The Chronicle’s Creswell office sits in the middle of town, just off Highway 99 and a couple doors down from the public library. It’s covered the 5,400-person town since 1909, making it the oldest locally owned paper in the Southern Willamette Valley. Since switching ownership in 2019, The Chronicle has added a second office in downtown Springfield and expanded its coverage to also encompass Pleasant Hill and Cottage Grove — a collective population of roughly 85,000, including Springfield.
The Chronicle and the much more recently launched Highway 58 Herald have pushed to provide high-quality local news to communities outside Eugene throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Nash nabs local newspaper
Noel Nash purchased The Chronicle — then The Creswell Chronicle — after spending more than 10 years doing statistics for ESPN. He’d worked at daily newspapers earlier in his career and had a vision for hyper-local community journalism amid the drastic corporatization of larger daily news outlets.
The profit-based journalism model left small and rural communities omitted from most media coverage. “It felt like the ball was sitting at midfield with nobody around,” Nash says. “We wanted to run up, grab the ball and go.”
He says he wanted to test “this idea that we could cover people’s families, friends, neighbors in a way that edifies a community, that uplifts the community, that supports local businesses, that tells the stories in the community that nobody else is telling because it doesn’t fit that big, corporate template anymore.”
When Nash left ESPN at the end of 2017, he set out to do just that. He bought a newspaper based on its numbers alone, and he and his wife made the move to Oregon in early 2019 — coincidentally, near where their daughter lived.
“Noel definitely came in and brought a lot more life into the newspaper,” says executive editor Erin Tierney, who has worked for The Chronicle since 2016. “And a lot more vision and focus.”
One of those focuses was expanding the communities The Chronicle covers to include Springfield, Cottage Grove and Pleasant Hill. And less than a year after doing so, COVID-19 hit.
Herald highlights news along highway
Herald Editor Doug Bates launched the online newspaper mid-pandemic in February.
Prior to the Herald, he’d retired from The Oregonian, where he’d won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on abuse at Oregon State Hospital, and before that he was the managing editor of The Register-Guard. He returned to his hometown, Oakridge, with his wife in 2009. “I spent the first 10 years of retirement just saying no to everybody in town who wanted me to write this or write that,” he says. “They knew I’d been a newspaper editor.”
But that changed in fall 2020, when Oakridge’s weekly paper, the Dead Mountain Echo, went up for sale. That — along with the RG drastically reducing its coverage along Hwy 58 over the past couple years — pushed Bates into action.
Bates says he and a couple friends looked into taking over the Dead Mountain Echo, but he didn’t think the print model was working. So, they pivoted to a digital publication, drawing inspiration from digital news startups Yachats News and the Salem Reporter, which were founded by Bates’ former colleagues Quinton Smith and Les Zaitz, respectively.
Building community trust
“When I bought the paper, our experiences told us — and I believe this — that the most important thing is relationship-building,” The Chronicle’s Nash says. “Personally and professionally, we’re all in the relationship business every day.”
In Nash’s first year with The Chronicle, he focused on building relationships with key stakeholders in different parts of the community — including those involved in education, business and nonprofits. He says The Chronicle allowed a lot of free advertising in that year, largely to “uplift and amplify all of the nonprofits in our area in any way that we could.”
The connections with individuals in the community have developed over time, Tierney says — especially in a pre-COVID-19 landscape. “We were out there,” she says. “We were doing all the after-hour business meetings and connecting with the movers and shakers to start.”
She says The Chronicle also finds stories by asking subscribers about themselves when they call the paper. “As we make connections, we just find those kinds of stories,” she says. “It’s largely brought to us by the community, those pitches, and I love that. It told us what people want to read about.”
“Frankly, what has kept me going is that the community really appreciates it,” Bates says of the Herald. “Being in the news business, occasionally you have to make somebody mad at you because there’s things you have to report. But generally people are overwhelmingly appreciative of somebody covering the news.”
Still, he says those relationships have been harder to build during a global pandemic. The Herald has largely relied on phone and Zoom calls for interviews and events. He’s found that posting stories on Facebook and Twitter are an effective way to spread the Herald’s work.
Fighting for funding
COVID-19 has also presented financial barriers to the Herald and The Chronicle. Bates says he applied to register the Herald as a federally recognized nonprofit in April, but the pandemic continues to slow that process. In August, the Herald was granted nonprofit status when it was accepted into the Institute for Nonprofit News. The publication has had to rely on reader donations, a small amount of advertising revenue and stimulus check funding from its board of directors — a group that includes Bates and his wife.
Nash says The Chronicle has struggled during the pandemic, too, especially with a loss of ad revenue. Between display advertising and legal notices, Nash estimates the paper lost over half of its revenue stream during COVID-19. While Nash hasn’t seen evidence of an overall drop in readership, he says the pandemic meant there were fewer events in the community for The Chronicle to cover.
“That is pretty typical,” he says. “There’s really not a whole lot unique about treading water and staying alive and making adjustments. I hear it from small business owners all over the place in all of these communities.
“These are hard times, but we’re hard people, and we’re going to tough it out. We love the southern Willamette Valley, and we really are here to serve readers.”
Good journalism serves readers
Although Bates plans on returning to retirement once the Herald is up and running, he wants to lay the groundwork for good journalism along Hwy 58 for the years to come.
“If you live in a small rural town and you need an appendectomy, it shouldn’t be inferior to the appendectomy that you would get in a bigger town like Eugene,” he says. “You should expect just as much professionalism in your surgery that you have to get. I think the same way about journalism.”
And that intentional professionalism has shone through in what he describes as an “overwhelmingly positive” response from communities along Hwy 58.
“Everywhere I go, I have people comment that they really appreciate what we’re doing,” Bates says.
“We’re all here in the community together,” Tierney says. “We don’t have an agenda other than to be public servants for the community and to serve. We love being journalists, and we’re journalists first.”
For more information about The Chronicle, visit Chronicle1909.com. For more information about the Highway 58 Herald, visit Highway58Herald.org.