Oregon public affairs

New Workplace Battlefront Opens on Flexible Scheduling

The next workplace battlefield is emerging over flexible scheduling of workers in sectors such as fast food restaurants. The situation further rankles Oregon business leaders who are still upset over paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage and Measure 97.

The next workplace battlefield is emerging over flexible scheduling of workers in sectors such as fast food restaurants. The situation further rankles Oregon business leaders who are still upset over paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage and Measure 97.

Democratic lawmakers are teeing up legislation for the 2017 session to mandate scheduling rules for some workers, which could make testy relations with Oregon’s business community even testier.

Senator Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat, says it’s timely to tackle the legislation next session. He noted the 2015 Oregon legislature imposed a moratorium on municipalities passing “flexible schedule” ordinances. That moratorium expires next year.

Dembrow’s legislation probably would mirror ordinances adopted in Seattle and San Francisco that require employers with large numbers of part-time workers to provide advance schedules or pay extra compensation.

Supporters say sudden work schedule changes make it hard and costly for low-wage workers to arrange for child care or balance work for second and third jobs. Business advocates say employers need the ability to adjust worker schedules to deal with emergencies and when employees call in sick.

Business groups are already rankled about workplace legislation following the 2015 session when Democrats pushed through bills to mandate paid sick leave and raise the state’s minimum wage.

They haven’t cooled down as business representatives walked away after Dembrow's first interim work group meeting on the flexible scheduling bill.

There is broad business opposition to Measure 97, the initiative appearing on the November 8 general election ballot that would impose a gross receipts tax on corporations with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon. Business leaders predict business closures or departures if the measure passes and warn they will be reluctant participants in any negotiations on an alternative if it fails. That wariness could extend to other issues, including the flexible scheduling bill.

After demurring, Governor Kate Brown endorsed Measure 97, even though she says she hates it. Brown based her support on the need for substantial additional revenue to plug a $1.25 billion or larger projected budget hole in the 2017-2019 biennium. Brown and her GOP challenger Bud Pierce will hold their first gubernatorial debate Saturday in Bend and can expect to be asked about the flexible scheduling bill.

When push comes to shove, some business leaders may prefer statewide flexible scheduling legislation as opposed to the specter of cities such as Portland and Eugene adopting their own local ordinances. But bruised political feelings among business leaders also could diminish or even extinguish their willingness to compromise.

Pierce Dumps Trump as Gubernatorial Debates Loom

GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce jettisoned his endorsement of Donald Trump on the run-up to this Saturday’s first debate with Governor Kate Brown in Bend. Four more debates will follow into mid-October.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce jettisoned his endorsement of Donald Trump on the run-up to this Saturday’s first debate with Governor Kate Brown in Bend. Four more debates will follow into mid-October.

Few people aside from Donald Trump believe the unconventional GOP presidential candidate can capture Oregon in the November 8 general election. Now Oregon’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce has joined the chorus.

Pierce withdrew his endorsement of Trump this week, claiming the New York real estate magnate isn’t unifying the Republican party and is driving away Hispanic voters. Pierce says Hispanic voters have a natural attraction to political conservatives and he is actively seeking their support to upset Governor Kate Brown.

In an interview last month, Brown urged Pierce to disavow Trump and “do the right thing.” Whatever the right thing might be, Pierce stopped short of pledging to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton. He said he won't cast a ballot for anyone in the presidential race this year.

Jacob Daniels, Trump’s Oregon campaign chairman and perhaps the only person in the state who thinks his man will win here, dismissed Pierce’s dropped endorsement as insignificant.

The most recent public polling shows Brown with a comfortable double-digit lead over Pierce, but some Oregon Democrats have been uneasy over her largely invisible campaign while she hit the campaign fundraising trail. Pierce hit the airwaves with hard-hitting TV ads last month. Brown went up in the last few days with a softer ad that describes her political start as a children’s advocate and her achievement s governor boosting state K-12 school funding.

