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This town aint big enough

The trio made a local newspaper turf war sound like the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Interviewed during a high-noon segment of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” radio program last week, my boss, News-Times Publisher John Schrag, said he intended for this paper to stand its ground in town, despite a bullish play for Main Street dominance by the upstart Forest Grove Leader, now a month old.

“In this fight I’m betting on us,” he told program host David Miller, who angled for answers about whether one small city can support two print news products in the Internet-obsessed 21st Century.

John’s retort came faster than Doc Holliday’s six-gun clearing leather in the Old West: no.

While acknowledging that reportorial competition can be a good thing for readers, he took umbrage with the fact that Chris Anderson, publisher of The Oregonian, which launched The Leader last month, has let it slip in several circles that his company’s free-paper foray into this town of 21,000 is a bold form of payback publishing. (To set the story up: the News-Times’ parent company, Portland-based Pamplin Media Group, started a bi-weekly paper, the Hillsboro Tribune, in September. Officials at The Oregonian’s parent company, New Jersey and New York-based Advance Publications, which owns the twice-weekly Hillsboro Argus, didn’t much care for that).

John said he’s been heartened that longtime readers have rushed to this newspaper’s defense, going so far as to purchase a full-page ad praising it in the Oct. 17 issue, the same day The Leader debuted its product by chaining a bright-green paper box to a post in front of the News-Times building on Pacific Avenue.

“I couldn’t have paid for better advertising than that,” John said.

But the appearance of The Leader, which is being delivered, unbidden, to 16,000 Forest Grove residences each Wednesday, is a power play, plain and simple. The Leader’s expressed goal, John pointed out, is to put the News-Times — which popped its first issue off the press in 1886 and currently circulates to 4,000 homes whose owners pay for a subscription — out of business.

“They came into town and said, ‘Our goal is revenge,’” he told Miller and the segment’s other guest, Jock Lauterer, senior lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. (The Oregonian's Anderson declined Think Out Loud’s invitation to appear on the panel and would not provide a proxy from The Leader's staff).

It’s no secret that money matters in this dust-up befitting The Duke. While the News-Times continues to court (and serve) a long list of loyal advertisers in order to make a profit, The Leader’s third issue contained “exactly one ad from a Forest Grove business,” John noted. “Financially, their publication is failing pretty dramatically.”

Whether Advance Publications will continue to subsidize its newest endeavor far into the future remains to be seen, but dollars, in the end, will tell the tale. “That’s where this game is going to be decided,” said John.

So it is that after almost a century as a one-newspaper town — the last eight of those led by a man who cut his Northwest newshound teeth at the Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week — a different sort of ink-infused hombre has ridden into Forest Grove, with designs on pushing the clean-cut cowboy around.

Metaphors abound between the bloody shoot-out in the streets of Tombstone on Oct. 26, 1881 and this most recent clash of journalistic jingoists.

If our staff has its druthers, it won’t take a coup to convince the brains behind The Leader to gather their collective brawn and vamoose. But unlike what transpired on that fateful afternoon in Cochise County, the end of this paper trail is unlikely to be written into the annals of western Washington County history.

Still, it’s a story whose inevitable unfolding is well worth witnessing. The News-Times is an award-winning community newspaper that has thrived, and survived, since 1886. The Leader, a newborn filly standing on still-wobbly legs, is, as of this writing, an unproven entity.

Yet its prickly presence is something our reporters, editors and advertising folks aren’t able, or even inclined, to ignore. “We now know this is a fight to the death,” John said to Miller, as Lauterer soothingly suggested there’s every reason for him to don his ten-gallon white hat and walk on.

“At some point there’s going to be a winner,” the North Carolinian said. “And usually, the little guy with the bigger heart is going to be OK.”

Think Out Loud’s 20-minute segment “Looking at Community Newspapers,” first broadcast Nov. 8, explored the turf war that’s brewing between Forest Grove’s two papers. It’s archived at http://www.opb.org/thinkoutloud/shows/looking-community-newspapers/.




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