When Clinton Vining bought The Sun weekly in Sheridan six years ago, in April 2008, he thought he’d found a future for himself and his family. Vining studied journalism at the University of Portland and for years, he’d dreamed of owning a small-town newspaper. The weekly paper had a circulation of about 1,000 people in the Willamette Valley towns of Sheridan and Willamina.
“It was my goal at that time, that’s what I’d be doing for the rest of my life,” Vining says.
In many ways, publishing The Sun was just what he’d hoped it would be. He loved running into The Sun’s readers on the street, at lunch, or in the bars at night and listening to them talk about what was in that week’s paper. ”I enjoy having that closeness,” he says.
But on Monday at 5 p.m., Vining will lock the door of The Sun’s office for good. The newspaper, which has been printed continuously since 1908, won’t be delivered next week.
Small circulation newspapers are struggling across the nation. The most recent census from the American Society of News Editors found that in 2012, the number of journalists working at papers with a circulation of less than 5,000 declined by about 9%.
Vining owes roughly $250,000 on the Sheridan paper, a combination of the loan he took out to purchase it, and loans to offset the paper’s declining revenue during the recession. He estimates that debt is roughly double what the paper is worth. Vining is laying off five employees and cutting ties with a half-dozen freelance photographers and writers, and declaring bankruptcy.
Sheridan City Manager Frank Sheridan says the weekly kept people engaged with the local government and was a key part of how he received feedback on his work and the decisions made by the city council.
“I am going to miss that something fierce. It will be like working in a vacuum now,” Wright says.
The early history of the newspaper is murky. Vining says one of its early publishers, Oscar Hamstreet, believed The Sun began in 1881 or 1882. Other historical records suggest it dates back to 1890.
In 1913, a fire destroyed most of downtown Sheridan, including The Sun’s offices and printing press. Vining say Hamstreet, who was the publisher at that time, saved his subscription list from the fire. He put a paper together, took it to Portland to have it printed, and brought it back to the town on horseback and distributed it without missing a week.
“Most of the businesses in the town had just burned to the ground. Obviously they had news to report, but I’m sure it was also a major sense of accomplishment for the newspaper and the community as a whole, we will be OK,” Vining says.
Vining says in 2014, the paper had about 700 subscribers, a significant decline from when he bought it two years ago. Many of the paper’s subscribers are dying, he says, and an effort to draw in young readers with a better website didn’t work. He says the paper lost tens of thousands of dollars when, in August of 2012, Oregon revised its foreclosure laws, which led to a sharp decrease in the number of foreclosure notices the paper printed.
Vining hopes to donate The Sun’s archives to the town’s history museum, if the bankruptcy court permits him to. Several other local newspapers serve Yamhill county residents, including the News-Register in McMinnville and The Newberg Graphic.