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Below the fold: The loss of Medford's Mail Tribune is far from an isolated instance

"News deserts" are becoming increasingly common as the model that once sustained a thriving industry fails to adapt into the digital age.

MEDFORD, Ore. — Not long ago, it was a near-ubiquitous tradition — people started their days with a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper. But in more and more communities across the U.S., those days are numbered. The coffee may still be there, but in some places there is no newspaper to thumb through.

In the Southern Oregon city of Medford, a metropolitan area of 223,000 people, there hasn't been a newspaper to crack open for months. The Mail Tribune, a newspaper with a pedigree more than a century long, stopped producing a print edition in the fall. It limped along on its online platforms for a few more months.

Friday marks the bitter end of the Mail Tribune in any form. Publisher Steven Saslow announced just days earlier that they would be shutting down operations at the end of the week, saying that the publication had become "unsustainable" due to rising costs, shrinking ad revenue and difficulty hiring staff.

"The paper's been here for a hundred ... a hundred and ten years or more, maybe a hundred and twenty," said Bob Hunter, who was editor of the Mail Tribune for 33 years.

The exact age is debatable. By the early 1900s, there were two competing daily newspapers in Medford: the Medford Mail and the Medford Daily Tribune. Feisty progressive newspaperman George Putnam bought the Tribune in 1907, then bought the Mail in 1909 — combining the two under the name "Medford Mail Tribune."

You could date the beginning of the Mail Tribune to the origins of either paper in the late 1800s, Putnam's purchase of the Tribune in 1907 or the merger in 1909, depending on your inclinations.

Putnam's scrapes with corrupt political officials and the Ku Klux Klan's influence in Oregon are stories unto themselves.

The Mail Tribune was the first Oregon newspaper to win a Pulitzer Prize, something the newspaper boasts to this day, when it received an award for meritorious public service in 1934 "after Editor Robert Ruhl stood up to a gang of unscrupulous politicians."

Hunter remembers a time, not long ago, when the Mail Tribune newsroom was full of reporters.

"We had at one point, oh 15 years ago, probably had 55 people in the newsroom between Mail Tribune and the Ashland Daily Tidings," he recalled. "And now I think the numbers — the Ashland Daily Tidings no longer exists — I think the numbers in the newsroom are probably in the teens."

Steven Saslow's company Rosebud Media snapped up both the Mail Tribune and the Daily Tidings in 2017. Over time, the Daily Tidings increasingly became a carbon copy of the Mail Tribune. It vanished completely in 2021.

News you can trust

The dynamic of shrinking newsrooms, slashed delivery days and, ultimately, stopped presses is far from unique to the Medford market. It's happening throughout the country.

"We found that there have been closures here in Oregon of news outlets over a long period of time," said Regina Lawrence, research director of the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon.

Last year, Lawrence's team mapped out where news outlets are located across the state.

"Of course, the more populous areas of the state —the greater Portland area, Bend area, some other areas like Eugene, etcetera — you can see that there's a pretty high concentration of news outlets for local news," Lawrence said. "But in the less populous areas of the state, those are also the areas where there's very few local news outlets."

Lawrence observed that there are many counties throughout Oregon that are one or two newsrooms away from having no access to truly local news. And not having reliable, robust news outlets creates a widening ripple effect.

"There'll be lots of things that slip through the cracks and maybe don't get the attention they deserve, and I think that's a big loss for the community," observed Hunter.

"We know that there's a strong connection between the health of local news and the health of civic life in communities — and the health of democracy itself," said Lawrence. "And so when local news starts to wither and decline, that can have real impacts on the accountability of politicians and political officials, it can have impacts on corporate behavior and corruption, and we know that it has impacts on voting patterns.

"The relationships between people, the sense that people are members of a community can be really affected when there's not strong local news organizations that are telling the stories of that community, that are being truly reflective of that community ... then that can really affect how people, how connected people feel."

But there's more to it. The UO research found that when people don't have access to quality, robust local journalism, they tend to turn elsewhere for information about their community. That often means social media: Nextdoor, Facebook and Twitter, where rumors and misinformation spread quickly, and the environment can be incredibly toxic. Or they may turn to national news outlets, cable shows, podcasters and YouTube videos.

But Lawrence's team found that when there are local journalists who live where the audience lives, people tend to trust them more.

"We all know that there's this problem of media trust now in our society, but that problem is far less pronounced at the local level," Lawrence said. "So ironically, the part of the news industry that's having the toughest time right now economically and trying to figure out how to survive is also the segment of the news industry that's most trusted by the public, according to surveys."

In Oregon, Lawrence said, a survey her team conducted found that about two-thirds of respondents said that they trusted their local news outlets. But they can only trust the news if it's there to begin with.

"When there's less local news in the paper, then there's fewer people who want to get the paper," said Hunter, "and then it just feeds on itself and it continues on."

"We asked people, 'Well, if you don't trust your local news organization, why not? Tell us a little more about that.' And quite often the comments were along the lines of, 'The coverage is so thin compared to what it used to be,'" Lawrence said. "'I don't feel like they really cover my local community.'"

Can we stop the bleed?

The trend of vanishing local news is not particularly novel anymore — it's been happening for decades. While there's been no silver bullet, plenty of people have been thinking of ways to preserve the news in some form.

A number of publishers have simply shifted to online news. However, the Mail Tribune is a prime example of how that pivot to digital can fail to save a traditional newspaper.

Meanwhile, nonprofits like The Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism are out there trying to preserve the small news outlets that particularly serve rural areas.

And now a bill has been introduced into the Oregon legislature that would offer people a tax credit for their subscription to a local news outlet. Representative Ben Bowman, a Democrat from Tigard, is one of the bill's co-sponsors.

"You could basically take a tax credit and at the end of the year if you spent, let's say, ten bucks a month on, you know, a local newspaper subscription, you could subtract $120 a year from the taxes you owe that year," Bowman said of the bill.

There's also some action on the federal levels. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act would also provide tax credits to support local news. However, it hasn't made it out of committee within the last two years.

"What people need to understand is that the Medford Mail Tribune is not an outlier," Bowman said. "It is part of a much larger trend and if we don't take action to reverse the trend, we're going to have very few local news outlets left to hold government account — this is why, like, I'm a Democrat, I'm a proud Democrat, but this is a bipartisan issue. If you care about local government accountability, if you care about transparency, if you care about having an informed electorate, you have to care about the health of local news."

Medford still has three local television stations, public radio — including NPR affiliate Jefferson Public Radio, which has produced some hard-hitting journalism about the Medford news market within the last few years — and a newspaper in neighboring Grants Pass, the Daily Courier. The Daily Courier's publisher said in a statement this week that they would attempt to hire some of the Mail Tribune's dispossessed journalists and expand the paper's service area toward Medford.

Depending on the outcome of the Daily Courier's proposed expansion, that may or may not assuage the concerns harbored by former Mail Tribune editor Bob Hunter.

"My hope, and still maybe it's not a lost hope," Hunter said, "is that something will step in and take its place."

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