I’ve done a lot of research into Portland’s local news ecosystem, as well as the national trends that have shaped it, as part of creating this site. Given the substantial impact of local reporting on local elections, I’ve put together this overview on some of the different facets of Portland’s media. I’ve divided this article into two halves: Part One focuses on who reads and pays for local news, while Part Two covers who profits from locals news and determines what is covered. If you haven’t already read Part One, I recommend starting there.
Who gets the money?
The conglomeration of news media is concerning because the hedge funds and investment groups that wind up owning many media properties are in search of big profits. Because most news media on a certain geographic area, there’s an upper limit on potential readers and advertisers. Therefore, cutting costs is key to increasing profits. Common tactics include cutting jobs and other expenses, creating news packages on a national level (no matter local factors), and reducing coverage. The revenues generated by these companies wind up in the pockets of investors rather than being reinvested into reporting. Additionally, money spent with news media owned by conglomerates leaves the local ecosystem.
Media companies have money that could go to improving news coverage. The estimated industry revenues, broken down by type of media, for 2020 are respectable:
- Local television stations across the country earned $15.3 billion, plus another $2 billion in political advertising revenue (which is reported separately).
- Newspapers earned $11.1 billion in circulation revenue and $8.8 billion in advertising.
- Because of the way radio revenue is reported, it’s difficult to estimate total revenue, but estimates place the 2020 total around $10 billion.
These tactics limit the number of working journalists in the US. Not only do they reduce the number of jobs available for reporters, editors, and other staff, but they depress wages available to all journalists. According to the US Department of Labor, an experienced journalist in the US earned an average of $66,000 in 2020. Oregon’s average is substantially lower, around $40,000. For someone starting out in the industry, unpaid internships are normal, as are wages that are only technically above the US poverty line. Staying in the industry is difficult, especially without other sources of income or familial wealth. 20,820 people worked in positions related to reporting at newspapers in 2020, down an astounding 57% from 2004.
Cost-cutting measures have dramatically impacted what funds are available to actually find news, as well. Therese Bottomly, the editor-in-chief of The Oregonian, has been at the paper since 1983. She described the shift to The Portland Monthly:
“It’s hard to grasp the scale of the resources the newsroom once had that are no longer available. In 1989, for example, the Oregonian chartered a private plane to take half a dozen journalists to California to cover the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake. Nine years later, when school shootings were practically unheard of, a student opened fire at Thurston High School in Springfield. The Oregonian built a remote newsroom at a Springfield Red Lion and installed a phone line that ran directly to the paper’s Portland headquarters. Quinton Smith, the editor who oversaw the operation, said the phone bill for six weeks totaled $32,000. At the time, Bottomly, then a managing editor, had approved the idea for the mobile newsroom without hesitation: “Do it,” she said, in Smith’s telling. “It was kind of a golden age,” he remembers. But that was then. Now, one reporter occupies the Oregonian’s Salem bureau, and generally only during legislative sessions. As recently as 2014, three reporters worked there.”Interview with Therese Bottomly by The Portland Monthly
Advance Publications owns The Oregonian, along with reddit, The New Yorker, Wired Magazine, a third of The Discovery Channel, the Ironman Triathlons, American City Business Journals (including The Portland Business Journal), and a long list of other properties. The privately held company earned an estimated $2.4 billion in 2016. More recent numbers are difficult to come by since the company is not publicly traded.
Many smaller news organizations find themselves searching for other sources of revenue in order to stay in business. The Portland Mercury relied on events prior to 2020, with Hump and other film festivals keeping the Seattle-owned newspaper solvent. Those events are slowly coming back, but the newspaper now regularly asks readers for financial contributions to keep running. Willamette Week partnered with a non-profit to accept tax-deductible donations.
Striking out as an independent journalist has also become harder. Costs are prohibitive. Media insurance policies, for instance, get more expensive every year. Amy Westervelt, an investigative journalist specializing in issues related to climate change, shared her recent experiences on Twitter: “…It’s become harder [and] more expensive to get media liability insurance for investigative journalism lately. My broker specifically said they’re not insuring investigative journalism related to the environment. I managed to convince them to renew our policy because I’ve had it for years [and] haven’t been sued, despite covering what they deem controversial subjects. But they raised the rate to over $12k for the year, paid up front.” My own challenges in finding a media policy to cover this site match Westervelt’s. These policies’ costs continue to rise due to lawsuits used to silence coverage of topics disliked by individuals and organizations with big pockets.
Non-news organizations also provide news sources. Neighborhood association newsletters and real estate blogs provide coverage of topics that other news sources just don’t have resources to cover any more. Non-profit media options are also growing, with sites like Reveal and Pro Publica handling investigative journalism on certain topics. That’s a bit more of a national trend, although The Lund Report, Street Roots, and KBOO all fill important niches in the Portland news ecosystem.
Who gets to decide the story?
Money obviously plays an outsized role in determining what stories get covered. Whoever owns a news source determines what runs, based on their own interests, along with what news they feel they can afford to produce. Coverage of Portland, especially around protests, is a reflection of that reality. Consider all the “Portland is burning” stories we’ve seen, both from local media and from national news. You can walk through downtown and notice all the buildings not on fire very easily, despite the news. A look at deeper analysis shows that COVID-19 is a more likely culprit in reduced activity downtown — downtown foot traffic is down across vastly different metropolitan hubs. But publishers see value in continuing to run these stories.
