The Oregonian

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

PERS Costs To Deal a Heavy Blow to Oregonians

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, left, says he and a handful of other lawmakers have proposals in mind to address the climbing cost of unfunded liabilities in Oregon's public employee pension system.  (Denis C. Theriault/The Oreognian/OregonLive)

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, left, says he and a handful of other lawmakers have proposals in mind to address the climbing cost of unfunded liabilities in Oregon's public employee pension system. (Denis C. Theriault/The Oreognian/OregonLive)

Oregon’s public worker pension system is in the news again, and this time it’s going to cost us all quite a bit more money.

Lost amid the national hullaballoo over the presidential campaign, we learned that the cost of Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) will climb an extra $885 million in the next biennium. That increase will elevate Oregon’s sum of unfunded liabilities to $22 billion for the next year, leaving lawmakers in an overwhelming bind: Find new revenue to fill the gap or start scaling back public services.

Unfunded PERS liabilities rose to $18 billion last year, and projections from four months ago placed the figure closer to $21 billion. They’ve increased again, largely from a combination of declining pension investment returns, a 2015 Oregon Supreme Court decision restricting pension benefit reductions and the simple fact that pensioners are living longer.

The full gravity of the update began to sink in last Friday when actuaries released new financial projections to the PERS Board.

The situation begs all kinds of big questions: Why isn’t this dilemma a central topic in statewide campaigns this election season? And will political leaders once again try to find PERS reforms in the next session or have they just given up in light of Oregon Supreme Court rulings? 

The biggest problem, though, is that state leaders don’t seem to know how to stop this giant snowball from bounding down the mountain. A spokesman for Governor Kate Brown told The Oregonian editorial board that despite casting a wide net for reforms, state leaders so far have found no solutions that would survive a court challenge. Furthermore, Oregonians cannot afford another year of failed PERS reform attempts, the spokesman said.

“There's no end in sight,” The Oregonian editorial board wrote Tuesday in response to the news. “Contributions by employers – they are required to cover the difference between PERS investment earnings and benefit promises – are expected to go up by 4 percent of payroll in 2017, 2019 and 2021. That puts the employer contribution to the system at $4.5 billion for the 2021-23 biennium, more than twice what it is now, reported Ted Sickinger of The Oregonian/OregonLive.”

With the latest projections, school districts are taking the biggest hit, facing an anticipated $335 million increase in PERS costs. Meanwhile, public agencies will have to carve out $260 million of their own funding to cover the shortfall in PERS payments. Ultimately, the pain will trickle down more directly to taxpayers.

“Oregonians, along with the children they send to school, rightfully expect tax and employer dollars to bear fruit, not burden, and throwing money into an expanding fire is useless,” The Oregonian editorial board wrote. “Unless lawmakers prepare to act in the next legislative session, PERS threatens to undermine the capacity of the state to meet its basic obligations. Fewer school teachers, larger class sizes and the diminution of other critical government services loom.”

Potential revenue for the shortage is quietly tied up with the IP 28/Measure 97 effort to generate a cash influx for Oregon. But of course, the fate of those measures remains up in the air.

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said he and a handful of lawmakers have a list of reform proposals in mind, but Democratic leaders need to be prepared to make difficult cuts. 

“If you want PERS to remain solid, and we do, then you have to trim expectations,” Ferrioli told the editorial board. “We're not messing with anybody's retirement. We need to be prospective about this, look ahead. We can use the court's decision as a template. All it will take is a modicum of interest from the House speaker, the Senate president and the governor."

Unfortunately, no matter where you stand on the issue, the one thing everyone can agree on is that the problem seems to have reached a point where it can no longer go ignored.

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

 

Oregon’s Holiday Wish List

Like children, policymakers in Oregon make out holiday wish lists. Here are some the wishes we think are on the list.Children across Oregon are preparing their lists for Santa ahead of the holiday next week. Legislators and the governor, in preparation for the February session and election year ,are developing their own wish lists — none of which are likely to stop with “my two front teeth.”

Here are a few items that may find their way onto policymaker wish lists this holiday season:

Money for the General Fund

A perennial wish for almost all policymakers is additional money to spend in the upcoming session. Each member has his/her policy priority and nearly every one comes with an additional resource request. Despite increased revenues from the special session, legislators will arrive in February to find few uncommitted dollars available for their shiny priorities. Legislators and the governor will be awaiting the revenue forecast with the same anticipation of children on Christmas Eve.

Kitzhaber, Courtney Legacies Grow

The successful five-bill, three-day Oregon special legislative session will enhance John Kitzhaber's legacy as governor. It also signals a constructive working relationship between House Speaker Tina Kotek and GOP Leader Mike McLane. And the session provided campaign platforms for Reps. Dennis Richardson and Jules Bailey.

