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The state of the paper: All the news that fits

In addition to 'madness,' March is the month of the 'state of.' In recent weeks, we've had a couple States of the Cities and a State of the County. So, I figure April is an apt time for a State of the News-Times.

Last month I marked my seventh year at the paper, and it continues to be one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs I've had.

Rarely a week goes by without someone writing, calling or stopping by the office to thank us for providing them with some timely information, insight into their community, a boost to their business or a clipping for the family scrapbook.

And, as seen in this week's letters section, we also get our share of complaints. A name is misspelled, a date is wrong or a headline is misleading.

Usually, however, it's not what's in the paper, but what's not, that draws readers' ire: a team's best game of the season or a new business' grand opening went unreported. A school auction or public forum wasn't publicized.

In some cases the omission was because no one told us. In others, the information got lost in the flood of emails we receive each day. And, in a few cases, we made a decision not to cover a particular bit of news.

Regardless of the reason, the inability to provide timely information frustrates me.

When I was hired in 2005, among my marching orders was one to shore up the journalism. And, with the help of some very talented staff members, I was able to do that.

Over the past several years the paper has won dozens of journalism awards and three times was judged the best small weekly paper in Oregon. And, it's been a long time since I've heard someone refer to the paper as the 'Snooze-Times.'

While I celebrate those achievements, I'm aware that the News-Times is not as good a paper as it was a few years ago.

We're not alone: The Oregonian has given up covering the suburbs in any meaningful way. Our sister publication, the Portland Tribune, has narrowed its pages and its focus.

One of the reasons things go unreported in any newspaper is that we're all understaffed, for all the familiar reasons.

When ad revenue began to drop about five years ago, we began shrinking our staff and the number of pages printed.

Our newsroom, which had 4.5 employees when I started, is down to three. And our page count, which used to regularly reach 26, is now typically 18.

Given the math of subtraction, something has had to give on the other side of the equation, and it's our coverage.

We write fewer in-depth articles about local institutions. Our once-weekly profiles of community members are now less frequent. Sports, education and business coverage has similarly been trimmed.

When I came to the paper, there was a reporter dedicated to Gaston, Banks and Cornelius and another assigned to Forest Grove. Plus, our company had a regional reporter covering Washington County, Metro and TriMet.

Now, I lean on Managing News Editor Christian Gaston to cover all those jurisdictions.

It's an impossible assignment, but he does it with aplomb, relying on trusted sources, a great memory for facts and a deft knowledge of public records.

Between the two of us, I don't think we miss anything crucial. But, it's been a long time since the city councilors in Banks or Gaston have seen us at one of their meetings.

Similarly, Associate Editor Nancy Townsley somehow manages to cover three school districts (while juggling special sections and crafting feature stories such as the one on this week's front page).

Zack Palmer puts out a sports section in less than 20 hours per week while photographer Chase Allgood has taken on a plethora of other tasks.

It works, but too often our hurried newsroom planning meetings feel more like emergency room triage, focusing on what we can do rather than what we want to do.

How has the school district spent its bond money? We haven't looked.

What's in the depositions taken in the lawsuit filed against the City of Forest Grove? We haven't read them.

Is there a local business that's expanding into new markets? We haven't asked.

Like many papers, we've truncated the New York Times' motto of 'All the News That's Fit to Print' to 'All the News that Fits.'

Still, through some hard work by Christian, we've been able to restore some popular features (such as the police log) add a new one (Pet of the Week), do a better job of tracking small items in our 'In Brief' column and make plans for increased coverage of local business.

In fact, when I consider what we produce on a weekly basis, with the equivalent of three full-time news­­room employ­ees, it's amazing.

A typical paper contains 20 photographs, more than 40 stories, briefs or columns containing roughly 30,000 words that we've written or edited.

So, when we head home each Tuesday evening, it's with a sense of accomplishment - and the knowledge that we get to start the process over again on Wednesday morning.

Obviously in the course of performing this 'weekly miracle' we regularly make mistakes and disappoint our readers.

But, the fact that they care enough to send a letter with some pointed criticism is a good sign that, even with our reduced resources, we're still doing something right.

Next Week: Back in the black;

a plan for profitable papers.




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