The inside story at Eugene Weekly of embezzlement, heartbreak, survival — and plans for the future

I got the call on Dec. 13, 2023, as I zoomed south on I-5, bleary and stressed after a late-night flight from Florida. I’d flown into Seattle, thinking I could save money on my return flight from Ft. Lauderdale rather than going straight home to Eugene. But now I faced a five-hour drive with nothing to do but worry about the things in my life needing constant attention: an epileptic dog, a pregnant horse and my newspaper, Eugene Weekly.

I’m the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. I live on deadlines and, as a result, I never get a real vacation. In Florida, I went to the beach with my mother and sisters in the morning. At night, my family went to bed but I stayed on West Coast time with my laptop editing articles, posting stories to our website, writing newsletters and fixing typos. 

At least I didn’t need to worry about the paper’s finances. The woman whose job it was to keep track of the newspaper’s finances — whom going forward I will refer to as the Bookkeeper — had assured everyone the paper was on stable footing.

As it turns out, the Bookkeeper had suffered a scare while I was gone. She’d started having seizures before I left, she said, but while I was out of town, she suffered a series of them, and doctors were going to put her into an induced coma. That had been only four days before I got the call. Amazingly, she was already out of the hospital and working from home, refusing to let anyone step in and do her job.

“Up and running payroll,” she’d texted me. 

But then my phone rang while on I-5.

It came from Derek Johnson, the son of the newspaper’s owner, asking me if I knew why the Bookkeeper had demanded $30,000 to make payroll when the paper was supposed to be doing OK. I pulled over to check my emails but still couldn’t figure it out. 

“I’m a little confused,” I texted Derek. 

Everything else suddenly vanished. The paper needed to come up with $30,000 in cash right now. What had happened? I was completely confused.

No one yet had any idea how bad it really was.

It wasn’t sagging ad sales, falling readership or any of the other factors that threatened the survival of community newspapers today. 

We’d been ripped off. Plundered. Betrayed. And it had all happened from within.

Nearly three months ago, we at Eugene Weekly made the heartbreaking announcement that the paper had been embezzled by a staffer — someone we had trusted — and that for the first time in more than 20 years we would not be printing a paper. 

We didn’t know the scale of the theft (at least $100,000, as we’ve since learned) or the unpaid bills the Bookkeeper had been hiding (beyond $200,000). But our staff of 10 was laid off, from longtime employees to the college student we hired part-time to produce our What’s Happening calendar. We could no longer fulfill the mission to which everyone devoted themselves, bringing you the news of Eugene and Lane County. We thought the paper might never publish again.

Within hours of the announcement, you, our readers, came to the rescue. By the end of the day, the story was on local TV and radio, and by the next week it was national news. We let folks know about our nonprofit support arm and that we could take direct contributions. A GoFundMe campaign alone raised more than $90,000.

But we’ve kept hearing the question: “What really happened at Eugene Weekly?” 

You deserve to know. The story is both stranger, and more common, than you’d think. 

I somehow moved toward journalism from my academic career as a folklorist when I saw an ad in the paper for an environment reporter. I knew nothing about writing for a newspaper when I published my first story about toxic emissions from the Hynix chip plant in west Eugene. That was 17 years ago. A big reason I have devoted myself to this paper, both as a writer and now as editor, is because of the newspaper’s primary owner, Anita Johnson.

At 94, Anita still comes to the office, writes opinion pieces for Slant and discusses the news section with me. Her love of journalism and unending desire to make positive change in the community and the world is at the heart of what the Weekly does. 

It’s been a lifelong commitment. Anita served as editor of the Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon in 1951, when fraternity members burned a cross on a sorority’s front lawn. One of the women at the sorority had been dating a Black man. Anita broke the story and shamed the UO for its racist complacency and coverup. Her reporting made national news.

Anita later worked for the Washington Post before she married her college sweetheart, Art Johnson. Art launched a successful law practice in Eugene, and together they raised four kids. In the early 1990s, one of Anita’s college friends, Fred Taylor, retired from his job as managing editor and later editor of The Wall Street Journal. 

