Facing Challenges, Two Oregon Newspaper Chains Announce Big Changes

Pamplin Media sells to Mississippi company; EO Media lays off 29.

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The Pacific Northwest media landscape looks a lot different this week with two Oregon-based publishing companies announcing hours apart on Monday they’re making big moves in response to fierce economic challenges.

In the morning, Portland-based Pamplin Media Group, publisher of two dozen newspapers and websites including its flagship, Portland Tribune, announced it has sold to Carpenter Media Group of Mississippi. Robert Pamplin Jr., the heir to an industrial empire that includes textile mills in the South and Portland’s Ross Island Sand & Gravel, started the Tribune in 2001 after The Oregonian investigated Ross Island’s acceptance of contaminated soil to fill a 120-foot hole left by gravel mining. Pamplin’s publishing empire, which also included 23 suburban and rural newspapers throughout the state, grew fast in the 2000s but has declined in recent years.

Later Monday, EO Media Group, owner of 12 newspapers in Oregon and Washington, announced that in response to declining ad revenue and rising operating costs it will lay off or furlough around a quarter of its workforce of 185 and focus its efforts online. All EO outlets will reduce their publication schedules. Five — The Baker City Herald, The Blue Mountain Eagle, The Hermiston Herald, La Grande Observer and The Wallowa County Chieftain — will end their print editions. Once a bright spot in Oregon media, the family-owned company has hired a broker to explore sale options.

On Wednesday, The Oregonian took a deeper dive into the issues plaguing EO, Pamplin and the business of local news around the country.

Since the Great Recession in the late 2000s and early 2010s, readers and advertisers have increasingly moved online, forcing publications to trim staff and page counts and in many cases, close altogether. Outlets in smaller, rural communities face an even tougher road, lacking the large audiences attractive to advertisers. In EO’s case, postal rates and health care costs have risen steeply in recent years with further increases looming this summer, The Bulletin of Bend reported.

Around the turn of the millennium, The Bulletin was riding high with a brand-new purpose-built newspaper production facility on Bend’s west side and a newsroom north of 70 people. But by the time longtime owners the Chandler family and their Western Communications entered bankruptcy in 2019, the staff had endured numerous rounds of layoffs and cuts to their health care benefits.

EO’s purchase was seen as a rare positive tale of media acquisition. The Bulletin immediately became the small chain’s largest publication in staff size and readership. EO added journalists in Bend, opened a paper in Medford and restarted one in Redmond. It relocated The Bulletin from the now vastly-oversized Chandler Avenue building to a more modest office space by the Bend Parkway and for three straight years, the paper won the “General Excellence” award of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.

Now it appears the sale to EO may have merely delayed the inevitable. On Monday, the news staff learned around seven positions of roughly two dozen would be eliminated.

The Oregonian reports EO hopes to find a serious buyer who won’t cut and run, a fate that’s befallen many local outlets. Eugene’s once-mighty Register Guard, purchased by Gannett in 2018, has seen its newsroom dwindle from around 80 people to six with no local editor.

Carpenter, the company that purchased Pamplin, now controls more than 180 small and mid-sized publications around the country. Not much is known about its plans in Oregon, though it expressed a desire to maintain coverage in the communities where Pamplin currently publishes. EO chairwoman Kathryn Brown told The O a sale to Carpenter is an intriguing prospect, as is converting to a nonprofit model.

The Pamplin sale marks the end of Robert B. Pamplin Jr.’s foray into news publishing. Pamplin started the Tribune after a venture into Christian book publishing. His fledgling news outfit expanded quickly in the outlying metro area attempting to cut into the Oregonian’s ad revenue. But as that effort suffered, Pamplin resorted to unusual business practices like selling unused industrial land to his company’s pension fund, as chronicled by Willamette Week.

Still, Pamplin, 82, surprised many with Monday’s announcement in a Pamplin article, saying, “Due to age and health reasons, it made sense to pass the company on to someone else who will carry on the tradition of balanced journalism, the old-fashioned way.”

(Editor’s note: The writer worked for The Bulletin from 2018 to 2022)

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