Oregonian Suffers Losses
Could a Values Gap Be Causing Readers to Abandon Daily Newspaper
By Lisa Baker

Despite events historically guaranteed to pique demand for news: terrorism at home, war, and the hottest election in memory, Oregon’s largest newspaper has lost more than 16,000 subscribers in the past two years, more than 10,000 of them in the past year alone, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

In March of 2002, 428,069 people received the Oregonian every Sunday, the newspaper’s biggest day. By March of 2004, that number had dropped to 412,113, according to an ABC report. Daily subscriptions fell from 349,426 to 342,040 in the same two years, a drop of 7,386.

LeRoy Yorgason, executive director of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association (ONPA), said that while daily newspapers have been on a downward spiral nationally for years, the Oregonian’s losses – at 3.7 percent over two years -- are more substantial than the average 1 percent per year. “I’m not sure I want to use the word ‘surprised’, but I’m disappointed…This is an acceleration of loss.”

Daily newspapers across the nation have been struggling with circulation losses related to the recession and to growing competition from the Internet and cable news. But the losses aren’t universal. Half of the 14 largest newspapers in the U.S. gained circulation. Among the gainers: USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.

In the Northwest, the Columbian, Vancouver’s daily, and the Register-Guard, Eugene’s daily, each lost about one percent of its circulation in each of the past two years.

Others, including the Bend Bulletin and the Roseburg News-Review, have gained paying customers in the same time period.

The Oregonian’s losses may not simply be a result of competition or recession. A significant number of cancellations are politically oriented, some Oregonian distributors say.

Distributors for the newspaper in the suburbs around Portland say customers tell them they’re halting their subscriptions because the newspaper no longer reflects their values. Drops have increased this election season.

Felicia Ogden, the newspaper’s Wilsonville distributor, says that while some drops are purely financial, others are the result of a clash between the subscriber’s views and the newspaper’s coverage. She says customers complain that the paper is too liberal in its portrayal of issues. “There are more of these right now because of the election and we tend to be a liberal newspaper,” she said.

Another distributor, who asked not be identified, said he gets at least two cancellations every week from people complaining that the Oregonian’s news stories favor a liberal point of view. Others don’t say why they’re stopping “but they tend to be the ones with Bush-Cheney signs on their lawn,” he said. Especially controversial this year, he said, was an Oregonian headline referring to Neil Goldschmidt’s admitted sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl as an “affair,” and the paper’s coverage of gay marriage.

“People say the Oregonian is not just covering gay marriage, it’s pushing it,” he said. He added that the Oregonian is pressuring its distributors to sell at least 10 new subscriptions a week to compensate for losses. “We went through about 100 distributors because they couldn’t meet the quota.”

Steve Duke, of the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, says some newspapers are struggling with a values gap that could be causing some readers to abandon their daily newspaper and pursue other, now-readily available news sources. “I hear anecdotally from newspapers all the time that conservatives feel they’re not reflected in their newspaper. Sometimes people say their newspaper is too conservative, too, but most of the time people say it’s too liberal.”

But Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that while research shows a growing disenchantment with newspapers, none of it proves it’s behind circulation losses. “Declining trust does not appear to drive usage. There is no correlation between the two,” he said.

The Oregonian’s circulation director, Kevin Denny, declined to comment for this story, as did publisher Fred Stickel, Editorial Page Editor Bob Caldwell, and marketing spokesman Steve Hubbard. It is unknown what the financial impact of dropping circulation might be having on the newspaper, which like most media outlets, suffered losses in advertising revenue after the 2001 terrorist attack and the full-on rush of recession. That year, the newspaper postponed plans to build a new printing plant and froze hiring.

But the newspaper’s website stresses that its readership, which is not necessarily tied to paid circulation, remains high. People can read the newspaper online or at work without buying subscriptions. And they share newspapers: Studies show that one Oregonian subscription can serve several people, according to the website.

But Sandra Rowe, editor of the Oregonian, is cognizant that all is not well between the daily print media and their customers. As president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1998, she acknowledged a study by the Pew Research Center that indicated newspapers’ credibility is declining.

In a speech to her fellow editors, she said, according to an ASNE newsletter: “Well, my friends, we must have royally fouled up somewhere along the way…For here we are, editors leading newsrooms in a time of frighteningly low respect for the newspapers we rightly hold dear.”

Yorgason, of the ONPA, says losses like the Oregonian’s “worry all of us…First of all, we’re wringing our hands and next, trying to figure out what to do to attract readers.”

He believes the national “do-not-call” list, which prevents telemarketers from cold-calling prospective customers, has hamstrung newspapers’ efforts to contact potential new subscribers. As for credibility and accusations of bias, Yorgason said, “I’m sure it has an effect long-term” on newspapers.

In the short-term, some subscribers are venting.

Sam Thannickal, who owns a payroll company in Beaverton, canceled the newspaper after the Oregonian printed a front-page exposé on Al French, a local attorney and “swiftboat veteran” who the newspaper said lied to his boss a decade ago about an affair with a co-worker. He says the newspaper’s coverage of the election made him think the newspaper wasn’t just covering news, but trying to tell him how to think about it. And he says he’s not alone. “People feel like they’re getting opinion rather than news reporting.”

Hubert Teater, a retired air traffic controller from Hillsboro, contacted the newspaper after the same story. He said the newspaper has chosen to align itself with urban interests downtown, forgetting about the thousands outside Portland. “The paper reflects a very biased point of view. It has a liberal bias that is obvious and the way they cover this election is (proof) of it.”

Two others canceled their subscriptions because of a different exposé: A story about 30-year-old sexual assault allegations against Congressman David Wu, a Democrat running for re-election, printed two weeks before Election Day. They did not return a reporter’s phone calls.

Whatever the reasons, the shrinking base of customers is being felt. “It’s definitely getting softer out here,” says Tualatin distributor David Skidmore. “We have reduced rates, we have free (sample) subscriptions to keep circulation up. We do all we can. But we’re losing them. We’re almost giving it away.”

BrainstormNW - November 2004

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