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Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Future of PDX Media: Of Ethics & 'Randyland.'

Posted by Matt Davis on Thu, Nov 12, 2009 at 2:54 PM

BREAKING: I'll be on KXL Radio tomorrow between noon and one o'clock, as an in-studio guest of City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who is guest hosting the Lars Larson show while Larson is out of town. We'll be discussing these issues, and more. Be sure to tune in.

ORIGINAL POST:

My God, I had a good time on Monday night. The Mercury graciously paid the $85 ticket for me to attend a City Club Salon on "The Future of Media In Portland," hosted by Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman and the paper's publisher, Richard Meeker. The intimate event—I counted 21 people including myself, the cook, and the waiter—was hosted at DOC restaurant, on NE 30th and Killingsworth, and coincided with the WW's 35th birthday issue last week.

meekerzusman.jpg

EVIDENCE: AS GATHERED BY MY SHITTY CELLPHONE CAMERA, AND GOOGLE IMAGES

"We would not have won the Pulitzer without the web," said Zusman, after the fourth course. "Because Goldschmidt got out in front of us."

And so on. But there was also some interesting dialog, which I've captured after the jump, for all those unsure about the FUTURE OF MEDIA IN PORTLANDTM. What's that? Blinking text? Oh, trust me...that's just one idea. There are plenty of other really, really awesome ones, I promise.

A NON-PROFIT JOURNALISM MODEL FOR PORTLAND?

I shared a table with Willamette Week's original founder Ron Buel, who quit the paper in 1982. We had two hours to get to know each other before the discussion started, and Buel is a real character. He was St.Louis bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal at just 29 ("it made me feel pretty good," he smiled), when Neil Goldschmidt asked him to move back to Oregon to run his campaign for City Commissioner in 1969. Buel worked for Goldschmidt after he was elected, before quitting to raise $150,000 to start Willamette Week in 1974.

Meeker and Zusman had printed out copies of a David Carr article from the New York Times about the media response to the Fort Hood massacre for diners to read as they made their way through a beet salad, chanterelle mushrooms with anchovy dressing, sturgeon on a bed of baby Brussels sprouts, and gourmet pork sausages. I wasn't drinking, as usual, but there were wine pairings with each course, including at one point, a grape I'd never even heard of. After two hours of hearing about Neil Goldschmidt (and a host of other fascinating subjects) from Buel, during which my eyes widened a few times, I developed a pretty strong hunch about one potential source for WW's 2004 Pulitzer-winning story on the state's disgraced former Governor. "I'm writing a novel loosely based on Goldschmidt's life," said Buel. "My personal opinion is that he did something unforgivable. He's 35 years old and having sex with a 14 year old in hotels across the city?" "He worked six days a week, 16 hours a day, week in, week out, he just drove himself. He could have been President of the United States if he hadn't had that thing in his past and on his conscience," Buel said.

By this point I was good and ready for Meeker and Zusman to start talking about the FUTURE OF MEDIA IN PORTLANDTM. To get the discussion going, Meeker asked members of the audience where they got their news from. Then he directed us to Buel, by way of the Carr article. Buel wants to create a non-profit journalism model in Portland, based on the Texas Tribune model, reported on by Carr. The Texas Tribune now employs 12 people to plug "gaps in public policy reporting" under a non-profit umbrella which has so far raised $3.7million.

"The idea is to do something similar in Oregon," said Buel, who is organizing a conference at the University of Oregon on November 21 sponsored by City Club and Oregon Public Broadcasting, called "We Make The Media." Another similar site to the Texas Tribune, called the Voice of San Diego, has secured subscriptions from 945 people, each donating between $35 and $1000 a year, Buel said. "They're doing some exciting stuff."

I plan to attend the upcoming conference. You might consider doing so, too.

"As the Oregonian becomes a shadow of its former self, and kills its investigative team, someone has to fill in the gaps," said Buel.

Meeker isn't wholeheartedly supportive of Buel's idea, Buel told me, because a 501c(3), or non-profit, can't endorse political candidates. "But when we're really down to three cotton-picking reporters in the whole city, we're losing accountability for democracy in this city," Buel said.

Or, are we?

PAYING FOR "ACCOUNTABILITY JOURNALISM"

One thing I started to notice about the evening was that Meeker and Zusman seemed reticent to offer their own vision of how the FUTURE OF MEDIA IN PORTLANDTM might look. They both made clear at the start of the evening that they were there as "provocateurs," to ask difficult questions and stimulate a discussion. In other words, I realized, I may have wasted the Mercury's $85. But I'm a man of strong faith. I held on.

