Out Of Portland, A Digital Ripple Hits U.S. News Media

Owners of The Oregonian are shedding the identity of a daily print newspaper and emphasizing digital content instead. The shift has been received with both cheers and outrage nationwide.

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The modern digital age provides opportunity and riches for media innovators. But for those who work at legacy news organizations, it can also inspire a mix of denial and dread. As part of a recurring series, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik traveled to Portland, Oregon, to learn more about how one media company is radically reinventing its newsrooms.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Portland is known for many things. It's home to tech startups, one of the world's largest independent bookstores, and about a million brew pubs.

AMY WILLIAMS: My name is Amy Williams. I'm a bartender here at Lompoc Sidebar.

FOLKENFLIK: Williams says she reads the dominant Oregonian newspaper once a week. She especially likes to do the crossword when she goes out for breakfast.

WILLIAMS: It's like a feeling, you know, like the paper and you find it. You got to dig for it and, you know, fold it up just the right way and whatever. And getting online is cold, you know. So it doesn't have a whole lot of that nostalgia, I guess, to me.

FOLKENFLIK: Nostalgia no longer holds much sway with the paper's owner in New York - the Newhouse family - who saw double-digit percentage drops in subscribers and in advertising revenues stretching out into the future without end and decided on a radical overhaul. In fact, The Oregonian, like other Newhouse papers, has shed its identity as a daily print newspaper, not sometime in the future but right now, with reporters focusing primarily on producing news digitally.

Hard copies of The Oregonian are delivered now just four days a week. Readers who want printed copies can buy a smaller one the other days at stores around the region. The paper and its parent company are out on a limb on this strategy. No other major publisher has adopted it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH ROSE: All you really need is a doctor's note.

FOLKENFLIK: Joseph Rose covers transportation.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO CLIP)

ROSE: City hall says the abuse of disabled parking permits costs Portland about $2.4 million in lost revenue every year.

FOLKENFLIK: That was a video version of a longer text piece - proof Rose now tells stories in ways unimagined for a newspaper reporter when he joined The Oregonian 15 years ago.

ROSE: I shot that and edited on my phone in about 15 minutes.

FOLKENFLIK: How many takes?

ROSE: The thing you have to get past is trying to make it perfect because if you do that, you'll take 20, 30 takes. You'll be out there all day. So you just learn to relax. And I did it on the second take.

FOLKENFLIK: Rose can squirrel away time for deeper dives but he also devotes a lot of energy to responding to readers' questions in the comments sections of his online posts. Peter Bhatia is vice president of content for Oregon Media Group and editor-in-chief of The Oregonian.

PETER BHATIA: We don't have the luxury of standing still and hoping things work out.

FOLKENFLIK: Bhatia joined The Oregonian as a senior news executive more than two decades ago, and he has a pretty conventional newspaper resume. But he has helped to lead these changes, which included layoffs of several dozen staffers.

BHATIA: Personally, I'm really not interested in riding the death spiral. I've been a part of newspapers that didn't make it but I'm glad to be part of a company that's aggressively trying to create a future.

FOLKENFLIK: While there have been some new hires, some journalists who remain find all that reinvention hard to absorb. Anna Griffin is a senior reporter who edits some of the paper's local government coverage.

ANNA GRIFFIN: It is a huge culture shock, I think, for everyone who isn't maybe 25 years old and grew up in a digital environment, getting their news from their iPad.

FOLKENFLIK: Griffin says even her sources are confused about when a story matters.

GRIFFIN: You grow up with this language that you use where you think about front page stories and you think about, well, that's a brief inside metro. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on that. And it is a strange new world where you're told none of that stuff applies now. You're not supposed to even think about it.

FOLKENFLIK: Executives have rejected the idea of charging people for access to digital content with the paywalls put in place at many news sites. Estimates from comScore show that, taken together, the Newhouse news sites rank eighth in the industry in monthly unique visitors, after CBS News and Fox News.

Across town at the smaller, scrappier Willamette Weekly, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nigel Jaquiss says The Oregonian hasn't been as hungry as it should have been in challenging the city's power structure. Jaquiss argues the changes reflect a further retreat.

NIGEL JAQUISS: I think when it's not in your hands every day, it's less ubiquitous. It's no longer as much of the paper of record as it used to be. So they're trying to find a new identity and I think they've always been, by far, the biggest paper in the state. And somehow this just feels like they're pulling back.

FOLKENFLIK: The Newhouse family has to contend with no public shareholders, no debt and few unions. So it has been able instill similarly sweeping changes at sister papers across the country. The cutback in delivery by the Newhouse-owned New Orleans Times-Picayune led to outcries of betrayal of the paper's traditions.

A Baton Rouge publisher announced a territorial challenge. And media critics such as Reuters' Jack Shafer have argued the company is slowly liquidating its newspaper assets. But Randy Siegel, the president of the Newhouse family's local news unit, says it's in for the long haul.

RANDY SIEGEL: As far as liquidating our expenses, I can unequivocally tell you that if that were our goal, we wouldn't be doing any of the things that we're doing now. In Michigan, for example, where we took millions of dollars out of our home delivery operation, not a penny of that went to the bottom line.

FOLKENFLIK: Oregonian publisher Christian Anderson convinced his bosses to allow him to reduce the size of his paper to a compact, a kind of upscale tabloid popular in European cities where public transportation prevails. Another bold step. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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