Good news for the little guy

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Monday, May 01, 2006

s_Robin

When five employees of the Burns Times-Herald bought their weekly newspaper a few weeks ago, it wasn’t big enough news to rate much coverage. In fact, the only paper to cover the story was, well, the Times-Herald.

But there’s a lot that’s newsworthy in this quiet little staff buyout. Things like optimism, commitment and independence. 

There are only about 3,000 hardy souls in this high-desert town hard hit in the ’90s by the collapse of timber. It was job security pure and simple that made buying the Times-Herald from its Idaho owners an easy decision for editor Debbie Raney, manager Sue Pedersen, reporter Randy Parks, ad salesperson Donna Clark and bookkeeper Linda Baker, who own equal shares in the paper. (The other two employees of the paper have an option to buy in when they can.)

“It wasn’t scary at all. Scary would have been doing nothing,” says Pedersen. “Buying the paper was simply the best investment any of us could have made for our futures.”

Job security isn’t easy to find in remote Harney County, or in a lot of rural Oregon communities that have lost traditional industries and struggle with the economic blow. The workforce in Harney earns a living in a smattering of ways: agriculture, forestry, recreation, manufacturing, retail, education, health. More than half of the households earn less than $35,000 a year. Even when you have one job, it might not be enough. Everyone at the Times-Herald does something else: Raney, Clark and Baker are from ranching families; Pedersen owns the only movie theater in town; and Parks has held a number of community positions.

So when the new owners, who purchased the paper in November, said they planned job cuts, these longtime locals quickly formed a partnership, aptly named Survival Media. With the help of a $35,000 grant from the Southeast Regional Alliance, each employee ponied up and an offer was made. They became the official owners on April 1.

The weekly, with a countywide circulation of 3,900, has had several out-of-town owners, some with news judgment that Raney found boneheaded. With relish, she describes her full-page coverage of the local elementary school’s carnival. “That would have been deemed as not ‘newsworthy’ under the corporate owners,” says Raney, who has been at the paper for eight years. “Well, we sell a lot of papers to moms and grandmas when we cover things like that.”

By buying the paper, the staff also made sure the local integrity of the Times-Herald would remain intact.

The Times-Herald folks join an increasing number of workers in industries, most famously airlines and the steel sector, who have taken an ownership interest in their companies, often jumping in during failing times. In the newspaper world, it’s been miserable for a while: declining circulation, sagging stock prices, pressure on revenues. Huge staff cuts have become common. Just recently, newspaper chain Knight-Ridder was sold despite its
aggressive cost-cutting, and the Newspaper Guild, which represents newsroom employees, has bid to buy 12 of the papers.

Then along comes a recent report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which states that the war in newsrooms between journalism idealists and accountants has ended. “The idealists have lost,” the report concludes. 

Well, not so in Burns.

Says Pedersen: “The significance of our buyout is to let people know they can do these things. When people pool their thoughts, energy and desires, mountains can be moved.”

No offense to accountants, but at the Times-Herald, at least, the idealists have won this round.

— Robin Doussard
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