The Oregonian

Editor’s Departure Is Reminder of Local News Value

Mark Katches, the editor of The Oregonian and oregonlive.com who is leaving for a similar post in Florida, has helped keep Portland’s newspaper financially afloat while maintaining its basic job of covering local news, including through investigative journalism, original video content and a stronger digital identity.

Mark Katches, the editor of The Oregonian and oregonlive.com who is leaving for a similar post in Florida, has helped keep Portland’s newspaper financially afloat while maintaining its basic job of covering local news, including through investigative journalism, original video content and a stronger digital identity.

 

Mark Katches, editor of The Oregonian since 2014, is leaving for a similar job in Florida. The owner of New York’s The Daily News laid off half of its news staff, including the editor. Should we care? You bet we should.

Local newspapers have personalities and quirks that help to define their communities and contribute to what makes them unique. “Our local newspaper” is more than just an idle phrase. It is part of a community’s DNA.

It is no secret the business model of local newspapers is in serious trouble. The conversion of print publications to digital platforms that generate revenue has been rocky. As a result, newsrooms have shrunk. There are fewer reporters to gather local news. Stories of local interest go unnoticed and unreported. Enterprise and investigative journalism suffer. So does the community.

Katches came to The Oregonian in 2014 from the nonprofit Center of Investigative Reporting. Despite financial pressures, he emphasized “deep-dive journalism” that tackled stories about lead dust, senior care facilities and a teacher with an unchecked history of sexual abuse. He also pushed narrative stories, such as the award-winning series about a hand-raised polar bear at the Oregon Zoo.

Even though he frequently wrote bylined pieces, Katches is not a household word among the general public in the Portland metropolitan area, or even among readers of The Oregonian. Despite his relative anonymity, oregonlive.com under his watch grew its online audience by 70 percent. Katches created a video unit that earned six regional Emmy nominations this year, and he pushed watchdog journalism.

To some, The Oregonian is still the “local rag.” But, more significantly for the community, it is still here as a general circulation newspaper and doing its job of covering local news. Not all communities can say as much. The absence of a common, continuing source of information with known biases denies communities a collective sense of identity and self-reflection. You can hate your local newspaper – and say so in a letter to the editor.

The fundamental value of a local newspaper is that it covers local news, carries advertising with a local slant and comments on local issues. That’s a combination unavailable anywhere else.

Smart local newspapers, including The Oregonian, have established media partnerships with local TV stations and public broadcasting to share coverage and leverage the unique advantages and audiences of each channel. Little wonder there are former Oregonian reporters and editors working at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Split-week home delivery, embarrassingly thin editions and all-to-frequent typos can cause consternation. People may disagree with editorial positions, dislike the mix of columnists and miss their favorite cartoon. Some of us wish there was more bandwidth to cover important stories that now go unreported. But online and on doorsteps, The Oregonian delivers a news package that no one else does.

That is not to slight the Portland TribuneWillamette WeekThe Skanner or Portland Mercury that add significantly to the mix and diversity of local news coverage, often by their own enterprise reporting, investigative journalism and unique perspective.

Democratic societies go hand-in-hand with the maxim that all politics is local. To sustain functional institutions, we need to know about local news., as well as national and regional news. And we need to know more than just “breaking news” and snarky exchanges on social media.

You may not know Mark Katches, but he deserves our collective thanks for doing his best to make sure local news coverage, warts and all, still exists in Portland.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Holy War of Words

The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

The gridiron success of Portland’s two largest Catholic high schools prompted an Oregonian story calling them “artificial all-star” teams that should play in their own league and triggered a smart response by Jesuit High School’s principal about how the current senior class went from a winless freshman season to state champions.

Jesuit High School Principal Paul Hogan picked a smart spot to respond to an Oregonian article that claimed Portland’s two largest Catholic high school football squads have become “artificial all-star teams.” Hogan's response illustrates when and how to respond to negative press.