Almost lost in the shuffle was Senator Peter Courtney's win in establishing a dedicated funding source for expanded community mental health programs, which was his top priority before the start of the 2013 regular legislative session.

News coverage of the conclusion of the special session Wednesday showed a beaming Kitzhaber. For good reason. He took the tatters of a budget deal left on the cutting room floor in the waning hours of the regular session and wove them into a complicated deal that will result in more money going to K-12 schools and higher education. 

Kitzhaber's unwavering confidence he could find common ground among skeptical House Democrats and legislative Republicans stands in sharp contrast to his defeatist views expressed at the end of his second term of governor. His third term has been an unbroken string of negotiating successes that prove Oregon can be governed after all. And he gets much of the credit.

The Oregonian's Friday edition challenged Kitzhaber now to turn his attention and political capital to comprehensive tax reform, a goal that has eluded him as well as many of his predecessors. Hopefully, The Oregonian will forgive Kitzhaber if he takes the weekend off before starting his new quest.

The Kotek-McLane tandem held together well and under extreme political pressure. To make the multiple-bill compromise work, all five bills had to pass for any to survive. Kotek and McLane knew it would take different cross-sections of lawmakers from both party caucuses to pass the most controversial measures dealing with taxation, PERS cuts and a local pre-emption on genetically modified crops.

Only 22 out of 90 lawmakers voted for all five measures. Kotek and McLane were two of them. More important, they showed they could deliver key votes when it counted. The tax measure, a combination of increases and cuts, began in the House and came up three votes short. Kotek delayed declaring the final vote until she mustered three votes — all from her Democratic caucus.

Political Pot Continues to Boil

The September 15 deadline is creeping up for Governor Kitzhaber to decide whether to move forward with a legislative special session to consider further cuts to public employee pensions, business tax cuts and an Oregon-led approach to building a replacement I-5 Columbia River bridge.

The path to all three is littered with political obstacles. One thing is clear, however. If there is a special session, it will be by September 30, the date that Oregon's offer expires to share the state costs on the bridge with Washington.

The Kitzhaber camp isn't saying whether he has lined up the votes for the grand bargain or bridge funding. The pieces may not fall into place – or fall apart – until Treasurer Ted Wheeler releases his financial analysis of the risks involved in Oregon leading the way on replacing the Columbia River bridge. When the Oregon-in-the-lead strategy was unveiled last month, Wheeler questioned whether there was enough time for an analysis before a special session would be called. Now he has until September 15.

Bridge financing is not a new subject for Wheeler, the former Multnomah County chair who pieced together the bucks to replace the aging Sellwood Bridge, which is now under construction. But the timing of the Columbia River bridge financial analysis couldn't have occurred at a stickier time for Wheeler, who might be the odds-on favorite to succeed Kitzhaber as governor if he decides not to seek re-election.

As it turns out, Kitzhaber is fundraising, presumably for his yet-to-be-announced 2014 gubernatorial re-election campaign. The three-term governor also showed his political flag at a Labor Day union function, declaring firm opposition to an initiative that would ban mandatory payments by public employees to public unions. The Oregonian speculated his comments – which caused Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain to quip: 'Damn, Governor, you sounded like the president of the AFL-CIO" – were aimed at politically defusing political opposition caused by his continued support for deeper cuts in public employee pensions.

"They Are Here;" Now What Will We Do?

As the Oregon legislature appears headed for adjournment, possibly without a grand budget deal, The Oregonian is publishing a multi-part series by investigative reporter Les Zaitz revealing deep inroads into Oregon's drug scene by Mexican cartels.

Too bad legislative attention couldn't have been given this session to the underlying facts Zaitz has uncovered — bombings and shootings linked to the cartels, our own state drug lords, drug dealers in our neighborhoods, deaths from drug overdoses and challenges to law enforcement to bring perpetrators to justice.

"They Are Here," the headline on the lead story of the series published Sunday, is a scary reminder that we could see — or maybe already have seen — first-hand the kind of violence we usually associate with U.S.-Mexico border towns. It also hints at the long, grasping coils of criminal organizations that pursue drug trafficking like a business, hooking customers, bribing local officials and terrifying anyone who gets in their way.

Zaitz has won plaudits for his eye-opening reporting, which come ironically as The Oregonian scales back its profile as a print publication in pursuit of becoming a digital enterprise. Questions arise about whether stories like this will continue to be chased and reported in the new, emerging journalistic landscape.

While that is an important question, the more immediate issue is what response will Oregon law enforcement leaders give to Zaitz's story?

Prison Sentencing and Politics

A 12-member commission is wrestling with costly mandatory minimum jail sentences, while one incumbent senator is being grilled for supporting early-release legislation.If you want to understand some of the political issues around prison sentencing reform, look no further than House Bill 3508, which passed in the 2009 legislature.

The legislation is still making waves in current political campaigns, including the East Multnomah County race between Democratic incumbent Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson and her Republican challenger, Scott Hansen.