Fred and his wife, Georga, went in with the Johnsons to buy What’s Happening, a free weekly publication. Fred and Anita wanted something more from the paper that was then just a calendar of local events. They wanted a paper that dug out the truth, that spoke up and spoke out. 

Fred died in 2015. Anita often repeats his admonition to her: “Never sell the Weekly. The town needs this newspaper.”

Anita has provided guidance, insight and a gentle hand. She gives direction but never tells us what to print or say — just how to think about our jobs. 

The paper eked it out every year. If there was a profit, Anita sank it back into the business. She and Art helped the paper during the Great Recession but rarely had to kick in her own money. That changed during COVID. 

The paper relies heavily on print ads from restaurants, bars, nightclubs and concert venues — when they closed for COVID, that ad revenue vanished overnight. Most alt-weeklies faced the same crisis. Many didn’t survive.

Anita started reaching for her checkbook more and more often to cover the bills. 

She knew that couldn’t go on forever. Art died in March 2022, and we began to worry about a succession plan. 

Her four kids, all successful in their own right, saw the Weekly as their mother’s pursuit, not theirs.

Derek, a Eugene attorney, summed up his own view of it. 

“I took over my father’s law firm,” Derek often said. “I have no interest in taking over my mother’s newspaper.” 

But that changed after Derek and his siblings watched in October 2023 as the UO School of Journalism and Communication inducted Anita into its Hall of Achievement. At the ceremony that evening, Derek said he knew that he needed to step up and help his 94-year-old mother figure out a succession plan and keep the newspaper going.

First, he had to learn how EW actually operated. He was shocked at what he found. 

Like other small businesses, we ran on trust. The Weekly also operated by committee, with each person — ownership, editor, art director, sales, business, tech — reporting to one another, a throwback to the Weekly’s communal beginnings in the early 1980s. 

Anita didn’t want to be a traditional publisher, overseeing the daily operations. So no one was really in charge.

Derek, a stakeholder in a thriving law firm, knew that no one should run a business like that.

Derek didn’t know anything about the newspaper’s finances. So he went to the one person who should have the answers, the Bookkeeper.

The Bookkeeper had been in charge of the Weekly’s finances and accounting since early 2020 and had previously worked at the front desk, starting in 2018. Her husband also worked at EW. We trusted her — considered her a friend.

For years, EW‘s internal financial controls required Anita to approve every expenditure and sign every check. But that stopped during the pandemic — it didn’t seem safe for Anita to come into the office all the time during the COVID shutdown. That meant the Bookkeeper alone handled the inflow and spending of the Weekly’s cash. 

The Bookkeeper kept saying the paper was still losing money, even post-COVID when ad sales went back up. So why was the Weekly still struggling? 

Derek asked the Bookkeeper for a report on the newspaper’s revenues, spending and current cash balances. The Bookkeeper couldn’t give him a straight answer. Derek was stunned to find out that, when his mother wrote a check to cover the Weekly’s expenses, she was relying solely on the Bookkeeper to tell her how much money the company needed.

Still, no one suspected the accounting problems stemmed from anything but incompetence and disorganization. During a night out with a friend in November 2023, Derek confided that the newspaper’s books hadn’t been balanced for months. “The paper hasn’t even filed its taxes for 2022,” he said. “That’s nuts.”

The Bookkeeper blamed the taxes on the newspaper’s CPA firm and made excuses for everything else. But she still couldn’t answer Derek’s questions, so he kept the pressure on. 

In mid-November, the Bookkeeper presented a budget plan for 2024 to Anita and Derek and the other managers: Rob Weiss, head of ad sales; James Bateman, tech and web; Todd Cooper, art director; and me, the editor.

The Bookkeeper said everything was looking up. The paper might need a little more money from Anita in January — ad sales tend to slump after Christmas — but overall, the future looked rosy. None of us had access to the numbers.

And that’s where things stood when I went off to Florida on Dec. 8.

Two days later, the Bookkeeper suffered seizures and was life-flighted to Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. Her husband told Weiss and me that doctors would induce a coma to stop the seizures.

