Oregonian layoffs a disservice to the future of journalism

Editor’s note: This blog post represents the opinions and ideas of the individual staff member and not of the Society of Professional Journalists as a whole.

One afternoon during my 2011 summer internship at The Oregonian, my editor DeAnn Welker took me up to the fifth floor of the newspaper’s building.

“It’s quieter up here,” Welker said as we rode the elevator.

It was quieter. And darker and emptier. She led me through the carpeted hallway to a large room filled with lifeless furniture. Rows of gray desk tops collected sheets of dust. There were office chairs that hadn’t been swiveled in some time.

DeAnn showed me where she once worked, and the places where her colleagues met daily, as a team, to produce the features section. The newsroom had shrunk significantly since she had started as a reporter several years prior.

At the time, this moment did not make a huge impression on me. After all, just one floor below, the newsroom was alive and well. It wasn’t until last week that I was reminded of the ghost town on the fifth floor.

Last week, the newspaper announced a new company name, Oregonian Media Group, and their plans to concentrate on a digital model in order to be more accessible to their readers. It’s the same model other Advance-owned publications have done.

Buried underneath the lead of this story was tragic news: many contributors to the publication are losing their jobs, the print edition will only be sent to subscribers four times a week, and the organization is selling the building where award-winning journalism has been produced for the past 65 years.

Change and innovation is imperative in order to maintain a sustainable business model. I commend The Oregonian for pushing toward digital journalism and being in tune with how readers engage with the news. Newspapers across the country have made similar moves. And I hope — for the sake of the people who are continuing to do great work at the newspaper — that their new system will prosper.

But what is supposed to be a breath of fresh air seems more like a final gasp.

I won’t pretend to fully understand the economics of running a major news outlet. The changes certainly bring up many issues, but I am concentrating on what I know: how this move will affect young journalists.

During the alterations, I hope that The Oregonian and its owner, Advance, keep in mind that the organization is not only sustaining a consumer product, but is also providing an important public service: quality journalism. Which — go figure — can’t be done without outstanding journalists.

According to a Poynter article, editor-in-chief Peter Bhatia said that the goal of the Oregonian Media Group is to have a newsroom staff of 90. Aaron Mesh of Willamette Week reports that at least 90 Oregonian employees have already been fired. It’s unclear how many of them are from the editorial department.

It appears The Oregonian is cutting costs by replacing longstanding reporters in favor of less-experienced reporters who will require lower wages. In fact, they already have job openings posted online.

The scale of the layoffs causes one to wonder if Advance has lost sight of the newspaper’s values.

How does Advance think The Oregonian will be a better publication by firing experienced reporters? Everyday, media enthusiasts wonder why people don’t read newspapers anymore. There are plenty of complicated reasons, but The Oregonian has just provided the public with a very simple one — lower quality.

I’m sure the new journalists The Oregonian hires will be eager to do a good job. But without a plethora of experienced mentors, The Oregonian has robbed these new reporters of the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Journalists learn best from other journalists. Shoving talent out the newsroom and infiltrating it with naïveté can only muddy the waters.

Looking back on my internship, I often think of the people who took immense amounts of time to provide guidance — Welker instructed me how to write a solid nut graph, David Stabler taught me how to choose musical words, and Dave Killen showed me the ins and outs of Final Cut Pro.

If well-practiced journalists aren’t there to teach, how are young journalists supposed to improve? Even more importantly, who’s going to inspire them to meet high standards?

After all, it’s not 140-character tweets or even 300-word blog posts that encourage journalism students to pursue noble endeavors. It’s the moments of life captured by journalists that make readers capable of understanding the world around them — if only for a moment.

Among the fired is a versatile reporter, who moved seamlessly from being an art critic to covering business news. Another has had the bravery and patience to cover his own neighborhood. Another pays utmost attention to every piece she edits — even if it’s just a 200-word blurb about cherries. And yet another carries his camera at all times — at major sporting events, in Ireland, and when Portland is dark and only neon signs glow. And no one but Ryan White can make readers laugh out loud at the ridiculous theatrics of a Britney Spears concert.

These journalists aren’t indispensable. They’re needed.

I don’t discount the intense pressure on The Oregonian to keep up with new technology and fast-paced news. But here’s the secret: Newspapers will become better at technology as young adults who grew up in the Internet age enter the workforce.

However, good journalism practices — strong ethical standards, detailed reporting, captivating writing — can’t be self-taught. That’s what is at risk if news organizations favor quick and cheap above experienced journalists and quality journalism.

The Oregonian may have considered many issues when they decided to make their changes, but they forgot about future journalists — interns at news outlets all over the country, students grinding away at their campus publications and soaking in all they can in their journalism classes before they graduate.

The Oregonian forgot about its legacy.

Ellen Kobe is the communications coordinator at SPJ headquarters. She graduated from DePauw University and was a features reporter at The Oregonian in the summer of 2011. Connect with Ellen through email, ekobe@spj.org, or Twitter: @ellenkobe.

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