Small newspapers often don't have the time or resources available to do long-term, investigative pieces. We're frequently criticized for not having the kind of exposes that big city papers are known for, instead focusing on the daily drudgery of city council meetings and school board decisions. We are lucky enough to have a reporter in our news room who is still given time to work on big picture pieces, things we save for our Sunday paper in order to give them as much room, and attention, as they deserve. This Sunday, Bennett Hall wrote a great piece on a local landlord who has a terrible reputation in town. Readers are already responding in droves to this piece, and it's the kind of local, hard-hitting journalism I wish we could do more of. Hopefully the positive response reinforces the importance of this kind of work, and keeps it a part of our newsroom even as economic forces alter other areas. Although we sometimes run the risk of being "the bad guy," it's part of our job to be advocates for those who are being oppressed or treated badly, and expose wrong doing when we see it.
A frequent reader and friend asked me whether or not I had solutions for the problems I've been discussing lately regarding print media in general and our paper specifically. That's a difficult question, given that most of the decisions made regarding a news staff are, in my experience, made at top levels far removed from our community, let alone our staff. Budget issues, stock holder demands and the economic downturn are all being reacted to by people we rarely if ever see, who don't know our names and certainly don't know the struggles we face on a daily basis. Our immediate supervisors are more than sympathetic to our plight, but when they request to have an open position filled, the person deciding that is often unconnected with our newsroom. How can we fix our budget problems? Well, right now we're trying to staunch the flow of blood by tightening the tourniquet around our own necks. What we can't do is do anything about the shrinking cash flow from our advertisers. When our bread and butter is revenue from home and car sale ads, and the economic crises means people aren't buying either, well we're a bit stuck. We're doing better as a paper to target on-line ad revenue, but even that pool is shrinking as advertisers cut their own budgets back. So what we're faced with is doing more with less. Which is exactly what our supervisors are asking us to do. Only, many of us have been working break-neck style already, just trying to do a good job. Now that there are fewer of us, the demands are increasing, yet the hours we're given to do our jobs aren't growing, and we are still expected to do a good job of our previous duties in addition to these new tasks. The short answer is that something has got to give. Either we do a sloppy job and get everything done, or we recognize that we're going to have to start giving up certain things. And that's what we're trying to do. The Buzz, a popular person-on-the-street style feature we usually run on Tuesdays, is going away because we don't have the staff to send out to interview those folks on a regular basis. Our Entertainer section has shrunk to combine with the TV Guide, so that means shorter calendars, shorter stories and fewer photos. I guess those are the things that we're trying to do to simply keep doing the best job we can with fewer fingers on the keyboard. I'm interested in hearing from other reporters who are facing similar struggles about how they keep doing a great job under increasingly difficult circumstances.
Continuing on the topic I spoke about below... So last week was the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and the end of October marks the death of the old year for the Celts with Samhain. Most of us may wait until January to reflect on the passing of the year, but now seems an appropriate enough time, not to mention we really need to start looking to a brighter future. This past year has brought some personal and painful losses, some people have passed on far too early, others have moved away to new things, for both good and not so good reasons. But looking at this from a strictly professional viewpoint, we are not where we were last year. From a purely logistical viewpoint, we are down three people in our newsroom from last year. Positions we are not filling with additional bodies, but with compromises, altered job expectations, not to mention a wing and a prayer. We should shortly be welcoming a new addition to fill a fourth position that was briefly opened due to a reporter's moving, but that, luckily, is merely a few weeks of struggle and additional duties. The others are, at least in this economic time of crises, gone for good. Which means those of us who were already working our posteriors off during the good times to make a great product are now finding that we're expected to stretch and strain even further to make ends meet, which can be profoundly frustrating. Those of us who remain are dedicated to making things work for our readers and for ourselves, but the precarious nature of the economy, and the fact that one of us being sick, or taking a new job, is now a huge hardship rather than an inconvenience, means that we have a very different approach to our work now. We are triaging, so to speak. What's the most important? What can we live without writing? How can we say yes to as many requests as possible without also saying yes to overtime, which is nearly verboten. How, in other words, can we continue to thrive? (photo by Tiffany Brown taken in the good old days)
Papers across the nation are facing drastic cuts and major staffing issues as budgets shrink, advertisers disappear with the weakening economy, and reporters either get laid off or flee for the increased wages and relative stability of marketing and public relations. There's also an increased demand for freelancers as larger chains lay off their full-time staff, and look for freelancers to fill the gap without costing them insurance or other benefits. Our paper has not escaped unscathed from this cycle, despite being moderately more secure as the only paper directly covering our town. But the instability, and various other factors, have caused our staff to dwindle. Today the newsroom gathered at a local Indian restaurant to honor the departure of our long-time entertainment editor and popular columnist Jake TenPas. Some former reporters who have already gone down new paths joined us for lunch as we talked about the state of newspapers, the perils of freelancing, and the sadness of parting ways. There are several empty desks in our newsroom now. One or two will be filled, most will not. We're making due with less, an apt reflection of the larger economy, perhaps, but an increasingly stressful and dishearteningly commonplace thing among dedicated journalists.
I'm a native Oregonian who, up until recently, has been reporting on local issues in Portland, Forest Grove and currently Corvallis. I am now an editor of an internal publication at a local university, making the transition from the newsroom to world of academia. I continue to write, photograph and explore the world of podcasting in my work, and am eager to explore my new opportunities.