Here’s what the husband didn’t tell us. The Bookkeeper had a cocaine addiction that she and her husband had kept secret. Her husband thought she’d gotten clean. But she had been back on drugs, doing an 8-ball of coke (or an eighth of an ounce) a day. As she slipped into unconsciousness, the Bookkeeper told her husband that she’d been taking money from the Weekly

She said something about $6,000 and her fears about how hurt Anita would be if she ever found out. 

We didn’t get that story — not yet. We now know why the Bookkeeper, once her seizures had stopped, went back to work quickly and didn’t allow anyone else to deal with the finances. 

Two days later, on Dec. 13, the Bookkeeper called Anita and told her the newspaper needed $30,000 to make the next payroll. Anita wrote the check and then grew suspicious. She called Derek, who promptly had the check stopped.

And that’s all I knew when I got off I-5 and made it home late that evening. I called the Bookkeeper’s husband to see how she was, and that’s when he told me everything about the coke addiction and the $6,000.

He told me he needed to tell the managers personally and would do so the next day. I got off the phone and should have called Derek right away. But I had trouble believing what the Bookkeeper’s husband had just told me. I called a friend, a former investigative reporter, to get his impression.

“Only $6,000?” my friend said. “Don’t believe it. If she’s a coke addict, she didn’t stop at six grand. Double that number and add a zero.” 

My heart sank further. I still refused to believe it could be true. But the next day the Bookkeeper’s husband told the other managers the same story he’d told me the night before. He claimed he didn’t know about the embezzlement and brought us the Bookkeeper’s laptop. “I’m trying to cooperate/assist as much as I can,” he later texted me.

As soon as he left, we called Derek. We alerted the bank, which shut down the Weekly’s accounts. We fired the Bookkeeper and her husband. We went into her office to look at the accounting on her computer. 

It didn’t take us long to see she’d diverted $90,000 in cash, either through electronic transfers or checks she’d written to herself. We would later learn she had given herself a $30,000-a-year raise. And the money that was supposed to go to Oregon Saves for employee retirements that our paychecks showed as going out? Never paid. The bank accounts? Empty.

And then we discovered the debts. The Bookkeeper had done a careful job of deflecting bill collectors and keeping creditors at bay. We owed our printer $70,000. They tell me that when I saw the printer’s bill, I turned white. I only recall my ears ringing. We later learned about a $21,000 debt for the postage meter, at least $10,000 in unpaid taxes, mystery amounts for overdue credit card bills and a line of credit. Our copy editor, Dan Buckwalter, recalls coming to the office soon after we learned about the embezzlement to find a shut-off notice from Northwest Natural Gas stuck to the office’s front door. 

We didn’t know the scale of the damage at the time. Now-retired Arts Editor Bob Keefer witnessed the dark mood that overtook everyone. “In the first days after the embezzlement came to light, the office was a house of mourning,” Keefer recalls. “People were crying at their desks. It was as though someone had died.” 

On Dec. 21, 2023, we published one last issue, the Give Guide, to help people choose worthy nonprofits for their holiday donations. (Irony duly noted.)  

And then, just before Christmas, the newspaper laid off everyone. 

Derek considered having the Weekly file for bankruptcy protection but realized the newspaper could not afford the $20,000 legal fees the filing would require. The Johnson family signaled they were ready to give up.

According to a 2020 study by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, billing and payroll fraud is two times higher and check and payment tampering is four times higher for small businesses. We learned, after we revealed the embezzlement, that it’s more common than we knew. Businesses and nonprofits around Lane County and the country told us of their own embezzlements that they have chosen not to reveal due to the embarrassment and possible backlash. 

But Eugene Weekly is a newspaper, and transparency is what we are all about. We couldn’t just disappear without telling the community what had happened. 

So we decided to go public on Dec. 28, our next publication date. 

When I sat down to write that painful message, I expected to be writing the Weekly’s obit. But within days after Christmas, Anita and Derek Johnson decided to fight on. That’s Anita’s way. She wanted the community to weigh in. 

Rather than announce the death of the Weekly, I instead wrote this:

Eugene Weekly is this town. We are who we are because we are the community’s paper, for better or for worse. We’ve sought to enlighten you. We’ve sought to entertain you. We’ve pissed you off, even when we didn’t mean to. And most of all, we have stood as this community’s alternative voice, a watchdog that speaks up to power on behalf of everyone. 