Brown and Pierce are scheduled to square off in their first face-to-face debate on Saturday in Bend, which may only rate second billing to home football games in Eugene and Corvallis. The gubernatorial candidates debate again September 30 in front of the Portland City Club, October 6 in Eugene, October 13 in Medford and October 20 in Portland.

Pierce has called for fresh thinking in Salem while Brown has touted her leadership as the successor to John Kitzhaber, who resigned at the beginning of his unprecedented fourth term. No seminal issues have created a sharp division in the race, though the Oregon-Oracle $100 million settlement of the Cover Oregon fiasco may have averted a flash point in the race. The settlement that involved six separate legal actions came just before Brown was scheduled to be deposed.

The debates are likely to underscore Pierce’s opposition to and Brown’s endorsement of Measure 97, the initiative that would impose a gross receipts tax on corporations with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon. Proponents and opponents of the tax measure are waging a vigorous campaign that pivots on how much of the tax will filter down to small businesses and ultimately Oregon consumers. Early polling indicates the measure has strong support.

The gubernatorial candidates should be pressed on how they would respond if the tax measure passes or fails. Measure 97 is projected to generate $3 billion in new state tax revenue annually, which would more than plug the state’s anticipated $1.5 billion biennial budget hole. However, the state will face severe spending challenges on education and health care spending if the measure fails.

As the debates unfold, a key target for each candidate will be attracting non-affiliated voters. Brown can generally count on the Democratic majority in urban areas from Portland to Eugene. To win, Pierce may need to catch some of the same populist wind that propelled voters in Oregon to support Trump and Bernie Sanders.

What an Effective Lobbyist Really Does

Good lobbyists do a lot more than schmoozing and handing out campaign cash. Their work to pass or kill bills is strenuous, stressful and sometimes monotonous, and it can span multiple legislative sessions.

Good lobbyists do a lot more than schmoozing and handing out campaign cash. Their work to pass or kill bills is strenuous, stressful and sometimes monotonous, and it can span multiple legislative sessions.

Getting a bill passed is a lot more complicated than you may think. Rarely does legislation follow a straight line from its introduction to the day it lands on the governor's desk for a signature. And big campaign contributions don’t always mean success.

Lobbyists earn their pay by doing much more than drafting legislation, talking it up with the lawmakers on the committee where it will be sent and schmoozing in the lobby to round up enough votes. Lobbyists are worth their weight in gold when they anticipate what could go wrong on the legislative journey and take steps to avoid deadly detours.

To outsiders, lobbyists look like men and women who live the life – golfing, dining and hanging out with people with voting cards and the power to pass or kill a bill. If that’s all a lobbyist did, he or she might not be all that successful.

Anticipation starts before a bill is written or dropped. Lobbyists read the situation to see if the climate is right for a measure to make it. If, for example, Democrats control the legislature, right-to-work legislation has a slim to no chance of seeing the light of day, let alone getting adopted.

Assuming the climate is either conducive, or at least not problematic, the next thing to anticipate is the attitudes toward the bill of the chairs of the House and Senate committees where it would be referred. In the Oregon legislature, committee chairs have the power to “sit” on a bill and never give it a hearing or give it merely a perfunctory hearing.

A lobbyist will talk with committee chairs to see if they support or are at least okay with a bill and to find out what questions they have and background information they want. Some bills can be referred to more than one committee. This can be both a problem and an opportunity for a lobbyist. One way to get around a dissenting committee chair is to seek a referral to another committee with a more welcoming chair. Double committee referrals can be encouraged, which provides a lobbyist who opposes a bill twice the opportunity to erect roadblocks to stop it.

While committee chairs have the power over bills when they arrive in their possession, the presiding officers of the House and Senate are the ones with the power to decide where or where not to send bills. This is the next stop on the lobbyist's path to success to ensure the House Speaker or Senate President doesn’t send a bill to a committee where it will wind up stillborn.

All this activity occurs – or should occur – before a bill is introduced. Then the fun really begins.

Lobbyists need to prepare materials that explain the bill and its purpose. Complex bills require detailed explanations, which have to be clear and crisp or risk having the eyes of lawmakers glaze over.

