share of total advertising rose from 3 to 30 percent.

I joined The Oregonian as a business reporter in 1987. It was a robust, well-respected paper then, with a proud past and a much-anticipated future. Daily Monday-Friday circulation was 319,624; Sunday circulation 375,914.

When I left the paper 10 years later in 1997 to take a corporate communications job, Daily Monday-Friday circulation was 360,000, Sunday circulation 450,000. We were on a roll.

Much of that success has been attributed to Sandra Mims Rowe, who came on as editor in 1993 and tried to energize the newsroom with a hiring spree, bringing on reporters and editors from around the country. Under her leadership, the newsroom grew from about 280 to more than 400 and distinguished itself by winning five Pulitzers.

But the paper wasn’t able to escape the tumult of the newspaper business during her tenure. By the time she retired from The Oregonian in Dec. 2009, she had to cut staff, salaries and benefits as circulation and revenue declined.

In 2009, The Oregonian’s daily circulation sat at 268,572 and Sunday circulation at 344,950, causing the paper to lose its position as one of the top 25 Sunday circulation papers in the country. That same year, the paper announced a long-term policy that protected full-time employees from layoffs for economic or technological reasons would end.

By 2012, daily circulation sank to 228,599, only slightly higher than circulation in 1950, and the declines have continued.

The Oregonian’s footprint will shrink further later this month when three of its Washington County weeklies, the 143-year-old Hillsboro Argus, the 4-year-old Forest Grove Leader and the 3-year-old Beaverton Leader, will meld into one publication, the Washington County Argus. Their consolidation will mean even less local media coverage and impact.

Meanwhile, talented reporters have been fleeing in droves, some pushed out, others motivated by buy-outs. Some have decamped to other papers, others to corporate and government communications jobs. At the same time the once powerful paper has seen its clout diminish as it has abandoned rural Oregon and 7-day-a-week print distribution.

The Oregonian’s enhanced focus on digital news delivery is showing real signs of life, but it’s not maintaining the paper’s prestige and power. Digital numbers on OregonLive.com are up impressively (6,339,000 unique visitors in Jan. 2015). But with the average visitor to a newspaper website only staying on the site for three minutes per visit, many digital visitors to OregonLive.com are short-termers and aren’t loyal Oregonian readers.

In addition, new digital advertising revenue at newspapers across the country is substantially less than the print revenue that is being lost. In 2005, U.S. newspaper ad revenue totaled $49.4 billion, $47.4 billion from print and $2 billion from digital. By 2014, print ad revenue had shrunk by about two-thirds to $16.4 billion, but digital ad revenue had only grown to $3.5 billion, according to the Pew Research Center.

So here we are. A once mighty paper hollowed out and  humbled. A growing population served by a smaller paper. A weakened paper that no longer drives the daily discussion at the proverbial water cooler (or over a latte). A diminished, editorially impotent presence with a dwindling ability to hold powerful interests accountable.

None of this is good news if you want an educated, informed public in a position to make wise judgments about public policy.

“The way to prevent irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1787.

That is as true today.

If it matters to Oregonians, it’s in (The Washington Post) Willamette Week

For those of you who don’t remember, Bob Packwood was the first.

Former Senator Bob Packwood (R-Ore)

Former Senator Bob Packwood (R-Ore)

On Nov. 22, 1992, the Washington Post reported that 10 women had accused Sen. Bob Packwood of sexual harassment. Even though one of The Oregonian’s own reporters was among the 10, and the paper had gotten tips about Packwood’s behavior, incredibly it had failed to aggressively pursue the matter. The Oregonian’s failure to break the story was mortifying for the entire paper.

Adding to the shame was a bumper sticker that began appearing around Portland:

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Oregonian editor, Bill Hilliard, later told the Washington Post, in a massive understatement, that his paper “should have been a little more aggressive… We were worried about ruining a man’s career.”

Neil Goldschmidt was second.

Neil Goldschmidt

Neil Goldschmidt

Nigel Jaquiss, a reporter at Willamette Week, was researching the role of former Oregon Governor, and later power player, Neil Goldschmidt, in efforts to take over Portland General Electric. He was making good progress on the story, but got hints there was more.

“It was shaping up to be a pretty good story,” Jaquiss told the American Journalism Review, “but I kept getting pushed by people… ‘There’s more you ought to be looking at… There’s a girl..'”

Jaquiss’ aggressive digging eventually revealed that Goldschmidt, when he was the married Mayor of Portland, had begun raping a neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter on a regular basis over a three-year period. Sources said Goldschmidt often took the girl to her parents’ basement, to hotels and other private spots for sex.

When Willamette week posted a summary of the story on its website, it spread like wildfire. The Oregonian had been beaten again.

Not only had The Oregonian been beaten again, this time by a local alternative weekly, but The Oregonian made things even worse. When it ran the Goldschmidt story it appeared to many readers to soft-pedal Goldschmidt’s actions as “an affair” with “a high school student”. Oregonians went ballistic.

A memo of a staff meeting at the Oregonian revealed that there was a lot of internal angst, too. The memo noted: “Steve Duin felt strongly that our coverage today was too reverential. We are dealing with a child molester. He made a very impassioned plea for doing the who knew what when story — lots of people became rich riding Goldschmidt’s coat tails — and why they kept it secret. He suggested that readers might think we’d learned nothing from Packwood and that we are hands off people in power.”

And now the Kitzhaber-Cylvia Hayes scandal.

John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes

John Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes

Again, it was Nigel Jaquiss and Willamette Week that broke the story and followed up with bombshell after bombshell.

The Oregonian followed up with some revelations, but it was late to the party. It’s most significant role in the evolving saga was to run an editorial on Feb. 4, 2015 calling on Kitzhaber to resign, arguing, “…it should be clear by now to Kitzhaber that his credibility has evaporated to such a degree that he can no longer serve effectively as governor.”

What’s happening to The Oregonian, once the state’s dominant paper of record, now a mere shadow of its former self?

It may sound hackneyed, but great newspapers like the Oregonian were once the indispensable guardians of our freedom. Seasoned reporters have served as watchdogs to ensure good government and reinforce good citizenship. The Oregonian has been a key ingredient of  civic dialogue and discourse in the state.

David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who created the award-winning HBO series The Wire, warned at a U.S. Senate hearing on the “Future of Journalism”, that “high-end journalism is dying in America.”  Oregon can’t afford for The Oregonian to be among those at death’s door.

 

Disclosure: I worked as a reporter at The Oregonian during the 80s and 90s.