This Election Reinforced a Need for Independent, Courageous Journalism

A letter to our readers.

(Megan Nanna)

It's been a week since the most disturbing national election in my lifetime. Like many of you, I remain shocked at the results, concerned about the future and puzzled by the choice many Americans made.

One point about which I am not confused: This election reinforced the need for independent, courageous journalism.

It just so happens that this month, Willamette Week celebrates its 42nd birthday.

Typically, we use this publisher's note to share with readers how we are doing.  This report has never seemed more relevant.

Our journalism.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "The only security of all is in a free press." The work produced by our newsroom this year continues to prove him right.

Much of our focus during this year was on one of the most critical issues facing Portland: the shortage of affordable housing. We exposed City Hall's failure to deliver the most housing units for each public tax dollar. We showed how Airbnb homeowners ignored city rules. We examined how a lack of renter protections left families vulnerable to "no cause" evictions.

We hope our electoral coverage helped you sort through the maze of challenges this city and state face. Our web traffic suggests our endorsements helped tens of thousands of voters make informed decisions.

We also broke significant stories this year.

In February, we broke the news about the abuses of power by Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton, which ultimately led him to resign.

In April, we showed how nonprofit hospitals earned more than $1 billion thanks to Obamacare—while vastly reducing the amount of charity care they offer, although such care is the reason they enjoy nonprofit status to begin with.

In May, our coverage of the Portland School District's failure to tell parents about elevated levels of lead in the drinking fountains of dozens of schools revealed how public officials endangered students. That reporting forced Superintendent Carole Smith to resign.

Also that month, we broke the news about Portland Police Chief Larry O'Dea's attempts to cover up his shooting of a hunting buddy. He, too, later resigned.

And our reporting in July led to freedom for Native American teenager Devontre Thomas, who had been the target of a baffling federal prosecution for less than a gram of cannabis.

Our arts and culture section continued to be city's leading authority on food, drink and entertainment.

We expanded from publishing four to six glossy magazines this year, each of which has become a definitive lifestyle guide: our Beer Guide, our Potlander cannabis magazine, a Going Coastal travel guide, the Happy Hour Guide, the Restaurant Guide and our definitive blueprint of everything that makes Portland great, Finder.

We introduced new features in our culture section, redesigned our calendar page, expanded our coverage of the DJ scene, added three comics and a satirical history column, and are giving more attention to local filmmakers in our movie section.

The result of all this hard work: According to the most recent Media Audit from International Demographics, we now have more print readers than The Oregonian in the city of Portland. On the digital side, our growth continues. Our page views have increased by more than 11 percent from the year before.

To what do we credit this success? WW was founded on the belief that Portlanders want a clear-eyed view of Portland and Oregon—the good and the bad. How do we do it?  Look at the masthead on page 3. You will see a list of talented and dedicated souls. Ours is a small company, filled with large ambitions and huge talent.

Our charitable efforts.

WW's mission is to produce independent journalism and build community. One of the ways we do the latter is through Give!Guide.

Two weeks ago, I had the joy of sitting in the audience at Revolution Hall to watch my business partner, Richard Meeker, preside over the annual kickoff of Give!Guide, our annual charitable effort, an undertaking that, in 13 years under his leadership, has raised more than $16 million for local nonprofits. What began as a small effort that in its first year raised $22,000 is now a substantial enterprise with its own staff that will this year seek to raise more than $3.6 million. At the kickoff event, Give!Guide presented $4,000 to each of five nonprofit employees who have been recognized by their peers.

The positive impact Give!Guide has on Portland is among our proudest accomplishments.

Our events.

We continue to try to support our journalism by throwing great parties.

The biggest of these events is MusicfestNW. In August, we partnered with Pabst Brewing and sold out for the first time in our 20-year history.  Each day, 10,000 music fans came to the Waterfront to hear bands. It was the highlight of our summer.

TechfestNW, which celebrates one of the most dynamic sectors of the Oregon economy, continues to grow.  We're moving to a larger venue next March and recently announced the first batch of our speakers.  We're hardly unbiased, but this is becoming a signature tech event that is drawing attention around the globe.

In February, we put on the Oregon Beer Awards, a rollicking party for the local industry but also Oregon's first serious statewide beer competition, drawing 525 entries.

Last April, we founded Cultivation Classic, the nation's only competition for cannabis grown without herbicides or pesticides. More than 500 people from 13 states came to the event.

In July, we produced our biggest Best of Portland party ever, a block party that included a barbecue contest.

In October, 31 brewing teams produced original beers at our second annual Beer Pro/Am.

And last month, we brought back Candidates Gone Wild, working with the Bus Project and Live Wire!, to produce an evening of electoral hilarity, much needed during this season.

Our revenue.

Most readers understand the challenges this business faces, and the consequences to democracy from the decline in genuinely independent journalism. Last week's election is a supremely painful example of this.

What do I mean? As media analyst Ken Doctor wrote a few days ago: "We can directly link the growth of the local news desert expanding rapidly across the U.S. to Trump's win. [Local news has] now shrunk in size, in content, in authority—and in confidence to address its community's issues of the day."

Consider this: There are approximately 40 percent fewer journalists working in America today than there were 10 years ago. It's an ominous statistic and a reason for real concern.  As David Simon, the former journalist and creator of HBO's The Wire, has said, "It's a great time to be a corrupt politician."

Much of this, of course, is because of the disruption of the web, which has meant in our case that our audience and influence has never been larger, but ad dollars are not following.

Our revenue from display and digital advertising, magazines and events so far in 2016 is up since last year by single digits. We are fortunate to experience growth, but it's not enough to invest in more journalism and expand our coverage.

That's why last year we created the WW Fund for Investigative Journalism with San Francisco's Tides Foundation. Like Oregon Public Broadcasting or investigative news outlets such as ProPublica, we are seeking tax-deductible gifts to help us produce more high-quality journalism.

On a weekly, daily and even hourly basis, you come to WW for an honest report of what makes this city tick, from reviews of the latest restaurants to our coverage of City Hall. Now the cause for genuinely independent and courageous reporting needs you. Would you be a supporter—by making a gift?

Donations to this fund, which are tax-deductible, can be made through the Give!Guide website (under the community category) or by visiting and using the drop-down menu to choose Willamette Week. Contributions will be used to expand our newsroom, fund special investigative projects and allow us to increase our enterprise journalism.

Last year, when we launched the fund, we raised just under $5,000. We hope to far exceed that amount this year.

As we put the divisive election of 2016 behind us, we are buoyed by you, our readers. We could not play a meaningful role in this city without your loyalty, your attention, your shared affection for this city, your feedback and your recognition of how important a free press is to Portland.

From all of us at WW:  Thank you.

Mark Zusman,
Editor and Publisher

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.