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Layoffs Leave Coverage Void

Newsrooms in Oregon and around the country are being hollowed out by the pandemic. What will that mean during an election year?

In late March, as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic was becoming serious in Oregon, Andrew Cutler learned about a more specific crisis looming on the horizon at his job. Cutler is the editor and publisher of the Hermiston Herald and the East Oregonian in Pendleton. He got the news from the publisher at their parent company, EO Media Group.

“Our ad revenue basically fell off the table,” Cutler said. “It plummeted.”

With the advertising lifeblood of their paper suddenly cut off, the East Oregonian and their sister papers in Hermiston, La Grande, Baker City, John Day, and Enterprise took drastic measures. By the end of the month 47 employees would be laid off across the company.

With misinformation becoming a feature of the pandemic and the 2020 election, there are risks to having fewer sources of reliable information to vet candidates.

Like so many parts of life in recent months, the pandemic has laid bare vulnerabilities of institutions already on the brink. In the case of journalism: the reliance on advertising revenue.

“Newspapers are typically reactionary to whatever’s going on in the outside world,” Cutler told me. “So, when something like this happens, there’s always a trickle-down effect.”

These pandemic-inspired layoffs in eastern Oregon are not unique. July 30th marked the last issue of the Bandon Western World. It merged with the Coos Bay World, which at the same time, went from five print publications per week to just two. Countless news outlets instituted furloughs, including Jefferson Public Radio, where staff are furloughed 20% through the end of the year along with many other employees at Southern Oregon University. NPR’s national network is projecting a $30-43 million deficit next year.

The Poynter Institute has, so far, tracked at least 50 news outlets around the country that have gone out of business completely or been closed through mergers with other outlets since the pandemic started.

Diminished newsrooms are an even bigger deal in 2020 than other years. On top of the most consequential news story in decades—the pandemic and its many tendrils—the coming 2020 election should mean more reporting, not less. Communities voting in local races have the most to lose with less election coverage, like the vacancy of Democrat Arnie Roblan in State Senate District 5 in Coos Bay. But there are implications for national races too.

The majority of EO Media Group’s newspapers are in eastern Oregon, where the race for Congressional District 2 will play out between Republican Cliff Bentz, Democrat Alex Spenser and Independent candidate Patrick Archer. The race will be covered by reporters in Portland and Salem, as well as here in Ashland, but institutional knowledge in eastern Oregon newsrooms of those candidates before to the 2020 election season helps voters know who they are outside of campaigning.

In 2016 the presidential election was defined by the power of social media, an unmediated form of communication with few meaningful ways to vet the accuracy of information. With misinformation becoming a feature of the pandemic and the 2020 election, there are risks to having fewer sources of reliable information to vet candidates.

For example, Jo Rae Perkins, the 2020 Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Oregon follows QAnon conspiracy theories. She won the primary in May and will face Democrat Jeff Merkley in November.

Between the election, the economies of Oregon and the nation in freefall, more than 160,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S., and racial justice protests in big cities and small towns alike, Cutler says it would be hard to cover all the stories right now, even before laying off 47 employees.

“I think what papers lose is the ability to really dig in,” he said. “Like a combine [tractor] moving through a field, all you’re doing is churning through story after story after story, just trying to get stuff for the papers.”

In light of everything else, the fate of local newsrooms may seem small. Will we be worse for it? How much will it matter? I don’t know. But as reliable information disappears, how will we know what we don’t know?

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.