Zusman eventually stepped up. "There's lots of advocacy journalism," he said. "But an enormous shortage of accountability journalism. What takes the time, the training, the ethical standards. And that's where we're lacking in this city."

"There are many blogs in this city but they're not turning over rocks," he said. "As we move into a new age, how do we finance that kind of journalism?"

Meeker agreed that it's difficult to make money in this game. "The former model was, your total classified revenue equaled your profit," he said, saying he read an article years ago about Craigslist killing newspapers, and "refused to believe it at the time."

Meeker agreed that the "fundamental question" is how to finance "accountability journalism" in the internet age. "We're kind of like an atom," he said. "And the newspaper is the nucleus without which the rest of the operation can't function."

"For us, the existence of the web means we can now be the local TV, radio station, and we can put stuff up almost instantaneously, and we can beat the Oregonian," said Meeker, "and I do think our website is a great marketing device for the paper."

Zusman said the WW is also designing a new iPhone application. "This is going to kick ass, I promise you," he said.

"The problem is that the rates you charge for ads on the web are so small that they can't support the journalism," he continued. "A current study says it's going to be another 17 years before the revenues catch up. So papers are trying to figure out what to do for the next 17 years. When that point happens, wonderful."

"We're making money," said Meeker. "We do advertising, and we put on some events and we have some sponsors for those." He also directed the room to his upcoming publisher's report, out on Wednesday, for more. It makes for pretty grim reading, actually.

Q. Oh, come on now. Don’t suggest you haven’t felt the recession!

A. We certainly have. Our revenue is down 16 percent this year. And we had to make a number of cost cuts, none more painfully than in personnel. We laid off or did not replace six full- and part-time employees. Staff took pay cuts of 8 percent in March. (We were able to maintain health-insurance coverage and 401(k) matches.) The paper’s owners (Editor Mark Zusman and me) took 25 percent reductions in pay. It hasn’t been fun. But everyone here has been patient and supportive in the face of the current economy. We’ve also benefited from a drop in the cost of newsprint. When this fiscal year ends, Willamette Week will have logged a small profit, and our paper in Santa Fe will have done a bit better.


"I'm pretty confident that as people say what they want, the market is going to provide it," said Meeker. "The question is, what about the spinach, and the vitamins?"

I think he was referring to so-called broccoli journalism. Otherwise known as Brussels sprouts journalism, or this evening, "accountability journalism." What he really meant, of course, was Nigel Jaquiss's journalism—Jaquiss was mentioned multiple times by audience members throughout the course of the evening. How do we pay for Nigel Jaquiss—winner of the paper's Pulitzer and sniper-like investigative reporter, whose phone calls cause the corrupt and the unethical to shit their pants? That was the real question. Will the market support Jaquiss's brand of reporting?

"And do people want it?" Meeker asked, about the spinach and the vitamins. "And can society function without it?"

Without Jaquiss, you mean? Or without spinach? Or "advocacy journalism?" Wha?

AND SO, TO "RANDYLAND."

I don't normally touch caffeine. It makes me anxious. But as I mentioned, I had a great time on Monday night, and as the chocolate cake was being passed around and the vacuum pots were being filled, I even allowed myself a sip of coffee to sustain me for the late ride home—the event ran at four hours by the time I left, and I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open.

I said goodbye to Carl Wolfson from KPOJ and his partner. And to Betsy Richter from Our PDX Network. I said I thought journalism was about "collegiality" and "fellowship" now, more than ever, especially as budgets got tighter. And hell, I said, I got into this profession because I loved it. Because I love it. Not because I thought someone was going to pay me. And that that's a bond that unites all of us who are really passionate about the trade—that we love what we do. Like I say, it's a good thing I hadn't been drinking. Get me in a dimly-lit restaurant and I inevitably get sentimental around bedtime.

On the ride home I reflected on what Zusman had said about getting into journalism after moving here from the East Coast in the era of Watergate, and Vietnam. He made Oregon sound like a very idealistic place, back in the seventies. I found myself wondering what it must have been like to start a newspaper here, back in the day, and I felt a little envious, I confess. Looking later at the Google picture of he and Meeker back then, both in their ties, with Zusman's Michael Douglas haircut, and their purposeful stares into the lens, I could see similarities in our ideals.

"We try to make Portland a better place in which to live, work and play," Meeker had said. "That means putting inquisitive people to work, finding out how the city really works, and trying to find things that deserve scrutiny." "There is a sense that we're a citizen in the community."

I was bubbling with enthusiasm with every push of my pedals. Perhaps I understood after all that the FUTURE OF MEDIA IN PORTLANDTM will be intimately connected to its past. "I spoke at Columbia recently and was amazed to hear that enrollment is up," Zusman had said. And damn right, I thought. Hallelujah! Perhaps one day, I too will speak at Columbia! Hell, why not compose my speech, on the way home?

