In a State Divided by More Than the Cascades, Can Oregon's Flagship Public Radio Station Bridge the Gap?
On the afternoon of July 16, 2020, just after co-filing a story for Oregon Public Broadcasting about federal law enforcement snatching black-clad protesters off the streets of Portland in the middle of the night and shoving them into unmarked vehicles, reporter Jonathan Levinson—the comparatively rare army vet who sports a nose ring—put away his phone and went to get a haircut.
Emerging freshly shorn, he fished out his phone, only to find it overheating with new messages and notifications. Very much on purpose, Levinson’s story had gone live just as then-President Trump’s Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, arrived for a now-infamous press conference at downtown’s federal courthouse, at which he would refer to Portland as a “city under siege.” CNN had called. PBS’s NewsHour wanted an interview. Ice Cube was tweeting about the story, along with Maggie Haberman, the New York Times’ in-house Trump whisperer. And that night, a galvanized Portland took to the streets in numbers not seen since the initial days of the racial justice protests that swept the city in early June, after the murder of George Floyd.
If you live in Portland and follow the news, you probably know what came next: Naked Athena and the yellow-clad Wall of Moms, the deaths of Patriot Prayer member Aaron Danielson and antifa activist Michael Reinoehl, Portland’s starring role in GOP campaign footage aimed at alarming white suburbanites, culminating in—this isn’t a stretch—the attempted overthrow at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, by the far right.
But there was another, less-remarked-upon subplot: As racial justice protests and wildfires piled atop the pandemic last year, it was often OPB’s reporters, digital producers, and editors sorting out what in the world was happening in Portland, Oregon, for locals and the rest of the world alike.
“[On this story] we were driving the national conversation as it pertained to Portland, and often beating the biggest outlets in the country,” says Conrad Wilson, OPB’s criminal justice and legal affairs beat reporter, who cowrote the July 16 story with Levinson. “The local knowledge was to our advantage. We had sources that were closer to what was happening and understood what the next story had to be.”
This was no accident. OPB had been quietly, strategically, and aggressively filling a vacuum left open by our state’s ever-shrinking newspapers. And after a hiring binge that nearly doubled the size of its newsroom over the past five years, a two-years-in-the-making website overhaul that debuted in August 2020, and a $7.2 million HQ renovation, the station is hitting its stride.
“They are now the statewide voice for news,” says Brent Walth, who won a Pulitzer with the Oregonian and was an editor at Willamette Week, and who now teaches journalism at the University of Oregon. “They’ve made strategic decisions and put certain people in places that have worked out.”
So, how did they pull it off—and, in an ever-fracturing media landscape, can they keep it up?
Pre-Great Recession, the state’s flagship National Public Radio affiliate’s newsroom was sleepier, less likely to break news and more likely to place it into thoughtful, dulcet-toned context on the radio the next day. Lower-metabolism television programming, like Oregon Art Beat and the outdoorsy Oregon Field Guide, was front and center. The news staff had four or five Portland-based, talented-but-overstretched reporters, whose focus by virtue of necessity had to be on daily radio spots. The web was an afterthought.
The station was beloved but not feared. Faithful listeners could be spotted filling their OPB pledge drive–issued tote bags up with vegetables at local farmers markets, and drive-time commuters tuned in for the National Public Radio–provided programming.
Meanwhile, in the mid-2000s, social media, which steers so much traffic for news organizations today, was still in its infancy, and streaming/on-demand radio was more cumbersome to access than it is now. Newspapers were battered by shrinking circulations as more people turned to digital news, as well as a loss of revenue from classified advertising that migrated to Craigslist and elsewhere online.
Oregon’s media landscape shifted accordingly, as locally owned newspapers were sold to private equity firms and giant media chains. At its height, the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian, employed about 400 journalists, including multiple reporters assigned to suburban bureaus and correspondencies around the state, as far-flung as La Grande, Grants Pass, and at the Oregon Coast. Today, after a series of painful layoffs, there are about 65 reporters and editors, though the paper features notable investigative work and has led the pack locally in watchdog coronavirus coverage.
For Morgan Holm, OPB’s chief content officer, all the change and media market contraction opened a door for experimentation.
“We started to shift the direction away from being a pipeline for NPR and PBS, a distribution platform for other people’s programming, and to being a local journalism organization,” he says. The station scrapped its daily half-hour Oregon Considered show, which had walled off local reporting and required reporters to file incremental daily stories to fill the airtime, and began embedding its local reporting inside juggernauts Morning Edition and All Things Considered instead, simultaneously relieving some pressure on its reporters and giving their work greater prominence.
That opened some space, along with well-timed grant funding, for the 2008 launch of Think Out Loud, the noontime interview show that serves as an Oregon-centric version of Fresh Air, with longtime host Dave Miller standing in for Terry Gross. Next, the news staff tried its hand at some in-depth reporting, including 2010’s Peabody-winning “Hard Times,” which chronicled the recession through the eyes of Oregonians.
