WA, Oregon newspaper cuts show why press support is needed | The Free Press Initiative

Some papers rely on philanthropists; others, some form of non-profit status or partnership. But we need more.

The spate of layoffs and disruption at newspapers across Washington and Oregon, from Everett to Medford and Bend to Astoria, should be a wake-up call.

Residents in affected communities, legislators representing them, civic leaders and philanthropists should consider looking for ways to save their local journalism, if they aren’t already.

Those residents will see how severe the local-news crisis has become in the United States, and how hard it is for much of the country’s voters to stay informed.

The news desert affecting more than half of U.S. counties is spreading into relatively prosperous suburban, coastal areas.

This is hollowing out remaining papers, eroding civic literacy and stoking division as people increasingly get news from social networks and national media more focused on partisan controversies.

I’d encourage local leaders and philanthropists to look through the gloom and consider ways to acquire or support their local outlets or start new ones. Strong, local news sources are not only key to democracy but to civic health and vitality.

New models are proving out regionally and in other states, suggesting that some of these papers can succeed with a fresh start and an infusion of local support. A list of promising models is included the Local News Initiative’s latest report on news deserts.

Options include turning papers into nonprofits or a hybrid, blending a for-profit news outlet with nonprofit support.

The Philadelphia Inquirer was saved from bankruptcy and donated to a nonprofit foundation by a local telecom magnate. It operates as a for-profit subsidiary of the foundation.

The Seattle Times is a for-profit business but sustained and grew local coverage with support from philanthropists and community members.

Another example I wrote about last year is Gig Harbor Now, an online outlet started by community members after layoffs and consolidation by newspaper chains left the area with scant local coverage.

Gig Harbor Now benefited from talented journalists who worked at dailies before cutbacks. Nearly 100 more journalists are now looking for jobs after layoffs announced this month.

Lawmakers representing Washington and Oregon should be reminded by the latest cuts of how urgently government intervention is needed, to save remaining local outlets and incentivize potential new owners.

The U.S. has subsidized the press in various ways since it was formed without compromising the independence of the press. There’s a strong case that the government is obligated by the First Amendment to ensure the press survives.

Refundable tax credits to save newsroom jobs and antitrust reforms to help outlets negotiate better deals with tech gatekeepers have bipartisan support in Congress, including support from most of Washington’s delegation.

Those measures, including tax credits first proposed in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, would have prevented much of this summer’s newsroom losses. But they seem stalled until 2025.

“We would not be having the conversation about EO Media having layoffs and doing cutbacks and going up for sale if the LJSA had passed,” said Heidi Wright, chief operating officer of the Salem-based newspaper group.

Earlier this month EO disclosed plans to close five Oregon papers, lay off 28 of 185 employees and put itself up for sale.

Simultaneously, Portland-based newspaper publisher Pamplin Media sold to a Southern newspaper chain, Carpenter Media Group.

Then Carpenter decided to layoff 62 employees at Sound Publishing, its recently acquired group of 43 papers in Washington and Alaska.

Affected employees include more than half of the unionized newsroom at The Daily Herald in Everett, as I reported June 18.

The Herald bobbled the announcement, initially posting a story about the layoffs June 19 in which Publisher Rudi Alcott was quoted saying “readers won’t notice.”

That story appeared in print but was removed from the website and replaced with a toned down version, with a comment from Carpenter, on June 20.

Alcott “said he has been fielding comments about this decision all day,” Caleb Hutton, local news editor, posted on X. “Just said he appreciated us challenging him on this today. Lots of hard lessons learned, I think.”

The Herald layoffs are scheduled to take effect in July. Labor negotiations over the layoffs are scheduled for Friday afternoon, following a one-day strike Monday.

Todd Carpenter, chairman of Carpenter Media, has yet to respond to my request for an interview. I’d like to know why the company is using its resources for more acquisitions instead of strengthening its already skimpy local newsrooms.

He told The Herald the company has “deep sympathy for those affected by these changes” and it is “committed to Everett, The Herald and all who have a stake in its success.”

“Our responsibility to the community and our readers requires us to make difficult business decisions, and then invest in and organize our team to move forward to produce a product that continues to improve and serve,” his statement said. “Our track record in this process is good. We seek to work with the best and brightest and to pay them well. We must have a strong business with highly productive people to meet our standards, and with the help of our team and community we expect to meet them here in the days to come.”

The company on May 1 offered a starting wage of $19.50 per hour, according to the Everett NewsGuild. That’s above the state’s $16.28 minimum wage but below Seattle’s $19.97 minimum for large companies.

For comparison, the Everett McDonald’s is offering 16-year-olds a $19.50 starting wage.

That, too, should be a wake-up call. It shows how desperately solutions, leadership and support are needed, to ensure communities have robust local news sources.

This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Sign up to receive it at the Save the Free Press website, st.news/SavetheFreePress. Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley is the editor of the Free Press Initiative, which aims to inform the public about issues facing newspapers, local news coverage, and a free press. You can learn more about the Free Press Initiative, or sign up for a newsletter, at https://company.seattletimes.com/save-the-free-press/.