Demise of Local Newspapers in Southern Oregon

From Pulitzer Prize to Useful Fools: The Demise of Local Newspapers in Southern Oregon

Note: This post was inspired by a stunning recent announcement by the publisher and owner of our two local newspapers, letting readers know that he would no longer publish or support liberal points of view. It is part of the much larger story of the demise of local journalism nationwide. I offer more a report than a story, the result of a deep dive into the history of these two local papers and how corporate media giants have gutted the local reporting that builds communities. Barbara Cervone, Ashland, Oregon

City Council and school board meetings. Small-town sports and politics. Local government corruption.

These are a handful of the news and issues that go unreported when small newspapers shutter or gut reporters. Over the past 15 years, more than one in five papers in the United States has closed, and the number of journalists working for newspapers has been cut in half, according to research by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. 

“A vibrant, responsive democracy requires enlightened citizens, and without forceful local reporting they are kept in the dark,” PEN America warns in its report Losing the News. “At a time when political polarization is increasing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared fact-based discourse on the issues that most directly affect us is more essential and more elusive than ever.” 

The circumstances are predictable: As print advertising revenue has plummeted, thousands of newspapers have been forced to cut costs, reduce their staffs or otherwise close. About 20 percent of all metro and community newspapers in the United States — about 1,800 — have gone out of business or merged since 2004, when about 9,000 were being published. Hundreds more have scaled back coverage so much that they’ve become what the researchers call “ghost newspapers.”  

In Southern Oregon, the two longest-standing newspapers remain but their descent feels tectonic.  

A century of aggressive reporting

The Medford Mail Tribune is the Rogue Valley’s biggest newspaper, with a current weekday circulation of 17,138 and 20,505 on Sunday. The Ashland Daily Tidings (today with a circulation of .less than 2,000) has shared the same ownership since 1906.

For over a hundred years, the Mail Tribune reportedly earned recognition and respect for its arguments against “what it perceived to be dangerous, irrational, or unfair—if often popular—political measures, facing libel suits, jailings, death threats, and boycotts as a result.” It was the first Oregon newspaper to win a Pulitzer Prize (1934).

The Oregon Encyclopedia recounts this history.

George Putnam was the Mail Tribune’s first owner and editor. Among his early editorial campaigns was an effort to improve the city’s drinking water — “so muddy that it is clogging the meters.” Putnam suggested that the city was “obtaining money under false pretenses” by selling polluted water to residents, charges that landed him in jail for libel until the Oregon Supreme court reversed the lower-court verdict. “The paper that has no enemies has no friends,” Putnam wrote of his ordeal. 

Putnam sold the Tribune to Robert Ruhl in 1919, equally determined that the paper be an independent force for better government in the Rogue Valley. In the early 1920s, the Mail Tribune editorialized strongly against the increasing influence of the Ku Klux Klan in the state, one of few Oregon newspapers to do so. Facing a boycott of the newspaper by advertisers and Klan supporters, Ruhl hoped that in a “time not far distant, the widespread report that Jackson County is a hot bed of Ku Kluxism, can be finally and permanently denied.”

In 1932-193, in the depth of the Depression, the Mail Tribune survived another boycott and threatened violence by supporters. Unhappy with local election results, a populist insurgency called the “Good Government Congress” staged an electoral takeover of the county courthouse that ended spectacularly in ballot fraud (including stealing 10,000 ballots to prevent a vote recount), street violence, and murder. The Mail Tribune’s coverage of the movement, which gained national notoriety, won it a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism.

Eric W. Allen Jr. took over the editorial reins of the paper in 1964 and soon gained a reputation as a supporter of civil rights, handgun control, land use planning, controls on air and water pollution, and other issues that were unpopular with many Mail Tribune subscribers. “It’s never pleasant to be damned, and I was,” Allen wrote, adding, “I’m a good forgetter, too.” He was a fervent believer in the First Amendment. “Cherish it as you would your lives.”

Revolving ownership

Putnam, Ruhl, and Allen never could have foreseen what lay ahead for the newspaper they held dear. By the 1970’s, who owns your local paper became a question fit for Jeopardy!. 

Gone are the founders who established iconic newspaper brands such as The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune and dominated the industry in the first half the 20th century. They were succeeded by corporate newspaper managers who built large chains, including Gannett and Knight Ridder. Then came the investment entities run by financial portfolio managers who quickly assembled newspaper groups that dwarfed the big chains that came earlier.

From 1973 to 2007, here in Southern Oregon, a subsidiary of Dow Jones controlled the purse strings at the Mail Tribune (along with the Ashland Daily Tidings)In 2007, News Corporation bought Dow Jones in 2007 and five years later sold the Tribune and Tidings to Newcastle Investment, which in turn assigned operations to GateHouse Media, which oversees some 400 newspapers and 350 related websites nationwide. 

In January 2017, a Pennsylvania media businessman, Steve Saslow, purchased the papers from Gatehouse Media (for $15 million) and incorporated the two papers under his new business, Rosebud Media LLC. He immediately assigned its assets as collateral to media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates 200 local stations nationwide, reaching about 40 percent of American households. 

A stunning video in 2018 showcased Sinclair anchors reading required scripts attacking “irresponsible, one-sided, fake news stories.” It renewed scrutiny of the media conglomerate’s years-long effort to inject conservative-tinged coverage into local markets. Its executive chairman, David Smith, is a political ally of former President Trump. 

