Hopefully, The Bulletin can climb out of financial crisis
In recent weeks, it has become public that the regional daily newspaper, The Bulletin in Bend, is facing serious financial difficulties. A January report by Oregon Public Broadcasting noted that the company owes approximately $1 million in back taxes and is three to five years in arrears in five counties. It owns seven smaller newspapers in Oregon and California.
I'm not privy to any inside information about The Bulletin. I've always viewed The Bulletin as an ambitious regional daily that has endeavored to serve our varied communities well. They've had a long line of outstanding, talent professionals on staff, historically able to land their picks of both young and seasoned talent that wanted to live in Central Oregon and work for a daily.
In the 1990s, the city of Bend and The Bulletin were both blowing up, so to speak. The sky was the limit, and apparently profits were rolling in. In 2000, The Bulletin built a massive building as their new headquarters. While computer-use was common and the internet was spreading its tentacles, few knew how the web would grow to impact newspapers, especially daily newspapers. Soon, Craigslist would take a backhoe to classified ads, the bread and butter of dailies. Real estate, which long had a co-dependent relationship with newspapers, realized it was even better suited for the more customer-controlled internet. Full-page auto dealer ads, tire store spreads, grocery ads, they've become somewhat rare.
Meanwhile, newspapers rushed to get our content onto the busy internet highway. And, of course, one of the internet's early draws was it was free to view things. So, we put our stories and photos there, and essentially began unintentionally training web users that they didn't need to buy our product to read our product.
In 2011, just 11 years after erecting its headquarters, The Bulletin faced bankruptcy and put its building up for sale, with the caveat that the newspaper would remain as tenant. It's still on the market.
Reportedly, The Bulletin is being pressed by the courts to solve its financial situation relatively rapidly or else. I don't know the "or else," but, what, liquidation, closing? I sincerely hope not.
The Central Oregonian and the Madras Pioneer have been sister papers, under the same private but nonlocal ownership umbrella, for essentially a half century. The Bulletin has been our joint adversary, in a sense, over all that time.
In my 32 years with the Prineville and Madras newspapers, there have been hundreds of examples of The Bulletin breaking an important Crook or Jefferson county story from under our noses, or getting an interview that would become an excellent feature that we should have had. We endeavor to make those occurrences as rare as possible. Though their cutbacks and reduced advertising is obvious over the years, you won't hear me say that The Bulletin is not a good newspaper. More importantly to our readers, its existence has made our local newspapers better.
I take no great glee in its current financial crisis. No one who takes pride in Central Oregon should. Any business, especially one that has seen its industry turned on its head by the internet, could be visited with that same fate.
Maybe it's another lesson that staying small and agile is of great value in a rapidly changing world. Daily newspapers often face deeper financial and readership challenges than small community papers do. Look what happened to the mighty Oregonian. In the '90s, it was once one of the great newspapers of the West, but in this century adopted a digital-first mantra. Now, well, after massive cutbacks and closing its press plant, it has a pretty good website.
The internet was a grenade to our industry, as it has been to many businesses that thrived under models created in the last century. That's no secret.
Our company just recently adopted a paywall program for its newspapers, an acknowledgement that our community journalism has value, and an acknowledgement that things need to change. It's been reassuring to see how the response to asking people to pay for full access to something that has been free since its inception has gone over. On the most part, it's been understanding and acceptance, and we thank our readers for that support. Sure, there were a few social media comments chastising our decision, but maybe all those who commented as such work in businesses that regularly give their product away for free.
Newspapers will assuredly have to tighten still more in the next several years and/or become ever more adept at selling advertising to, and placing content on, various, ever-changing digital platforms -- all while maintaining, and even doing more with, our traditional print products. Simple, right?
But this for sure, communities need a dedicated, trained media to chronicle their times, to report on their governments, to celebrate their achievements, to share in grief. Facebook groups won't fill that void. It's a newspaper's challenge to make themselves into a business model that can accommodate that role. I know first-hand how difficult that can be in this modern era, and I hope The Bulletin manages to do so. I'm betting it can.