Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Some uninvited advice for The Oregonian

The Oregonian is shrinking again.

The way it is going about its slow disappearing act — and that’s what it is — says something about why it will continue to fade to nothing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a newspaper guy and I want to see a major news presence of Oregonian-proportions survive.

Notice that I didn’t say a major “newspaper.” That may not be possible.

But I do want a financially viable Portland news organization to emerge from the turmoil that has hit the industry. It may take some combining of resources and an entirely new methods of funding.

It will certainly take new ways of thinking.

It’s about time. For instance, it’s time for the news to be free of advertising pressures and compromises.

It may also mean the end of petty, cheap-shot competition. Journalism and journalists should have one share, and even cooperative, purpose: informing the public.

Call me crazy, but I believe The Oregonian could be the locus around which this new journalism emerges. Other journalistic “partners” could be Willamette Week, Community Newspapers and OPB.

But The Oregonian, as the big dog, is critical. And if the big dog is dying, things could fall apart quickly.

So what can The Oregonian do short-term to survive?

Here are seven recommendations.

The most recent evidence of the paper’s decline is subsuming the “Business” section into the front news section. The change says, in effect, that the “Business” section isn’t worthy of the reader’s separate consideration. Unlike, for instance, the “Sports” section, which remains very much its own entity. The message is that sports is more important than business.


Part of the problem is in the old section’s name, “Business.” The “Business” section has evolved, or should, from being strictly about business to being about the economy. It ought to be “The Economy” section.

Recommendation #1 is to call it “The Economy” and include news about labor and personal finance as well as about business. People are talking a whole lot more about the economy these days than, say, about The Blazers. Which brings us to….

Recommendation #2. If “Sports” is worthy of its own section and massive column inches (a doubtful assumption), “The Economy” certainly is equally deserving. Its substance is nothing less than our livelihood, our well being, our savings, our sense of security.

Come to think of it, “The Economy” increasingly determines “How We Live,” (HWL) which happens to be the name of another section.

Recommendation #3. Call “How We Live” something else like “Time Out” or “The Rest of the Story” (thank you, Paul Harvey) or “UpBeat” but don’t change its content. One exception: move any HWL economy story to the new “The Economy” section.

As it turns out, I spend more time with “HWL” than any other section. That’s because of its daily publication of games. The time-sink for me is Sudoku. The reason: It’s inter-active — like the Internet, which competes for the rest of my time.

Recommendation #4. Keep the “HWL” format but consider using interactive features in other parts of the paper.

Recommendation #5. Put “Sports” at the back of “How We Live.” Clearly sports are an attraction for many folks, mostly hairy chested ones who form symbiotic relationships with sports figures.

The above recommendations likely will do little more than buy the newspaper time to create a new journalism institution. Which leads us to....

Recommendation #6. Start talking with other news organizations and institutions about the future of Portland journalism. Get over bruised or inflated egos and start to put together a plan for serving the public. Consider a quasi-public service, non-profit organization called “The Portland News Consortium.”

Recommendation #7.
Challenge your readers and your own old assumptions and habits by dropping useless baggage. It can be as far-reaching as cooperating and converging with other news organizations and media, or as simple, but ethical, as announcing that the paper will cease referring to the University of Oregon/Oregon State rivalry as a war — specifically a "Civil War."

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Anonymous Bob R. said...

There's a blog post over at Mother Jones related to this, on the topic of non-profit journalism:

10:51 AM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

The Sun Magazine offers another model for sustaining a publication. This appeal, plus the quality of the publication, led me to write a check.

11:17 AM  

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