In the community

Ontario newspaper announces slash in publication days, switch to mail delivery

ONTARIO – Cutbacks and layoffs are continuing across the country in the news business, and a longtime local newspaper has announced its own major changes.

Jeff Schumacher, the publisher of the Argus Observer, notified readers Wednesday, Jan. 31, the newspaper plans to slash its publication schedule from four days a week to two days beginning March 1.

“When we make this shift, you’ll see even more emphasis on the local news in both print and online,” Schumacher wrote in a note to readers.

Schumacher said the paper plans to publish a print edition on Wednesday and Saturday and that delivery service will be by mail. 

“We are confident you will get accustomed to receiving your newspaper when your postal carrier delivers your mail. This is being done throughout the industry establishing a consistent way to get your paper to you,” Schumacher wrote.

The switch to mail delivery also will end the work of newspaper delivery people getting the newspaper to local subscribers.

The newspaper is also shutting down its Ontario printing operation, but company officials didn’t disclose the fate of those employed to run the press. The newspaper will be printed in Nampa.

Schumacher didn’t respond to written questions from the Enterprise, though he did reply to a fact-checking memo from the Enterprise. However, he did not elaborate substantially from his original announcement. 

The newspaper is owned by an Arizona company, Wick Communications. Its CEO, Francis Wick, responded to questions from the Enterprise with a general statement.

“Our focus will continue to be flexible and honest about the industry, and business as a whole, and changes to our physical paper, going from four days to two days of print, showcase that effort,” Wick said.

The changes in Ontario come after its parent company struggled financially in 2023, according to a memo Wick sent all employees last August. The memo was obtained and published by Arizona Agenda. The memo noted that publishers and other executives would experience immediate pay cuts and other employees would take seven days of furlough through the final weeks of 2023.

Schumacher and Wick didn’t address questions about how that directive impacted workers at the Ontario operation.

In his statement to customers, Schumacher explained that the Argus “must look at trends and make decisions based on the new way of getting you your news.” He pledged that the change will make the print edition of the paper “even better with more local stories and pictures.”

“You can expect your Wednesday and Saturday issues to include more pages than in the past,” he wrote. He also said readers would see “even more emphasis on the local news in both print and online.”

The newspaper’s website lists two employees in its news department. Schumacher said Thursday that a third employee would be added in March. The position had been vacant.

According to the newspaper’s website, a print and digital subscription for four days of the printed paper is $251 per year. That won’t change when the Argus drops two days of its newspaper.

“The price is staying the same,” according to a social media post from Leslie Thompson, the paper’s managing editor. 

A digital subscription is $12.99 for a month or $120 for a year, according to the newspaper’s website.

In his memo last August, Wick wrote that “challenges in our current operational unit financial performance” put “significant pressure” on Wick Communications. “The bottom line is we can’t operate a business where the resources needed to build a secure future are being consumed by losses.”

Wick wrote that the “lack of traction and performance has caught up in a way” that triggered a mandatory reduction in pay for executives and furloughs for all other employees.

Executives and publishers in the company were directed to absorb “a 12.5% to 20% reduction in pay while the rest of staff will schedule seven days of furlough through the end of the year.”

The effort, he wrote, was to get “Wick to break-even by the end of 2023.” Company officials didn’t comment on whether that had been achieved.

Three weeks after his memo, Wick announced the company had bought a daily newspaper in Flagstaff, Arizona. The corporation operates in 11 states, according to its website.

“The Argus Observer will work on meeting demand of our customers where they currently access information, which continues to be a growing focus on digital,” Wick wrote.

Wick also did not address the status of the press at the newspaper. Instead, he wrote how “this change will provide greater color accessibility of the printed product by printing in Nampa, Id.,” he wrote.

The Argus Observer can trace its roots to The Advocate newspaper founded in Vale in 1897. The Advocate moved from Vale to Ontario in 1899 and changed its name to The Ontario Advocate. In 1936, Elmo Smith, who would one day become governor of Oregon, founded the Eastern Oregon Observer. The paper was eventually owned by Robert E. Pollock and Jessica Longston. The paper operated for about 10 years before it was consolidated with the Ontario Argus. In 1968, Wick Communications bought the Argus Observer.

The gulf between those who can access local news and those who can’t continues to widen in the U.S.

In recent weeks, the Los Angeles Times cut nearly 100 people from its news staff, a digital news operation called The Messenger folded after less than a year, and Sports Illustrated dramatically pared its operation.

According to a report by the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, an average of 2.5 local newspapers a week closed in 2023, leaving more than 200 counties as “news deserts.”

That means more than half of all counties in the U.S. have limited access to local news.

Since 2005, nearly 3,000 newspapers closed in the U.S. Also, the report showed, the nation lost almost two-thirds of its newspaper journalists – or 43,000 – since 2005, though most of those were employed by large metro and regional news outlets.

Oregon hasn’t escaped such changes.

Newspapers in Pendleton and La Grande last year shifted from publishing five times a week to two. The Oregonian in Portland at the beginning of 2024 quit printing papers on three days a week, ending a run as a daily newspaper dating to 1881. 

Andrew DeVigal, the director of the Agora Journalism Center, which is part of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication in Portland, said according to a database the Agora Center maintains, as of 2022, there were 243 local news organizations across the state. He noted his staff defines a local news outlet as one that employs journalists living in the area it covers. 

Damian Radcliffe, a University of Oregon journalism professor, said in an article for the Conversation, a national publication, that the declining number of newspapers in Oregon has to do with shrinking audiences, an unwillingness by the public to pay for news, and a distrust of media. 

DeVigal said abundant research bears out that a news desert, defined by the University of North Carolina researchers as a community with limited access to credible and comprehensive news, reveals the social consequences of the information gaps and misinformation in a community that loses its local newspaper. 

He quoted a colleague who said, “information gaps are where misinformation breeds and accountability goes to die.” 

“It’s when those information gaps are really amplified, and these echo chambers, or these bad actors, start feeding,” he said. “It’s so cheap for them to do.” 

However, he said, people are hungry for trusted information. He said one solution is for news organizations to work together instead of competing. That happened, he said, in 2022 when several news organizations worked together to report on the governor’s race in Oregon, sharing the work and stories. 

“If we’re really aiming to give the news to communities that’s helpful for them, then I think that direct mission can make a difference.”  

Enterprise reporter Steve Mitchell also contributed to this report.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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