Never give me coffee.

Then on Wednesday morning I opened Willamette Week to read "Randyland," Jaquiss's spinachy, vitaminny, Brussels-sproutsy piece of "accountability journalism" about City Commissioner Randy Leonard. And what did I realize?

WILLAMETTE WEEK CAN SUCK IT

Full disclosure: I would really like a Pulitzer. I am totally jealous of Jaquiss's Pulitzer, and would like it. If I could steal it, I would. I don't claim that the Mercury has a platinum standard of ethics, and we do things that some journalism professors might not agree with. But there are certain places we don't go.

"Randyland" appeared to be an opportunity for the paper to unload everything it has heard about Leonard over the years that didn't make the grade for being an actual story. There was, admittedly, an interesting potential news story about Leonard being investigated recently by the District Attorney's office for allegedly using his position as a fire inspector to get work for his brother's sprinkler company. In the early 1980s.

But that investigation closed without charges being issued. Would it be a story if Leonard had been breathalyzed and passed with flying colors? And who would have a motive for leaking it to Jaquiss? Somebody Leonard had pissed off more recently, perhaps? Maybe someone with a few recent fire code violations?

There was also a recycled meme from Nick Budnick, formerly at the Tribune, about Leonard liking to hire his friends. Again, this might have made an interesting story if someone else hadn't already written it.

There were recycled allegations of domestic violence in the 1980s, first reported by Maxine Bernstein and Brent Walth at the Oregonian, four years ago. Four years ago. Which Leonard denied then, and was forced to deny again by Jaquiss. Re-printing allegations of this nature seemed like an effort at smearing Leonard, to me.

Then, the basic premise of the article—that Leonard has sidelined Mayor Sam Adams—should also be seen as way off base to anybody who has frequented city hall in the last eleven months. Adams is pursuing an economic development strategy and a bicycle master plan. Leonard, with respect, is pursuing armed security guards for the water bureau, and perhaps, buying the Made In Oregon sign. He put a neon rose on top of a building. De facto mayor? Really? Where's the justification?

What was the point of the profile? Just crafting together all the negatives you have on Leonard and trying to balance them with some compliments, does not an insightful profile make. Why was Leonard held back by Mayor Adams from running the police bureau, for example? Where were the quotes from people who worked with him in the fire department, or were fired by him in the Bureau of Development Services or the Water Bureau? Or from Erik Sten or Nick Fish or Charlie Hales or Amanda Fritz, who have served with him on the council? What motivates Leonard? What makes him tick? We didn’t get the answers, or any speculation, even.

What’s his voting record like, in the state legislature and on the council? What’s his future vision for Portland? Is he a populist, or a liberal, or a conservative in democratic clothing? Do people like working for him? Who does he listen to? Who does he serve? What is his sense of the public interest—when does it come into play?

Jaquiss has a second part of the profile coming out next week, and it seems he has a lot of work to do.

It struck me that Leonard may have gotten on the wrong side of the paper's vendetta against Mayor Sam Adams, following the mayor's refusal to award Jaquiss another Pulitzer earlier this year by simply resigning in the wake of the Breedlove scandal. Leonard has defended Adams, and spoken about "forgiveness." This ought to teach him.

But sadly, I suspect the main reason for running the piece was to print salacious details of Leonard's private life. How are details of his recent divorce relevant? Are they affecting his job performance? Do they show him to be a hypocrite? That should be the standard for such details making their way into print.

More troubling, and I'm afraid for me, unforgivable, was Willamette Week's decision to quote a letter from Leonard's daughter to a circuit court judge. I see no reason to drag the young woman into the story, and frankly, can hardly imagine the psychological trauma it will have inflicted on the man and his family.

I emailed Leonard yesterday, asking whether he thought WW's decision to print details about his divorce and daughter's drug addiction had crossed a line.

"I don't even know where the line is anymore," he replied.

I know where the line is for me. I also know desperation when I smell it.

City Commissioners Amanda Fritz, Nick Fish, Dan Saltzman and the Mayor himself have all declined comment on the article, so far today.

So instead, I'll ask you, readers, what you want from the FUTURE OF MEDIA IN PORTLANDTM?

Lord knows the Mercury isn't perfect. But we do strive to be fair, accurate and relevant every week. We'll admit to having feelings on issues (hi, Major League Soccer! bye, Sit/Lie Ordinance! Secret List!), but we try to move on, instead of sublimating those feelings and turning them into vendettas. At least that's our idea for the future.

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