Lobbyists will meet with legislators, especially the ones who sit on the committees where legislation would be considered. These meetings may involve bringing along a constituent to underscore the bill’s importance. In some cases, lobbyists will arrange tours to “see” the problem the bill seeks to solve. The same approach holds true if the lobbyist opposes a bill.

The preparation and meetings have another critical purpose – to ask for and confirm a legislator’s support for or opposition to the bill. Nailing down a “yes” or “no” may require more than a single meeting. Many legislators are reluctant to commit until they have heard the other side.

Eventually lobbyists develop a vote count, which becomes their real leverage. Even a reticent committee chair may yield to the wishes of his or her committee on a bill. A smart committee chair might use the opportunity to line up votes he or she wants on another, unrelated bill. Lobbyists have to keep track of this horse trading to avoid letting their legislation become manure tossed into the compost bin.

For most bills, lobbyists have to ask for a hearing. If they have the votes lined up in committee, they also ask for a work session, which allows the committee chair to call for a vote on the measure.

Once a hearing has been scheduled, lobbyists coordinate testimony. This can be as complicated as inviting a busload of people to testify or, at the request of a sympathetic chair, giving short-and-sweet testimony so the bill can be quickly moved along. Skilled lobbyists understand how to show the flag and fly under the radar.

An emerging trend is the need for coalitions of support, especially for bills that are contentious. It is not enough for a single lobbyist to tout a measure. Lawmakers want to know who else supports the bill, or at least who doesn’t oppose it.

When a bill makes it out of committee, it heads to the House or Senate floor, unless it has a fiscal impact, which means in most cases it then goes to the Joint Ways and Means Committee. In the Oregon legislative set-up, Ways and Means is an appropriations committee. It's also like a parole board. You have to show up and make a case for the release of your bill. Without approval, your legislation will rot in a fiscal jail.

A good chunk of bills that pass on the House and Senate floors draw minimal comment and debate. More often, even on non-controversial bills, legislators pose questions that the legislator carrying the bill attempts to answer. Lobbyists work with committee staff to anticipate questions and generate responsive, accurate answers. Under their code of ethics, Oregon lobbyists are obliged to correct any misinformation they provide, whether it's inadvertent or intentional.

Passing the House or Senate is just the start. Some House-Senate standoffs inevitably turn innocent bills into hapless hostages. Lobbyists have to use their political GPS to see an impediment coming and do what they can to skirt or manage the detour.

Even with reliable vote counts, nervous lobbyists typically pace outside the House and Senate chambers waiting for their bill to come up in debate and a vote. They also have to be available in case a lawmaker wanders out of the chamber to ask a random question about the bill.

If a bill is on its way through the legislative gauntlet, lobbyists must brief the governor’s staff. Unlike a committee chair who has the power of a pocket veto, the governor is required to sign or veto bills that reach his or her desk. If a bill faced serious opposition in the legislature, governors will usually scrutinize it carefully, seeking advice from their legal counsel and policy staffs. Bills with partisan overtones or ones that pass on largely party-line votes can present special lobbying challenges.

Of course, politics do play a role in legislation. Lobbyists court political relationships by contributing to legislative candidates, House and Senate leadership and Republican and Democratic caucuses, which can make a difference when a lobbyist calls for a meeting. But donating campaign cash doesn’t guarantee a legislative victory. That's why good lobbyists work to build trust by carefully validating their claims and by credibly and fairly telling their opponent’s story. Some lobbyists have even won the day by telling their opposition’s story better than their opponent. But all lobbyists are gauged on their propensity to tell the truth.

Some bills take more than a single session to make it all the way through the process to become law. That means repeating the drill – improving the bill and its support, perhaps with a stronger grassroots network, more powerful testimony or a more persuasive argument.

Bills that pass can be targets for amendments or even repeal in subsequent sessions. So the lobbyist’s job is seemingly never finished.

Lobbying involves hard, persistent and often monotonous work. The best lobbyists aren’t necessarily the ones with the most flash, but the ones with the creativity to see a path to success and the perseverance to follow that path. And it never hurts to have a really good vote count.