Andrew Nemec, who describes himself as a “recruiting reporter” wrote: “Scan the rosters of both programs, and it’s startling jut how much talent has been sloshed off programs desperately in need of better athletes just to stay competitive.” He added “there’s nothing holy” about the so-called Holy War when Jesuit plays Central Catholic because “the rivalry is more artificially enhanced than baseball’s steroids era.”

Charges that Jesuit and Central Catholic poach players from other schools is hardly new. But Nemec took the charge to a new level by mentioning specific players and the high schools they would be playing for “if not for their departures to private schools.” While acknowledging private schools across the country have advantages, he singled out Jesuit as the top athletic program in the nation after winning state titles in football, girls volleyball, girls swimming, girls soccer, boys swimming, baseball, softball, boys tennis and girls track.

Interestingly, with all that talent, Jesuit is ranked second in Oregon’s big-school Class 6A football rankings. West Linn, a public high school, is number one. Nemec wrote that after losing to Jesuit in the 6A state final last year, West Linn added two all-state players from Wilsonville and a tight end from Tigard. “The arms race has begun to infect top public schools, too,” he concluded.

Hogan was among the commenters on Nemec’s article. He also shared his thoughts in a post titled "Fact Check" on the school's website. Noting his educational background as an English teacher and an editor, Hogan proceeded to shred Nemec’s thesis. The Oregonian reporter directed tweets to a handful of Jesuit football players, asking in what public high school boundary area they lived.

“In two cases, Mr. Nemec apparently did not know that the students he contacted had attended Catholic schools since preschool and had every intention of remaining in the parochial system for high school,” Hogan wrote. Another student mentioned in the article enrolled in Jesuit after his family moved to Oregon.

“Jesuit High School offers no scholarships or financial aid based on merit or talent,” Hogan said. The $2.85 million in annual financial aid is parceled out based on family financial status as determined by an out-of-state independent evaluator.

His biggest zinger was disputing Nemec’s claim that after Jesuit’s senior class suffered a winless freshman season, the school went on the recruiting trail to land the “state’s top talent.” Hogan said the current senior class is the largest in Jesuit’s history. Only three transfer students gained enrollment at Jesuit the year following the winless football season – and none were in-state football players.

Hogan cited Tim Massey, who was an assistant coach for the freshman team when the current Jesuit seniors lost all nine games of their season. “That 0-9 season, and its aftermath, is one of the most cherished memories in 33 years of coaching," Massey said. "Those guys could have given up or gotten down on themselves or simply found other things to do. Instead, they gutted out that season, hit the weight room and kept after it. And they got stronger and better.” As it turned out, a lot better. Several players have committed to play NCAA Division I football.

Hogan’s response was well played and provided a factual rebuttal to aspects of Nemec’s article. His comments won’t sway some people who dislike schools like Jesuit, but he pushed back against points that Nemec couldn’t substantiate so the online record is balanced.

He jabbed Nemec for failing to call him to check facts or get Jesuit’s side of the story, another key point to have on the record.

Responding to unfavorable stories requires strategy and savvy. The smartest place to push back is on factual errors or the lack of balance in a story. That’s what Hogan did. He was restrained and respectful, but firm. He also took the high road.

“If someone at The Oregonian wants a real story,” he said, “I suggest they write about the amazing, powerful ‘purple-out for CCA’ fundraiser that Central and Jesuit’s student body conducted at the big game last Friday night.” Then he invited to Nemec to join him at a student mass and “discover the true source of Jesuit High’s success.”

Two Visions for Successful News Outlets

Philadelphia newspapers are entering a new era after H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, right, handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill, left, says newspapers fail to understand how to operate paywalls and produce the kind of content readers will have to pay to get. 

Philadelphia newspapers are entering a new era after H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, right, handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill, left, says newspapers fail to understand how to operate paywalls and produce the kind of content readers will have to pay to get. 

Philadelphia’s newspapers are entering the uncharted territory of nonprofit ownership. Meanwhile, journalist-turned-entrepreneur Steve Brill says newspapers are clueless about paywalls and generating the content readers will pay to read.