The Medford “experiment”

Within a year of owner/publisher Saslow’s purchase of the Medford Mail Tribune and the Ashland Daily Tidings, he dismissed the Tidings’ editor and small staff of reporters and cut the staff at the Tribune by half. He said he was conducting an “experiment” on how to best present local news in what he called “a brand new style.”

“Eye, ear, brain,” Saslow explained to the local Jefferson Public Radio. “Eye: it’s got to be visually, really pleasing and storytelling. Ear: it’s got to be unbelievable sound, because we all listen to buds and so forth. And brain: it’s got to be smart. Not like NPR-type smart, but like Apple Computer was smart a decade or 20 years ago.”

In July 2019, in an editorial “From the Publisher,” Saslow outlined the ideas that guided him.

Senators Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., talked at the first Democratic Party debate about free health care (including abortions), free tuition, reparation payments, and so on, but all those are simply examples of redistributing the country’s wealth. Yes, there are tax implications, but they aren’t the big danger. If I control wealth distribution — that is, whether you get housing, food, clothing, a car — I control you. All true socialists and communists know this (just read Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto”).

So what kind of people lead socialist/communist nations? Are they kind, courteous, witty, generous, tolerant, humble sorts? Here’s the list, decide for yourself: Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Nicolas Maduro, Nicolae Ceausescu … even Adolf Hitler (national socialism).

No, they were brutal butchers responsible for the deaths of 10s of millions (and with a fraction of the military power and wealth of the U.S.). You wouldn’t think of letting any of them control your family’s health care, safety or freedom — much less the world’s. Please note: an acknowledgment that socialized medicine has worked in some countries like Canada and France (depending on who you talk to) but both countries are quickly coming around to supplemental private insurance.

Of course, Bernie and Kamala aren’t Stalin or Mao. So we’re safe; right? Not a chance. Stalin, Mao and the others started with people like Bernie and Kamala preaching the progressive ‘good news’ of socialism. (Stalin referred to them as ‘useful fools’). Once they served their purpose, they were seized and killed — often along with their family and friends — regardless of their continued ideological support.

Many conservative authors have written about the connection between an economic system and freedom. In “Capitalism and Freedom” Milton Friedman wrote, ‘A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither.’ Friedman also warned (the) ‘power to do good is also the power to do harm; those who control today may not tomorrow.’

The recent Democratic debates were two nights of ‘useful fools.’ Elect the extremists of the party and we will lose our freedom, then soon after our standard of living. And no one on the planet will be safe.

Everyone needs to understand, especially vulnerable voters who have no idea of the economics involved in the Democratic candidates’ utopian proposals or where it ultimately leads America.

Money in the hands of government is never a good thing, but there are programs that should work.

And, each generation experiments with socialist ideas, Social Security being the obvious example. How’s that working in the hands of government? How will our children feel when there is no money left to fund their social security checks?

. . . And because health care has sky-rocketed beyond most people’s affordability, Medicare, expanded to all, is becoming increasingly popular as a concept. If we do that there needs to be a line held at those who qualify now, versus “everyone.”

Government making promises is easy, but enacting them with an economic model that works is a different matter.

Taxing the rich, the theme of the Democratic Party is a non-starter. Take all the money from the rich (whatever that means) and you can’t dent the cost of the Green Deal and other socialist absurdities. 

I’m open to hearing from you if you see any of these ideas as doable.”

It is not clear whether anyone took up Saslow’ s invitation to add their two cents.

A new shot from the bow

At the end of February ‘21, Saslow stunned readers with an announcement outlining further changes in how the Medford Mail Tribune and the Ashland Daily Tidings would be run. 

From his home in Pennsylvania, he said that he would assume control of the editorial board and decide which editorials run and which do not; he would fire any reporter who he thinks is slanting the news; and he would no longer run stories from the Washington Post or other newspapers he thinks tilt liberal. He would also reject all Letters to the Editor on national topics, adding that “liberals and progressives submit 10 to 1 the number of letters conservatives submit.” He would only accept letters addressing “local or regional issues,” presumably from those whose opinions he favored.

Four days later, an online petition challenging his vision for a “brand new style” had gathered 600 signatures, including mine. (It is worth noting that in the November 2020 election, voters in Medford and Ashland supported Biden-Harris 3 to 1 — but the numbers are reversed in the population enclaves that surround both.)

We have formed a local citizens group to consider next steps, as much as it feels we are whistling in the wind.

Radical rethinking

I am reminded of Mail Tribune owner Eric W. Allen Jr.’s warning in 1970 about supporting civil rights, handgun controls, and other issues unpopular with many of the paper’s subscribers. “Cherish the First Amendment as you would your lives,” he wrote. Fifty years later, at a time when it seems the “conservative right” has weaponized the First Amendment — from the U.S. Congress down to hometown newspapers — his words seem prescient.

At the end of the day, the role of the First Amendment in local journalism is probably moot anyway, gone with hometown coverage of what’s happening at city council meetings or who’s running for office or where to donate food and clothing for those in need or holding public and corporate officials accountable — the news that built communities.

Ultimately, the scope and stakes of the our expanding news deserts calls for a radical rethinking of local journalism, one that recognizes its role as a public good. The report Losing the News concludes that reinvigorating local watchdog reporting will require concerted action and an investment of billions of dollars across the philanthropic, private, and public sectors. It advocates for a new congressional commission to develop concrete recommendations for how the government can better support a free and independent local press.

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//inserted by Sharon