What Happens to Our Knowledge of a Place–Past or Present–When Daily Newspapers Face No Real Competition in Reporting the “News”?

Image from the Public Health Image Library, CDC / Minnesota Department Of Health; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

A few days ago, Portland’s Willamette Week brought momentary life to the local journalism scene by critiquing a new venture launched by its older, larger, and richer rival, The Oregonian. The critique, by reporter Aaron Mesh, is mild as critiques go, especially when judged by the rousing wars Northwest newspapers once engaged in, but it raises important questions about journalism today. One of them (raised, in part, by the mildness alone) is: What happens to our knowledge of a place–past or present–when daily newspapers face no real competition in reporting the news?

The venture Mesh critiques is the Oregonian’s three-month-old “Here Is Oregon” campaign, an attempt, as the HIO website says, to offer “a mix of features centered around our mission, to lift and celebrate Oregon.” Here’s part of what Mesh writes:

For three months now, Here is Oregon—which the paper’s executives describe as a “lifestyle brand” published on a website separate from OregonLive.com [the Oregonian’s main website] and in designated features in The Oregonian’s print edition—has provided Oregonian readers with a version of reality free from violent death and political disputes. The stories that populate the new website dwell on hiking trails, gingerbread houses and downtown cleanups. They arrive on a website free from the pandemic, shootings and stories about the homeless.

That’s a dramatic break from the dire—and usually accurate—portrait of the city The Oregonian regularly presents to readers.

Your first thought might be: So what’s the problem? What’s wrong with the Oregonian publishing more positive stories at a time when so much of the news, as Mesh suggests, is unrelentingly “dire”? To which I (and Mesh as well, I imagine) would answer: Nothing…if those stories were woven into the newspaper’s regular offerings and kept separate from content offered by businesses and trade groups.

The problem is: they’re not. The HIO website says it is being produced “by Oregonian Media Group in collaboration with our newsroom and marketing departments.” [Emphasis mine.] And what is Oregonian Media Group? Click over to its website and you’ll find this description: “Oregonian Media Group is a media company that provides strategic marketing and advertising solutions to businesses locally, regionally and nationally.”

Here’s Mesh again:

The happy-news service is the brainchild of two Oregonian Media Group executives with close ties to the Portland Business Alliance, the city’s chamber of commerce. In a year when Portland’s reputation is circling the drain nationally, the newspaper, which is owned by the wealthy Newhouse family, is betting that readers want more stories dedicated to loyal geese and small-town heroes.

But as an election looms where Portland’s dismaying present and uncertain future are a top-of-mind issue for voters, The Oregonian’s new strategy could create two competing narratives: gritty reality versus an airbrushed version of a hip, happy and healthy Oregon that some wish existed.

In other words, the “happy-news service,” developed in conjunction with marketers, advertisers, and business people, is offering a myth, a fantasy, an alternate reality, and doing so with the imprimatur of Portland’s only daily newspaper (which makes it ipso facto Oregon’s newspaper of record).

Kudos to Willlamette Week (the only weekly to ever win a Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism) for questioning the motives, the concept, and the content in the Oregonian’s new offering. At a time when corporations and commerce are extending their tentacles into every corner of American society, it’s important to ask what happens when our few remaining traditional news outlets divide the “news” into “negative” and “positive” in order to offer a sunnier view to help businesses. How long before marketing surveys and focus-group results cause the harder news—investigations of politicians and powerful business owners, reports of police abuse or neglect of crime, even community complaints—to simply fade away?

But, Pulitzer aside, a weekly is no match for a well-financed daily. For one thing, it can’t offer enough content to provide a counterpoint to whatever bent or bias the larger paper has. No matter how “objective” the Oregonian’s professional reporters and editors try to be, they will see and hear only what they see and hear, and they will always be influenced to some degree by the values and intentions of those who own and run their newspaper. Which means the city’s daily historical record contains only one primary point of view.

The same is true in Seattle, where the once-robust Post-Intelligencer has shrunk to an online-only publication, leaving the Seattle Times as the city’s only print daily.

The loss of America’s daily newspapers isn’t new anymore, of course. Nor is the question of where Americans can get reliable and relatively bias-free news about their communities today. My concern here is somewhat different. In doing research on Seattle in the earliest part of the 20th century, I’ve been able to form a fuller picture of the city, its people, and its concerns by reading the often-different accounts of events and issues in the Seattle Times, the Seattle P-I, the long-gone Seattle Star, and even an old weekly, the Argus.

Writers for those different papers, each with a different slant, often disagreed with each other, challenged each other, and strove to out-report and even out-reason each other. Because of that lively competition and difference, I’m able to get a truer sense of what a place and its people were like than I could if there had been only one newspaper of record or, God forbid, those papers had let marketers and business people persuade them to divide the news into “positive” and “negative.”

The questions that concerns me are: How will future writers and historians determine the true nature of the people, issues, and troubles of our time? In the nearer future, how will we measure how far our society has progressed or regressed in particular areas if we lack more than one written viewpoint on what we experienced, discussed, and fought about from day to day? These questions grow harder and darker when we let our perceptions of what is “positive” or “negative”—or the desires of marketers and business leaders—determine where and how we report and record the “news.”