Metro announced last week it wants to pay a reporter $24 an hour to cover its meetings and events and then provide accounts, including photos and perhaps video, on its website.
"I can't imagine any legitimate journalist taking the job," says Tom Bivins, professor of journalism ethics at the University of Oregon. "It's legitimate for any organization to want some mainstream media coverage. But the answer is to hire a PR person."
Metro's eclectic list of responsibilities includes managing the Oregon Zoo, Oregon Convention Center and Oregon Expo Center. And the agency is also responsible for trash disposal, regional parks, transportation planning and the urban growth boundary. That mix gets little regular media coverage, Metro communications director Jim Middaugh says.
Middaugh hopes his hiring idea will increase public awareness of the agency's meetings and events. He adds that people can judge for themselves how independent the reporting is at Metro's news feed at news.oregonmetro.gov/1/.
"There's nobody watching us, really," Middaugh said. "The goal of this is transparency."
Bob Stacey and Tom Hughes, the two candidates for Metro president, are both skeptical about the idea. Stacey empathizes with Middaugh's goal of increasing the agency's exposure with citizens, but says, "Is Metro employing a reporter the most transparent, believable way to do that? Probably not."
The job announcement for a reporter promises that Metro will edit only for style and spelling but will not edit for content. Hughes joked it reminds him of when he taught high school and principals would step in when the school paper stirred something up and "would say...maybe it ought to be more positive."
By way of comparison to the $24-per-hour figure, a search of reporter openings in Oregon at journalismjobs.com turns up salaries at papers in Astoria and Keizer that work out roughly to hourly wages of $12.50 to $17.50 an hour. Metro last year temporarily hired one of The Portland Mercury's interns to write for the agency website at $21 per hour.
The National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings last year hired a reporter to cover it, though the team didn't use public money to make that hire. Also, then-Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler last year proposed hiring somebody with public dollars to use Facebook, Twitter and other new media to help the county communicate with citizens. Amid criticism of the idea, Wheeler withdrew it.
Middaugh acknowledges he hasn't sorted through all the issues that might arise from the hire at Metro. What if, for example, the reporter independently uncovers a councilor smoking pot in the bathroom or gets a good tip about misspent money at Metro?
Asked why one of Metro's 26-person communications staff couldn't handle this task, Middaugh responded that the staff has enough work of its own. Two staff members—Laura Oppenheimer Odom and Dylan Rivera—are former Oregonian reporters. But Middaugh says their positions are funded through bond revenues and grants that restrict them to working on projects targeted by that money.