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Metro's approach makes sense

On Monday, former Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes reluctantly threw his support behind a major land use bill in Salem.

It was a nifty pivot for Hughes and others who a week earlier criticized the bill as unnecessarily meddling with local governance. But that was before last Thursday’s Oregon Appeals Court ruling, which blew up five years’ worth of regional land use planning and, with it, the city’s designs for South Hillsboro and industrial expansion along Evergreen Road.

Suddenly the bill in Salem looked less like an uncharted party boat and more like a life raft.

“In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to do this, but we don’t live in a perfect world,” said Hughes, who is now president of Metro, the regional government charged with guiding development in the tri-county area.

Hughes’ comment, made to Oregonian reporter Christian Gaston, could well apply to an article carried in last week’s Hillsboro Tribune about the land use legislation.

The byline on the story was familiar to many Hillsboro residents. Nick Christensen is a former award-winning reporter for the Hillsboro Argus who left the newspaper in 2010 to join the staff of Metro for a new position of in-house reporter.

Metro (and Nick) took a lot of heat for this experiment in self-reporting. How could Nick be expected to impartially cover the public agency that issued his paychecks?

Bill MacKenzie, in this week’s guest column, does a good job in making the case against the arrangement. MacKenzie’s views carry particular weight because he got high marks working at the upper levels of journalism (as a business reporter for The Big O) and public relations (as spokesman for The Big Chip — Intel).

In a perfect world, I’d happily put my name next to Mac-Kenzie’s. But, as Hughes noted, we don’t live in a perfect world — particularly in this profession.

Newsrooms across the country are now functioning with fewer reporters than they did when I joined the Pamplin Media Group in 2005. At that point, our company had a dedicated Washington County reporter and The Oregonian had a reporter assigned to Metro. Both those positions are gone.

Many large local governments, including Washington County and Metro, now hold public meetings with no journalists present. The same goes for many smaller cities across the state.

That’s why I had no cause to second-guess the Hillsboro Tribune editors last week when they decided to run Nick’s story. Here was a complex issue with huge implications for Hillsboro and a well-crafted story by someone who knows more about Metro’s land use process than any journalist working for our company — or any other media outlet.

Part of my comfort, no doubt, comes from the fact that I know Nick pretty well from his days at The Argus, where he regularly broke stories I wish we’d had first. He’s bright, careful, tenacious and not the kind of guy who will allow his byline on press releases masquerading as news articles. When Metro says his articles are not subject to review by staff or councilors, I believe it.

Those who follow Metro closely say that while there are certain internal controversies that Nick has steered clear of, they’ve never seen any pro-Metro bias in his reporting. In fact, most of the grumbling comes from fellow Metro employees who would like him to be more of a cheerleader and less of a watchdog.

Given the reduced number of reporters hanging out at city halls and county buildings across the state, I’d argue that rather than trashing Metro’s reporting experiment, our industry needs to look at what we can learn from it and what other new models might be out there.

Can there be a local version of ProPublica, a national non-profit investigative journalism organization based in New York City? Would it be appropriate (let alone politically possible) to get local governments to fund it?

Can we leverage the resources of local college journalism programs, offering meaningful work for student reporters who could fill some of those empty chairs at public meetings?

Would key local industries and foundations kick in some cash to fund independent journalism, much as the Kaiser Family Foundation pays for those in-depth reports on National Public Radio?

These are conversations that need to happen — and fast. In the meantime, I have no problem seeing Nick’s byline on these pages. The model Metro has set up isn’t ideal. But right now his reporting is far better than the void that would be left without it in our not-so-perfect world.

John Schrag is publisher of the Hillsboro Tribune.




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