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Payback publishing comes to the Grove

I kept looking at the screen of my cell phone. It didn’t make sense.

There was a message waiting from my editor, Christian Gaston, which had come in late the night before. No surprise there. Christian, Associate Editor Nancy Townsley and I often trade texts to keep up with deadlines and assignments.

But this message had me baffled.

“The O is starting a newspaper in FG in response to Trib.”

I re-read the words several times. It wasn’t the shorthand that tripped me up. "The O” referred to The Oregonian. “FG” was Forest Grove and “The Trib” was the Hillsboro Tribune.

My confusion, rather, stemmed from the fact that Forest Grove was in the sentence.

We knew the top brass at Portland’s daily newspaper would be peeved that the Pamplin Media Group, which owns the News-Times and 17 other community papers in the Portland area, had started a paper down the road in Hillsboro. The Oregonian, after all, is owned by Advance Media, a New Jersey publishing giant that in 1999 bought the Hillsboro Argus, a twice-weekly paper, which boasted a healthy circulation of 10,000.

After allowing the Argus to operate as an independent newspaper for more than a decade, the O began playing a more active role a couple years ago. Late last year, they cleaned out most of the newsroom, pushed out the publisher and began filling the news pages with stories that had already appeared in The Oregonian.

The moves cut costs but also alienated readers and community leaders who felt they’d lost their connection to their hometown paper.

So, after studying the market and crunching some numbers, our company decided Hillsboro could support a second paper. We rolled out the Tribune on Sept. 7.

We expected some sort of response from The Oregonian. But instead of beefing up efforts at The Argus, the boys on Broadway took a different tack: revenge.

Christian’s sources all reported the same consistent message. Chris Anderson, the Oregonian’s publisher, wanted to teach our local newspaper group a lesson, and since I am publisher of both the News-Times and the Hillsboro Tribune, he set his sights on Forest Grove.

We broke the news of their designs on Forest Grove two weeks ago. Anderson played coy, saying if there were any such plans, he’d be sure to send us a press release.

For the next week, the rumors continued and then, last Tuesday, the daily paper emailed an announcement that the Forest Grove Leader would publish its first issue on Oct. 17. (Somehow the News-Times was left off Anderson’ email list, but several copies were forwarded to us.)

Some will ask, “What’s wrong with a little friendly competition?” After all, isn’t that what we did in Hillsboro?

I have no problem with competition. In our industry, it makes for better journalism, which is good for readers, and lower advertising rates, which is good for businesses.

So, how can I argue that a rivalry is good in Hillsboro but bad in Forest Grove? As Bill Clinton might say, it’s all about arithmetic.

Hillsboro will soon surpass Gresham as the state’s fourth largest city; it has 94,000 residents and is expected to hit 117,000 by 2025. With the Argus’s circulation dipping below 6,000, there are plenty of people for us to reach with 10,000 copies of the Tribune every other week.

More importantly, Hillsboro has a strong advertising base. The U.S. Census reports annual retail sales in the city are $21,000 per capita, more than 55 percent above the state average of $13,500.

Forest Grove, by contrast, has a population of 21,000 and its annual retail spending is $5,700 per capita, or more than 50 percent below the state average.

With such a small retail base, it’s no surprise that The News-Times, which prints about 4,300 copies each week, has a very narrow profit margin.

The math shows that a town this size, with such few advertising prospects, cannot support two papers. In fact, no Oregon city outside Portland boasts two profitable weeklies.

So, when the powers that be at The Oregonian announced last Tuesday they will be distributing the Forest Grove Leader to all 16,000 mailing addresses in Forest Grove and surrounding zip codes, their intention was clear: they aim to put the News-Times out of business — and make quick work of it.

They may try to argue otherwise, but they tipped their hand early, outlining Anderson's playground strategy like this: “Forest Grove/Pamplin papers have recently decided to start a newspaper in Hillsboro, where we have the Argus. So our publisher has decided to take on the Pamplin papers by starting a newspaper in Forest Grove.”

This bit of unguarded candor makes it clear that the Forest Grove Leader is not about making money for the New Jersey Newhouse clan. It’s not about serving residents of western Washington County. It’s about Chris Anderson wanting to send a message that you don’t mess with the Big O.

It will be interesting to see how readers and advertisers react to this David and Goliath moment in newspaper history.

One person posted this take online: “The owners of The Oregonian could pull out their checkbook and purchase Donald Trump. Pamplin will not beat them.”

As for me, I’m still betting on the little guy.




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