Local government also has a role in setting news agendas, especially when there are few journalists able to push back. Limiting information available to journalists determines what stories can be told. Officials decide what media requests to respond to and they also get to set the cost to fill Freedom of Information Act requests. Our own Portland city government won the EFF’s Government Retribution Award for 2021: When attorney Alan Kessler requested text messages and related records from the city, the city sued Kessler and demanded copies of his phone messages. The Society of Professional Journalists also protested the nomination of a senior city attorney from Portland to a state council intended to promote transparency. The SPJ’s letter of concern about Jenifer Johnston’s nomination noted that
Under Jenifer Johnston’s tenure spearheading Portland’s records-law implementation, our members have reported a disturbing increase in secrecy. This has transpired even as other local governments increased transparency to implement the Legislature’s 2017 and 2019 reforms…
During Ms. Johnston’s tenure as Portland’s point person on records, our members have seen:
• A pattern of bad faith decisions, requiring appeals that, when filed, lead to the city’s unlawful acts being overturned.
• Her office advising staff to not help requesters narrow requests to save the public and the city time and money, directly contrary to Advocate training and legislative intent.
• Hide-the ball tactics and unlawful barriers to frustrate access.
• Requests that used to result in Portland easily producing records to the public for little or no cost now are met with denials, inexplicable redactions or onerous fees.
• The city routinely drops denials after an appeal is filed or threatened, thus revealing its awareness that its unlawful denials would otherwise be overturned.
• Emails showing Ms. Johnston taking an adversarial approach toward the public.
While our members are accustomed to disagreements over disclosure, they’ve found Portland to be an extreme outlier in its aggressive anti-transparency practices.”The Greater Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists
Many journalists push back against these constraints, both as employees and through independent coverage. But covering certain issues is becoming increasingly dangerous. In addition to facing lawsuits around certain kinds of coverage, US-based reporters face online harassment, physical attacks, and even arrest. In 2020, at least 117 journalists were arrested, mostly when covering the George Floyd uprising, in cases verified by the Freedom of the Press Foundation. That’s a 1200% increase over 2019. Portland was in the top five cities arresting journalists last year, along with LA, New York, and Minneapolis. Many of the charges were dropped, but there are still at least two cases against journalists in Oregon at the time I’m writing this piece. Police also injured numerous journalists. Grace Morgan, an independent journalist in Portland, totaled up their injuries in a tweet on July 27, 2020: “I went to urgent care this morning after release – just a light concussion, fractured knee cap and mild chemical burns on my arms from the mace. Which means! I can probably go back out again tonight if I rest up today!” Attacks against journalists continued even after a successful class-action lawsuit by the ACLU of Oregon asking a judge to bar arrests of and attacks on journalists at protests.
Arrests of journalists are not limited to protests, either. ICE has a well-earned reputation for arresting journalists, including those with legal standing. One particularly concerning case is that of Manuel Duran Ortega, who was arrested when covering cooperation between Memphis, Tennessee police and ICE. Duran was initially arrested unlawfully by Memphis police. After being released from jail, he was then arrested by immigration agents. ICE is easily able to chill coverage of the agency’s actions since many journalists covering immigration issues are themselves immigrants.
Journalists facing these problems can’t count on support from the newsrooms they work in. Organizations like the ACLU and the Society for Professional Journalists often provide support for legal issues rather than the companies employing journalists at risk. Efforts to unionize around key issues like pay are increasing but successes are few and far between. The staff of The Columbian (the family-owned newspaper covering Vancouver, Washington) voted to unionize with the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild in October 2019. The newspaper’s owners opposed the effort. Since then, most of the union’s supporters were laid off or quit, taking the newsroom from 28 employees to just 13. On September 21, 2021, the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild officially gave up.
There’s one last group with a sort of control over what stories reach news consumers. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter determine what information shows up on their respective sites, primarily through algorithms and moderation. A new Twitter policy around posting photos of videos of ‘private individuals’ has been used to take down newsworthy material, including substantial documentation of police misconduct and members of far right organizations engaging in physical violence. There’s little recourse beyond moving materials off of these platforms. There’s no appeal method (unless you personally know someone working at the company in question). Social media sites aren’t the only issue here: Google has removed shared spreadsheets and documents, such as one collecting anti-media tweets from Donald Trump.
Despite the length of this article, I’ve only touched on the issues impacting the costs of accessing and producing useful news reporting. I didn’t get into issues like newsroom demographics, close connections between news owners and elected officials, and which sources journalists rely on. Even without covering those topics, though, there’s a clear problem. Most easily available news in Portland comes from just a handful of companies, with interests more closely aligned to far-off owners than people actually living in the city. A few locally owned publications and independent journalists are doing as much as possible to fill that gap, but it’s an uphill battle. Real change will only come from local communities taking collective action. Some of those actions cost money — financially supporting local news is crucial. If you have disposable income, use that privilege. But other actions don’t require money. All of the following options can help move us to a more sustainable news ecosystem:
- Read, watch, and listen to news stories produced by locally owned media. If you’re not sure who owns the newspapers, broadcast stations, and websites you rely on, read their about pages and Wikipedia entries.
- Share important stories both on and off of social media.
- Contribute to community media if you have time. Neighborhood newsletters, community radio stations, and other sources of news all accept news from folks without formal training. Some even have resources to help you learn how to produce news.
- Support journalists in their organizing efforts. Write letters and make phone calls to any news publisher whose staff are unionizing.
I believe we can build a better news ecosystem here in Portland. After all, I’ve started an independent news site myself. But reaching that goal will take the support of people throughout the city.