“We’re heartbroken to have to tell you that this independent voice is in danger of falling silent. There will be no print paper edition of EW, for the first time in more than 20 years. And we are fighting like hell to print another one.”

The message went out under the headline, “Where’s the Damn Newspaper?” The Register-Guard, KLCC and local TV all covered the story, which went national the next day — from The New York Times to the Associated Press

But the most important news to us: You came to our rescue. 

People started emailing and calling, asking how they could help. We directed people to our nonprofit arm. We set up that GoFundMe account — we hadn’t done so in advance because we could not imagine the sudden outpouring of support. Local businesses did fundraisers, and people sent checks large and small, and it all gave us so much hope.

Slowly, we brought staffers back on the payroll. Our printer agreed to keep printing us, as long as we paid in cash upfront — which was more than generous. After Eugene Weekly’s red boxes sat empty for six weeks, we returned to print on Feb. 8. The headline: “Here’s Your Damn Newspaper.”

We raised more than $200,000, and the gifts that sustain us are still coming in.

Our journalism came roaring back. Retired journalists and freelancers offered stories and help. My staff never stopped showing up and trying to help. The Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism sent us more than 10 student reporters to help cover the news. Those reporters helped us break stories online, including the news that Eugene 4J Superintendent Andy Dey was under investigation, a story we stayed ahead on right up to the day when the school board voted not to renew Dey’s contract. 

We broke news about illegal searches at Lane County’s juvenile detention center and examined false claims against Measure 110, the state’s efforts to decriminalize possession of drugs. We’re investigating allegations of women being drugged at UO fraternities. We mourned the loss of homeless advocate Eric Jackson.

Today, I’m writing to tell you we expect Eugene Weekly to emerge stronger than before.

You deserve to hear from us how we plan to do that.

We have revamped our financial systems to ensure all our revenues — and your gifts — remain secure.

Before we spent any of your donations, we put better controls in place. We now have outside bookkeeping through accounting and business consulting firm Kernutt Stokes, creating a division of duties and developing robust practices to ensure reliable cash controls. We now get monthly financial reports. 

We reported the embezzlement to the Eugene Police Department, which is now waiting for us to turn over evidence. But it turns out investigating and prosecuting an embezzlement is lengthy and expensive — a retainer for a forensic accountant firm is $10,000 or more. We’ve asked Kernutt Stokes to examine the records. When the accounting portion is done, the information will then be handed to the Financial Crimes unit of the Eugene police. 

We have produced a long-term business plan that maps out our growth over the next five years.

How do we plan to grow? 

Eugene Weekly readers love their print edition — and so do we — but we also need to improve our website and the digital delivery of our stories. This means seeking advertising revenues through the website and diversifying our revenue sources beyond print ads. 

We are hiring new office and sales staff to rebuild and diversify our revenues, and we’re bringing back our arts and news reporting team.

We’ve committed to spending every spare dollar on our journalism. That means hiring more reporters and editors to deliver more of the news you expect.

To make sure this happens, we’ve appointed an interim publisher: Mark Zusman, owner and publisher of Willamette Week in Portland. We’ve also hired a community engagement director — Jody Rolnick, the former editor and publisher of the Cottage Grove Sentinel, who is also an experienced grant writer — first to try to thank folks for their help and then to build on that goodwill and trust for the future. 

And most importantly, we are continuing to be the local, independent source of news and entertainment that you have loved. We continue to publish your letters and opinions, to list your events in the calendar and to cover the stories that make this community better and stronger — just as you have made us better and stronger. 

We pledge to honor your trust in us. And maybe the best way to end this account is to share an essential part of the mission statement that has guided us for years — a mission that means more now than ever.

Eugene Weekly exists to boldly question prevailing wisdom and authority. We expose corporate practices and public policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many. We provide a voice for the oppressed and dismissed, and support unfettered artistic expression. As informed citizens, we carry a responsibility for community leadership. We advocate aggressively for environmental sanity, government accountability, sustainable economics, social justice, cultural diversity, tolerance and the lively, free interchange of ideas and opinions. 

Eugene Weekly has always owed its existence to you. We now acknowledge we also owe our survival to you.