On July 3, the Forest Grove News-Times reported the end of Washington County’s garlic-festival feud. Two factions in nearby North Plains each wanted to hold the area’s premier celebration of the pungent root, and emotions ran high. (News-Times headline: “Dueling Garlic Festivals Don’t Mince Words.”) There could be only one. Finally, despite holding a trademark on the slogan “Fun Stinks,” one side surrendered.
It was the sort of hometown news the weekly News-Times has delivered to the farm, college, and commuter community of 21,000 since 1886. But this time, the paper faced competition of its own. The Forest Grove Leader ran essentially the same coverage, calling the affair an “unprecedented garlic festival double feature.”
Do Forest Grove readers want (let alone need) two papers? The News-Times already serves more than 4,000 readers, most of whom pay 50 cents a week to get the paper in the mail. So why create the Leader, which distributes 17,000 free copies every week, just as print newspapers seem to be dying?
The answers reveal one of Portland media’s stranger subplots. Forest Grove’s new paper, the Leader, is owned by the Oregonian. The News-Times is owned by Pamplin Media Group, a chain of local papers anchored by the weekly Portland Tribune. The two companies also run rival papers in Hillsboro and Beaverton.
Even as it lays off seasoned staffers and cuts back home delivery in Portland, the O is hiring reporters and starting new papers in the burbs. Publisher N. Christian Anderson III says it’s all part of a plan. “Hyperlocal news and advertising are one of the keys to rapidly expanding our total audience,” he writes via e-mail. And he may be on to something. Unglamorous “community” news might be the once-bountiful print newspaper industry’s final financial stronghold.
Pamplin fired the first shot in the Small Town Newspaper War of Washington County last September. The company owned by Robert Pamplin Jr.—an old-school eccentric tycoon who also owns a ghost town in Eastern Oregon and Ross Island Sand and Gravel—started a new paper in Hillsboro to take on the Argus, founded in 1873 and owned by the Oregonian. “With papers in Forest Grove and Beaverton, Hillsboro was a big hole in our lineup,” says John Schrag, Pamplin’s publisher in Forest Grove. The Hillsboro Tribune now prints 10,000 free copies every week.
The Oregonian fired back in Forest Grove, then Beaverton. Without divulging specifics, Anderson says both papers are doing better than the O expected. Indeed, the daily’s suburban offensive may continue. A search of web registrations reveals that the O’s parent company now owns greshamleader.com and lakeoswegoleader.com. (Pamplin runs papers in both towns.) Anderson declined to comment, but could boringleader.com be in the future?
Portland-centric readers may scowl at the dwindling O’s suburban strategy. But zoom out, and it starts to make sense. Advertising in “a publication with a circulation of 200,000 is expensive for a mom-and-pop business in Hillsboro or Oregon City,” observes Steve Bass of Oregon Public Broadcasting. A small paper can woo hometown businesses while delivering targeted audiences to bigger advertisers. In Forest Grove, the News-Times sells ads to the likes of Van Dyke Appliances, but also inserts to Fred Meyer, Safeway, and Sears.
Amid newspapering’s gloom, this formula offers rare sunlight. Last year, a Pew Research Center study showed that 72 percent of Americans closely follow community news, and other surveys suggest this audience remains willing to pay for the nearest micro-paper.
“It’s really the last bastion of value,” says M. E. Sprengelmeyer, a former reporter for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News (now defunct) who bought the Guadalupe County Communicator, a 2,200-circulation paper in an impoverished New Mexico town. “People care when there’s a new principal at the local school. Companies like the Oregonian are discovering, holy cow, there’s still a part of journalism that’s thriving.”
Beaverton and Hillsboro have become bustling cities. In little Forest Grove, the face-off stands out in sharper relief, and competitive juices flow. “Just because they toss 17,000 papers in driveways, ditches, and vacant lots doesn’t mean they have 17,000 readers,” Schrag jabs. “There’s a reason folks call it ‘The Litter.’”
Garlic festival coverage may not echo Hearst and Pulitzer, but the combat adds zest to a business that, big town or small town, could use some. In May, Oregonian vice president Peter Bhatia ventured from his downtown office to address Forest Grove’s Rotary Club. “Competition means better news, better sources,” he said. “The readership will benefit.” From his seat in the back of room, Schrag, a Rotary Club member since 2008, simply chuckled.