By editorial board • 

Support your local newspaper; our democracy depends on it

Jackson County’s Medford Mail Tribune ended more than a century’s reign as one of Oregon’s biggest and best daily newspapers last fall when it announced it was ceasing print publication.

Earlier this month, it followed up by announcing it was ceasing online publication as well, leaving a city of 85,000 and county of 225,000 devoid of news sources even approaching its breadth and depth.

Chronicling the demise of the American newspaper has been a growth industry since at least the advent of network television in the 1950s, if not the advent of network radio in the 1920s. And it hit warp speed after the internet burst onto the scene in the 1990s.

Dire 20th century prophecy has since morphed into stark 21st reality. The death of the storied, Pulitzer-winning Mail Tribune helps drive that home for any newspaper industry optimists remaining in Oregon.

Encouragingly, the Grants Pass Daily Courier, a smaller daily serving neighboring Josephine County, is laying plans to help fill the void. Meanwhile, the EO Media Group, which rescued the daily Bend Bulletin after the Bulletin’s second plunge into bankruptcy, is gearing up to launch a local paper of its own in the Tribune’s wake.

The sad truth is, however, that we’re losing newspapers, weekly and daily alike, at a dizzying pace. There aren’t nearly enough steely-eyed entrepreneurs or well-heeled white knights around to ride to the rescue, and no guarantees they will succeed, no matter how well-intentioned.

Almost 1,800 American newspapers have gone under in the last 20 years, about 60 of them dailies like Medford. At last credible count, that left us with 1,283 dailies and 5,829 weeklies, the vast majority of the weeklies claiming circulations of less than 15,000.

In the last 15 years alone, total newspaper circulation has plummeted from 122 million to 73 million. Yes, the industry is shedding readers even more rapidly than it’s shedding papers to serve them.

The forces at work are well known.

Digital and broadcast sources were able to offer greater immediacy, along with compelling audio and video. Nimble, low-overhead digital vendors came to dominate two of the newspaper industry’s leading revenue sources, retail and classified advertising, and circulation wasn’t up to filling such a gaping void.

Proliferation of cable and social media niche channels left the mass media model of network television and the newspaper industry less and less competitive. Being saddled with substantial fixed investment in presses, buildings and land made it hard to scale back effectively enough in response.

Finally, a large share of American newspapers had come under the ownership of publicly traded companies whose shareholders demanded continuing revenue and profit growth long after it was remotely possible.

Here’s the rub: America’s revolutionary experiment in representative democracy depends on a well-informed electorate, not one depending on party gristmills, partisan hacks, internet trolls, monkey-wrenchers and click-bait purveyors, let alone a know-it-all down the street or a third cousin twice-removed. Reading it on the internet or hearing it on cable TV are particularly good ways to go badly wrong.

If that’s true for state and national news, it’s many times more so for local news. Without a newspaper to fall back on, good luck getting honest, accurate, on-point information about a council election, bond issue, rate hike or land use controversy.

If you truly care about this grand land of ours, you owe it to yourself to support your local newspaper any way you can while you still can. You heard it first here: You’ll miss it a lot more than you might think, should it ever end up on the industry’s casualty list.


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