Oregon’s Pending Political Divorce

Measure 97, which would raise taxes on corporations with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon, faces an uncertain future in the general election. However, it does seem certain that it's causing a political divorce in Oregon that will fuel polarization and make compromise harder to find.

Measure 97, which would raise taxes on corporations with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon, faces an uncertain future in the general election. However, it does seem certain that it's causing a political divorce in Oregon that will fuel polarization and make compromise harder to find.

Oregon voters can expect political rhetoric to escalate over Measure 97, the initiative to impose a gross receipts tax on corporations with large sales in the state, as the November 8 general election approaches.

However, the more intriguing question may be what will or should happen after the election, regardless of whether Measure 97 passes or fails? Chances are whatever happens will feel like a divorce. Andrew Bulkily, writing for Oregon Business, summed up the situation as going from “gridlock to civil war."

No one disputes that the stakes are huge. Oregon officials estimate Measure 97 will generate $3 billion per year in new state tax revenue. Proponents say most of that tax will be shouldered by large out-of-state corporations that currently don’t pay their fair share of the tax burden in Oregon. Opponents insist that the tax measure will result in higher consumer prices.

Emily Powell, the third generation owner of Powell’s Books, says higher taxes resulting from the passage of Measure 97 could drive the iconic Portland-based independent bookstore out of business. Powell says profit margins in the book business are too small and competition is too stiff to allow the store to raise its prices.

Measure 97 revenues have been touted by supporters, including Governor Kate Brown, as a badly needed and long overdue revenue make-up for K-12 school funding, health care and senior services. Opponents argue that the initiative can’t guarantee how legislators will spend the added tax money and that a big chunk of it will go to cover huge Public Employees Retirement System shortfalls.

There are people on both sides of the initiative who wish a compromise could have been reached to avoid a ballot measure mash-up that could be the most expensive political campaign in state history. Proponents and opponents have each raised double-digit millions of dollars to trade televised jabs this fall. Measure 97 backers weren’t in the mood to compromise, feeling that 2016 could be a moment to push through a major tax change on the ballot.

Which brings us to what happens after the election. If Measure 97 passes, the state’s available discretionary revenue will sharply expand. That would probably erase the projected $1.3 billion state biennial budget hole, but it wouldn’t necessarily determine how the balance of money would be spent. You could expect fierce arguments among interest groups over how much should go to K-12 schools versus investments in health care and senior services – and in higher education. You also could expect some high-profile business response, such as a business like Powell’s Books shuttering.

If Measure 97 fails, the state budget hole will loom even larger, potentially threatening cuts to K-12 and higher education funding and threatening Medicaid expansion. Perhaps worse, many in the business community may refuse to enter into discussions about how to meet that budget shortfall, PERS underfunding or tax reform because of the fractious fight they had to wage to defeat Measure 97. Oregon lawmakers may see hearing rooms full of angry faces unwilling to sit together in work groups to explore solutions.

It’s likely that the political zombie of a state sales tax would re-emerge. The sales tax has been the default idea for how to reduce the volatility of Oregon’s existing income-tax-heavy revenue system. However, sales taxes face their own haunting challenges, such as Internet sales. In Oregon, the appetite for a sales tax by voters has the same taste notes as brussels sprout ice cream.

If Measure 97 passes and Brown wins election, it will give her an effective mandate to guide how the new tax revenue should be allocated. However, it could dampen enthusiasm for climbing the steep hill to craft, pass and avoid a referral on a major transportation funding measure.

If Brown wins, but Measure 97 fails, Brown will have the challenge of trying to patch together a balanced budget, with limited credibility to court business support for alternative tax-generating options.

Brown’s position also would be weakened because she must run for election again in 2018 for a full four-year term. As secretary of state, Brown succeeded John Kitzhaber as governor after he resigned in 2015 and is running this year to fill out the final two years of the former governor’s four-year term.

This is a fairly grim picture. Sort of like a family portrait after a divorce.

Over time, views will soften, the more contentious personalities will be pushed aside and a dialogue can resume. But as the 2016 presidential election has revealed, strong political undercurrents can be unleashed, deepening polarization and crippling efforts to find common ground – or even a table where everyone can sit around to talk.

