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 Tribune, Willamette Week, The 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.