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Bend Media Feel Pressure From Declining Real Estate Industry

Bend is $20 million in the red. For years, the city relied on huge increases in building permits and fees to pay its bills, but now, Bend's housing market is collapsing. And one local journalist is questioning whether the hometown newspaper was too much of a booster. Ethan Lindsey reports.

Realtors and builders in this town are looking for any way to start selling homes again.

David Fisher covered the industry for the Bend Bulletin as it went from boom to bust.

David Fisher: "Having said that, you gotta realize that every editor in a market like this, is well aware that real estate and development is the 800 pound gorilla. A great deal of the newspaper's wealth flows from the health of the real estate and development industry. And in the past year that has started, first slowly, and now more rapidly, to go away."

Industry leaders wanted to change peoples' perceptions, so at an annual real estate summit last month,  they rolled out a turnaround ad campaign.

Tim Knopp is the executive vice president of the Central Oregon Builders' Association.

Tim Knopp: “Day after day, if people are reading negative national stories, it makes them think maybe this isn't a good time to buy, maybe I should wait. And in 30 years, this is the best buyer's market I've seen.”

At that real estate conference, the city's most prominent property appraiser made a big speech where he predicted things would turn around in 60 days.

David Fisher covered the speech and says his experience made him skeptical of that upbeat forecast.

So, he contacted several local experts who didn't see the glass as quite that full.

He wrote his story and went home.

The next morning he woke up, got the day's paper, and almost spit out his coffee.

The headline? “Housing forecast: It'll only get better”

Missing? Two of three critical voices in Fisher's story.

Bill Valentine, a Bend investor, was one of the people dropped from Fisher's story.

Bill Valentine: “Mr. Fisher has interviewed me over a half-dozen times over the past two years and every time that we've spoken he's used my information in the resulting piece that followed, in a day or two, usually.”

Fisher says he was so angered by the changes that he called in sick to work for two days.

He'd been unhappy with editorial changes and overly-optimistic headlines in the past, but had never seen one side mostly cut out of his stories.

David Fisher: “And the only thing I could conclude is that was something that was going to happen with regularity. To me, that was a harbinger of worse things to come and I really didn't want to put my name on it anymore.”

When he returned to work, he met with his editor and expressed his concerns.

He admitted to his boss that he wasn't really sick for the past few days - and said he wanted to be switched off the real estate beat.

In an email Fisher later sent to the paper's human resources department, he detailed the conversation.

Fisher was subsequently fired.

At this point, the story becomes he said, he said.

Fisher says he was told he was fired was for lying about being sick.

John Costa is the editor-in-chief of the Bulletin. He will not comment on Fisher's firing. But he denies altering Fisher's story to suit the city's real estate interests.

John Costa: “Frankly, in the grand scheme of real estate stories, it ranks, I don't even think it achieves the middle. It's basically one of those stories that we all do, you do them too, in which an editor says go to the luncheon, cover what is said at the luncheon, and that's what came back.”

Costa points to positive and negative real estate stories the newspaper has run before, during, and after the housing bubble.

Central Oregon clearly relies on real estate development. Oregon job statistics show real estate and construction employment made up 17 percent of local jobs last year. That's noticeably higher than the state average.

Real estate and construction are two of the biggest advertisers in Bend says builders' association executive Tim Knopp.

Tim Knopp: “We want to make sure that the media knows that if things are going bad for the entire industry, its going to affect them as well. And it has. We just need balance. We'd have discussions with any media outlet about that and I think they want to do that.”

It's not just the Bend Bulletin. Other local outlets, including the Sisters Nugget newspaper and Bend Living magazine, also say they have heard criticism from advertisers that negative media is hurting the housing market.

Bulletin editor Costa says part of his job is talking to realtors and builders, and every other sort of business leader in town.

John Costa: “A lot of the people who are our advertisers, I know them. We all know them. I've been around here, myself, my family, my kids, my boss. We play golf. We go to charity events, we raise money together for causes. So I know them. If they want to talk to me, I am perfectly happy to take calls from them.”

But Costa denies that any of those relationships affect his newspaper's business coverage.

John Costa: “Most of the people that I've talked to in the industry understand fundamentally that we keep the trust of our readers. That everything they do or say in our newspaper, either when they are quoted in stories or taking out ads, that information is believable if people trust the newspaper.”

Fisher says now that he's unemployed, he's going to be house-dad to his 2 young kids. He says he doesn't plan on pursuing any legal action against the Bulletin.