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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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From the Newsroom: The Medford autopsy

By , Columbian Editor

Have you heard the old saying/curse “May you live in interesting times”? Nowhere are times in the news business more interesting than in Medford, Ore., where the longtime daily newspaper, the Mail Tribune, abruptly closed, and, almost as quickly, two other news organizations announced plans to serve the community.

You’ve likely been through Medford. It’s the business center of Southern Oregon and the county seat of Jackson County, population 223,734, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Like Clark County, it is growing fast, as people flee California and Portland for a nicer place to live.

Over the years, I’ve known several Mail Tribune journalists and often compared our efforts at The Columbian with theirs. At one time, we had similar-sized news staffs, and I thought they did an outstanding job of covering their community. They even won Oregon’s first Pulitzer Prize in journalism back in the day.

So what went wrong? How did a legacy newspaper in a growing town just suddenly die? And — yikes — is The Columbian’s situation still comparable?

After reading everything I can, including an in-depth article by The Oregonian’s Jeff Manning and Janet Eastman, I see the newspapers went our different ways quite a while ago.

First, let’s talk about The Columbian. We’ve been owned by the same family, the Campbells, for more than 100 years, and the fourth generation of family leadership say they plan to someday turn over Southwest Washington’s best source of news to the fifth generation. (He’s 2.)

The Mail Tribune went through a succession of corporate owners before it was sold to a corporation known for slashing news budgets and harvesting profits. In 2017, the corporation sold the dried-out husk of the Mail Tribune to a New York radio advertising entrepreneur named Steven Saslow.

At The Columbian, we have strived to overcome the financial challenges of running a newspaper while preserving as much local news as possible. We have more than 30 journalists, making our newsroom one of the largest in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve raised $1.4 million in donations to fund four new reporting positions in the last year. The Mail Tribune listed 12 newsroom employees, including only three news reporters, when it closed.

Saslow wanted to reinvent the newspaper, according to The Oregonian. He envisioned the visuals of television news, the depth of print, and the into-your-phone delivery of online media. To further that end, he ordered video to be a major part of every story. But that’s difficult if you’re writing about, say, how land use zoning affects home prices. Plus video production takes a lot of time, further reducing the number of stories a small staff can produce.

At The Columbian, we use video and audio more as a seasoning than a main dish. We’re focused on traditional reporting, and are proud to offer local sports, local lifestyles and local opinions every day. We embrace news on the web, but we don’t aim to emulate local television news, which in my opinion is too focused on crime, personalities and weather.

Saslow’s innovative strategy must not have worked as he envisioned. He killed the print edition last fall and pulled the final plug on Friday, Jan. 13.

I think we’ll stay proudly old-fashioned at The Columbian, thank you.

It will be interesting to see what happens now. The Grants Pass Daily Courier, a family-owned newspaper based in the adjoining county, hired three former Mail Tribune reporters and is delivering papers into Jackson County. EO Media Group, which runs several quality small Oregon dailies, has said it will start a Medford operation, and has hired the Mail Tribune’s former editor. I am glad the people of Jackson County won’t live in a news desert. Maybe someday we will once again compare ourselves to the newsrooms there.