A daily newspaper in Oregon lost its entire newsroom overnight, highlighting the personnel challenge underlying America’s local journalism crisis and complicating the industry’s recovery.
In the first week of March, the editor and all three reporters left the Klamath Falls Herald and News. The publisher is hiring replacements, but the exodus threatens to turn the region, already struggling with drought conditions, into a news desert as well.
Editor Tim Trainor took another job after growing increasingly frustrated with the paper’s lack of investment in journalism during his nearly two years at the helm.
Then the reporters resigned, including two temporary staffers placed via the Report for America nonprofit. Trainor and another reporter who left in January told Jefferson Public Radio that low pay was a problem, especially with rising living costs.
“Once I made that decision I told the reporters. They were worried about their future, we’d been without an editor in the past,” Trainor told me. “They spoke to management themselves and kind of came out of that meeting and at that point they decided to resign as well.”
Newspaper newsrooms that provide most essential local news coverage lost around 60% of their staff, and more than 2,100 newspapers closed altogether since the mid 2000s.
Dwindling local news is eroding civic engagement and democracy. Congress may help with temporary support, to prevent further layoffs as the industry retools for digital competition and pursues antitrust enforcement, new business models and other measures for long-term stability.
Meanwhile, the industry must find ways to retain its remaining journalists and recruit the next generation.
This is especially tough at small and rural papers that have always run lean. Many are now owned by national chains cutting back further. With housing costs rising everywhere and inflation, low pay is less tolerable. The pandemic also prompted all manner of workers to reconsider options.
“The problem is exacerbated by the fact you have an ownership structure now in local news that has no interest in investing in local news,” Tim Gleason, a University of Oregon journalism professor, told me. “It’s a difficult situation. We still have students who are interested in journalism and who are excited about working in local news. The other side of that coin is that a good number of them do it for a few years and say this is crazy, I don’t want to work these hours and for this pay.”
Historically, meager salaries at small papers were offset by training that cub reporters received. That was my journalism school, working for a grizzled editor at The Sequim Gazette for $15,000 a year.
That doesn’t square if there are no mentors or institutional knowledge left in the room.
That’s why the university canceled plans to place an intern at the Klamath Falls paper.
“We’re not going to send an intern without an editor,” Nicole Dahmen, associate professor of journalism and co-coordinator of the internship program, told me.
Nor will the school have an intern this year at its hometown paper, The Register-Guard in Eugene, which was acquired by Gannett in 2020. Matching funds for interns apparently weren’t available and there are “too many hoops to jump through there,” she said.
Trainor said grants and donations brought $100,000 to the Herald and News but that didn’t lead to additional staff in a newsroom that shrank in recent years. Temps were paid around $30,000 with half covered by Report for America, and Microsoft and others provided grants for reporting on climate issues, he said.
“It felt like we were trying to figure out new ways to financially support a growing newsroom, and it just didn’t seem like the management wanted to go that direction,” he said.
Trainor, 38, now edits the Redmond Spokesman weekly near Bend. The family-owned publisher, EO Media Group, is investing in a new storefront office and hiring one and maybe two reporters, he said.
The Herald and News is owned by Adams Publishing Group, a Minneapolis company started in 2013 by private-equity veteran Mark Adams with his family’s backing. A Gannett veteran manages operations.
A regional president in Montana, Mark Dobie, is publisher of the Klamath Falls paper and oversees four others.
Dobie said the newsroom will be replenished. For now it’s running with pinch hitters from the parent company, including one based in Florida, and five local stringers.
“We are continuing to seek staff, and the status is the same as it was last week,” he told me.
And the pay concerns?
“That’s not a situation that’s unique to Klamath Falls, it’s common to newsrooms across the country,” he said.
Dobie said the paper is advertising reporter jobs paying $16 to $20 per hour. “We strive to pay market rate,” he said.
The business is doing well, Dobie said. The four-day-per-week printed paper has a circulation of around 5,500 and relatively high market penetration. Digital subscriptions grew 20% last year, and the total audience “is larger than it’s ever been.”
“I just think the demand for everything gives us a bright future where newspapers are going,” he said.
Will that growth support higher salaries? “I do hope the whole market supports it,” he said.
“We’ve got a business model now that sustains a newsroom that has a large enough business to have multiple reporters, an editor, a clerk,” he said. “It’s a very sustainable long-term model if it’s run properly. We’re learning, we’re all learning as we go along, but there’s a lot of new things on the frontier.”
Reasonably decent pay must be part of that future or the journalism crisis will keep getting worse.