The newspaper I went to work for as a very green rookie reporter in 1973 was a community fixture, focused on local news and interests, sports (it was in a university town), as well as state and regional issues. The Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard had a circulation of 75,000-plus, a news staff of more than 50, and a reputation for aggressive, thorough coverage.
It was a great learning environment for a young reporter. I worked with talented colleagues (many of whom went on to distinguished careers, including a few Pulitzer Prizes) under the direction of tough but fair editors. It was what we would now consider an old-fashioned, legacy news operation of the type that has been nearly obliterated from the media landscape.
The Register-Guard is part of that wreckage. The family that owned the paper for several generations was forced by financial circumstances to sell the Register-Guard and its assets (including a building and printing press). It ended up in the hands of Gannett, the big newspaper chain which is now in the industry headlines for its current round of massive layoffs.
The corporate owners have systematically disassembled the Register-Guard, selling the building and press (it’s now printed in Vancouver, Washington, 120 miles away), slashing staff and moving many functions elsewhere. Its circulation has plummeted to around 15,000, six days a week. Just a few days ago, the newspaper’s titular editor (who took a corporate buyout and is no longer there) made a startling announcement: the Register-Guard’s opinion pages — once a robust forum for local, state, regional and national issues, with several editorial writers — were disappearing altogether. They had already dwindled to almost nothing. Now there will be no editorials, letters to the editor, columns or cartoons.
Several of my former Eugene colleagues keep in touch through a list-serve in which we share information and observations (mostly lamentations) about what’s happening to the newspaper industry in general and the Register-Guard in particular. Here’s what one — who was once was my editor and later became an editorial writer — had to say about the decision:
“I will always believe that providing expert context (not always including letters to the editor, of course) to the news of the day was one of the most important functions of any newspaper, especially ones that focus on covering local news … The saddest part is that I’m sure most residents of Lane County and the surrounding area aren’t going to realize what they’ve lost.”
The outgoing Register-Guard editor offered some explanations for the decision. Lack of resources to responsibly vet letters and columns was one of the reasons. And more:
“While a segment of our community shares their thoughts and feelings about local issues through the Opinion page, overall, the responses we receive often do not bring fresh viewpoints to the local conversation. Additionally, we’ve learned from feedback and research that this content doesn’t resonate with our community as it once did. It is among the least-read content that we produce.” What’s more, “Opinion content also is often cited as the reason for canceling a subscription.”
So, nobody reads it and those who do get so angry they cancel the paper. Oddly, the Eugene newspaper will continue allowing online commenting — which I have always considered a toxic mosh pit that adds nothing useful to the public discourse. I don’t allowed online commenting on the Methow Valley News website. The original expectation that commenting would generate healthy discussions has been proven sadly idealistic.
I don’t necessarily see the Register-Guard’s action as a trend. Opinion pages haven’t quite gone the way of the dodo. They continue to thrive in hundreds of publications around the country, and are an important staple of community newspapers like this one. We’re not going to be eliminating our opinion space anytime soon — we think it is well read. In the 2022 “Better Newspaper Contest” sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, the Methow Valley News opinion pages took first place among all the weekly newspapers in the state, large and small (not for the first time). We’re proud of that distinction. I believe these pages are meaningful, informative and of interest to the Methow Valley community. But that’s just my opinion, which you will keep hearing.