The death earlier this month of Gert Boyle, chairwoman of Columbia Sportswear, reminded me of her many contributions to this community. Gert and her son, Tim, built an iconic Oregon company. That and her philanthropy are a remarkable legacy. But she was also the key source for an important piece of WW's journalism. Now seems a fitting time to tell the story.
In 2003, we received a tip about a bizarre investment involving Lewis & Clark College. That investment, directed by Lewis & Clark president Michael Mooney, was not only strange but unethical, possibly illegal and financially disastrous. As part of our reporting, I reached out to several members of Lewis & Clark's board of trustees—a group of wealthy, powerful (and mostly male) Portlanders. Most either didn't take my call or claimed ignorance.
Then I called Columbia Sportswear and asked to speak to Gert Boyle, a Lewis & Clark trustee then in her late 70s and chairwoman of Columbia. I had never met Boyle but heard the company's "One Tough Mother" marketing campaign was no exaggeration of her character.
Boyle took my call—and, unlike other trustees, she was direct and outraged, and spoke on the record. She described the investment Mooney had made: He had used both the college's and his personal funds to invest in an Idaho company that promised to convert waste oil into usable fuel. Made without board approval, the investment violated college rules and failed spectacularly. But when the Lewis & Clark board considered what to do about it, a majority declined to act.
Two weeks after WW published its story about the failed investment, Mooney resigned. All because one Oregonian had the courage to speak out.
Just as we need more Gert Boyles in business and philanthropy, we need more Gerts in our civic arena—people willing to call out bad behavior. (Boyle resigned from the board of trustees over the Mooney matter.)
Boyle's willingness to tell the truth, even when it brought embarrassment to an institution close to her heart, illustrates how citizens and journalists can work together in the public's interest.
So, as Willamette Week celebrates its 45th birthday this month, I want to celebrate the Gert Boyles of the world and also give you a status report on how we're doing.
Our goal is to make Portland a better place. That means holding people and institutions to account when deserved; cheerleading for what we love about Portland — especially our city's cultural nooks and crannies; and taking seriously the idea that informed citizens are central to an equitable democracy.
2019 was a busy year for our news team. Here are a few highlights:
• In February, we broke a story that shed new light on the white nationalist protests that put Portland in the national spotlight: cozy communications between a Portland police lieutenant and the organizer of right-wing protests. After our reporting raised questions about why local authorities hadn't prosecuted far-right brawlers, city officials changed their strategies and police made arrests.
• For two years, we reported on a legal loophole that allowed Portland thieves to steal cars over and over. On June 19, this led to the passage of a new state law.
• In March, we profiled a Portland-area pediatrician who tells parents they don't need to vaccinate their children. The story helped explain why Oregon had so many measles cases—and made clear that physicians promoting an anti-vaxxing agenda are harming our children and communities.
• Later in the year, we exposed the loophole that allows an obscure lawmaker to obtain contracts from the agencies whose very budgets he helps to write.
• We continued our efforts to examine how the justice system fails victims of sexual violence. In January, we covered a sexual assault trial in Clackamas County that divided a family, and in March, we provided coverage of a Portland rape trial with explosive ramifications around power and race. In both cases, our careful and sensitive coverage helped Oregonians understand how far we still have to go until women are believed.
• Our photo essays during the year captured the people who keep this city functioning at all hours, the recovery of the Columbia River Gorge from devastating wildfire, and a wave of traffic deaths that Portland seems powerless to stop.
Earlier this month, we launched our 16th annual Give!Guide—WW's effort to support more than 150 local nonprofits this year. Under the leadership of my business partner, Richard Meeker, we hope to raise $4.2 million in what, thanks to overwhelming support, has become a national model for fundraising. We encourage you to visit giveguide.org and give till it hurts!
The bottom line for Willamette Week in 2019 is that we expect to end the year breaking even. Unlike other news operations during 2019, we have not had to lay off any reporters or editors to achieve this—and we have been able to grow our print distribution in the Portland area at the same time we've added to our digital audience, which today consists of about 1 million visitors each month.
As many of you know, internet advertising has plundered traditional sources of revenue for journalists—and yet the companies making tens of billions of dollars in profit from that advertising, such as Facebook and Google, have no obligation to abide by the standards and ethics that most journalistic institutions follow.
For WW and other news organizations, publishing fake news can mean an expensive lawsuit. For Facebook and Google, it just means more money. In other words, these digital giants aren't just sucking the lifeblood out of real news, they're profiting from its opposite.
In Oregon alone, readers have seen the sale of a weakened Eugene Register-Guard, once a proud, locally owned regional newspaper, to a large chain with a slender journalistic reputation. And this year, the Bend Bulletin, the most important paper in Central Oregon, went through bankruptcy and was sold.
How you can help
2019 has been a year of transformation. While we still publish a weekly newspaper that now has more print readers than any daily edition of The Oregonian, print advertising revenue remains flat. Digital readership is robust but doesn't pay all of our bills. To diversify our sources of revenue, we now publish magazines and produce events.
At the end of the summer, we launched Friends of Willamette Week, a voluntary membership program that allows readers to support WW much as Oregon Public Broadcasting receives support from listeners. While Friends of Willamette Week is in its infancy, 424 of you, as of this week, have decided to join. We are thankful for your support and encourage all of you to consider joining at wweek.com/support.
As we near the end of 2019, our staff is filled with ambitions and hopes for 2020. It will be a significant year for this country and for Portland. WW was founded on the belief that a robust democracy requires smart, independent local journalism. We're fortunate so many of you share the values WW has long stood for: a respect for our differences, an affinity for honest government, a willingness to give of ourselves, a hunger to stay informed, and a will to be, like Gert Boyle, a truth-teller.
Your engagement and support make Willamette Week possible.
Mark L. Zusman