Our Opinion: Battered but unbowed in our mission
By now, you've probably read that journalism is in trouble.
We'd like to tell you a different story. We'd like to report that those fears are overblown — that this is a healthy industry that's already putting its worries in the rear-view mirror. At the News-Times, we've been serving this community for more than 130 years, and we'd like to tell you it will surely be for 130 years more.
Of course, we're committed to telling our readers the truth. And the truth is that this is a very difficult time for journalism, the state of which is precarious for the moment. We're optimistic that, collectively, we will find a way to survive and prosper in our changing economy. But it won't be without a lot of hard work and sacrifice.
And it won't be without your support.
Journalism certainly is threatened by trends like social media crowding out traditional media in the digital advertising market, algorithmic aggregators like Google News replacing news websites as many readers' go-to source of information, and print readership inexorably shrinking as many newspapers and magazines' longest and most loyal readers age and die. That is the truth as well. But the truth is also that, in many ways, journalism is under attack — in this country, in this state and beyond our borders.
Part of the reason newspapers are struggling at the moment is that the Trump administration slapped stiff tariffs on Canadian newsprint — the very type of paper on which you're reading this editorial, if you're looking at the News-Times' print edition. In what's become a rare win for the newspaper business, those tariffs were nullified just over a year ago by the Federal Trade Commission. But with an increasing number of newspaper companies operating with a vanishingly small profit margin, even a few months of paying nearly half as much again for the basic material upon which papers are printed was a damaging blow, especially to many smaller newspapers.
Of course, with the president's well-known and frequently voiced disdain for what he's taken to calling "fake news" and "the enemy of the people," it's hard not to see tariffs like that one as politically motivated.
We could go on about federal assaults on the press, and the way the president demonizes not only his critics, but the journalists who seek to report impartially on his administration. Of course, you can read about national politics in any more nationally focused publication — and there's plenty to unpack here in Oregon.
On this page a few weeks ago, we expressed dismay over the resignation of Ginger McCall, the woman tasked with making Oregon's government more transparent.
In this business, we're accustomed to not having many friends in government, especially at the state and federal levels. But McCall, who is Oregon's first appointed public records advocate, is a champion of government transparency. She's been a sort of ombudsman within the state government, calling for reforms that make it easier for journalists to get access to public records — and thus, for the public to be better informed about what their leaders are up to.
But fighting for accountability rarely meshes well with political pursuits. McCall, who was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown, said last month she had faced so much pressure from Brown's staff that she no longer felt able to serve in her position. Among other things McCall alleged, the governor's advisers urged her to "be on the team" and mold her advocacy to fit Brown's policy agenda, including by backing off transparency bills that put Brown in a bind.
This isn't the way McCall's job should work. Brown certainly doesn't come out of this fiasco looking like the accountable, transparent governor she vowed to be when she took over for scandal-ravaged John Kitzhaber in 2015. But even she now says she will support legislation to make the public records advocate more independent from the governor's office, including taking away her ability to appoint McCall's eventual successor.
Even as the McCall blowup has recently faded from the news cycle, The Oregonian/OregonLive.com reported last week that the Brown administration has stymied the release of records that should be available to the public.
Oregon law generally gives public entities 15 days to fulfill a public records request. But the law contains significant loopholes. One allows a government agency to "fulfill" a records request simply by responding that the records will be available at a later date. Another, intended for use only by the most resource-strapped and understaffed public entities in Oregon, gives its blessing for those time requirements to be ignored altogether.
Meanwhile, boards and councils keep finding ways to evade Oregon's public meetings laws. Legally, when a working majority of a public body meets to discuss business, it has to advertise that as a public meeting and allow members of the public to observe. But the law also allows a public body to invoke executive privilege and close the meeting to all outside observers, under certain circumstances.
At times, those executive sessions have been used as cover for members of a public body to discuss matters that should be aired in a public setting, effectively concealing those discussions from view. That's what St. Helens City Councilor Steve Topaz alleges fellow council members did at a meeting in May, when they used an executive session to talk about how to sell the public on a controversial plan to bring toxic waste from Portland to be stored in St. Helens, not far from residential neighborhoods. Now, a state ethics commission is investigating.
But in Oregon, breaking the law has its benefits — at least when it comes to flouting the state's so-called sunshine statutes.
Lobbyists for cities, counties and special districts fought hard to kill a new law that penalizes public entities for ignoring the public records law. But even that penalty, although a step in the right direction, is a slap on the wrist. A $200 fine isn't likely to discourage a government agency or district from illegally stalling, redacting or simply refusing to disclose information it doesn't want to reach the public eye.
The public meetings law has barely more teeth. The ethics commission can choose whether to investigate a complaint, and if it concludes that the complaint was warranted, it can fine the violator up to $1,000. If the violator was advised by their legal counsel that they were in the clear, though, they must be held harmless — even if they willfully concealed their business from the people they serve.
In the end, that's what this is all about. The government has a duty to be transparent — not to serve the interest of journalists who want to write juicy stores about public malfeasance, but to serve the people who installed that government.
We live in a country and a state where government is supposed to be by and for the people — "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. When a newspaper shuts down and leaves a city or county without coverage, the government becomes immeasurably more powerful in its ability to restrict the knowledge required for the governed to give that consent.
What can you do?
Support your local paper. Buy a subscription. If you don't like getting a newspaper in the mail, the News-Times and its sister publications now offer digital memberships that give readers access to online articles, as well as our e-edition, for a very low cost.
Support public broadcasting. You won't hear radio ads listening to our news partners at Oregon Public Broadcasting, except during pledge drives. Public radio stations don't hold pledge drives because they love asking for money, but because they genuinely rely on the public's support to do what they do. If you have the means, the next time you hear an OPB personality pleading for donations, consider chipping in.
Support the mission of journalism. It's recently come into vogue to smear media outlets, including newspapers, as "fake news." It's not a sobriquet we often hear applied to us, a venerable community newspaper that's laser-focused on reporting the news that affects western Washington County. But it's still one that makes us cringe. Degrading and casting aspersions on the integrity of journalists just for doing their jobs weakens us as a whole. We appreciate your confidence in us — we hope you'll have the same faith that The Oregonian and other, larger media outlets are just as committed to keeping the public informed and getting the facts right.
This is a tough time for journalism. The News-Times has undergone changes, just like everywhere else. But now is the time for us to pull together, to fight to keep our government from doing business in the dark, and to stand up for the value of the free press.
Will you join us?
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)