Sunday, September 29, 2013

Why I'm canceling my subscription to The Oregonian tomorrow

The Oregonian newspaper is discontinuing daily delivery starting on Tuesday. Home subscribers will subsequently get three and a half newspapers delivered per week – three “premium” editions on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, and a thinner one on Saturday. Same price! The remaining three papers will be available at retail locations at marked up prices, or downloadable as a PDF called “My Digital O.” Because everyone loves scrolling around an oversized PDF page on their iPad.

While I have been a print newspaper loyalist for all of my adult life (bucking the trend of most Gen X-ers), The Oregonian has given me no choice but to cancel and do other things with my time. Here are my top ten reasons why:

10. We’ve known since the popularization of the Internet that print journalism can’t keep up with the 24-hour news cycle. I’ve been able to forgive this fundamental flaw in exchange for more meaningful content and local coverage. But after awhile, it gets kind of silly when I read a story in the morning and my wife says, “Yeah, I read that on my Yahoo news feed yesterday.”

9.  The Oregonian has gradually reduced in size to the point where it’s almost like the original newspapers of the 19th century – one page. I understand what the journalism industry is going through, and flimsy newspapers are the manifestation of that. But come on! First they folded the Metro section into the main ‘A’ section on Mondays. Then they combined the Sunday Travel section (one of my favorites) with the estrogen-centric Living section. Here and elsewhere, local content has been replaced with syndicated pieces from the New York Times and the like. Other times they don’t even print stories. So when I go into work and someone’s like, “Did you read The Oregonian story about that thing you’re working on?,” my answer is often, “uhhh…no!” because it either wasn’t printed in the Portland edition, or the story was released after the print deadline, or they didn’t print it, period. I guess it’s hard to fit everything onto three pages.

8. I’ve been underserved too many times by delivery drivers. Either they forget to deliver a paper or they knock down plants or break things on our porch. Now, I can’t be too angry with people who are probably receiving a meager wage to get up at 3:30am and drive their own vehicle all over the Portland metro area in the dark. On the other hand, my sympathy for their situation was quite muted a few years ago when I was unemployed and struggling to land any work at all. “Do your job! I could!”

7. This next one puts me in the same boat as fuddy-duddies that decry the digital revolution, but I’ll admit: I like having a physical newspaper. However, it’s not for the emotional reasons that you often hear from older folks (“My first job was delivering papers in the snow for 15 cents an hour!”). No, it’s because I stare at a damn computer screen for ten hours a day. I like having a break from the bombardment of electrons. I like not worrying about how much battery I have left. I like sitting in the sun, a celestial body that is quite effective at illuminating text on paper, less so computer screens.

6. Now let’s get into content issues, such as sensationalism. The Oregonian’s new strategy is to be primarily an internet-based news provider. As such, they are kicking out seasoned journalists in favor of internet-savvy reporters who have a knack for getting website “hits” that help meet advertising revenue goals. This was apparent to me recently when a reporter who covers the west side twisted and then “tweeted” the words of a Washington County commissioner, misrepresenting what he actually said. Insinuating that a politician doesn’t care about schools may be inaccurate, but boy, it brings in the web traffic!

5. The Oregonian has been on a continuous slide to the right for at least five years. Maybe their scant subscription audience skews conservative, but the Portland region certainly doesn’t. Right wing voices have gotten louder and louder with each buyout and leadership change. Now we have climate change deniers getting guest editorial space, and blowhards like Brendan Monaghan bashing the values of the city that the paper claims to represent. I enjoy hearing different perspectives, but not if they are the only perspectives.  Today’s Sunday editorial page denounced urban planners who like tall buildings while simultaneously promoting the rollback of forest practices on federal land to better mimic private timberland. This illustrates perfectly the quintessential storyline of The Oregonian of the 2010s: public sector = incompetent bureaucrats that steal your money and murder kittens; private sector = brave, innovative job creators that save the world!

4. Not coincidentally some of the best writers were let go, including the only progressive member of the editorial board, David Sarasohn. Also shown the door were writers that handled topics that assumedly don’t match the interests of the 70-year-old suburban Republican reader: music reporter Ryan White, environmental reporter Scott Learn, and inner Portland neighborhood reporters Steve Beaven and Casey Parks. The only person left whose content I enjoy reading is transportation reporter Joseph Rose. People who read his articles love to spew online bile about traffic, bicyclists and light rail, so thankfully Joe fit in with The O’s Internet strategy.

3. These last three get at the undeniable practical implications of The Oregonian’s decision. Most obviously, I can read every story online for free. ‘Nuff said. If there’s no lock on content (as seen with the NY Times and other papers), why would I pay $28 a month to read stale news items that I can access online for free?

2. Four days a week is not going to work for me. If the newspaper has been part of my morning ritual for all of my post-collegiate life, I can’t just keep that habit for four days a week and then twiddle my thumbs three other days. That would be like drinking coffee on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings and sipping lukewarm water the other mornings. Or breaking up with your girlfriend, but only effective Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. If my mornings are going to change, it needs to be a wholesale change.

1. To that end, the biggest blunder I see is the decision to not create a tablet edition. It can’t be that hard – local TV station KGW has a tablet edition, along with Time magazine and countless other publications. Instead, The Oregonian is offering “My Digital O,” which is essentially a PDF of the newspaper. What a terrible idea! Instead of consolidated text and content that adjusts to the size of your mobile device, you’ll have to zoom in and scroll around a series of 15-by-23-inch PDF pages and click on links to page A12 (or wherever) to continue reading. Unfolding a sheet of paper that measures nearly 5 square feet is awkward enough on a train or at a cafĂ© table. A PDF of that format will digitize this awkwardness. Alternatively, you can visit The Oregonian’s horrible website with its baffling organization of content, clunky fonts and 1980s search engine technology.  I’m completely amazed that a tablet edition is not being offered when everyone and their mother has an iPad or Kindle these days. And this comes from someone who doesn’t. I would be in the market for an iPad or a Microsoft Surface (and would be keeping my newspaper subscription) if The Oregonian offered a tablet edition.

Instead I will be cancelling, effective October 1.  This is the end of an era for me. While my wife will not miss the clutter of newspapers on the breakfast table, there will be a noticeable chasm in my daily routine. Beyond these personal considerations, my heart goes out to the scores of quality journalists that have been terminated by The Oregonian over the years. While the fate of the newspaper may have been sealed the moment the Internet went live, it seems like The Oregonian could have adapted with better decisions and better leadership.

But what do I know? I’m just a tax dollar-wasting public sector commie like the ones they describe on the editorial page. So long, The Oregonian.

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