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A southern Oregon newspaper lost its entire reporting staff, creating a 'news desert'

The entire news staff of the Herald and News, a newspaper in Klamath Falls, left their jobs this week, leaving a virtual news desert in the Klamath Basin.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore — The entire news staff of the Herald and News, a newspaper in Klamath Falls, left their jobs this week, leaving a virtual news desert in the Klamath Basin. The area of southern Oregon is dealing with the state's worst drought (anywhere from "extreme" to "exceptional" drought according to the Oregon Drought Monitor), frequent wildfires and tense conflicts over water use

The paper's editor, Tim Trainor, and three reporters all resigned this week. One of the reporters, Alex Schwartz, told KGW News that once Trainor announced his departure, the others knew it was time for them to go as well. 

"Tim resigned first and then the rest of us were just sort of like, that's kind of it for us," he said. "I don't want it to seem like it was like a loyalty thing — that we left because he left — but we just knew that it would just get worse after he left." 

Schwartz said that longtime issues over reporter pay and workload with the paper's corporate owners, Adams Publishing Group, came to a head in the past year. 

"It was a really difficult decision for me, because I really wanted to keep covering the Klamath in this role. But I knew that if I stayed, it was going to be so much harder and I was going to have so much other work put on my plate and that the quality of everything that I was gonna put out was probably going to suffer. I didn't think that was fair to me or our readers or my sources."

The Herald and News has been at the vanguard of coverage on the drought in southern Oregon and longstanding conflict over water rights between indigenous tribes, farmers and members of the Klamath Basin community. In 2021, they published Project Klamath, a comprehensive, in-depth report on the history and stakeholders of the water crisis at a time when water allocation to farmers was cut off, and tensions got so high that a standoff seemed imminent as protesters set up a tent at the gates of an irrigation canal, threatening to break in. They also invited Ammon Bundy, the leader of the right-wing takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, who supported the protesters. The Herald and News provided invaluable support to KGW's coverage of the water crisis by sharing their pictures, video and on-the-ground perspectives. 

RELATED: Domestic wells run dry in many Klamath Basin homes

Both Alex Schwartz and photojournalist Arden Barnes' positions with the Herald and News were partially funded through Report for America, a nonprofit that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Barnes tweeted that Report for America gave her a great learning experience and a service to the local community, but that the Herald and News didn't see it that way. 

"We were just bodies used to fill the paper," she wrote. "A living wage, support for the newsroom, and respect for reporters and local journalism are the bare minimum required to keep good journalists at papers."

Journalists at large and small outlets across the country say they struggle to be able to afford to live in the areas they cover. A job posting for a general assignment reporter at the Herald and News listed the starting wage at $14 an hour, just above minimum wage. After Jefferson Public Radio reported on the newspaper losing its staff, the wage offer increased to $16 an hour to start. The starting salary for the editor, who is in charge of the entire news department, is $45,000 a year, according to its job posting. No journalist goes into the job for the money, but trying to pay rapidly-increasing rent, student loans, child care and other necessities in a job where the hours are long and often fluid, many are finding it difficult to justify.

"I could have made more money working at a fast food restaurant," Schwartz said. "If you're not going to invest in the editorial content of your newspaper, you can't expect us to want to continue that."

The departure of the Herald and News' editorial staff leaves a virtual news desert in the Klamath Basin, at least until an entire new staff is hired and trained. The Klamath Falls News, a one-man operation, provides independent local coverage for the area — which has a population of more than 50,000.

According to a report from the University of North Carolina, the United States has lost almost 1,800 papers since 2004, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies. The vast majority cover small communities and rural areas. According to the report, almost 200 counties in the U.S. don't have a newspaper, and 1,449 counties have only one, usually weekly paper. The residents of news deserts are generally poorer, older and less educated. 

Losing local journalists means that a community loses the people willing to sit in meetings, read hundreds of pages of documents, spend hours doing research and ask questions of elected leaders and people in positions of power on behalf of people in the community who are affected by decisions made by those leaders. Research shows that losing local journalism ends up costing communities money. According to Bloomberg CityLab, cities that lost newspapers and local journalists saw a rise in government spending and higher long-term borrowing costs. It also creates a situation ripe for government abuse, misinformation and extremism, according to the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, as people start getting their news from social media only.

RELATED: Record heat, historic drought, winter storms: The weather events that happened in 2021

Les Zaitz, the publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, told KGW News that his audience in rural Malheur County depends on them to keep elected leaders accountable. 

"What we find is that our readers really count on us to be the watchdog, to question government spending, to question decisions that public officials make," he said. "When we do tough stories, they're among the best-read stories that we do, and we are told constantly, keep it up, we're behind you." 

But he acknowledged that it's difficult to attract talented journalists because of low wages. 

"The costs of providing journalism are going up, the ability to fund journalism is going down. We would all like to pay really high wages, but we can't. We would be out of business and then there would be zero journalism in one of these communities." 

Zaitz said that many traditional print outlets are becoming digital-only, which can substantially cut costs. Congress is also working on House Resolution 3940, the "Local Journalism Sustainability Act," which, if passed, would provide tax credits for newspaper subscriptions, payroll credits for employers and tax credits to businesses who advertise in local media outlets.