Oregon News

Legislation seeks ways to avert ‘news deserts’ in Oregon

By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

Separated by age and distance, Wesley McGovern and Jules Walters came together for legislation that attempts to reverse the decline of local news coverage in Oregon.

They were among those who testified in favor of House Bill 2605, which in a revised form would enable state grants to go toward helping avert “news deserts,” as identified in a report released last fall.

McGovern is a sophomore at Summit High School in Bend, where he is a writer for The Pinnacle newspaper.

“I believe that access to media is as important to democracy as the right to vote,” McGovern said Thursday, Feb. 9, in video testimony to the House Rules Committee.

Walters is in her first term in the Oregon House after serving as a councilor and mayor in West Linn, where the police chief and a sergeant were fired in connection with the wrongful arrest of a Black man in a case that drew national attention. The chief had ordered an investigation as a favor to a friend who was the man’s employer in Portland.

She referred to the West Linn Tidings — part of Pamplin Media Group, a news partner of the Oregon Capital Insider — and its coverage of other crises involving the city.

“We had a reporter who was on the beat,” Walters said in her in-person testimony. “She was not just investigating and sharing the critical information we needed to work through these crises, but also proactively reaching out to the community to tell the stories we needed to know. We need local journalists to hold our local governments and elected officials accountable.”

Walters is a sponsor of the bill.

What it does

The bill would set aside an as-yet unspecified amount for the Oregon Department of Administrative Services. The money would enable the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon and the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism, a nonprofit with startup money from EO Media Group (also a partner of the Oregon Capital Insider), to offer assistance grants. The bill also would require recommendations for the 2025 Legislature about how best to aid local journalism.

The original bill also proposed a tax credit, subtracted directly from taxes owed, for donations to local media organizations. But new tax credits would have to go through a joint House-Senate committee, and given that credits reduce total tax collections, legislators approve few of them.

“The tax credit may not be the best option,” said Rep. Khanh Pham, a Democrat from Portland and the bill’s chief sponsor. (Other chief sponsors are Reps. Ben Bowman of Tigard and Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin of Corvallis, both Democrats.)

But Pham said there is a role for the Legislature.

“Our communities have to have a shared understanding of our problems before we can solve them — and that shared understanding depends on having access to high-quality local news,” she said. “Today, in the vacuum created by the collapse of much local news media, misinformation is masquerading as news content and growing, while legitimate news organizations are struggling. To me, this is a fundamental issue of democracy.

‘’Our democracy cannot survive without an informed electorate,” she added. “Local journalism provides a forum for respected discussion and debate, and provides for an accountability check on our government officials and agencies. Our information and news infrastructure is vital to the functioning of our communities. So we must invest in the health of our media ecosystem.”

Chairwoman Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said the bill would be brought back with changes. Because it proposes to spend money, the bill would require clearance from the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

In the balance

Sen. Jeff Golden, a Democrat from Ashland and a former journalist, said the debate echoes one at the national level – but as local news coverage wanes, the need for support is local.

“We are dreaming if we think local communities and self-government can thrive if people do not know about the governance of their cities, counties, schools and special districts. There is a tendency to underestimate the importance of what is going on in local governments and how it affects people’s lives,” said Golden, who is a former Jackson County commissioner.

Adam Davis is founder and co-executive director of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center. He has done public opinion polling in the state with DHM Research for three decades.

He decried “the growing ignorance of Oregonians about how the government, private and nonprofit sectors work and the part they play in the quality and livability of life in their communities. The decline of local journalism across the state … has contributed to this.”

As that trend has continued, he added, it erodes the sense of community that Oregonians say they hold as one of their top five values.

The committee also heard from representatives of the proposed grant agencies.

A report by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon released last fall pegged a quarter of Oregon’s 36 counties on the verge of becoming “news deserts,” without regular independent coverage of local government proceedings and community events.

Eight counties, all but one (Polk County) east of the Cascades, had only one or two such news organizations each.

Research Director Regina Lawrence, who also is associate dean in Portland for the School of Journalism and Communication, said such a condition contributes to a decline in voter participation and an increase in political polarization.

She said a follow-up study would look at potential models from other states and how they could change news in Oregon.

Jody Lawrence-Turner is executive director of the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism, which provides assistance to new journalists, helps organizations find resources to continue their work, and promotes collaboration in new ways. The fund got startup money from EO Media Group – which publishes newspapers and maintains news websites in Bend, Astoria, Pendleton and elsewhere – but it is an independent nonprofit.

“The need for help in our industry is high everywhere, particularly in rural Oregon,” said Lawrence-Turner, who is also projects editor at The Bulletin in Bend, whose parent company is EO Media Group. 

Medford and Bend

The issue in Oregon drew more attention with the demise of the Mail Tribune in Medford on Jan. 13. The century-old newspaper reduced its publication schedule, then ceased its remaining online operation weeks afterward. Two companies – EO Media Group and the Grants Pass Daily Courier – have stepped in to try to fill the void.

A similar situation occurred in Oregon in 2019, when The Bulletin filed for bankruptcy. A group of Oregon investors prevailed over an out-of-state company and acquired The Bulletin, which today is the flagship of EO Media Group.

Heidi Wright is chief operating officer of EO Media Group and publisher of The Bulletin. She said 12 journalists, including the last editor under the Mail Tribune’s former owner, have been hired as part of a planned staff of 32 for the new Medford venture. Unlike Bend in 2019, no new investors are being sought.

“Medford is mending after a gaping hole left by the failed experiment of the former owner of the newspaper,” Wright said, referring to attempts to refashion the Mail Tribune into a 24-hour video channel. (Medford TV station KTVL, owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, is housed in the building in downtown Medford.)

Wright said via video link that she was applauded when she was introduced the previous day at a gathering in Medford – and she acknowledged that the applause wasn’t for her.

“The message has been loud and clear: They want reporters back out in the community capturing the stories and photos and doing their jobs with the integrity and trust of a trained professional journalist,” she said. “I’m happy to say that the journalists want the same.”

Wright said the pending legislation may offer some ways for newspapers to remain relevant in a different form in the digital age.

“People care about their newspapers as much as they care about their communities because they see a strong connection between the two,” she said. “We are here today because someone cared enough to bring this bill forward and see if there is a way to stabilize an industry in transition and find a sustainable path forward.”

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