Appalling changes at The Oregonian

Most of the 50 people let go in the latest round of layoffs at The Oregonian left the newsroom on September 30 (an exception is the columnist David Sarasohn, who gets to stay to the end of the year.)

What happened next was a betrayal of what journalism had meant for decades at this venerable newspaper. Stories are posted directly to the website by news gatherers—what used to be called reporters—with no editorial supervision. The level of oversight is equal to that of your average local blog, including this one.

The way it used to work

In my day, before I left the paper in 2008, news was gathered and written by reporters, then vetted by an editor or editors who ensured that the story was complete, factual, grammatically clean, and free of offensive language or references (this last happens more than you might suspect; one recent online posting of parade goers mugging for the camera as “Indians” with feathers and war paint, etc., would not have gotten in to the newspaper I worked for).

Despite editors’ eagle eyes, errors would still make it into print, which readers delighted in pointing out. Today, errors are so rife it’s not worth the effort.

How it works now

In the new order, reporters are abjured from talking to copy editors and vice versa. There are no news meetings, as coverage isn’t planned, it’s just posted.

What matters in the new digital reality is how many clicks a writer’s stories garner rather than the content of those stories. Some of  The Oregonian’s best investigative reporters have taken to posting little briefs in the hope that, when the organization counts clicks, they will have gotten enough to survive.

And who cares?

Reaction to this state of affairs depends entirely on the age of the person. When I mention it anyone 55 or older, the reaction is shock and dismay. But for younger folks, including my daughters,  it’s a shrug and a “meh.”

They already know newspaper journalism is dead, they don’t subscribe, they get their news elsewhere. And they are pretty ignorant of local goings-on. None of them has a clue, for example, who bought the University Station post office property near PSU.

Checks from techs

The Newhouse organization, which owns The Oregonian, may have poisoned  journalism, but it isn’t dead yet. I’ve been heartened by the news that Jeff Bezos of Amazon has bought The Washington Post and that Pierre M. Omidyar, awash in eBay cash, is pulling together an investigative reporting team that includes Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian and the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (both of them privy to the Ed Snowden leaks), among others.

The Media Equation column in the Oct 20 New York Times, “Tech Wealth and Ideas are Heading into News,” further points out that Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, has invested in a news start-up and that Chris Hughes of Facebook has bought The New Republic.

This may be for the good: Tech moguls tend to be liberal, libertarian do-gooders. They are also be better educated and less delusional than the tea party proles who consistently and boneheadedly work and vote against their own best interests.

The Times article notes, and I agree:

It would also be a mistake to believe that the only thing digitally enriched players bring is money. The investment of intellectual capital will be just as important. If ever an industry was in need of innovation — of big ideas from uncommon thinkers — it is the news business.

And that’s the way it is

One of my colleagues on the business desk of The Oregonian commented to me in about 1996 that he had no idea this Internet thing—which seemed to me to be the biggest change in communications since the invention of movable type—would be more than a passing trend. He, too, has since left the paper.

Even the paper has left the paper. The Oregonian Publishing Co., which employed me for 34 years, ceased to exist on Oct. 1. The new entity is Oregon Media Group, proud owner of one of the lowest-quality newspaper websites in the country, not to mention a news-starved, hobbled, skinny, and starved print product. Once this newspaper ripped. Now it’s just RIP.


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