Not that long ago, The Oregonian was one of the better news organizations in the country.
In 2008, Editor & Publisher named Sandy Rowe and Peter Bhatia its Editors of the Year and reported that The Oregonian had 315 full-time journalists in its newsroom the year before. The paper, two decades earlier a backwater, had picked up five Pulitzers in eight years.
Five years later, the paper’s newsroom now has 175 employees, according to its directory (UPDATE: Bhatia emails to say “the directory hasn’t been maintained well” and that the actual number was 220). That number is about to drop dramatically, with “significant layoffs” occurring this week now that the paper is the latest to get Newhouse’d. The paper hasn’t added to its Pulitzer pile since 2007.
Oregonian owner Advance Publications long bragged about the “local control” it gave its newspapers. But its new template for its newspapers is now depressingly familiar: End daily delivery; fire a third to a half of the veteran journalists, particularly the editors, particularly in news; replace some of them with young, inexperienced (and most important: cheap) labor; put them on the hamster wheel; toss around insipid buzzwords; spend a bunch of money on new offices; piss off readers; embolden competition.
It appears, Advance has learned some lessons on covering its flank from the debacle in New Orleans. When it dropped the Times-Picayune to three days a week from seven, it never suspected a publisher would be crazy enough to come in and compete with a daily edition. That’s what Baton Rouge’s David Manship did, and now, under the ownership of John Georges, The Advocate is a very serious threat to the Picayune, having snatched up not a few of its best journalists. Now Advance is having to fight back with a new tabloid edition on days the Picayune doesn’t print.
In Portland, The Oregonian will print daily, though it will only deliver three days a week, on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, with “the Saturday edition as a bonus,” whatever that means (UPDATE: Bhatia also says the paper will be delivered four days a week, despite “the three-day subscription option” referenced in the paper’s press release).
Why the paper can print a newspaper on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, but not at least offer the option of delivery is beyond me. Why not offer subscribers the option of paying more to have it delivered?
Actually, let me answer my own question: It won’t because few will want to pay up for such weak newspapers.
In Syracuse, where Advance has a similar print setup, the newsstand-only editions are so thin as to be nearly worthless, as I wrote a few weeks ago:
Take Monday’s Syracuse Post-Standard. It clocked in at 16 pages and had no original content on page one. At the top of the newshole on the left side of page one is an AP story the paper headlines “President jokes about aging and cute bangs.” On the right is an AP brief on a stabbing in Albuquerque, 2000 miles away, in which no one was killed.
Sandwiched in the middle, with dominant art and an awkward headline: a story on New York pensions that the AP put out early on Saturday. The entire paper had about 2,300 words of original content, including briefs. It had zero ads—literally none, besides classifieds and a couple of obits.
The paper’s Web site, Oregonlive.com, remains under the control of Advance Publications’ Web division, criticized in some quarters for employing the same template for many of its sites. “We provide all of the content, but that is decided out of New Jersey,” Rowe says, referring to Advance’s online division. “I understand why it is done this way.” Bhatia admits it is not at the level of some newspaper sites, adding, “we are still feeling our way, and we have a long, long way to go. The challenge that we have is still huge.”
Some things at least haven’t changed.
But The Oregonian is telling readers they can read the PDF version of the paper on off-days, via a site with the porn-ish name MyDigitalO. That’s a nice gesture, but the software is clunky and buggy.
While almost all American newspapers have slashed their newsrooms in the midst of a catastrophic double whammy of secular and cyclical decline, Advance has arguably been most aggressive at cutting its print losses.
That might seem reasonable at first glance.The problem is, print is still where virtually all of the money comes from, and accelerating its decline does you no favors. There’s little chance the digital-only newspaper operation of 10 years hence will be able to make it on an ad-dominated model. That’s why it’s critical to focus on getting money directly from readers.
As I wrote last month, Aaron Kushner and Co. are doing almost the exact opposite with the Orange County Register, nearly doubling the size of the newsroom, raising prices, charging online, and just all around offering a better product for sale. Early reaction from readers has been positive.
Advance’s path is capitulation—and liquidation.
You have to wonder whether the Columbian across the river or the Register-Guard down in Eugene might see an opening and pull a Manship.
Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.
Tags: Advance Publications, future of news, layoffs, Newhouses, The Oregonian