The future of the only daily newspaper in Central Oregon will soon be decided by an auction at a lawyer’s office in Portland.
In a bankruptcy process to dissolve 66 years of family ownership by Western Communications, three companies are bidding on Bend’s daily newspaper, The Bulletin, and the weekly Redmond Spokesman. Both newspapers will go to the highest offer.
The selloff follows a decade of cuts to staff, shrinking coverage and dropping circulation. But Oregon-based EO Media Group is optimistic about investing in the papers’ future.
“We believe these two newspapers have a bright financial future,” wrote EO Media Group vice president Kathryn Brown, in a statement to OPB.
EO Media owns the East Oregonian, Daily Astorian, and nine non-daily publications across the state, including the Capital Press. It has offered $2.5 million for the Central Oregon newspapers. Earlier this month, EO Media bought two weeklies from the collapse of Western Communications, the tri-weekly Baker City Herald and the La Grande Observer.
“Our family cares about community journalism in Oregon, and we see these possible acquisitions as an opportunity to keep these newspapers strong and continue our tradition of building partnerships and collaborating for the good of the community,” Brown wrote.
Brown declined to name EO’s Bend investors. The company’s initial offer does not rely on their money, Brown said by email. “Bend investor funds will be utilized, as needed, to secure the winning bid at auction.”
She said unnamed “community leaders in Bend” helped put EO’s offer ahead of bids from two national chains, Adams Publishing and Rhode Island Suburban Newspapers, or RISN.
“We think it’s a good product and a good community with a great reputation,” Adams’ western division president Eric Johnston reportedly told the Bulletin Monday.
RISN owns newspapers in Rhode Island, Arizona and California, with executives linked to a baroque web of corporate entities in the American and Canadian publishing industry.
Dozens of these businesses use the same address on regulatory paperwork: an office suite in a strip mall in rural Illinois.
Corporate filings show the humble office space is connected to Horizon Publications, a subsidiary of bankrupt conglomerate Hollinger Inc., once one of the largest media companies in the world, which in the mid-2000s became infamous for the scale and scope of theft committed by its executives. An investigation on behalf of shareholders and submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission found that Hollinger executives siphoned over $400 million from their companies, largely by collecting fees on bogus non-compete contracts. The leaders, Conrad Black and F. David Radler, were convicted of fraud in 2007. A key Hollinger executive implicated in some of the transactions, Roland McBride, is the vice president of RISN.
McBride and Melanie Walsh, daughter of F. David Radler, both serve as corporate officers for RISN, and for numerous entities that have recently bought out struggling family newspapers across the country, including the Bakersfield Californian. RISN offered $2.25 million for the Bulletin and Spokesman earlier this month. Neither McBride nor a Canada-based company representative listed on court filings, Steven Malkowich, have responded to multiple requests for comment.
All three bidders have “indicated a desire and willingness to participate in an auction with respect to the Assets,” according to court records filed by Western Communications.
Some 117 employees, who are not legally considered assets and may be hired or fired solely at the buyers’ discretion, are braced to learn the outcome.
Bulletin readers have seen the newspaper shrink since before Western Communications survived its first bankruptcy in 2012.
“It’s just a shadow of its former self, but we continue to subscribe out of habit,” said Jim Mahoney, a doctor and Bendite for the last 41 years.
Nurse Lynne Heffernan moved to town from Chicago just five years ago, as the region’s population has surged. She likes the paper, but her subscription is lapsed.
“We get it, then it collects for a while and becomes fodder for the fire, and then we stop taking it. Actually, just yesterday we talked about getting it again,” Heffernan said.
She’s among many subscribers to peel away. This month a Bulletin story reported a print circulation of 16,865, a 38% drop compared to figures reported by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association six years ago. The paper said its current website reaches 420,000 unique monthly visitors.
“To my shame, I have not paid for it in quite some years,” said community college professor Dorothy Leman.
The paper lost Leman’s business over its opinion writing. “Sometimes I would read the editorial page and I would feel my blood pressure go up,” she said.
But when Leman got married in Canada in 2003, it was important to her to see a wedding announcement in the local paper, even though she didn’t agree with many of the editorials in the Bulletin, and her marriage wasn’t yet recognized in her home country, or in Oregon.
“We wanted people in Central Oregon who read the Bulletin to know that it is possible for two women in love to get married,” Leman said.
The Bulletin ran the couple’s photo in the Nov. 2, 2003, Sunday paper, its first same-sex wedding announcement, and one of many watershed moments recorded in the paper’s 116 years of publication.
“That’s part of the power of a local paper,” Leman said. “It’s what you go back and look for to understand local history and social history.”
Other Bulletin readers, like semi-retired lawyer Dean Robb of Bend, said they hope whoever owns the paper next will invest in journalism.
“Bend is a growing community. Decisions are being made in the public arena about zoning … how we are going to spend public money, and what businesses are doing. I think we’re often in the dark, and that kind of scares me,” Robb said.
The newspaper auction is scheduled at Western Communications’ attorney’s office the morning of July 29, with a hearing set in bankruptcy court later that day.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the publication schedule for the Baker City Herald.