The 162-year-old newspaper—once considered one of the nation’s best—is losing readers and advertisers in a state where it dominated the media landscape for decades.
Soon, the newspaper may no longer be publishing every day of the week.
The newspaper’s New Jersey-based owner, Advance Publications Inc., has declared it is moving to a Web-based model and publishing schedules are likely to change at many of its newspapers.
Advance—controlled by heirs of press magnate S.I. Newhouse—has already announced the end of daily publishing at eight newspapers in Michigan, Alabama and Louisiana.
The most stunning act of this emerging strategy came in May, when The New York Times broke the news that Advance would publish New Orleans’ storied Times-Picayune only three days a week, fire nearly half the staff and leave the remaining reporters and editors to focus on publishing news on its website.
For years, editors and executives at The Oregonian denied Portland’s newspaper would ever be less than a daily. But in the newsroom, the announcement in New Orleans shattered any illusions.
Staffers here say Oregonian editors now indicate the paper is likely to follow suit, although no one is saying when that will happen or how many days the newspaper will drop from its publishing schedule.
“There’s just not enough advertising,” says Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst for Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab. “Newhouse is acknowledging that daily print has ended its lifespan. They definitely are looking at doing it in Portland and other places, but I don’t think a decision has been made about whether or when.”
In many ways, the change would allow The Oregonian to adapt into a more nimble and relevant news organization. The paper says its website, OregonLive.com, got more than 4.9 million unique visitors in June.
The change would also allow the paper to get out from under the high costs of printing and its large newsroom staff. One longtime Oregonian employee says the paper’s staffers are dreading imminent cuts and layoffs—and senior editors don’t have any information to calm them.
“The managers are just as blind as the rest of us,” the employee says. “We are living with the reality that any day might be the day when the people from Jersey walk in.”
Jack Hart was an Oregonian editor for 26 years, serving as lead editor on two series that won Pulitzer Prizes before he retired in 2007. Now the interim director of the Turnbull Center, the University of Oregon’s Portland campus for journalism, Hart says resignations, buyouts and layoffs have already weakened the newspaper.
“It’s still a big, highly skilled, powerful newsroom,” Hart says. “But I don’t think anybody at the paper would argue that there hasn’t been a loss of reporting power.”
Hart says the crucial barometer is not how many print editions The Oregonian publishes in a week, but how much of the newsroom is preserved.
“It’s not that my Monday morning would be ruined by not having a thin newspaper dropped on my doorstep,” Hart says. “It’s that it would suggest more serious cutbacks in the offing.”
This new reality was hard to imagine in the newspaper’s Southwest Broadway offices a decade ago. Led by publisher Fred Stickel and editor Sandra Mims Rowe, The Oregonian reached its zenith in quality: five Pulitzers, and eight finalists for journalism’s top award, in the 16 years Rowe ran the newsroom.
The Oregonian’s circulation numbers—like those of many large dailies—have spiraled, falling by a third since 2002. These declines, and abandonment by advertisers, have already triggered big changes.
The newspaper offered buyouts, cut pay and—violating its longtime pledge to full-time employees—laid off 37 people, mostly from the newsroom, in 2010. Other layoffs throughout the company have followed.
The Oregonian’s current publisher, N. Christian Anderson III, tells WW the newspaper has no plans to change its publishing schedule. Anderson says he’s talked to employees about what changes in New Orleans might mean for The Oregonian, but has told no one at the newspaper that such a change is coming here.
“I have not told people that we’re changing our publishing schedule,” Anderson tells WW in an email. “Nor have I hinted at that. Any characterization to the contrary is simply incorrect.”
Several sources tell WW that The Oregonian newsroom is being restructured to make its affiliated website, OregonLive.com, the first priority, with staffers evaluated primarily on their online productivity. A recent memo from editor Peter Bhatia said six new positions would be created to feed the Web—a move away “from our traditional devotion to print deadline work at night.”
Some Oregonian editors have begun sending daily emails to congratulate reporters whose posts get the most traffic.
But the loudest hints that change is coming in Portland come from one of Advance’s top executives.
