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As newsrooms shrink, agencies create their own news operations to get their message out

COURTESY: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Portland State University Associate Professor Lee Shaker is launching a nationwide study on how the loss of local newspapers affects people's perceptions of their government. As Oregon newsrooms have gotten smaller, less experienced and more demanding, the ranks of well-paid government communications staff have swelled — a trend that is only expected to continue.

Many journalists laid off from or leaving the industry are now often acting as media gatekeepers for public agencies and officials, and even producing news-like content for the government agencies that now employ them.

Lee Shaker, a researcher at Portland State University, says this has become a necessary part of the government information cycle, as the old system of news has fallen apart over the past two decades.

But there is a risk to democracy when the news environment is so fractured, he says. Government still needs to get information out to the public, the public is now bombarded with information, and politicians find it advantageous to attack the independent press, Shaker says.

"That creates a lot of uncertainty and uncertainty is grounds for distrust, grounds for disagreement," he says.

Shaker argues that Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly was elected because of this sort of low-information environment. Eudaly's opponent, incumbent Steve Novick, was endorsed by several Portland newspaper editorial boards.

Certainly, some of this conflict was at the heart of Eudaly's attacks on journalists who cover her and her bureaus — exposed Nov. 10 by freelancer Mike Bivins when he posted screenshots of Facebook posts she thought were private. In them, she suggested repeatedly that she felt the mainstream media were irrelevant.

Are news standards eroding?

Dave Austin, a reporter at The Oregonian from 1986 to 2002, now leads a new communications team under Eudaly at the Bureau of Developmental Services. He says the team was mischaracterized in the Nov. 10 story in The Oregonian that inspired Eudaly's rant, which was leaked via Twitter.

"The expectation ... that I have of the media is that people get things right and that they provide context for readers," Austin said, criticizing the current news environment for being too quick to publish stories. "I think there's a lot of pressure on the media to post first and then go back and clean things up."

"I think," says Eudaly's Chief of Staff Marshall Runkel, whose father was a journalist, "this incident is kind of a good manifestation of exactly the problem associated with declining newsrooms."

Oregonian editor Mark Katches stands by the report and did not respond to a question about the current size of his newsroom.

Several anecdotal accounts say The Oregonian's reporting staff is between 100 to 120, about a quarter of its heyday.

The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group's news staff has also shrunk in size, though the reporting staff has grown since the 2007-09 recession, says company President Mark Garber. Garber estimates there are close to 100 reporters, photographers, copy editors and other news-side staff at the more than two dozen Pamplin newspapers.

Damian Radcliffe, a researcher at the University of Oregon, says the news environment is not as bad as some ex-journalists may think.

"There are a lot of rose-tinted spectacles in looking back on how journalism was versus how it is now," Radcliffe says. "What is clear is that there are fewer resources but ... I think the quality of reporting that we see on a daily and weekly basis remains incredibly robust."

Radcliffe, who recently published a paper on the state of local journalism in the Pacific Northwest, says news organizations are diversifying with new revenue streams and new partnerships between former competitors.

"You didn't have the resources you once did, but there are still a lot of people interested in government reporting, but you have to work together," he says.

The 'official line'

Radcliffe also says public affairs reporting has changed now that government has many channels to communicate with constituents.

Being a "stenographer" for government meetings and the like is now redundant, he says.COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF OREGON - Damian Radcliffe, a professor in journalism at the University of Oregon, says news reporters no longer have to be 'stenographers' for government meetings. Those in government communications worry this creates a lop-sided view of government activities, however.

"I think that should be seen as an exciting opportunity for journalists in that regard," Radcliffe adds, because news organizations can concentrate on investigative and enterprise work.

Chris Broderick, a former Oregonian staffer and now head of a major government communications team, says the tension between journalists and the "official line" from politicians and public officials is not much different than it used to be.

"That's been going on forever," Broderick says. "I think what's changed is the media side."

Broderick spent 32 years in journalism before leaving The Oregonian in 2010. While he says individual journalists are still doing good work, he joins other ex-staffers in worrying about the loss of in-depth coverage.

"I think a lot of people are less informed, no question about that in Oregon," he says. "I think people are still doing a good job of hustling news and being watchdogs and doing what they can, but it's just a matter of resources."

Broderick now leads 15 full-time staff and three part-timers in his communications office at Portland State University. The office handles myriad duties, from an alumni magazine with 120,000 copies, crisis communications, marketing, internal communications and a website with approximately 30,000 pages.

Broderick says he is not worried about news-like products on government written by government communications staff.

"Those resources (from private news organizations) are gone and they're not coming back, and I think that's unfortunate for the community," he says.

An obligation to communicate

Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert at The Poynter Institute journalism school, says the role of news organizations is to answer the public's questions.

"If a public official feels that 'You are not covering the whole of what we do,' that public official is mistaken about what the news media is supposed to be doing," says McBride, vice president of the Florida institute.

Despite the advent of social media and government communications teams — such as Eudaly has — public officials still have an obligation to talk to the press, McBride adds.

"There is really very little excuse for a public official being unresponsive to other organizations just because they have their own news organization," McBride says. "Open government is open government."

She adds that government has an obligation to communicate with the public despite smaller newsrooms.

"So it makes sense that they would have to create their own news machines," McBride says. "The problem is when they don't necessarily serve the public's interests and become spin machines and propaganda machines."

When that happens, she says, "The only check and balance on that is the responsibility of the public official in charge."

Hungrier for news

Julie Sullivan-Springhetti is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Oregonian reporter. She now does communications for Multnomah County, leading a nine-member team that produces emergency communications, stories, photos, video and other content for 18 websites and several print products across the county.

Though her communications team hasn't expanded since the early 2000s, they are filling a huge information void, Sullivan-Springhetti says. She joins Broderick and Austin, her former boss, in lamenting the loss of a large body of in-depth journalism.

"The newspaper of record disappeared," Sullivan-Springhetti said, alluding to The Oregonian's contraction. "If print reporters are a fraction of the number that they used to be, and they aren't covering things, then there's no way for the public to have" a rounded picture of government activities, she said.

"Nobody is more distressed about what's happened in the industry than I am," Sullivan-Springhetti continued. "The role of the press in government is literally essential."

But she also sees signs of change.

"The hunger for sort of that neutral, accurate and thoughtful news reporting is rebounding," she says.

Sullivan-Springhetti says the news industry will never go back to the way it was, but she has recently seen more people with newspapers in their driveways or reading a print product on the MAX.

"They're kind of back, and that gives me hope," she says.

Radcliffe also feels that there is no need to despair.

"The journalistic landscape is different and will change and evolve, but I think fundamentally the tenets will remain as strong and as similar today as they have been for a very, very long time."

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