How to fix the looming crisis of local news in Oregon
The Protect Local Journalism bill would provide a path for supports local news organizations
The closure earlier this year of the Medford Mail Tribune, one of Oregon’s oldest news outlets, sent shock waves through the Rogue Valley and the state. It was just one of several Oregon newspapers to fold in the past year, another addition to the national average of two newspaper closures per week. That story promises a happier ending than many others, as EO Media Group has launched the Rogue Valley Times to offer local news to that region. But the closure was a wake-up call: The national crisis of local news is a looming Oregon crisis as well.
Nationally, the statistics and the stories are increasingly familiar: For more than two decades, the newspaper business has hemorrhaged jobs, beats, and whole newsrooms, sometimes leaving behind “news deserts” – communities without access to a local paper – and “ghost newspapers” too weakened by shrinking budgets to produce much local news. At the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center we recently documented how this national trend is playing out in Oregon by mapping every remaining news outlet we could identify.
Our data show that, after years of closures, contractions, and consolidations, Oregonians are unequally served by local news media. Some areas, particularly in Oregon’s less populated regions, have few places to turn for local news. In fact, almost a quarter of Oregon’s 36 counties have only one or two outlets that regularly produce or broadcast state or local civic affairs reporting.
And we found that journalists and civic leaders are deeply concerned about thinning news coverage of state and local government and a public that seems increasingly under-informed and under-engaged. At a time when our state faces unprecedented challenges – from housing and homelessness to wildfires and drought to criminal justice reform and beyond – how can Oregonians be on the same page, let alone grapple with these problems, without a robust infrastructure of news and information?
Fortunately, innovations are underway that can help. For example, the non-profit organization FORJ is providing consulting and training to help newsrooms retool. But this relatively small-scale effort, important as it is, doesn’t yet match the urgent need for better local news across our state.
We believe that HB 2605, the Protect Local Journalism bill, which is currently in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, takes the first steps toward that investment. (Full disclosure: The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Ben Bowman, also of OR360). It would help fund FORJ to build out its journalism resource center to provide expanded tools and training to newsrooms and youth journalism training to build the pipeline of reporters prepared to cover local communities.
It would fund project grants to spur newsroom innovations, to be evaluated for their effectiveness and scalability. It also would provide additional funding to the Agora Journalism Center to facilitate listening sessions around the state to better understand what’s missing in local news and how best to meet the information needs of Oregon’s diverse communities. And we would investigate what’s being tried and learned in states around the country, including our neighbors Washington and California, which have recently passed measures to bolster local news. Drawing on resources like Rebuild Local News, a national nonprofit that tracks and advocates for the revitalization of local news, all of this work would culminate in a report to frame policy proposals for the 2025 legislative session.
Public funding to support local journalism may strike some as a strange idea, given that the United States, unlike many democracies around the world, has so little history of direct public investment in news (aside from a comparatively modest investment in public radio) – though the government has helped provide some support for the news industry throughout US history. It also might seem to threaten journalistic independence. That’s why HB2605 explicitly provides for the creation of a working group representing journalism, higher ed, communities, and other sectors to establish parameters around these public investments and a firewall between public funding and individual newsrooms.
(For more information on the bill, click here.)
Research increasingly shows that the health of democracy and the health of local news are directly linked. Communities that lack access to robust local news—which means a variety of news organizations to choose from that are regularly reporting on local affairs, not just rehashing national wires services and social media feeds—also tend to experience higher levels of taxation, corruption, disengagement, and political polarization, and lower levels of civic engagement. Given the scale of challenges Oregon is facing, we can’t afford not to invest in Oregon’s news and information infrastructure.