Whether it was a cost-savings decision as the Josephine County Commissioners attested to or retribution against unfavorable press coverage as their detractors alleged, the county voted to switch from the Grants Pass Daily Courier to the Illinois Valley News for purposes of printing public notices.
Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass saw a packed house the morning of Jan. 18, as many citizens who opposed the commissioners’ decision lined up to make their dissent known.
Before public testimony began, Board Chair Herman Baertschiger attempted to assuage the crowd by clarifying certain issues that were bound to come up during citizens’ comments.
“It’s been brought to our attention our longtime Daily Courier newspaper has had a very large diminishment in subscriptions to less than about 12 or 13% of the county,” said Baertschiger. “At this current time, that’s the only place outside of our bulletin board in front of the commissioners’ office to receive these notices.”
The number of subscribers to the Daily Courier was stated as being 9,200 at the meeting. The Illinois Valley News has a print circulation of 1,350, as well as more than 400 online subscribers.
Baertschiger said he was disappointed with an editorial in the previous day’s edition of the Courier wherein it was opined that the board’s actions were designed “to go after the Courier” and urged the crowd to instead “look at the facts.”
The board chair explained that the county is making it so that instead of two ways to get public notices – the newspaper and the bulletin board at the commissioner’s office – the community will have six, which he stated as follows: 1) the print edition of I.V. News; 2) free access at ivnews.com; 3) the county’s refurbished website, where notices will be archived; 4) subscribing to notifications via the county website; 5) hard copy on bulletin board; and 6) mail service from the county.
Baertschiger asserted that printing with the I.V. News would cost less money than printing with the Courier, money that can in turn be used to provide the Sheriff’s Office with funding.
“This is modernization,” Baertschiger said. “When we started legal notices in this state, 100 and some years ago, everyone was riding a horse and the only way to get news or notices was by a printed newspaper. This is 2023 – there are many counties now in Oregon that have no newspapers.”
The board chair also shared his prediction that the state of Oregon will soon do away with the statute requiring local governments to publish notices in newspapers.
“That’s where we’re going in this world and we want to be in front of it because that’s probably what’s going to happen in the near future and by us establishing a new program that gives every citizen the availability to view the notices we produce free of charge, it has to be much more appealing than having to buy a newspaper for a dollar to look at a notice.”
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Commissioner Dan DeYoung agreed with Baertschiger’s assessment that a shift toward digital communication is underway. He also pointed out that frequently hearings that were noticed in the paper draw a crowd of only a few people.
DeYoung aired some grievances he’s had with the Daily Courier, recounting an incident that occurred while he was on the Grants Pass City Council running for commissioner. He alleged that near the election, the Courier ran a headline – ‘DeYoung pleads guilty to child abuse’ – referring to another member of the community with that surname.
The commissioner implied the paper used this surname instead of printing ‘Man pleads guilty to child abuse’ deliberately to hurt his political prospects, giving readers who read the headline but not the full article the impression he was a child abuser.
“Those are things that kind of stuck in my craw, but I give the Courier a chance every time I can,” said DeYoung.
He went on to speculate that everyone in the audience had a cellphone with them, adding, “There’s your information guideline. It’s not a paper rolled up in your back pocket like it used to be… I’m not saying the paper doesn’t have a purpose in Josephine County. Absolutely not. I’m not saying that at all, but is it the place that we get all of our information?”
Commissioner John West denied the charge that removing public notices from the Courier was revenge for negative coverage.
“I don’t make my decisions based on retaliatory, because someone said something about me or didn’t say something about me,” West said. “I base my decisions on what’s best for this county and what’s best for the citizens of this county.
“When I came into this job I said I wanted to go department by department and line item by line item and see where we can cut and save money for this sheriff. I told you that and I’m sticking to it today.”
West estimated there would be a savings of “15,000 or more” by switching up how the county delivers public notices.
“Is us putting legal notices in the Daily Courier more important to you than having sheriff patrols?” West asked the public.
Despite all three commissioners’ assurances that vindictiveness was not a factor in their decision, many in the room did not believe them, judging by forceful condemnation during requests and comments from citizens.
