Editor's Note: OPB reporter Emily Cureton worked for a newspaper owned by Western Communications between 2011 and 2015.
Western Communications runs seven newspapers across the West, but each one is a local institution made up of actual human beings — people like Geoff at the Redmond Spokesman, Patty at the Baker City Herald, Judi with the Bend Bulletin, Karen from the La Grande Observer, Jessica at the Del Norte Triplicate, Lyn at the Union Democrat or maybe Jane with the Curry Coastal Pilot.
These papers serve communities where no one else consistently reports the news. Meanwhile, their parent company has been existing on the brink of foreclosure. Western Communications hasn’t paid nearly $1 million owed in local property taxes and interest. The company is between three and five years behind on taxes in five different counties across Oregon and California.
“We're not in default with anybody, yet. We talk with the tax office regularly,” said Western Communications president John Costa, who also serves as publisher of the Bend Bulletin.
But the company is delinquent. State laws give a three-year grace period in Oregon, and five in California. For years now, the newspaper chain has scraped by using these windows, paying the minimum amount of back taxes it must to stave off foreclosure proceedings, while the interest and current taxes continued to accrue.
Still, Costa remained optimistic.
“We are within the allowable time period to pay those taxes and we fully intend to pay them ... We're working our darndest to move over into the new world of digital reporting and editing and digital revenue particularly,” he said.
In the meantime, one property is responsible for an outsized share of the tax bill. The company constructed its sprawling headquarters in Bend in 2000, then filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Six years later, it listed the Bulletin's building for sale at $20 million, nearly double the real market value as determined by the Deschutes County assessor.
Now, the 87,000 square-foot building on Chandler Avenue remains on the market, while advertising for it comes with some caveats: the company wants to lease back space for the newspaper to continue operating there. Costa said he hasn’t yet found a deal that he “could recommend wholly, wholeheartedly to the owners.”
Western Communications emerged from bankruptcy in 2012, but current employees say they're still seeing furloughs, layoffs and late paychecks.
Victoria Jacobsen was a sports writer for the Bend Bulletin for over three years, until July 2018.
“I had gotten hired after the bankruptcy, after the pay cuts, after they lost health insurance. It was my first full-time job out of college,” she said.
Then, her paycheck stopped coming on time.“And we got an email saying, you know, we're sorry for the inconvenience, your payday will be delayed by a day or two. I remember being taken aback by that. I didn't know that was allowed or possible. A lot of people were very concerned about it, not just because of what it would mean for their personal finances, but because they read the writing on the wall.”
Jacobsen said she stayed focused on doing her job, still feeling like she’d “basically lucked into a way to talk about basketball for the rest of my life.” By covering sports, she enjoyed getting to celebrate the good moments in people’s lives, and show off “why it’s a good place to live.”
But, what started with paychecks coming just a day or two behind schedule “eventually got to the point where they were four or five days late,” Jacobsen said.
“Why are we even pretending the payday is the payday?” she asked.
She and other Western Communications employees described how at times, their 401K retirement contributions weren’t being deposited on schedule.
A review of Oregon state records shows employees filed numerous complaints. In September 2018, these led to the company signing a compliance agreement, in which it admitted to violating Oregon wage and labor laws, according to a spokesman from the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.
“So yeah, there's a certain amount of all of us that are angry, that are frustrated with our employer in that situation.”Jacobsen paused.
“And the flip side of that is like, OK what happens if there's no more Bend Bulletin?”
At a Bend high school basketball game, it wasn’t hard to find people in the stands who valued the local paper. People like Amy and John Warinner.
“I don’t know who would cover the news if it went away,” John Warinner said.
The family gets the paper delivered every morning, and for Amy Warinner, it’s a comforting routine she’s had for years.
“It gets me outside, nice and early when the sun’s rising and just hearing Bend before all the traffic starts up, and I can hear all the birds … I get my paper, then I go in and have my coffee and just have that time to focus on what’s going on here and now locally, instead of all the world news that is a little more distressing to listen to or read about,” she said.
But in OPB’s informal survey of the grandstand, the Warinners were outliers. Subscribers to the Bulletin were hard to come by. Barbara Brown was on a long list of people who said they didn’t receive the paper, relying instead on TV reporting, social media groups or national news alone.
Brown’s granddaughter was hustling on the court below, and she pointed her out, mid layup.
“I was going to say if you were from the Bulletin, I was going to call them and see if they’d do an article on Kaci and her brother, they both play.”
At the moment the Bulletin has two sports writers on staff to take that call, while the company employing them has until May 15 to stay one step ahead of foreclosure.
Correction: This story originally misspelled the name of Geoff at the Redmond Spokesman. OPB regrets the error.