Advance’s media holdings include Condé Nast publications, The New Yorker, American City Business Journals and newspapers in 34 cities. Forbes pegged the privately held company’s revenues last year at more than $6 billion.
Steve Newhouse—chairman of Advance.net, the company’s digital division—has defended the Web-first strategy after howls of protest in New Orleans about losing a daily Times-Picayune.
“The rapid rise in digital adoption by consumers and advertisers is irreversible,” Newhouse wrote in an Aug. 3 editorial for the Poynter Institute, a journalism school. “We are in the midst of a digital revolution and instead of constantly being disrupted by our numerous online competitors, we decided to re-invent ourselves.”
When a Poynter reporter asked him about plans for the company’s other newspapers, Newhouse replied: “We’re facing the same conditions everywhere. We’re looking at every market and trying to figure out what the right model is.”
No one yet knows what a non-daily Oregonian would look like or how readers would be affected. But the picture in New Orleans is stark.
The Times-Picayune won’t begin its three-day-a-week publishing schedule until October, and it’s still in the midst of a flurry of rehiring staff (often for jobs that pay less) and announcements. (It said last week it will amend its plan and publish a Monday sports tabloid to cover New Orleans Saints football games.)
It’s also announced that, with a three-day-a-week publishing schedule, its monthly subscription price will drop from $18.95 to $16.95.
But the transition at The Times-Picayune has been widely derided in the New Orleans area as a fiasco.
New Orleans bigwigs, from the archbishop of the Catholic diocese to Democratic political consultant James Carville, have petitioned the Newhouses to reverse their position. And last week, the owner of the NFL’s Saints asked to buy the paper.
Kevin Allman, who covered the firings and aftermath for Gambit Weekly, a New Orleans alternative newspaper, says one key difference between New Orleans and Portland could be in how ready the local audience is for Web-based news.
“Portland’s a more wired city,” he says. “Portland’s a wealthier city. New Orleans, for better or worse, is still very bound to a print model.”
Allman, who freelanced for The Oregonian and WW before moving to New Orleans, says local outrage over the Times-Picayune decision is due partly to the difficulty of navigating its website, NOLA.com.
Like OregonLive.com, the site feeds all news coverage into a single front-page screen—called “the river”—which often washes breaking news down the page.
“There could be a major fire downtown,” Allman says, “but if there’s three Kiwanis Club meetings, the fire gets pushed down. We’ve gotta figure out how the news is delivered on such a god-awful website.”
Other journalism experts agree: They say Advance is making bold moves to remain viable, but the company’s websites—which share the same underlying design—could doom their plans.
“There’s a part of me that wants to applaud them for trying something substantially different,” says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “But I don’t have a lot of faith in Advance’s ability to do anything worthwhile on the Web. Their sites are among the worst in newspaper journalism. Their sites are always broken. They’re clunky. They all look like they were built in 1998.”
But the uncertainty facing The Oregonian isn’t just about the ease of using its website—it’s also how much Advance will further cut staff and dilute the paper’s quality.
“The Oregonian’s going to go through more massive change,” Doctor says. “There’s no doubt about that. But can they do it without cutting 40 percent of the newsroom? That is the conundrum of Chris Anderson and the Newhouse people in New Jersey. If you’re a Portlander, the best hope is that they try a different kind of strategy.”
It’s certainly possible for The Oregonian to cut costs without culling its newsroom. Printing operations and delivery make up about 35 percent of an average newspaper’s costs.
But Poynter Institute reporter Rick Edmonds did an analysis in June of Advance’s strategy in New Orleans. He found that cutting publishing days wasn’t enough to realize meaningful savings—it took slashing the staff, too.
“Yes, you save a lot of money on the dead trees,” Edmonds says. “You don’t have to run the pressroom every night. I think part of their assumption is that print advertising isn’t about to get better. If they make cuts now, they may not have to cut back as drastically as other publishers will have to.”
One analyst says newspapers have no option but to try a new approach.
“They entered a world of pain,” adds Benton. “If they don’t change, if they don’t do something, we know how that movie ends. It’s not a good scene.”