A Crack in Public Pension Wall Emerges in California

Many Oregon political leaders believe reforms are needed to public employee pensions to trim costs and plug a swelling unfunded liability, but few think reforms can pass a court test. Now a crack may be emerging in that impenetrable legal wall.

Many Oregon political leaders believe reforms are needed to public employee pensions to trim costs and plug a swelling unfunded liability, but few think reforms can pass a court test. Now a crack may be emerging in that impenetrable legal wall.

A state appellate court ruling in California will be studied carefully for its implications on whether public employee pension benefits are immutable or can be modified.

While unlikely to generate any immediate political response, the court ruling, if upheld on further appeal, could entice state lawmakers in California and elsewhere to explore public employee pension changes in the face of ballooning unfunded liabilities. Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability has swelled to $21 billion.

The need to allocate more money for state and local public employee pensions has been one of the hardest fought issues in state legislatures around the country. Pension bills that have passed, including in Oregon, have mostly been struck down by courts as unconstitutional.

The Sacramento Bee reported the unanimous ruling by a California state appellate court says there is no absolute bar to modifying public employee pensions. The vested right to a pension “is only to a reasonable pension, not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating the pension,” the court ruling said. “The Legislature may, prior to the employee’s retirement, alter the formula, thereby reducing the anticipated pensions…so long as the …modifications do not deprive the employee of a reasonable pension.”

The effective prohibition of any change to an existing public employee pension provision, called the California Rule, stems from a series of court decisions beating back efforts to trim benefits and reduce costs. You could say there is an Oregon Rule, too.

Oregon’s latest attempt at what legislators called public pension reform was largely thrown out by the state Supreme Court. That’s what makes the new ruling in California intriguing. Does it reflect a crack in the California Rule? If so, how wide is the crack? And, most important, will the crack stand up when appealed to the California Supreme Court?

The genesis of the crack began in the judicial bankruptcy proceedings for the City of Stockton. Federal Judge Christopher Klein said "pension benefits could be reduced  in a bankruptcy action because bankruptcy is nothing by the impairment of contracts,” according to the Sacramento Bee’s reporting.

California’s Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) argued reducing state employee pensions couldn’t be ordered by a federal judge. Klein rejected CalPERS’ claim. However, Stockton never tested Klein’s opinion and emerged from bankruptcy without touching public employee pensions.

The appellate court opinion involved Marin County’s implementation of one of the public employee pension reforms included in the 2012 pension reform legislation enacted by the California Assembly and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. The provision that Marin County adopted prohibits using unused sick leave to “spike” pension benefit calculations.

There is a long road ahead before anyone will know whether the crack in the California Rule is real and just what it might permit in terms of modified pension benefits. That’s little consolation to lawmakers who will face budget holes and rising pension costs when they return to their state capitals early next year. But it does give them something to watch that could open a new conversation down the line.

A Fond Farewell to Doc Bates

Senator Alan Bates, who died August 5, is being fondly remembered for his contributions to Oregon health policy, his respectful conduct as an Oregon legislator and his dedication to his patients, even during long, draining legislative sessions.

Senator Alan Bates, who died August 5, is being fondly remembered for his contributions to Oregon health policy, his respectful conduct as an Oregon legislator and his dedication to his patients, even during long, draining legislative sessions.

The sudden passing of Senator Alan Bates on August 5 inspired an outpouring of compliments from his colleagues and friends. Through CFM’s work on behalf of clients, we had the privilege of working with Bates and wanted to share our appreciation for his devoted public service.

As a senator and a doctor, Bates is worthy of the praise he has received. He was a statesman who pushed for health care reform and had no hesitation working across the political aisle. He was literally a life saver. A practicing doctor of osteopathic medicine, Doc Bates frequently broke out his doctor’s bag to care for someone at the Capitol who fainted or experienced other health complications. During the 2016 session, Bates once came to the aid of Senator Alan Olsen who suffered a heart attack. Without Bates’ quick action, Olsen might not have survived.