But one-off special projects don’t make a newsroom. In 2015, Anna Griffin, now the station’s news director, was nearing the end of an 11-year tenure as a reporter and columnist for the Oregonian. OPB’s hiring committee wanted someone to “help build a newsroom—how many opportunities in your career do you get to build something, especially when that career is journalism?” Griffin says. She took the job a handful of months before a group of far-right vigilantes, armed to the teeth, took over a national wildlife refuge in remote Harney County to make a last stand over grazing rights.
This was a major turning point. The station threw everything it had at the story, offering wall-to-wall coverage and eventually teaming up with Longreads and freelance writer Leah Sottile to produce Bundyville, a wildly popular podcast that told the tale of the terrifyingly charismatic family at the center of the Malheur uprisings.
Also in 2015, the station launched a $15 million capital campaign that winds down this month, with the goal of raising a targeted $3 million for an impact journalism fund to seed new reporters—a number of whom, like Levinson, arrive in grant-funded positions, prove their mettle to their bosses and to donors, and wind up as permanent employees. OPB CEO Steve Bass says he expects “significantly more than $3 million” in the journalism fund as the campaign concludes.
The station also raised money for a renovation of its headquarters on S Macadam Avenue. Out went the underused “huge barn” of a TV studio, says Bass, and in came seven sleek new audio studios, more space for video editing, and an expanded news area.
Armed with a bigger reporting staff, Holm and Griffin have ferreted out undercovered topics that resonate with a statewide audience, investing in state government coverage and building out an already-admired science and environmental team.
Most recently the station has expanded its education coverage, and now has Oregon’s only full-time reporter dedicated to education policy, Liz Miller, and the state’s only full-time higher education/workforce development correspondent, Meerah Powell.
OPB has also hunted for reporting talent beyond the radio, nowhere more evident than on its state government team. Bringing on Jeff Mapes—the longtime dean of the state’s political press corps, formerly of the Oregonian—in early 2016 was a power move. In 2017, Lauren Dake, formerly of the Columbian in Vancouver, was hired and has been leading coverage of the state’s flawed foster care system and sexual harassment at the Capitol; Dirk VanderHart moved over from the Portland Mercury a few months later.
From his perch at the University of Oregon’s journalism school, Walth says it was obvious a few years ago the station was routinely adding reporters, because his students frequently told him they planned to apply for posted jobs.
Coverage gaps remain: Bass says the station needs more investigative reporters, coverage of the fast-growing suburbs around Portland is spotty, and no one is currently bird-dogging the pivotal housing/houselessness beat. More hiring is ahead, including a soon-to-be-announced arts editor and a rural affairs reporter who will be based outside of Portland, joining correspondents in Bend and Medford, as well as Vancouver, Washington.
Altogether, staffing now stands at 37 journalists across the news, arts, digital and science desks, a gain of 18 staffers since 2015.
All this change doesn’t come cheap, even with a loyal base of donors. In fall 2020, the station unveiled a newly designed website showcasing statewide news—a clear business opportunity, given that the competition is OregonLive.com, a site even the paper’s most ardent fans struggle to love. For years, Holm says, opb.org had been powered by an internally built and maintained system, but it was clunky, prone to lagging as clicks increased, and couldn’t fully support the video, graphics, and photojournalism the station wanted to showcase.
Meanwhile, though the station didn’t furlough any journalists or cut their salaries during the pandemic, listenership fell off when drive-time commuters started working from home. But according to Nielsen ratings the station continues to vie with adult contemporary mainstay KKCW-FM for the top spot in the market, surging ahead during news-heavy months like November 2020, before falling into second place over the holidays. Still, since last March, underwriting, particularly from arts organizations, has dried up considerably, Bass says. And on-air pledge drives, long a mainstay, are anachronistic in the streaming age.
Instead, more and more, the station counts on its most hard-core sustaining members and their “set it and forget it” monthly donations, but there’s increasing competition out there for that audience-supported model, with both Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury ramping up direct donor programs in 2020. (One quietly rising financial bulwark for the station, Holm says, has been PBS’s decision to make its full back catalog available to donors only; never underestimate the number of people who will pay for complete seasons of Masterpiece.) Because this is public broadcasting, there will never be a paywall for digital news coverage, a potentially potent source of revenue that’s firmly off the table.
Like virtually all US newsrooms, OPB’s efforts to diversify its staff are a work in progress (though, truth be told, it is doing better than other metro-area print newsrooms, including Portland Monthly’s). Upper management is almost entirely white: Lynne Clendenin, the longtime vice president of programming at the station, who is Black and has mentored many young journalists, will retire this month, leaving chief development officer Cheryl Ikemiya as the sole person of color in leadership.
