Here in Central Oregon, we are fortunate not to live in a "news desert" where local coverage is hard to find. Between our weekly coverage, and the daily coverage at two local TV news stations, a daily newspaper, several other community papers, a public radio outlet with a reporter in Bend and the coverage of several other local radio outlets, Central Oregonians are informed.
Other parts of the state are not as fortunate. Last week, the Medford Mail-Tribune, which serves a community similar in size to that of Bend and Central Oregon, announced its final closure. The Mail-Tribune had existed only as an online publication since last September, and on Jan. 13, even its online operations ceased.
The Mail-Tribune was created under the wing of storied editor George Putnam in 1909, serving all this time as a watchdog of local government and earning the distinction of being Oregon's first Pulitzer Prize winner for its coverage of corrupt local politicians. It was more recently under the ownership of media conglomerate GateHouse Media, which then sold it to a smaller company, Rosebud Media, under the ownership of Steven Saslow in 2017. In a letter to readers in July 2019, Saslow promised to, "make our reporting unbiased and our editorials more open to many different points of view."
In buying the paper, Saslow shared a vision that will sound familiar: "The goal and vision was not to save a newspaper, but to transition news and information onto multiple platforms in a more modern way," he wrote.
During the pandemic, many people were reminded, acutely, about the value that local media provides. Readers looked to local media to inform them of the financial safety nets that would be coming in the wake of all the business, school and other closures. They turned to local media to get accurate information about pandemic guidance and exactly when they could access vaccines in their communities. Beyond the rhetoric and the fabulist notions found on cable news channels, people found real "news they could use" in their local news outlets. As readers sought credible information, many of them were also reminded of the need to support those entities. We certainly saw that ourselves with an increased amount of support for our Source Insider program.
Research published by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University found that communities lacking a strong print or digital news outlet suffered from declines in voter participation and an increase in political corruption, which then leads to political polarization and a spread of misinformation.
People turn to local media to offer a mirror on their communities and their unique needs – something that's tougher if not impossible to do from some faraway locale. Readers turn to local media to interpret and unpack local happenings on the opinion pages – to offer insight and opinion that might help them make decisions about their lives. Increasingly, media outlets are ducking that responsibility to the public for fear that they may upset the economic interests that are sustaining them. But cutting editorials or watering down opinion pages so they more closely resemble news stories does not make people want to follow the news outlet. If anything, it makes them ignore it all together.
As a media outlet that's weathering the storms of dystopian social media platforms and the subsequent polarization, as well as shrinking attention spans, there's no doubt that publishing remains a challenging endeavor – but it remains meaningful work, as the community of Medford is about to find out.