Bates earned his health care policy spurs as a member of the Oregon Health Services Commission, which drafted the first-in-the-country list of treatments in priority order for Medicaid services in Oregon. If the federal government would have allowed the treatment list to be implemented, it would have stood as a landmark health care policy achievement. Even though the federal government said no, the list was used as a guide for priority decisions on health care treatments for low-income Oregonians.

His contributions to the Oregon Health Plan, plus his commitment to public health in his own Southern Oregon community, propelled him to election to the Oregon House in 2000. He was elected to the Oregon Senate in 2004 and served there until his death from a heart attack while fly fishing with his son on the Rogue River. Bates was 71.

In the legislature, Bates was one of the go-to members on health care issues. He was a member of the Senate Health Care Committee and served on the Joint Ways and Means Committee where he played a major role in developing health care and human services budgets. Senator Mark Hass tells a story of how Bates was able to calm the anxieties of a roomful of industry and health care lobbyists with his explanation of a bill to provide specialized services to autistic children and his respectful answer to their questions. Hass said the bill easily passed with bipartisan and industry support.

While Bates focuses on healthcare policy, he drove to Medford every weekend during legislative sessions to see his patients and took time to listen to constituent concerns. His inventive 2011 bill, called Strengthening, Preserving and Reunifying Families (SPRF), allowed communities to decide on what programs to support families in need. SPRF community-based programs are now funded and operating in all 36 Oregon counties, with the mission to help keep families together and children out of the foster care system.

Bates’ death leaves a big hole in the legislature, but his good work will carry on as a testament to his brilliance and compassion.

Here are some memories of personal experiences with Bates from the CFM team:

Tess Milio – “Working with the late senator, I saw firsthand that he was a doer. He acted on information. He made phone calls in the middle of a meeting to get something done or get the information he needed. He and his staff worked long hours during sessions. They did four-tens, instead of the usual eight-hour days, so Bates could travel back to home and practice medicine in Medford Friday through Sunday. Session alone is draining enough, to make that long drive and work over the weekends showed real strength and commitment to the people of Oregon and his patients. “

Dale Penn – “In my career, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with Dr. Alan Bates for several years.  During that time, I have represented issues the good Senator both supported and opposed. While Dr. Bates and I have discussed topics critical to Oregonians, like health care, child welfare and human service budgets, my favorite subject matter has always been fly fishing. Both Dr. Bates and I were avid fly fishermen. I remember conversations concerning fly choices, locations of the best fishing holes and the goal of spending more time fishing Oregon’s beautiful waterways…just as soon as this last policy crisis was addressed or legislative session was finished. This fall, when I’m fishing the same waterways of the Rogue River near Shady Cove, I’ll be thinking of Dr. Bates and wishing he was there to see that silver flash.”

Gary Conkling – “Senator Bates was an old-school legislator who had little patience for half-truths or superficial lobbying. He expected advocates to know their stuff and be able to make their case, as well as the best case for their opponents. On health care, he saw issues through the lens of a medical doctor, which gave him a strong foundation for his questions and his votes. But it also occasionally limited his ability to accept or fully appreciate the arguments made by others in the health care field. Bates was never a partisan and always treated people with the utmost respect, whether he agreed with them or not. Bates left his policy marks and will be remembered as as an example of what an Oregon legislator should be like."

Ellen Miller – “Senator Bates always made time for constituents. Despite his busy schedule and various commitments, he made sure to listen when someone from his district came to Salem. One year, on the second-to-last day of the legislative session – when the Senate was on the Senate Floor for an indeterminate amount of time – he had a member of his staff come get him when we arrived with a constituent. Even with all the chaos and the fighting between the parties that was happening that day, he was present, thoughtful and kind.”

Tess Milio, state affairs and development associate, is an integral part of CFM's state lobbying team. Tess has worked in politics for nearly a decade in Oregon and San Francisco. In her free time, Tess loves to camp, surf, shop and watch the The Blazers. You can reach her at tessm@cfmpdx.com

John Oliver Makes a Case for Cash-Strapped Local Newspapers

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver has stirred up a national conversation about the importance of the declining local newspaper industry in food chain of journalism. Much of his segment focused on major changes at The Oregonian.

