by Peter Laufer
We in Eugene are witnessing the slow murder of our daily newspaper. But maybe, just maybe, what’s rapidly becoming too thin to wrap fish and line the birdcage, can still be saved.
When I moved here a dozen years ago to join the faculty at the University of Oregon, The Register-Guard was a crucial member of the community. Owned by the very local Baker family, the paper was packed with local news reported by its hometown news staff. Its pages were a veritable art gallery, displaying vibrant images captured by its award-winning photojournalists. Its op-ed section came alive with the voices of my new neighbors. I periodically wrote op-eds for the paper, pleased with the opportunity to add my ideas to that very local chorus.
When what’s now the Gannett Company — the corporate monster that owns more U.S. newspapers than any other — bought the RG, butchery began: de facto pink slips to venerable reporters and editors and photographers in the form of buyouts, and local news coverage replaced with outdated reporting from elsewhere via Gannett’s USA TODAY network. The latest blow is the paper’s announcement that it’s silencing the op-ed ensemble.
Earlier this month, the RG’s then-editor Michelle Maxwell tried to find an ethical excuse for punching “delete” on readers’ opinions. “The time to edit and ensure accuracy and fairness before publishing opinion content is a time-consuming responsibility that this newsroom’s resources can no longer bear,” she complained. “And to publish the opinion page without that oversight would be irresponsible.”
Days later she was out the door herself, along with, in just the last few months, hundreds of Gannett newsroom employees while, according to the industry trade magazine Editor & Publisher, Gannett’s CEO Mike Reed banks a $900,000 annual salary.
What does that mean for us in Eugene? These headquarters slash-and-burn tactics translate to a thin rag staggering off presses and out of screens with a few of yesterday’s news stories wrapped with advertising. Gannett is in the extraction business, mining as much local wealth as it can with minimal investment. It wants no op-eds that might upset potential advertisers and interfere with its access to our local and its national advertising dollars. Public service is no longer on its corporate agenda.
Before the RG lets out its last proverbial death rattle, there might be a fix that could serve both the corporate monster and our local public university.
Gannett has sold a couple dozen of its newspapers back to local ownership. While Eugene is not a news desert, since both KLCC and the Eugene Weekly provide local coverage, the lack of a rigorous daily newspaper is detrimental to our community.
How about Gannett donates the RG to our local UO School of Journalism and Communication? The paper can operate in the teaching hospital model — a not-for-profit re-invented to serve the community as both an independent news source and an education laboratory. The paper draws on the resources of the UO student body and faculty, an experiment that gains support from the public and from the business community.
This concept is not without precedent. The Oglethorpe (County) Echo, operating near the University of Georgia in Athens, was recently donated to the university’s journalism school.
Students now create the newspaper content. Subscriptions, advertising, and donations help pay the bills. A professor is managing editor. The award-winning Columbia Missourian staff are University of Missouri journalism students. University of Kansas students staff the Eudora Times and Northeastern University creates a variation on the theme with Boston’s The Scope.
The time seems ripe — to use our Oregon cliché — to just do it, Gannett.
Journalist Peter Laufer is the James Wallace chair professor of journalism at the University of Oregon.