Travel with me to my not atypical college town, Eugene, Ore., where I’m privileged to labor as a professor at our vibrant University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Ours is a fast-growing city of some 175,000 people, straddling the sparkling Willamette River. We’re a cultural, political and economic powerhouse sporting big-city accoutrements such as a magnificent hall for our symphony, a heated mix of blue and red politics, and a thriving business sector producing world-class commodities ranging from fine pinot noir to state-of-the-art electric bicycles. All that minus most typical big-city woes.
What’s missing here in our piece of paradise is what traditionally helps bind a community together: a vigorous daily newspaper. Despite the intrusions on our collective consciousness by the likes of TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, there’s no longer any question in my mind that most of us want and need a daily rag (ink on paper and/or onscreen; the delivery system is not of importance). Here’s how I can be so sure a daily is essential. Just before Thanksgiving, I published an op-ed in the Eugene Weekly lamenting the decline of our city’s once-vibrant daily newspaper, the Register-Guard. It began:
We in Eugene are witnessing the slow murder of our daily newspaper. But maybe, just maybe, what’s rapidly becoming too thin to wrap fish and line the birdcage can still be saved.
When I moved here a dozen years ago to join the faculty at the University of Oregon, the Register-Guard was a crucial member of the community. Owned by the very local Baker family, the paper was packed with local news reported by its hometown news staff. Its pages were a veritable art gallery, displaying vibrant images captured by its award-winning photojournalists. Its op-ed section came alive with the voices of my new neighbors. I periodically wrote op-eds for the paper, pleased with the opportunity to add my ideas to that very local chorus.
When what’s now the Gannett Company—the corporate monster that owns more U.S. newspapers than any other—bought the R-G, butchery began: de facto pink slips to venerable reporters and editors and photographers in the form of buyouts, and local news coverage replaced with outdated reporting from elsewhere via Gannett’s USA TODAY network.
How about—I arrogantly suggested—Gannett donates the Register-Guard to our local journalism school? The paper can operate in the teaching hospital model—a not-for-profit reinvented to serve the community as both an independent news source and an education laboratory. The paper could draw on the resources of the UO student body and faculty. Such an experiment, I wagered, would gain support from the public served and from the business community.
In the couple of months since I wrote that obituary, the Register-Guard has been reduced to a skeletal staff. I bought a copy the other day at my local grocery ($2.99!) and received 20 pages of syndicated old news with merely two local stories—one a dated weather summary, the other a perfunctory piece regarding the appointment of a new city councilor.
Response from readers to my op-ed was immediate. “I finally gave up my subscription to the R-G because I couldn’t take the daily insults to journalistic standards and the lack of any real news,” wrote one. “It would be a huge project for UO to take on. Surely there are donors who would support it, and how refreshing it would be to see UO do something so bold, and so important.” Another said, “Thank you for sharing your alarm about the demise of local news in our area and for suggesting some positive steps.” From another came, “I am VERY upset at the Register-Guard, or what’s left of it, almost to the point of unsubscribing a relationship of many years and would delight at most any attempt to wrest it from Gannett’s probably fatal hold.”
These types of reactions motivated me to get in touch with the Gannett executive suite.
I started with CEO Mike Reed’s office, seeking a meeting. Lark-Marie Anton handles communications for Reed, and she responded with a gracious “As you might imagine, Mike Reed’s schedule is busy (as I’m sure you are as well) and he’d need more information before scheduling time.” When I explained my mission, Anton sent me to Amalie Nash, the Gannett senior vice president of local news and audience development. She too was gracious and suggested a partnership with the J-school and what’s left of her paper’s newsroom. I thanked her but noted that the query was not about providing free product for Gannett’s moribund newspaper—it was about taking over the bloody carcass. I was transferred again, this time to still another gracious character, Gannett’s senior vice president for corporate development Jay Fogarty—the executive in charge of buying and selling the company’s portfolio of papers.
Gannett has sold a couple dozen of its newspapers back to local ownership. But “the Register-Guard is a paper we plan to own and operate long-term,” Fogarty wrote to me. Nonetheless, we enjoyed a wide-ranging phone chat during which he responded to my idea with what I consider a remarkedly candid “I’m all for it when the paper stops making money. Glad we’re talking. But at this point it does make some money.”
This concept is not without precedent. The Oglethorpe Echo, operating near the University of Georgia in Athens, was donated to a nonprofit organization as part of a partnership forged with the university’s journalism school. Students create the community newspaper’s content. Subscriptions, advertising and donations help pay the bills. A professor is managing editor. Similarly, the award-winning Columbia Missourian staff are University of Missouri students. University of Kansas students staff The Eudora Times, and Northeastern University creates a variation on the theme with Boston’s The Scope.
The teaching hospital model applied to journalism is a longtime ideal promoted by Eric Newton, former senior adviser at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. During a recent dinner meeting, he and I sketched out on the back of a pizza box some ideas for a UO takeover of the Register-Guard. And he introduced me to Richard Watts at the University of Vermont. There Watts’s Center for Community News has documented some 100 institutions of higher learning engaged in one form or another of local news gathering.
The teaching hospital model goes beyond traditional student newspapers such as our fine University of Oregon Daily Emerald. Working together, students, professors and professionals would report, edit and present the news. Students involved would work at a professional level while experimenting with innovative tools, a process informed by scholarly research. The result would be a living laboratory serving a community hungry for a substantive daily paper. This type of education-cum-product exists in medicine, law, education and agriculture. Here at Oregon, we’re poised to build out the first teaching hospital for news.
Just a fraction of our over 2,000 enrolled J-school students would build a potent newsroom. Our business school could contribute financial expertise, our design college graphic artists. Imagine such a staff creating a daily Monday-through-Saturday online product and a fat printed Sunday edition (complete with color comics)!
Gannett is in the extraction business, mining as much local wealth as it can with minimal investment. Public service is no longer on its corporate agenda. But longtime Register-Guard columnist Don Kahle—his weekly take on local affairs was canceled in November—told me Gannett is not the villain. “America is a grand experiment because of the tension between democracy and capitalism. We’ve lost,” he lamented. “It’s just capitalism. There is no public square when capitalism is all that matters.”
My colleague Kahle may well be correct, but I’m not yet ready to concede. Before the Register-Guard lets out its last gasp, donating it to the UO could serve the corporate monster’s public image, our local public university and—most important, of course—our community. Our fragile democracy depends on a vibrant free press. Eugene, along with similar underserved markets across the country, needs and deserves a potent daily.