For Portlanders, both trends may seem like more promising options than witnessing the slow shrinkage of The Oregonian.

In Philadelphia, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest handed over ownership of the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com to the Institute for Journalism in New Media, a newly created arm of the Philadelphia Foundation. The keys to the publications came with a $20 million endowment from Lenfest.

But largesse won’t keep the presses rolling in Philadelphia. Earnings from the endowment will be given as grants for reporting projects and journalistic innovation. The publications will retain independent management and remain dependent on advertising and subscription revenues.

While reaction in Philadelphia was generally positive, Brill is cajoling newspapers to take bolder steps that may seem counterintuitive to newspaper owners. Brill says newspapers should beef up their reporting staffs to produce content that people will pay to read through paywalls. The challenge today, Brill says, isn’t the idea. It’s having anything left in the newsroom worth paying for.

"We had a meeting at one big paper – I think it was the Atlanta Journal Constitution,” Brill told James Warren, writing for Poynter. "They were psyched to do this, but one editor walked us out of the building and said, 'It's a good idea but I'm not sure we still have anything left to sell.’"

Brill cited an example of a Montana newspaper with a successful paywall. "They were covering the local school board, local politics, local sports – and people wanted to buy it,” he said.

Categorizing newspaper owners as something less than “swashbucklers,” Brill predicts, "Some smart venture capitalist is going to bottom feed a large company and bring in people who do it right. That means beefing up the website, making it the place for information and news in a community and getting people to log in so often, you will be able to get by with only printing, say, once a week, maybe on Sunday. And online will be a seven-day-a-week product that everybody will be happy with and will be self-sustaining.”

Brill sees his mission as "hand holding with publishers and people in newsrooms to get them to support investing in the newsroom.”

"This is not a group of business people who are real business people,” he says. "They either inherited monopolies or were, by then, part of big chains in the hands of debt holders. The industry wasn't full of high quality, big thinkers, in terms of the people running it, since for many years it didn't have to be.

"For years, if you had a paper, for many advertisers, you were the only game in town. If the Oldsmobile dealer wanted to announce a sale, you got the ad. Now there isn't even an Oldsmobile dealer, and the car dealers who are left have multiple ways to market their cars and infinitely more efficient ways to market used cars. The underpinning of the business was eviscerated and in many places the people who inherited the businesses weren't prepared, since they never had to really compete.”

Brill believes investigative journalism is key to paid content, though he concedes readers are unlikely to be willing to pay its full cost.

“In the history of the world, if you are talking about quality journalism, where you have to pay people to do real reporting and go travel to do interviews, it would be hard to name the quality journalism organization that existed solely on advertising revenue,” Brill admits. "The closest is the broadcast networks in the '60s, '70s and '80s when they had 90 percent of the eyeballs in the country. And even then their news operations mostly didn't make money and were really considered a public service.”

Brill, 65, earned his cred in 1978 with an exposé book about the Teamsters Union. A graduate of Yale Law School, Brill founded Court TV (now truTV), a cable and satellite channel that gives viewers an inside look at courtrooms. In 1998, he launched Brill’s Content as a media watchdog, which ended with a controversial piece alleging independent counsel Ken Starr leaked grand jury proceedings involving the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Brill has written attention-grabbing pieces about educational inequality and profit-making gaming in the health care industry. He most recently produced a 15-part documentary about Johnson & Johnson titled, “America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker.”

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

The Tale of Two Papers

Readers of The Oregonian are watching the at-times-painful process of the daily newspaper's digital conversion, as are the readers of The Washington Post. Both look like running backs zigging and zagging on a football field looking for an opening to break downfield.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased The Washington Post a year ago, raising expectations about its digital conversion. But Jeff Abbruzzese, writing for Mashable, says a grand design hasn't surfaced. The biggest development is the exit of rising star Ezra Klein, who wrote Wonkblog, a primer on public policy debates in the nation's capital that was the newspaper's most read blog.

