• Marc Johnson

Newspapers to Dodos

On Tuesday morning June, 23 1942 the Portland Oregonian newspaper reported on the details of a Japanese naval attack on the United States mainland. The first such attack on the continental U.S.

Late in the evening of June 21 – roughly 24 hours before the Oregonian published details of the incident – the Japanese submarine I-25 surfaced in the midst of a group of fishing trawlers near the mouth of the Columbia River offshore of Astoria. The sub’s captain unlimbered his deck gun and reportedly lobbed a handful of shells – the paper reported 9, other accounts say 17 – toward the shore and a coastal battery at nearby Fort Stevens. The submariners weren’t aiming at anything in particular, just attempting to create a little chaos. One shell reportedly destroyed a strategic target – a backstop at a local baseball diamond. While no one was injured the shelling indicated that World War II had come calling to the Pacific Northwest. It was big news and the diligent Oregonian played the story big on Page One with an Astoria dateline.

Had the new distribution schedule for Portland’s venerable daily paper been in effect back in 1942 the newsprint version of that Japanese attack story wouldn’t have been on front steps in Portland until Wednesday morning – 48 hours after the fact. As part of a comprehensive move away from print and to digital, the Oregonian, published in Portland as a daily since the Civil War, will soon offer home delivery only on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The paper will print every day – so it’s said – just not make home deliver available every day.

The paper also announced additional staff reductions on Friday, including apparently a sportswriter who was summoned home from covering the College World Series in Omaha where the Oregon State Beavers were competing. Reporter John Hunt tweeted “laid off and leaving Omaha.” Well, at least the baseball reporting Hunt knows what it’s like for a ballplayer to get an unconditional release.

The current owners of the Oregonian have adopted similar strategies for papers in New Orleans and Cleveland, so for anyone reading the ink blotches the further reductions in journalistic talent and the continual shrinking of news content shouldn’t have really been a huge surprise. I have no doubt that the economics of journalism have turned brutal and that new approaches are required. Newspaper circulation continues to decline – the Oregonian’s off about one-third in the last ten years – and ad revenue continues to hemorrhage. A newspaper lover is left to conclude that, like Detroit automakers of the past or health insurance company executives of the present, most of the folks running newspapers are decidedly ill-equipped to re-invent their products. Getting better almost never means getting smaller and harder to find.

Still, when a old, respected institution takes a turn for the worse it’s a sad day and, more importantly, cause for larger reflection on what it means to our culture.

When I first moved to Idaho in 1975 (I know, ancient history) you could buy the Oregonian in street boxes or at Hannifin’s Cigar Store downtown. I often bought the daily and Sunday editions to follow the paper’s generally solid coverage of regional issues and politics. Being able to by a neighboring state’s big city daily ceased a long time ago and the paper’s latest retrenchment means you soon won’t be able to get a copy at home every day. This is progress?

Oregonian’s announcement, complete with the kind of “this is good news, really” spin that most ink stained wretches disdain, is just the latest sad chapter in the slow, steady and apparently unstoppable demise of the great American newspaper. The march to the Internet with all its related impact on sense of community, real and serious journalism, politics and advertising (just to name a few) does appear inevitable, but just for a moment I’m going to bemoan the cost to a society that seems ever more fragmented with more and more of our citizens more than ever disconnected from one another.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow worries – I do, too – that “America is quickly dividing itself into two separate nations, regional enclaves of rigid politics, as the idea of common national priorities fades further into a distant past.” But how can we possibly have a common, shared idea of national priorities (or even citywide or regional priorities) when one of the great levelers of our society – carefully collected, written and edited information on our culture and politics, in other words serious journalism – is going the way of the dodo? In the new digital world who will cover City Hall and who will care about the school board? Who will help us determine our priorities or at least suggest that we should have some?

I’m not so nostalgic for the “good old days” of newspapers to believe that community or regional papers have ever been remotely close to perfect. They haven’t. Like all of us newspaper publishers, editors, columnists and reporters can be shortsighted, ill-informed, petty and even biased. I know because I was one and have known plenty of others. Franklin Roosevelt spent a good part of his presidency worrying about what arrogant publishers like William Randolph Hearst would write about him and well he should have. That’s called a democracy.

Still, as an old journalism prof once told us, in most American communities only a handful of people get up and go to work every day thinking about what information the citizens of their community need to know and have the skills and wherewithal to go collect and distribute that information. Some towns, fewer and fewer sadly, are lucky enough to have a publisher or owner who is willing to go out on a limb and set an agenda for change and progress in that town. Newspapers can, at their best, do more than entertain or inform. They can lead and force political and business interests to confront what is needed or needs to change. If not a perfect calling journalism is, and newspapers in particular are, can be a noble calling.

In a reality stinking of newsprint and irony the Mayor of Portland, Charlie Hales, has been a daily punching bag for the Oregonian recently over a series of controversies as City Hall that the paper has highlighted in considerable detail. Friday in the print issue of the paper Hales lamented the news of more layoffs and less visibility for the very institution that has been jabbing him. Then he contributed fifty bucks from his own pocket to the bar tab for Oregonian staffers drowning in the swamp of an industry that is attempting to recreate itself by generally becoming less-and-less vital to the community it seeks to serve.

I’m charging up the iPhone and downloading another less-than-adequate news website app. Such is the way of the world. But as another newspaper starts to slip from print and relevance to digital and something else, I may be the last guy clinging to newsprint. It’s true, as some analogize for newspapers, that we don’t need buggy whips or vacuum tubes any longer, but neither of those obsolete features of a bygone era helped to define community, touch a soul or cover a ballgame. Somethings old are still just better. Life will undoubtedly go on without the kind of journalism and sense of community that the Oregonian, the Plain Dealer, the Times-Picayune, the Seattle P-I, the Rocky Mountain News and a hundred other papers once provided, but will life in those communities be as good?

Put me down as highly skeptical as to whether such transitions are good for the future of the Republic. Ol’ Tom Jefferson both used and despised the press, but that indispensable founder also knew the essential role of the press was fundamental to the success of our noisy, often divisive democracy. “The press [is] the only tocsin of a nation. [When it] is completely silenced… all means of a general effort [are] taken away.”

Let’s hope that the continued migration of a once great industry to the uncertainty of the digital space, with almost certainly fewer reporters, fewer resources and a narrower focus, can make websites of papers like the Oregonian the “tocsin” of a 21st Century America. I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t going to happen.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson