PDXS, Vol. 6, No. 17, winter holiday season, 1996-97

Battle of the Media Titans:
KGW KO's the Big O

Transcript of KGW Program

Alternative newspapers like PDXS are always criticizing the mainstream media. That's part of our job. But late last month, one of the city's corporate-owned television stations attacked the state's largest newspaper. On Monday and Tuesday, November 25 and 26, KGW-TV News aired a remarkable two-part series on the Oregonian. Not only was the Channel 8 series unusual - the establishment press hardly ever criticizes itself - but the KGW stories were as savage as anything we've ever written about the Portland daily.

The series, researched and written by Channel 8 reporter Kevin Roy, not only took on the Oregonian, but also criticized owner S.I. Newhouse - one of the most powerful media moguls in the world. In Roy's series, the Portland daily was lambasted by a variety of public figures and journalists, including Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, Willamette Week co-owners Mark Zusman and Richard Meeker, and PDXS contributor Mitzi Waltz, who is also head of the local chapter of the National Writers Union.

The Oregonian has barely acknowledged the attack. At first, the paper only ran a few veiled references to the KGW stories. Then, on Monday, December 2, television columnist Pete Schulberg mentioned the "much-hyped" series in a piece on the latest television ratings. Within the paper, corporate officials are trying to dismiss the Channel 8 series as nothing more than retaliation for Schulberg's earlier criticism of the station's night vision helicopter camera. That argument may convince some of the Oregonian's employees, but it won't fool those of us who have been dismayed by the paper's growing shortcomings over the past few years.

We've confirmed all of the facts reported in Roy's stories. The Oregonian generates approximately $400 million in profits every year, employs around 300 reporters, but devotes less than nine percent of its contents to local news coverage. No wonder so many people are disappointed by the Portland daily. Blumenauer's willingness to criticize the paper was especially significant. After all, when was the last time you heard an elected official challenge the competence of a paper that endorsed him?

For those of you who missed the KGW series, what follows is a transcript of the two stories, reprinted with the permission of Channel 8 reporter Kevin Roy - who deserves a round of applause for breaking the unwritten rules and taking on the Oregonian.


KGW-TV NEWS ANCHOR JIM BENNEMAN We know you have a choice when it comes to watching the local news.

KGW-TV NEWS ANCHOR CAROL JENSEN But when it comes to reading the daily news, you don't have a choice. It is the Oregonian or nothing. Is the paper abusing its power as a monopoly?

BENNEMAN The Northwest NewsChannel's Kevin Roy's been investigating this issue for weeks. He joins us now with this special report we call The Oregonian: Uncovered. You uncovered a lot.

KGW-TV REPORTER KEVIN ROY Indeed, Jim and Carol. I should mention first of all, a lot of people have already been calling us about this story. People asking why are we taking on the Oregonian? Well, if we don't, who will? Most big companies do have competition which keeps them in check, but not the Oregonian. Tonight, in The Oregonian: Uncovered, how Portland suffers by having only one daily paper. It's part of the daily pattern of life in Portland. The Oregonian has been arriving on front porches since 1860. And just like the rain, we've grown used to it. Some of us like the constant drizzle.

READER 1 It kind of embodies the heartbeat of Oregon, you know.

ROY Many of us don't.

READER 2 I think the Oregonian's one of the worst papers I've seen in this country.

READER 3 It's a monopoly. The Oregonian is a monopoly and they take advantage of that.

ROY The Oregonian plays its monopoly game far better than most newspapers. Mergers, cutbacks, layoffs, these are the buzz words of major dailies right now, but not at the Oregonian. As a business, it's very successful. Circulation is actually increasing, approaching 400,000. Profits are huge. The Oregonian grosses an estimated $400 million a year. Its revenues are more than KGW-TV, KATU-TV, KOIN-TV, and KPTV combined. The Oregonian is considered one of the biggest cash cows in one of the biggest media empires in America, the Newhouse newspaper chain. And that's saying a lot. Newhouse owns 23 dailies plus dozens of your favorite magazines: Vogue, GQ, Self, Glamour, Conde Nast Traveler and Vanity Fair to name just a few. Exactly how much money the Oregonian is making we'll never know, because Newhouse is a privately owned company. Willamette Week publisher Richard Meeker wrote the book on the Oregonian's tycoon, S. I. Newhouse.

WILLAMETTE WEEK PUBLISHER RICHARD MEEKER I can tell you that it's obviously a place where circulation numbers and profits that then get drained out of Oregon and put into New York City are the things that drive that business. And journalistic values are not number one or even number two on the priority list.

ROY It wasn't always this way. The Oregonian used to have daily competition from the Oregon Journal.


ROY Don Sterling was the Journal's editor. He remembers what or who killed the competition, S. I. Newhouse. The Newhouse family bought the struggling Journal back in the '60s and merged it with the Oregonian in 1982.

STERLING What one paper overlooks the other one covers, and they stimulate each other to do better jobs. I miss the competition, but I don't think it's been disastrous for Portland.

ROY But many local journalists think it has been disastrous.

FORMER OREGONIAN COLUMNIST PHIL STANFORD You know, I think they're more or less faking it right now.

ROY Not long ago, Phil Stanford was the Oregonian's most popular columnist until the new editor came to town. In 1993, Sandra Mims Rowe left the Virginian Pilot to become the Oregonian's first female editor and the first editor from outside Oregon. Rowe and Stanford clashed. He left.

STANFORD I'm a boat rocker, and -

ROY Stanford says the Oregonian's biggest problem today is that under Rowe's helm the paper's become timid.

STANFORD Yeah, you know, they are then as now in the business of protecting the powerful.

ROY At this point we'd love to give you Sandra Rowe's response, but she and [Oregonian] publisher Fred Stickel decided not to talk to us. Remember, this is the same paper that has on its staff a full-time TV critic, Pete Schulberg. He talks to TV news directors all the time. Hypocritical? Not to Sandra Rowe who told me, quote, we're the only game in town; we don't need this publicity.

WILLAMETTE WEEK EDITOR MARK ZUSMAN The idea that, apparently, the Oregonian is not willing to speak to Channel 8, that sort of an attitude, if the Oregonian went to another large business in this town and tried to get, you know, PGE, Pacificorp, whatever, tried to get a company to comment and they said no comment, would be outrageous.

ROY Here's another way the Oregonian flexes its monopoly muscle. Dozens of people talked to me on the phone - current and former Oregonian reporters, free-lance writers, even college newspaper editors - all had very critical things to say, but they were too afraid to go on camera for fear of retribution. Tomorrow night we ask, is the Oregonian pushing style over substance? We measured the paper, and you may be surprised by how little local news is in it.


NEWSCASTER JIM BENNEMAN The daily newspaper has a special role in every community. It's supposed to dig deep, be a watchdog and keep politicians honest.

NEWSCASTER CAROL JENSEN But many local journalists and even some politicians say that Portland's daily paper, the Oregonian, is shirking those responsibilities. The NewsChannel's Kevin Roy continues his special report tonight, The Oregonian: Uncovered.

ROY Well, Carol and Jim, I'm sure the editors at the Oregonian would disagree with this. Unfortunately, we can't bring you their side of the story because the Oregonian refused to talk with us. But many other local journalists believe in recent years the Oregonian has broken its public trust. Where's the hard hitting, investigative reporting Portland needs? Tonight we investigate that question in The Oregonian: Uncovered.

KXL RADIO TALK SHOW HOST BILL GALLAGHER It's eight minutes after one o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, middle of the week, What'cha got Wednesday, wide open phones.

ROY He's a popular radio host for KXL, but at heart Bill Gallagher's a newspaper man. His father ran the presses for the San Francisco Chronicle. And, as a local celebrity, Gallagher's been front-page news himself in the Oregonian.

GALLAGHER Some days I pick up that front section and it's only eight pages and I think to myself, with all those ads, this is all you could find that was worth running?

ROY What exactly does the Oregonian find worth running? We wanted to find out, so we collected an average week's worth of the paper. We excluded Sunday because it's so different from all the other days, and then we measured every last square inch, more than 150,000 square inches in all. What should a local paper have the most of? Local News? No way. More than half, 54%, is advertising. Eighteen percent is copied from the wire services. Twelve percent is local feature stories, and local hard news accounted for just nine percent. This from a staff of more than 300 reporters and editors. Willamette Week, by contrast, has the second largest circulation in Oregon and only 12 reporters.

WILLAMETTE WEEK EDITOR MARK ZUSMAN I mean, that's the thing that I think amazes so many of us who are in this business, is you know how many people are working at that place, you know how good so how many of them are, you pick up the paper day after day and you say, what are they saving? You know, in December are they going to unveil 30 unbelievable stories?

ROY The competition in Clark County, the Columbian, envies the slick, colorful, graphically pleasing package the Oregonian has become.

COLUMBIAN EDITOR TOM KOENNINGER Used to have the reputation as the old, the grey lady. It's not the grey lady now. It's alive and bright and lively and, from my standpoint, very appealing.

ROY But that very compliment is also the basis of much criticism. Many local journalists say in her three years as editor, Sandra Rowe has pushed style over substance.

SOUTHWEST CONNECTION RICK SEIFERT It's a pretty paper, you know, but I think people can see through that.

ROY Rick Seifert runs a weekly in southwest Portland. As a reporter, he won a Pulitzer prize, the top newspaper award, an award the Oregonian hasn't won in four decades. He also came up with this infamous bumper sticker - "If it matters to Oregonians, it's in the Washington Post - because it was the Post, not the Oregonian, that broke the sexual harassment story which brought down former Senator Bob Packwood.

SEIFERT It has not done well by this community in many ways. It's not aggressive. It does very little investigative reporting.

OREGONIAN TV COMMERCIAL If you want to get the news, get the Oregonian.

ROY The Oregonian still uses the slogan. But is the paper really in touch with the population of Portland? Or is it pandering more and more often to sell more papers?

WILLAMETTE WEEK PUBLISHER RICHARD MEEKER Look at these kinds of headlines. What the average person in Portland gets in the afternoon [edition], we call this "the screamer," is something that really does speak to somebody with a lesser intelligence. "Daycare hides a drug lab." "Priest's secret: he's got a wife."

ROY Local politicians remember the day when the Oregonian was a vigilant watchdog. But today, Congressman Earl Blumenauer says the dog has lost its bite.

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE EARL BLUMENAUER You shouldn't make it too easy on us. And the way that you do that is to have the day in, day out coverage that might be a little boring, but it's very important. And, frankly, I miss that.

UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND JOURNALISM PROFESSOR MICK MULCRONE It's a decline of localism, it's a real bottom line mentality and that has consequences for content.

PORTLAND FREELANCE WRITER MITZI WALTZ And they boosted up their coverage of kind of happy news, kind of fluffy stuff. And I think that the age-old problem of the Oregonian - which has always been catering to advertisers and sometimes to the detriment of their news coverage - has gotten even worse.

ROY It seems many of you agree. I have received overwhelming response. G.T. Norton of Albany writes, "This paper is nothing more than the Nickel Ads you get free at the supermarket." By e-mail, Ken Cato says I would like to hear their explanation for what has to be construed as a total lack of interest in their community at best and the virtual rape of our wallets under the guise of the news media. And by fax, Katherine Sales of Beaverton writes, "The Oregonian protects the powerful and will not print viewpoints which deviate from its own editorial cannon." Trust me, I could go on and on for hours with dozens more of phone calls and letters we've received in the last two days alone. We've obviously touched a nerve.

NEWSCASTER JIM BENNEMAN And certainly with so many people talking about it, you would have thought that the people who run the Oregonian would have talked about it as well.

NEWSCASTER CAROL JENSEN That they would have wanted to.

BENNEMAN Sure. You bet.

ROY Maybe they want to now.

BENNEMAN All right. We'll see what happens. Thanks, Kevin.



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