Monica Samayoa, who arrived from San Francisco in 2019 to join the science and environmental desk, says as the only Latina on her team, she has tasked herself with reporting on traditionally undercovered voices, and persuading those communities to trust her intentions (and the station’s)—a careful, painstaking process. Her work spans everything from how inhospitable hiking trails can feel to Black Oregonians to the frantic efforts to translate early warnings about COVID-19 into Spanish to reach thousands of at-risk migrant farmworkers around the state.
“OPB hasn’t always done a great job before in covering these communities and building relationships and trust,” Samayoa says. “That’s something that [we are] working on changing. I also don’t want these communities to feel that we are ignoring them. This pressure should not just be on BIPOC staff, but sometimes it falls on us to keep pushing for it.”
Education policy reporter Miller says another issue is keeping those journalists on staff once they have arrived.
“OPB has been great at bringing people in,” Miller says. “But that retention has been super frustrating to watch. I have watched several colleagues, specifically women of color, leave OPB since I got here.”
Those ranks include Erica Morrison, who left for a job at Politico, and Molly Solomon and Erika Cruz Guevarra, who were both poached by KQED in San Francisco. Morrison, whose beat was race, equity, and demographics—subjects that inarguably touch every reporter’s coverage area—has not been replaced.
Instead, Griffin says, there are ongoing conversations about “whether this beat represents the right approach.” This summer, journalists of color on the staff banded together to write a letter to OPB managers on the disparate treatment of temporary employees, lack of advancement opportunities for staffers of color, and the need for more transparency in salaries and hiring.
White colleagues were asked to sign on, in solidarity, and many did so, says Miller, who was among the organizers of the effort.
“There is a really great group of POC employees at OPB—it’s a ‘safety-in-numbers’ thing,” she says. “It feels like we are bonding together and working to create change, in a way that I have not seen and been a part of in a workplace, despite all of the work and the mess that still has to be taken care of. OPB is great at bringing in people. I am really happy to be here. But at the same time, you have to create a place where people want to stay, feel supported, have a place to move.”
Griffin says these complaints have inspired concrete changes, including an in-the-works hiring of a new editor to provide more support, particularly to reporters of color; a new, one-year fellowship for an emerging journalist of color, including mentoring check-ins with reporters at other public media outlets; quarterly town hall meetings for the news department for the public airing of concerns; and the hiring of an outside consultant to do a comprehensive salary survey. Additionally, all supervisors are enrolled in a mandatory six-month training program on equity and inclusion.
This self-reckoning, especially paired with the station’s increasing reach, spills into its news coverage, too. Public media is often popularly cast as a house organ of progressivism, regarded with suspicion by conservatives. (Consider former president Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to defund NPR and PBS.) Local reporters say they double down on neutrality as a result, particularly in today’s political climate—state government reporter VanderHart says “we are obviously not here to be the friends of Democrats or Republicans or whoever.”
When Levinson, along with temporary employee Sergio Olmos (whose dogged, matter-of-fact protest coverage has earned him the largest Twitter following of any employee, by tens of thousands) teamed up in late November for a story about the fault line emerging between racial justice and antiestablishment protest leaders in Portland, particularly as the latter group’s tactics increasingly included property destruction, their work drew pushback from activists who accused the reporters of failing to understand the fury of a generation that feels there’s not much left in society that’s worth preserving. (For his part, Levinson says, “a lot of the Black activists that we continue to keep in touch with agree that the nightly vandalism is not helping.”)
That push-pull surfaced again with the duo’s coverage of the Red House on Mississippi, a home owned by an Afro-Indigenous family who faced eviction after failing to pay their mortgage; activists set up an encampment around the home to protest the eviction, eventually raising over $300,000 for the family. Digging deeper, Levinson and Olmos reported that the family owned a second home not far away. After feedback from listeners, Levinson made an appearance on Think Out Loud to flesh out the context and, ultimately, the station published an after-the-fact editor’s note, which read, in part, “The story itself should have included more detail about the long history of racist policies in Portland and its real estate industry.”
This was a forthright and unusual correction—OPB was correcting their framing, not their facts. Samayoa says it was written after the newsrooms’ diversity, equity, and inclusion committee reviewed all the feedback from readers and listeners, agreed with the concerns, and brought that perspective to managers, who listened.
“What separates good journalism from great journalism today is usually framing and context,” Griffin says. “We’re trying, as part of our work to become a news organization that truly serves all of Oregon and Southwest Washington, to make sure we remind the audience of the racist history of this region whenever it is relevant to a story.”
Ultimately, the Red House editors’ note—like the unmarked vans story—is emblematic of a newsroom flexing new muscles but also still finding its way.
“OPB was always a solid news organization, but 20 years ago, it had a feeling of, like, there are four or five of them there, and they are doing their best to get wherever they can get. That has changed,” Walth says. “There is now an expectation that if something important is happening, OPB is going to be there ... with some greater degree of depth than they would have had 20 years ago. The question for all the news organizations, is there enough depth, enough time to go beyond the events of the day, to really begin to understand the story behind the story?”