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver has stirred up a national conversation about the importance of the declining local newspaper industry in food chain of journalism. Much of his segment focused on major changes at The Oregonian.

Late night comedy star John Oliver delved into the decline of local newspapers in his latest episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, bringing the struggles of Oregon’s largest publication under an enormous microscope.

For anyone familiar with the stories of The Oregonian’s shrinking staff and scaled-down delivery amid its painful transition to a digital-first model over the past few years, Oliver’s 19-minute segment was nothing particularly new. Nonetheless, he used the example (along with several other stories of an industry stuck in an existential crisis) to make a bold statement about the importance of local newspapers.  

“It’s pretty obvious without newspapers around to cite, TV news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around,” Oliver said. “The media is a food chain which would fall apart without local newspapers.”

Oliver went on to detail a story his show ran two years ago that heavily drew upon former Oregonian political reporter Harry Esteve’s coverage of the Oregon Lottery. Later, Oliver flashed back to a clip from 20 years earlier of former Oregonian editor Bill Hilliard speaking to the City Club about a steady stream of growth in staffing and salaries at the paper every year he’d been there. That kind of confidence was almost tempting fate, Oliver said.

In 2013, Harry Esteve was at The Oregonian during a round of cuts that wiped out about 22 percent of the staff. Then, a few months down the road in early 2014, Willamette Week broke the news that Oregonian reporters would be required to meet a new quota to publish at least three blog posts a day. The rule has loosened up since, but the general pressure to produce more snippets of content stands. Esteve is also no longer with the paper. He resigned after taking a job with Portland State University, where he works today.

“If journalists are constantly required to write, edit, shoot videos and tweet, mistakes are going to get made,” he said, lamenting the decline in standards and depth that tends to come with shrinking staffs.

Of course, Oliver is right. If you watch TV news, stop and consider how often anchors and reporters attribute facts or even their entire stories to the local newspapers that broke that news to begin with? Happens all the time.

Takeaways from the Pew Research Center's 2016 Newspaper Fact Sheet

  • Weekday circulation fell 7 percent, and Sunday circulation dropped 4 percent in 2015.
  • The cash flow for digital advertising fell about 2 percent last year.
  • In 2015, newspapers saw their biggest drop in advertising since 2009. 

Now consider the financial picture at the macro level. Between 2004 and 2014, newspapers gained $2 billion in online advertising revenue. But in that same time frame, the industry also lost $30 billion in print ad revenue, Oliver highlighted.

“No one seems to have a perfect plan to keep newspapers afloat,” Oliver said. “And the truth is a big part of the blame for this industry’s dire straights is on us and our unwillingness to pay for the work journalists produce. We’ve just grown accustomed to getting our news for free.”

And Oliver may also be right about that last bleak point. Unless print journalism establishes a stable revenue stream, we could be entering an unprecedented era of growth in government corruption as media watchdogs become harder and harder to find, he said.

Newspapers have been closing and laying off staff for years now. Sometimes the Harry Esteves of local newsrooms are replaced, but not often enough to fill in the most critical coverage gaps.

For instance, the number of full time statehouse reporters at more than 200 papers across the nation declined by 35 percent from 2003 to 2014, according to Pew Research Center study cited in Oliver’s segment.

Some major online startup publications, like BuzzFeed, Vox and The Huffington Post, have expanded their national political coverage over the past several years. Even so, today’s online media market still fails to fill the gaps left by the shrinking print journalism industry.

“Those places are often just repackaging the work of newspapers,” Oliver said. “And it is not just news outlets. Stupid shows like ours lean heavily on local newspapers.”

Time will tell whether Oliver’s plea for people to buy print ads and subscribe to newspapers will resonate deep enough to spur any change for the industry. He may be a rockstar on social media, but perhaps the problems of the news business are too far gone to solve at this point. Maybe that’s not the solution anyway, though. But in any case, Oliver’s segment is getting people talking, and it’s big picture conversations like this that often later prove to be the spark for game-changing ideas. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist