The panelists at Monday’s City Club of Corvallis discussion came from all points of the journalistic spectrum, but they all agreed on one thing: Local journalism is in trouble, and there are no easy fixes in sight.
Speaking at the event were Stevie Beisswanger, the editor of the Corvallis Advocate; Hasso Hering, former editor of the Albany Democrat-Herald and now the author of the local news blog hh-today; Mike McInally, editor of the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald; and Jennifer Moody, a former reporter for the Democrat-Herald and other newspapers who is now the journalism adviser for Oregon State University's Orange Media Network.
Moderator Steve Schultz, president of the City Club and publisher of the Corvallis Advocate, set the stage by reciting some grim statistics about the changing print media landscape in America, which has been decimated by a variety of factors from the rise of digital platforms to declining reader interest and industry consolidation.
Since 2004, he noted, 1,400 newspapers across the country have ceased publication, and 33,000 newsroom jobs have disappeared since 2008.
Here in the mid-valley, the daily papers serving Corvallis and Albany have made deep staff cuts, Schultz said, adding that his own paper has done the same while shifting from weekly to twice-monthly publication and migrating much of its content to the web.
Moody, who spent 23 years at the Democrat-Herald before making the jump to OSU, said shrinking staff sizes resulted in a decline in both the quantity and the quality of news coverage. Despite the best efforts of the paper’s dedicated journalists, she said, the newsroom eventually came to resemble something out of the TV show “M*A*S*H.”
“We stitched up the news as quickly as we could and got it out the door,” she said. “We were doing meatball journalism.”
McInally acknowledged that staff reductions have diminished the ability of the Gazette-Times and Democrat-Herald to cover their communities as thoroughly as he would like.
“I know there are stories we’re not getting to,” he said. “That kills me.”
But he noted that staff numbers have stabilized since “some particularly difficult layoffs last summer” and added that he’s looking to fill two open positions on the news desk, which would give the papers more flexibility in displaying stories for different readerships. He also said he takes those differences into account when writing editorials for papers’ opinion pages.
“I know and you know that Albany and Corvallis are very different politically and very different culturally,” he said. “But I think sometimes that blinds us to the fact that we have an awful lot in common.”
Hering said he was dismayed by “the economic disaster that has befallen the community newspaper,” citing steep declines in subscriber numbers. But he added that “there’s admirable work going on despite this terrible situation newspapers find themselves in.”
Now that he’s retired, Hering said, he follows stories where his curiosity leads him, demanding answers from local government officials and publishing the results on his blog.
“That’s the kind of story I do,” he said.
Schultz and Beisswanger lamented the impact of declining advertiser support, noting that the Advocate has had to reduce staff and trim page count as well as publishing less frequently.
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“We’ve changed a lot in the last four years,” said Beisswanger, who started with the paper in 2015.
“I hardly have time to write, and that’s why I joined the Advocate.”
Schultz said it was particularly hard for him to start charging readers for full access to the Advocate’s website, noting that like many other alternative newspapers its print edition has always been available for free.
“That’s a little bit heartbreaking that those (online stories) can’t be free, to those of us in the alt world,” he said.
McInally said charging for online access bothered him at first, too, but it’s unavoidable.
“I used to apologize to people when they called to complain that they hit the paywall,” he said. “I don’t apologize anymore.”
“The work (local journalists do) has value,” Moody chimed in, and people need to pay for it “like when you call the pizza guy.”
Audience members asked whether local newspapers might be able to survive by going to a different business model, such as government funding or soliciting private donations, but the panelists seemed to agree that wouldn’t work.
Schultz said the best thing people can do to support community journalism is to vote with their pocketbooks by purchasing a subscription and encouraging local business owners to buy advertising.
“I pay to get the GT,” Schultz said. “I know how to get around the paywall, but don’t do that, man. Seriously.”
Asked about the future of community newspapers, Hering was pessimistic.
“I don’t know anyone under 40 who takes the paper,” he said. “So when we are gone, the paper will be dead — that’s it.”
McInally was more hopeful, despite the shift toward a digital audience.
“I tend to think the print edition has a little longer lifespan than people expect,” he said.
And Moody was adamant.
“I think there will always be a need for journalism,” she said. “You need somewhere you can go where you can get information you feel is timely and fair and as thorough as possible.”