Future of newspapers for those with skill, interest in serving local community

Rob Melton, Contributing Editor

While Willamette Week‘s reporting of the end of The Oregonian in it’s article “Stop the Presses”may be premature, it is a good excuse to discuss how corporate media tried to change and profit from a new model of newspaper management that has ultimately failed. And like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, local weekly newspapers are making the biggest comeback in America, and the local school newspaper has a vital role to play in reinvigorating community news.

What’s happened at the New Orleans Times-Picayune has devastated the corporate newspaper world, and if they would do that in New Orleans, there is no reason they wouldn’t do it here.

About 20 years ago, amidst changing  FCC regulations regarding newspaper and broadcast ownership, a few large old media companies bought newspapers, radio stations and television stations and jettisoned real news for entertainment news, hoping to commoditize and homogenize small outfits that — when put together — would ring in big profits.

What has happened is that people lost interest in their local media because it was no longer, well, local. Weekly newspapers are experiencing surging growth and are the most successful, growing newspapers out there. Why? They’ve gone back to their roots — local coverage — which they can do better than a big media conglomerate.

When I was a journalism newspaper major at UO, we all had to take a newspaper management class and visit a real Oregon newspaper and talk with the owners and analyze the budget. What did we all discover? That local newspapers work on thinner profit margins than almost any other business.

Willamette Week, for example, reports on its wikipedia page that “The paper is free; it generates over 80% of its revenue through display advertising.[3] For 2007, its revenue is expected to be about $6.25 million, a four or five percent increase over 2006, a growth that occurred in spite of a significant decline in classified advertising that the publisher attributes to competition from Craigslist.[3] Its pre-tax profit is around 5%, a third to a half of what large mass media companies require.[3]” Not much has changed in 35 years, except that profit is a bit lower because of the economy.

Oregon once had great newspapers led by local firebrand editors who were passionate, for better or worse, about their community.

Portland’s weeklies — all of them — are still in good shape and I think you can argue they are a part of the Metro area’s sustainability culture.

The decline and decay of The Oregonian, which has been going on for a long time now, will lead to a resurgence of intensely local media solutions that will be a new mix of newspapers, blogs and websites that will serve readers’ thirst for accurate, unbiased news.