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Can Oregon's Local Newspapers Survive The Pandemic?

The latest editions of USA Today and The Oregonian newspapers for sale at a Southeast Portland, Ore., 7-Eleven store on Friday, April 17, 2020.

Bryan M. Vance

The latest editions of USA Today and The Oregonian newspapers for sale at a Southeast Portland, Ore., 7-Eleven store on Friday, April 17, 2020.

On Wednesday, the owners of The Oregonian — the largest paper in the state — announced they were cutting employee pay by as much as 20% from May through December. They’re also requiring employees to take additional unpaid furloughs of one or two weeks, depending on department.

Heidi Wright is the publisher of the Bend Bulletin and the chief operating officer with EO Media Group, which publishes 13 newspapers across the state. The company laid off 47 employees across its newsrooms in the last month. 

In the face of those hard choices, Wright told OPB’s “Morning Edition” that she’s confident more job cuts aren't on the horizon for her organization.

“I don’t see more layoffs coming. I think we took action fairly quickly, and we anticipate that we’ll be able to keep our current staffing level through this crisis,” she said. “And we’ll come out the other end hopefully a stronger, sustainable company.”

Despite mass layoffs, EO Media newsrooms such as the East Oregonian and the Hermiston Herald are striving to still meet the demand for accurate and timely information.

“We’ve never been busier. Our newsrooms might be ghost towns, but we’ve got a lot of reporters out, and we’re producing a lot of content, which I think is getting consumed voraciously in our communities,” Wright said.

“As of last night, [we had] 930 bylined coronavirus stories. That’s just on this topic, let alone the other news we need to continue to report on.”

EO Media Group is getting help from the federal government through a payroll protection loan, which covers payroll for 214 of its remaining employees in Oregon. That includes everyone who works for the company, not just reporters.

However, local journalism was struggling to stay afloat even before the coronavirus hit, as overall advertising and subscription revenues have been on the decline. Wright said the business model needs to adapt when hard times come.

“Google and Facebook have done a really good job of monetizing the content that all of us produce ... so we’ve got to figure out how to find new revenue streams, and we’re doing that,” Wright said.

In the meantime, Wright said Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the state government could potentially step up to save local newspapers in a time of crisis.

“It would be very helpful if the governor’s office would utilize the newspapers around the state and the other media organizations around the state that produce journalism — if they could utilize us with their ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ campaign,” Wright said.

“It’d be nice to see some of that money stay in Oregon and save some journalism lives.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Geoff Norcross, Donald Orr