Does Anyone Care Anymore?
By Ellis Conklin
The struggle proved too much to bear, and Medford’s Mail Tribune did what some 2,500 other American newspapers – more than 10 percent of them dailies – have done since 2005: It rolled over, like a whale upon the sand, and died.
What made this particular death unusual was the abruptness of its closure earlier this month – on Friday the 13th, no less.
Typically, a death by a thousand cuts precedes a newspaper’s demise. The torture begins, perhaps, with the slash of the paper’s travel budget, or moving into less expensive office digs.
It usually ends when the paper falls into the greedy hands of out-of-state investors who gut it for what it’s worth and pretend that round after round of layoffs will eventually revive the washed-up beast, or that living on a digital format might be the ticket to salvation.
In both cases, that seldom works.
The Medford Mail Tribune was one of Oregon’s oldest news organizations. It was the first paper in the state to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1934, for exposing corruption in its own Jackson County, now the largest population center in southern Oregon, home to almost 224,000.
The Mail Tribune, notes Seattle Times “Free Press editor” Brier Dudley, stopped producing a printed edition in September and closed down a sister daily, the Ashland Daily Tidings, in 2021 – a year before New York City removed the last of its 30,000 public payphones.
Two other Oregon newspapers, the Lee Enterprise-owned Lebanon Express and the monthly Rogue Valley Messenger in Grants Pass, also shut down for good in January.
Mail Tribune publisher and CEO Steve Saslow announced the paper’s sudden departure on its website, saying that all unused paid subscriptions would be refunded.
“This was a difficult business decision,” lamented Saslow, whose Rosebud Media bought the paper from Gatehouse Media in 2017. “The shuttering of this institution is a real loss for all constituents in Southern Oregon.”
Help may be on the way for the venerable publication, however, which I will get into a bit later in this story.
. . . . .
What happened in Medford is not at all unusual. It is happening everywhere. The economic gravity of keeping a newspaper airborne is failing. Medford. Oregon’s eighth largest city, is a pleasant enough working-class community of 120,000. Residents rely far more now on tourist dollars than money once generated by logging or railroad jobs.
The crime rate is high, as is the city’s unemployment rate. Its politics are red. Meth remains a problem, as does its poverty level. Some high-tech firms have moved in in recent years, attracting to cheap land. Also, the Medford area has become a magnet for retirees
But compared to it next-door neighbor, Ashland, with its trendy restaurants, cozy B&B’s, and overpriced boutiques, largely fueled by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – though its attendance has not rebounded since the pandemic – Medford is predominantly a city of Have Nots.
Still, the Mail Tribune died from the same fundamental disease that has inflicted the entire industry.
Simply put, older people, those who grew up with newspapers are passing away and younger people either get their news electronically, or from a wide variety of other outlets, or they don’t simply care to read.
So, what to make of this? Shall we pass the peas and move on? Have we grown numb to yet another tale of woe about the inevitable extinction of print?
. . . .
As I was beginning to write this article for Post Alley, an old friend and Anchorage Times colleague Drex Heikes, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, sent me a story with an intriguing headline: “Dreams of Newsrooms Now Gone.”
Written by Steven A. Smith, former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Smith talks about having spent most of his life in newsrooms and he finds himself dreaming of them.
Wrote Smith: “I suppose all professionals view with affectionate nostalgia the places where their careers started, flourished and ended. But there is no workplace like an American newsroom.”
Smith, who turns 73 in June, began his 42-year-long career, which included nine newspapers in eight cities, at the Eugene Register-Guard, now a gray ghost of its colorful, hard-charging past.
“The rooms all shared those qualities of clutter, novice and smell. But it was the people who made them memorable,” Smith went on. “Journalists are by nature different. They are outsiders, cynics, neurotic iconoclasts. And very smart.”
I was able to interview Smith by telephone last weekend. He told he never worked at the Mail Tribune but knew several fine journalists who got their start in Medford.
“The paper had been struggling for years,” Smith said. At its zenith, 38 reporters worked in the newsroom, but the day it locked its doors, less than a dozen were on hand.
“Things will get even worse for the newspaper industry in 2023,” predicted Smith.
. . . .
And now, hopefully, some good news.
EO Media Group plans to open a brand-new paper in Medford, as soon as the first week of February. It will begin as a three-day-a-week newspaper and it will be called the Tribune, with an editorial staff of 14, which may eventually employ 32 people.
Named for its East Oregonian newspaper, EO has become a media force to be reckoned with in Oregon. It owns 14 newspapers from Astoria to Pendleton and in 2019 helped save the Bend Bulletin after its parent company filed for bankruptcy twice.
EO, however, has experienced its share of fiscal pain in recent years. The company laid off 47 people in 2020.
The president and CEO of EO is Steve Forrester, a fourth-generation Oregon journalist and one-time editor and publisher of the Daily Astorian.
“The Forrester’s are an Oregon treasure. They are old-fashioned news-first people who believe the primary role of a newspaper is to serve the community – not make money,” Drex Heikes told me in a text message.
“All in all, this is good for Medford.”
Time will tell.