Local news is critical for democracy and needs state support to continue, supporters of a legislative proposal told the Oregon House Rules Committee on Thursday.
House Bill 2605 would pay for a resource center to give emergency grants and other support to local journalists and newsrooms and create a workgroup that would produce a report by November 2024 about the state of the journalism industry in Oregon and recommendations for potential policy changes or funding.
The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Khanh Pham of Portland, told the Capital Chronicle she’s always loved journalism – she was the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper and a news intern before she became a community organizer. She’s been troubled over the past decade as local newspapers closed or shrank their staff. It’s a fundamental issue of democracy, she said.
“Democracy depends on an informed public,” Pham said. “In the vacuum left by these local media going under, we’re seeing misinformation and disinformation rushing in to fill that vacuum, which is very destructive to community cohesion and democratic discourse.”
Two rural eastern Oregon counties, Sherman and Wheeler, were classified as “news deserts” because they have no newspaper in a 2020 database produced by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina. Both are small in population – Sherman County has fewer than 1,700 people and Wheeler County just more than 1,400 – but span hundreds of miles.
Fifteen other counties – Benton, Crook, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Hood River, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake, Morrow, Polk, Tillamook, Union, Wallowa and Wasco – have only a single newspaper, according to that database. That database doesn’t include local digital publications such as the Salem Reporter, Ashland.news and Capital Chronicle that were created to fill voids left by shrinking newspapers, but it does include the since-shuttered Medford Mail Tribune and Hood River News. The latter paper closed in 2020 and was reborn as one portion of the Columbia Gorge News, a weekly paper that covers five counties in the Columbia River Gorge.
Even in counties that have multiple newspapers, the number of working journalists has steeply declined over the past decade. Nationally, the number of newsroom employees – reporters, editors, photographers and videographers – dropped by 26% between 2008 and 2020, according to an analysis from the Pew Research Center.
There hasn’t been a similar state-level analysis of newsroom staffing in Oregon, but a 2022 report from the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center describes how nearly one-quarter of Oregon counties are at risk of becoming news deserts and includes interviews with local editors about how they struggle to cover what’s happening in their communities because of limited resources.
Effect on the Legislature
Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, said staff cuts at her two local newspapers, the Corvallis Gazette-Times and the Albany Democrat Herald, have made it harder for her to do her job as a legislator. She relies on local news coverage to know what’s happening in the district, especially during the legislative session when she spends long days in Salem.
“It is much more difficult to find out what the county commission is talking about, what the city council is talking about, what is happening with big discussions about the landfill in my community,” Gelser Blouin said. “It takes a lot more time to dig for that information.”
The bill calls for giving grants to the Agora Journalism Center and the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism to facilitate the local journalism resource center and distribute money or other resources to support reporting in Oregon. That could take many forms, including helping small newsrooms develop or update websites or newsletters, train reporters or transition to a nonprofit model instead of a for-profit company.
Pham and bill supporters are still trying to figure out the size of the grants, but $1.5 million is an early estimate.
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said he doesn’t anticipate much of the assistance will go to his district, which contains Medford and the now-closed Mail Tribune. Southern Oregon is now the site of an old-fashioned newspaper war, with the expanding Grants Pass Daily Courier and the new Rogue Valley Tribune competing to scoop up former Mail Tribune staff and readers because they believe the area will sustain a newspaper.
But Golden urged support of the bill, saying that communities that don’t have the same economy or advertising sector as Medford also need strong news outlets.
“We are dreaming if we think that democracy and self-government can thrive or even exist on the local level if people don’t know about the governance of their cities and counties, school districts and special districts,” Golden said. “I think everyone here shares a view that there’s a tendency to underestimate the importance of what’s going on in local governments relative to what happens in people’s lives compared to state government, and especially federal government, which gets so much more attention.”
As introduced, the bill also would have created a state tax credit for donating or subscribing to local news. But an amendment Pham plans to introduce would remove that tax credit.
“After doing some more consultation with local sites, as well as the Agora Journalism Center and the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism, it became clear that the tax credits, while a nice gesture, weren’t going to provide the immediate and reliable support that they were looking for, that they needed,” Pham told the Capital Chronicle.
Reporters will be Protected
Jody Lawrence-Turner, executive director of the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism, told the Capital Chronicle that the proposal is designed to protect journalists from state interference in reporting because the nonprofit will serve as a wall.
“Any journalists that we’re helping are two steps away from that direct government funding,” she said. “There isn’t any influence on how anything will be reported. Working with the representatives, they haven’t said ‘We want you to do it this way and we want you to only help these kinds of papers.’ The goal of all of this is to preserve local journalism.”
Separately, lawmakers heard about a proposal to allow legal notices to be published in newspaper e-editions. State law requires that government and legal notices, such as foreclosures, estate claims and city council or school board agendas, be published in local newspapers. That public notice law is a key source of revenue for many community newspapers.
Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, told the panel that when the Medford Mail Tribune stopped printing a physical paper last year, that law meant legal notices had to be printed in the weekly Rogue River Press, which covers only a portion of the county.
She initially just planned to allow public notices to be published in digital facsimiles of newspapers, but after the Mail Tribune abruptly shuttered earlier this month, Marsh suggested amendments that would allow newly created or expanded newspapers to compete for public notices in communities without a local newspaper. Normally, newspapers need to have published for at least 12 months before they can publish those notices.
By Julia Shumway of Oregon Capital Chronicle