The absence of visible change at the 137-year-old DC fixture may reflect uncertainty about what digital direction makes the most sense. It also may reflect the lull before the storm. One Washington Post official said recently the newspaper staff is being prepared to "stomach the chaos that comes with digital."

Transitions and Passings

The first quarter of the year is barely over and already we’ve lost, or will soon see the departure, of memorable characters having a huge impact on the regional public-affairs world. We at CFM, as well as many working in the public policy realm, interacted with the following personalities. Three recently have died and one will retire after 40 years at the same job.

Mike Donahue to retire after 40 years with KOIN-TV

 If there is a favorite son in the Portland TV News world, it is Mike Donahue. He is retiring from the Portland CBS affiliate this spring after a 40-year-career.

KOIN TV News Director Brad Neuhoff watched and listened as the telephone calls rolled into the newsroom following the retirement announcement. Neuhoff told The Oregonian:  “I think it speaks not only to the kind of journalist Mike is, but also the person he is.”

Except for a few years in the U.S. Army, Donahue has worked at KOIN since 1968. It is a rare accomplishment for a TV reporter/anchor to stay at one station so long. He anchors the noon news show, but accomplished a legacy by anchoring the 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. news during parts of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. 

Donahue says he may have a continuing role at KOIN after he gives up his day job, 

Heart attack claims Bob Caldwell 

We simply knew him as Bob, one of the most affable editors ever to hold the job of editorial page editor at The Oregonian. Robert J. Caldwell died from a heart attack last month. 

Bob’s job was to guide editorial writers and help set the tone and position of the newspaper as it commented on key community issues and colorful personalities. Says CFM Partner Dave Fiskum, “He was one of the good guys in the editorial realm... always open to conversations about editorial policy.”

Focusing to Survive

The Washington Post is adapting to business pressure by focusing, sometimes painfully, on what it does best.It says a lot when a fierce competitor tips the hat to another. I am not talking tennis with Federer vs. Nadal. I am thinking about gladiator-type business competitors where the last guy standing is alive and the rest aren’t. New York Times vs. Washington Post-type competitors.

On Sunday, the Times tipped its hat to the Post, acknowledging the iconic DC daily is making the necessary and painful changes to survive in the changing newspaper world. Cutting staff from 1,000 to 640. Closing bureaus in three major markets. Moving online aggressively. Using web metrics to assess success.

Similar efforts are being played out in Portland, Oregon. At The Oregonian, Scott Bernard Nelson, Business Editor, has been a change agent at the paper and closely follows changing business models for newspapers across the county. At KATU-TV, executive producer John Tierney is working to bridge the gaps between broadcast and online news.

In the modern news landscape, changing and remaining profitable is difficult.

Three Reasons Why There Are More Public Publicists

Every few years The Oregonian revisits a favorite old theme and elaborates a core journalistic belief: There just are too damn many public relations people on the public payroll. Such was the case when The Sunday Oregonian (October 16, 2011) let loose with a front-page broadside proclaiming, “Whatever Oregon's trying to communicate, it's costing you millions."

“Oregon is cutting programs that serve poor families, threatening to close highway rest stops and laying off teachers, yet state government spent millions of dollars last year on public relations, advertising, outreach and marketing campaigns,” the article begins.

It’s tempting but not worth spending too much time in rebutting the commentary’s conclusions. But it’s hard to argue over one of the article’s premises – there are more PR professionals working in the public sector today. Here are three simple reasons why this is the case that weren’t mentioned in the commentary:

First, all of us, reporter or publicist, are in a bidding war for mindshare. Our audiences are distracted. The door on the “Information Age” closed some years ago. We now live in the “Too Much Information Age.” We all have to work harder to deliver important news to an overwhelmed public and make that news stick, even when the news may be about public health and safety.

Second, local newspapers and TV news play less of a role in providing the public with news about government and nonprofit organizations. Many community-based newspapers, such as The Oregonian, once were so-called “newspapers of record.” They made an effort to provide readers a regular, if not daily, account of statehouse and city hall events.