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Tribune marks 15 years with growth, stable finances


PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Despite turbulent times, Portland Tribune founder Dr. Robert Pamplin Jr. has kept his promise to offer a free, general-interest newspaper in Portland. Fifteen years ago, no one knew what a “hipster” was.

The Pearl District had just been born, “Portlandia” was still years away and there was no name for the creative class that started moving here in droves to open restaurants, start businesses and make cool things.

For news, people picked up their newspaper or turned on the TV or radio. Folks were all just starting to carry cell phones and figure out how to use the Internet.

In the midst of this came something the

city had not exactly seen before: a free,

independent general-interest newspaper staffed with award-winning, veteran journalists.

People called us crazy.

The first edition of the Portland Tribune appeared Feb. 9, 2001, with a cover story about Mayor Vera Katz, City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, and former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt trying to forge a deal to spend urban renewal money to extend the South Park Blocks.

It was, indeed, a different era.

This month marks the Tribune’s 15th anniversary, a significant milestone for many reasons.

For one, we’re still here — and stronger than ever.

Consider: We’ve kept the promise of founder Robert Pamplin Jr. to remain a free newspaper; dropped to weekly distribution in 2008 but restored to biweekly in 2014; lost staff and added staff; added a Salem bureau; bolstered the Sustainable Life and Business Tribune sections; leveraged news coverage with Pamplin Media Group’s 25 community newspapers; and seen Web traffic increase 25 percent each year for the past five years.

As one of the five original Tribune staff writers here since the inception, for me this 15-year mark is a bittersweet occasion. At this and every anniversary, I still feel the heartache of losing the talented writers, editors, columnists, photographers, copy editors, designers and other staff who were part of our family over the years.

A lot has been said about our growing pains, but let’s face it — it hasn’t been an easy climate for a startup newspaper.

From the 9/11 terror attacks seven months after our launch — which brought a wave of uncertainty and near-halt to advertising, our main source of revenue — to the dot-com bust, the Great Recession, and the rise of Web-first news, the Tribune has been tested at every turn.

We’ve had to be nimble while staying true to our roots — focusing on local news.

Reflecting on the changing environment since 2001 “provides an interesting timeline for the print media,” says Vance Tong, editor of the Portland Tribune and Business Tribune, which this month is now available as a free, stand-alone product on Fridays in green boxes downtown.

“You have to hand it to Dr. Pamplin for sticking to his commitment to the paper, to good journalism,” Tong adds.

Now at our 15-year mark, as print media here and across the globe downsize to meet the realities of the Digital Age, the Tribune has settled and grown into its own.

“We’ve reached a stable financial situation,” says Mark Garber, president of the Tribune. “We feel we have the right model for the future because of our focus on local news.”

The past five years, especially, have seen a flurry of growth:

• The Business Tribune welcomed veteran reporters Joseph Gallivan and former Oregonian writer John Vincent (just this month), and is carving out its own niche in local technology, local development and real estate coverage.

• The sports team has remained solid since the start (Kerry Eggers, Steve Brandon and Jason Vondersmith here since the inception), adding former Oregonian sportswriter Jeff Smith this year.

• The newsroom added Shasta Kearns Moore to focus on education and most recently investigative reporter Nick Budnick, who returned to us from The Oregonian.

• The Sustainable Life section’s environmental coverage started in 2006 as a free advertising special section, then grew to a monthly pullout. In 2014 it shifted to a twice-monthly two-page section inside the Portland Tribune, and, currently, 15 other Pamplin Media Group newspapers. That makes it the company’s largest-circulation regular product, providing ways for people, businesses and communities to practice good environmental stewardship.

• The Tribune’s two-year-old Capital Bureau is a partnership with EO Media, providing in-depth coverage of state government to local readers.

Two full-time capital reporters work closely with Tribune staff to cover everything from elections to marijuana rules.

“There was a pretty big void there,” Garber says of local news coverage in Salem. “We think people are very interested in what’s happening with state government. Doing it with a partnership made it affordable for both companies.”

• Pamplin Media Group hired an executive editor this year to coordinate stories of regional interest, boost sharing of content, and leverage the company’s resources. John Schrag comes to the post after serving as publisher of our sister papers, the News-Times in Forest Grove and the Hillsboro Tribune.

Now, just as confident as any 15-year-old, the Tribune will no doubt make missteps.

But we’ll also continue to move forward and evolve, “continue to do enterprise reporting, dig deeper, give readers context,” Garber says. “We’re really focusing on improving our digital presence and content.”

From the Tribune’s first big breaks — in the Ward Weaver murder case and Secret Watchers police spying scandal of 2002 — to the continuing coverage of Portland’s homeless crisis, income inequality, gang violence, urban development and gentrification, food insecurity, school reform, race relations, criminal justice and much more, Portland leaders and community members see a vital role for the Tribune for a long time to come.

“Rumors, Facebook posts and tweets don’t cut it,” former Metro councilor turned activist Rex Burkholder says. “The Tribune and its family of newspapers provides the ‘right stuff’ that citizens need to engage effectively — with government, with each other, with the bigger world. News. News, especially news that is about what is happening here and now, in one’s own community, is essential nourishment for anyone wanting to make a difference.”