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Learning the awkward dance of community newspapering


I’ve got to give Peter Bhatia credit. The most powerful journalist in the state recently strode into hostile enemy territory and more than held his own.

Bhatia, the executive editor of The Oregonian, was in Forest Grove last month to address the Noon Rotary Club. And, since I’m a club member with more than a passing interest in his occupation, I looked forward to his prepared remarks.

Bhatia did a great job of identifying our industry’s biggest challenges and some smart ways of addressing them.

But when it came time for the Q&A session, Bhatia faced some pointed queries about why his company started the Forest Grove Leader, a free weekly that competes with the News-Times, the other Forest Grove newspaper and the one where I hang my publisher’s hat.

Why not invest in Hillsboro, he was asked, where The Oregonian already owns the Hillsboro Argus? Why “divide” Forest Grove by threatening its 127-year-old newspaper?

“Our intention isn’t to divide anyone,” he said with a smile. “Our intention is to provide a service. We could have started our first community weekly anywhere.”

Bhatia and I both knew better. His boss launched the Forest Grove Leader in October to “take on” (their words, not mine) my employer, because we had started the Hillsboro Tribune six weeks earlier. The Leader’s mission, as emphatically stated at an early staff meeting, is to become the sole newspaper in Forest Grove.

But, Bhatia couldn’t very well say that.

“Our goal is not to put anybody out of business,” he said. “Our goal is to be a successful enterprise.”

Forest Grove, Bhatia implied, was simply a convenient test market in a larger business strategy and, indeed, last week The Oregonian announced plans to start the Beaverton Leader on May 1 and flood Hillsboro with free copies of a Wednesday edition of the Argus.

I find this sudden attention to the suburbs curious.

Bhatia and the others at The Oregonian produce one of the best big-city daily papers on the West Coast. But the people who call the shots from downtown Portland are clueless about community journalism.

They have an arrogance that actually serves them (and their readers) well on Capitol Hill, in the back rooms of Salem and Portland City Hall, but not on Main Street in Hillsboro, Forest Grove or any other place where people view their local paper as a part of their community.

It was that swagger that prompted Bhatia to gut the local staff at The Argus, a paper he once described as a PR arm of the Hillsboro Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce, and replace their bylines with Oregonian writers who view Hillsboro as a stepping stone, not a destination.

I recognize that self-importance, because I had it when I arrived at the News-Times from Willamette Week in 2005.

The “Snooze-Times,” in my view, had too many press releases in the paper and not enough public records requests out in the field.

Why, I wondered, was there so much puffery about the chambers of commerce, service clubs and charities? Where was the hard-hitting investigative reporting?

I quickly learned that a true community newspaper balances the need to hold people accountable with the need to support their worthy efforts.

That means the publisher backs his reporters when they ask chamber board members tough questions one month and then takes off his suit jacket to help clean up after the annual auction the next.

It means the editor may pass on the chance to be first with a web story about a local business until she gets all the facts and reduces the risk of causing a valued community member sleepless nights, or worse.

It means reporters push for public documents pertaining to a lawsuit against the city, but also consider a request to withhold another bit of information until an internal investigation is concluded.

Working for a true community newspaper requires employees to be part pit bull and part cheerleader. It’s an awkward dance they don’t teach in journalism school and certainly not one embraced by The Oregonian brass.

The hubris of Portland’s daily paper was on full display in Forest Grove when a Rotarian joked that, thanks to The Oregonian, his kids (and everyone else) now know the details about his state retirement benefits.

Bhatia relished the chance to defend his paper’s coverage of the Public Employees Retirement System, which includes a website where you can search for any individual’s annual payout.

“If you want to blame someone, blame me,” Bhatia said, unaware that he was lecturing a local school superintendent. “I’ve said we need to be aggressive on the issues that matter most to people and PERS is certainly on the top of that list. We’re going to be relentless watchdogs. So I don’t have any apology to make for our coverage of PERS.”

I agree with Bhatia that the compensation of public employees is fair game for journalists. But, having been on the receiving end of phone calls from two of my daughter’s former teachers whose final salaries were published in our 2011 coverage of an early retirement incentive, I also appreciate that seeing details of your personal finances in the local paper can cause people pain.

That doesn’t mean you publish only happy news. It does mean, however, that you can’t hide behind a desk or the First Amendment after pissing people off.

Practicing community journalism makes for some uncomfortable moments — in the grocery store checkout, in parent-teacher conferences and even at Rotary Club meetings. But it also offers some rich lessons in humility and trust, two characteristics in short supply when Bhatia blew through Forest Grove.