Molalla men hope to fill local news void. They’re not alone

Special Reports

What's driving citizen journalists, and the role they play in the media ecosystem

MOLALLA, Ore. (KOIN) — What started as a casual conversation between three friends has turned into the revival of a community newspaper.

The first issue of The Bulletin rolled of the press – or, more accurately, shot out of the printer – last week at Dean Blades’ print shop in Molalla. Blades, along with carpenter and store owner Ken Fetters, and real estate broker Robert Thompson, are now in the news business, a first for all of them.

“Dean called up one Sunday afternoon and said, ‘Okay you guys. We’re starting a newspaper.’ And we all three said okay,” Fetters told KOIN 6 News in early May, when the group was still in the planning stages.

“How do we do this?” Thompson chimed in, and all three laughed.

They’re basing their paper on the original Bulletin, which started in the 1970s and stopped being published in the ’80s, according to Blades.

They freely admit this is uncharted territory. Other community members are helping write content. Fetters has been seeking out advertisers and stores in which to place boxes of newspapers. Thompson is learning how difficult copy editing is. Blades is handling layout.

All of that is like taking on an extra full time job. Sure, it’s fun for them, but they’re also driven by a desire to give back to their community by providing “hyper-local information” for Molalla, Colton and Mulino.

“Over time it seemed like the local paper was losing touch with the local citizens,” Fetters said. “They tried really hard, but it became more and more difficult for them.”

In fact, the Molalla Pioneer is now run out of the offices of the Canby Herald, the byproduct of a changing media landscape that has prompted many citizen journalists to fill the void.

The democratization of media

Some examples of local independent media outlets that have started in recent years include BikePortland, the Canby Now Podcast, and the Gales Creek Journal.

While no one really tracks the number of informal news outlets popping up, University of Oregon professor and researcher Damian Radcliffe says the internet has leveled the playing field and made it possible for just about anyone to create a website, post news on social media, or create a podcast from their home that sounds as professional as one that is produced in a studio.

“That kind of democratization of media has created lots of those opportunities,” Radcliffe said. “And it’s interesting to see who are some of the people behind them.”

In some cases, he said, these sites are started by former journalists or reporters laid off from newsrooms. In other instances, efforts may be spearheaded by “concerned citizens” (like the guys at The Bulletin) who believe there’s a gap in current local news coverage.

“People sometimes can be a little bit sniffy about the fact that these are not traditional, trained journalists producing this work,” Radcliffe said. “I think that’s a very old-fashioned idea.”

Damian Radcliffe is a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications (University of Oregon)

Radcliffe argues non-traditional outlets often produce high quality work. As long as readers pay attention to any potential biases, as well as how the news is gathered, he doesn’t see there being more risk of misinformation than there would be with traditional news.

News startups face a problem similar to the one plaguing their more established counterparts: funding.

“It’s not really a for-profit venture at this point,” Blades told KOIN 6 News in May, before the first edition of The Bulletin had been printed.

As a little joke, the guys decided to charge a nickel for the paper because it seemed like a fun, old-fashioned thing to do, Fetters said. Each paper box has a collection can attached to it, and at the end of each quarter, they plan to donate everything to a charity.

Nickels – especially ones that then get donated – won’t cover their costs, though. They need advertisers, but asking people to give them money during the COVID-19 pandemic when businesses are closed has proven challenging.

“Especially when you don’t actually have an issue released yet,” Thompson said.

They were lucky enough to get a grant from Clackamas County, which Blades said ended up covering the costs of the first couple of editions. They printed 1,000 copies the first week and have launched a website.

The first edition of The Bulletin was printed June 3, 2020 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Despite some of the daunting day-to-day challenges, the three men are optimistic and say the community reaction has been encouraging.

“I don’t know that we’ve actually had anybody say that we’re crazy,” Fetters said. “The people that we talk to that remember The Bulletin from the ’70s or ’80s, every single one of them says, ‘Oh that was a great little newspaper.’ And they’re really excited about seeing the newspaper back.”

So excited, that some people started putting donations in the cans by the newspaper racks before they even had papers inside, he said.

“It has to be fun for us to do this because we all have other jobs,” Blades said. “And giving back to the community is a big thing for all of us.”

Seeing the community rally around “unofficial” news sources can get under the skin of established media outlets, but Radcliffe doesn’t think those legacy organizations should feel threatened. Rather, they can look at these journalists as either a talent pool to recruit from, or a way to expand their own coverage through partnerships.

“How can they help us to cover the beats and localities that we know in our heart of hearts we’re not covering as well as we should be?” Radcliffe asked. “I hope over time that there becomes a kind of virtuous circle of those organizations working with each other, learning from one another, and in the end as a result of that, everybody benefits, not least us as news consumers.”

(From left) Ken Fetters, Robert Thompson, and Dean Blades printed the first edition of The Bulletin on June 3, 2020 in Molalla (Hannah Ray Lambert)

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