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The gift that keeps shrinking

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The latest round of job losses at the Portland Tribune comes as little surprise to those of us who launched that paper in 2001.

Managing editor Todd Murphy has quit in frustration after learning about a plan for sizable newsroom cuts that he didn't like. In the end the features section was eliminated, two reporters were laid off and one sportswriter was reassigned to the news section. It could have been much worse, and had Murphy not elected to leave, it probably would have been.

A clumsy approach to management and schizophrenic hiring and firing decisions have been par for the course for years at the Trib, which has been shrinking ever since it started up with a rousing speech from the mayor in Pioneer Square, tons of hype and a large pile of money from the man who was then Oregon’s second wealthiest citizen, Robert Pamplin, Jr.

I was in the room when Pamplin was shaking hands with staffers and handing out hundred-dollar bills, and I can tell you that building a new city newspaper is an absolute hoot, especially when you have the money to do it right. Pamplin announced that the Trib was his “greatest gift to the city,” no small statement from a man who has donated millions to local universities, museums and causes. He promised not to meddle with the editorial coverage, and to his credit, he did not, at least not blatantly. Within two years the Trib had been named the nation’s best non-daily newspaper.

But Pamplin’s generosity did not last. Just months after the launch, he gathered us at the theater beneath Pioneer Square and took the stage to humiliate our publisher and sound alarms both ominous and vague regarding our future. Lofty statements and ambitious growth plans soon gave way to mass layoffs that had nothing to do with merit and a decision to move the city newspaper outside of city limits, to an office building owned by Pamplin in unincorporated Clackamas County.

That’s when I quit, in the fall of 2005. Since then I’ve kept up with the paper and remained a reader, especially after Todd Murphy got the job as managing editor. Todd is a rock-solid career journalist who wrote for the New York Times and Time magazine before landing at the Trib, and he has worked his butt off for eight years to make the Trib the best he could make it. After sticking it out for so long, he finally walked out the door on principle, knowing that Oregon’s job market isn’t exactly stacked with opportunities for journalists — no matter how good you are.

Now I read that Pamplin is attempting to sell off the Portland building that houses his Christian Supply empire and consolidate that business with his media holdings under one roof. Just six staffers remain from the 60 or so original Trib employees who got that paper rolling.

Is it time for a Portland Tribune Death Watch?

Not for me. In spite of the managerial bungling and the bafflingly contradictory messages from Pamplin over the years, I continue to root for any enterprise that supports jobs, especially journalism jobs. The Tribune continues to employ talented journalists who do good and important work. We need more of that, not less.

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