Dec 6, 2023 - News

Tallying Oregon's local news losses

Change in the number of active local newspapers, 2005 to 2023
Data: Medill Local News Initiative; Note: Includes newspapers published at least monthly in the past six months; Map: Simran Parwani/Axios

A new national count of local news outlets found that Oregon lost 27% of its newspapers over the past 18 years, and people in many counties have "no or very limited" access to a reliable local news source.

Why it matters: A drop in reliable information about what's happening locally deepens informational, economic and political divides.

Context: The new report — a recurring tally by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism — illuminates a national trend that's also been well-documented locally.

Separately, the University of Oregon's Agora Journalism Center compiled a list of local news outlets last year — and found that not all produce local news.

  • "Some sites that look like traditional news outlets … package press releases and algorithmically-generated content," the UO report said.

Threat level: Local news can draw attention to significant community problems, FORJ's Jody Lawrence-Turner tells Axios, citing news coverage of a birthing center closing in rural Baker County that led to state and federal officials trying to help.

Of note: Each of the three studies used different methodologies, time periods and definitions, so their counts don't match exactly.

What they're saying: "One of the great beliefs was that digital was going to supplant newspapers. And if you lost a newspaper not to worry," Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Medill study's lead researcher, told Axios.

  • "In fact, what we've seen is that the number of digital-only local and state news sites …has been very, very slow to grow."

Flashback: As advertising moved to the internet, newspaper publishing revenue dropped in half, and revenue from online ads, while growing, has not been enough for many local news outlets.

  • Four out of the 10 biggest local newspaper chains are now "owned by or in debt to an investment fund" which prioritizes shareholder profits over news content, per Abernathy's research.

Zoom in: Nonprofit news outlets are growing — including locally — but that's also challenging, Lawrence-Turner tells Axios.

  • "What a lot of startups or other nonprofits seem to be missing about our industry is that if you don't do something to help the business model, it doesn't matter how good your content is."

Zoom out: The Medill report documents "bright spots" — meaning news startups with promising business models — here and nationally.

  • One couple who retired from Portland to the small town of Maupin found the local newspaper had closed so they started a new one, per OPB.

Meanwhile, Andrew DeVigal, a University of Oregon journalism professor, tells Axios that civic organizations and governments sometimes fill gaps that news outlets leave behind.

  • "People are going to other trusted sources" for a range of local information from issues to events "that arguably journalism used to provide."

What we're watching: The latest Congressional bill to help local journalism has been revised to include tax credits for hiring local journalists and for advertising in local news outlets.

  • One Oregon representative — Suzanne Bonamici (D-District 1) — has signed on as a cosponsor of the bipartisan bill.

Disclosure: Axios Portland's Emily Harris is an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon's journalism school and co-founded a nonprofit that works to close news gaps in the state.

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