Some prognosticators believe the Monnes Anderson/Hansen race could go either way and, if it turns Republican, it could change the balance of power in the Senate where Democrats currently hold a 16-14 edge.

If you go back and read HB 3508, its 29 pages are hard to decipher. But it passed by clear majorities in both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Ted Kulongoski. In general, the bill revised a number of statutes with the effect of reducing the time some prisoners serve in state prison. And that has become fodder for political ads aimed at Monnes Anderson for supporting increased "good time" provisions for certain offenders, which meant they got out of prison earlier.

Oregon's Virtual Presidential Campaign

Oregon isn't a presidential battleground state, which means it has been reduced, in the phrasing of The Oregonian's David Sarasohn, to the role of "campaign ATM."

President Obama made a pit stop in Portland today to appear at a pair of fundraisers. His plane's vapor trail lingered longer than he did. The national press corps was here long enough, though, to scarf down some VooDoo donuts.

Obama followed in the footsteps of Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who has visited Oregon twice to collect campaign cash. Romney stayed longer because he scheduled more fundraising events. 

Neither candidate has staged a public event or submitted to an interview with local reporters to comment on issues of interest to Oregonians. Obama's visit was originally to include a grassroots event, but the shooting in Theater 9 in Colorado led to a schedule disruption. He did make a short stop at a breakfast place and visited with some veterans.

In previous election cycles, Oregon has been a state in play, attracting candidates from both major parties and often those from minor parties, such as the Green Party’s Ralph Nader. But the 2012 presidential election, so entertaining and unexpected in the GOP primary season, has turned into a predictable trench war targeting a shrinking number of undecided voters in a handful of battleground states. 

The election may be a foregone conclusion before the major party nominating conventions officially select the candidates in late August and early September. Naturally, both nominating conventions are on the other side of the continent.

So far, Oregonians haven't complained much about the presidential political slight. One reason is they have been spared the annoyance and anger sparked by endless attack ads, many funded by shadowy groups with unknown donors.

It is true, the absence of presidential attention has meant our job-producing manufacturing sector has gone largely unnoticed at press conferences and photo opportunities, which could produce memory-making pictures for their company walls.

Political operatives are quick to assure Oregonians they haven't been forgotten or, for that matter, taken for granted. Our votes count, even if the political assumption is that they already have been cast.

Kitzhaber Brings Home Bacon

The big news last week revolved around Governor Kitzhaber's successful, last-minute trip to Washington, D.C. where he negotiated final terms of a deal that will bring Oregon almost $2 billion in federal money over the next four years to finance health care reform. The first installment — $620 million — is expected to arrive in Oregon by July 1.

As The Oregonian put it in its lead story on the successful trip: "Kitzhaber saves Oregon budget and his reputation in health care deal with Obama Administration." Both points are true. Oregon needs the money to fund reform. And, Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor who thinks, lives and breaths health care policy, had almost no choice but to succeed in D.C.

What remains is a question about whether the new federal money can be used to fill budget holes or must be devoted to new health care reforms. But that question, as important as it may be to budget analysts, ignores the basic policy point — the money will go to reform and that will mean that the reforms have a better chance for success here.

Contrasting Views on Jobs Legislation

The Oregonian headline tells the story: "Congratulations and complaints."  Congratulations for handling the big issues of health, education and early learning reform. Complaints about the failure of a number of jobs bills.

Issues directly related to Oregon's economy tended to take a back seat during the short session in Salem, notwithstanding claims to the contrary in various post-session communications by legislators to their constituents.

In floor speeches on the Health Insurance Exchange (House Bill 4164), achievement compacts for school districts (Senate Bill 1581) and health care transformation (Senate Bill 1580), Democrats painted a picture of those major reforms mattering to small businesses in Oregon. Major business associations supported all of the reforms, but it is not clear that any of the bills will create jobs on their own. 

Democratic leaders said as health care costs go down, businesses will have more money to invest in creating jobs. Legislators on both sides of the political aisle and Governor Kitzhaber deserve credit for taking on big issues such as health and education reform.  

House Democratic Leader Tina Kotek, D-Portland, continued that theme in a piece in the Statesman-Journal, "We promised to give businesses the tools they need to grow and hire, stand up for middle-class Oregonians and prioritize the essential services Oregonians need most. Now that the dust has settled after last week's adjournment, I am happy to report that we delivered on those promises."

Republicans pointed out what was left on the cutting room floor during the legislative session and pointed the finger at Democratic opposition.

“With 190,000 unemployed Oregonians, the legislature’s inaction on jobs and the economy is inexcusable,” said House Republican Leader Kevin Cameron, R-Salem. “Nonetheless, House Republicans continued to work with the Governor and legislative Democrats to find common ground on other issues. We’ll continue to provide lea