“Steering our tax money to the newspaper commissioners prefer based upon personal feelings is abuse of power,” remarked Jack Dwyer, who claimed to be a Selma resident of over 50 years. He also opined that “spreading the wealth” to the I.V. News was more akin to socialism than conservative governance.
Jose Tudela criticized the commissioners for “bullying the local newspaper” and asked, “When will you three take your job seriously?”
“What I heard from all three of you is vindictiveness,” Grants Pass resident David Wood said. “You’re not arguing what you said you wanted to do. You’re arguing the fact that the Courier has made you uncomfortable. I look now and I see three men with very thin skins.”
In the midst of criticism directed at the board, doubts were also raised about the legality of the I.V. News becoming publication of record for the county.
I.V. News owner and publisher Dan Mancuso was present to advocate on behalf of his business and dispel allegations that the I.V. News is unfit to host county notices under state statute.
“The legality of a paper of record is not about circulation numbers, it’s about general information,” remarked Mancuso. “We cover government, local news, churches, schools – that’s what the qualification is to make you a paper of record.”
Mancuso thanked the commissioners for their consideration, and said making the I.V. News the county’s publication of record will “help ensure that we will have two locally owned independent newspapers in Josephine County.”
He pledged that the I.V. News’ coverage of local government will not change regardless of the board’s decision: “Many people in this room probably don’t read the Illinois Valley News, and if they did, they’d understand that we hold you guys accountable every week, we quote you verbatim. We tell everybody what you’ve said and done, and so nothing is going to change if we were to become the paper of record.”
Following public comments, the commissioners had a laundry list of complaints and allegations to defend themselves against.
DeYoung took umbrage with being called thin-skinned, countering, “Mr. Wood, I think you’d have a thin skin too if your name appeared above the fold on the front page more times than Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump and President Biden combined.”
He also expressed bewilderment that over his 14 years in JoCo politics, Courier editor Scott Stoddard has not met with him once despite his offers to do so.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve been the butt of this guy’s jokes for long enough. Yet Mr. Stoddard and I have never met face to face,” said DeYoung. “Wouldn’t you think that Mr. Stoddard would like to see me at some point in time, or Herman or now Commissioner West? I’ve never met the man. I’ve never been in the same room with him.”
DeYoung speculated that the Courier’s editorials skewing against the board may be responsible for the paper’s decreased circulation. “It’s not always our fault that the circulation is down.
“This shouldn’t affect their bottom line one bit… Will the Courier go away because of this? Absolutely not. I don’t think it will.”
West seconded this notion, saying, “No one on this board is trying to make a decision to shut The Daily Courier down. That is not what this is about.” He added, “I have no axe to grind with the Courier.”
Onto the allegations of thin skin, West remarked, “I have very thick skin. I really don’t care what the Courier or I.V. prints. I’ll get over it. I didn’t take this job because I had thin skin and was going to come up here and cry because you said something about me. I’ll deal with it. I don’t wear my feelings on my shirt sleeve; I’m a big boy.”
West reiterated that his priority is saving money that can contribute to the Sheriff’s Office. “it is more important to me to have law enforcement and safety in this community than to worry about a notice because we picked one paper over the other because we thought they gave us better service or didn’t or whatever.
“If the Illinois Valley News had been doing this for the last 30 years and we wanted to change to the Courier, would all of you be in here complaining about that?”
Baertschiger opined that much of the pushback to the board’s decision stemmed from hesitancy to embrace technology, sharing an anecdote about his grandfather initially distrusting the efficiency of farming with tractors over horse-drawn ploughs. “People naturally always push back against change. People are usually a little leery or maybe even afraid of change.
“If you take the time to understand the change, usually you find that the change is for the better.”
Baertschiger concluded, “I’m voting to save money,” though he could not provide an exact figure as he does not know how many public notices will be issued over the next year.
When it came time to vote, DeYoung said he wanted to gather more information on “the exact dollars and cents” that would be saved by moving away from the Courier, and urged his colleagues to “pump the brakes for exactly one year,” and perhaps in the meantime look at what it would cost to run notices in both JoCo newspapers.
DeYoung made a motion to table the vote on making the Illinois Valley News the county’s publication of record for a year, but it failed for lack of a second.
West then asked if he could make a motion to table the matter for one week to get DeYoung some clarifying info, but DeYoung said, “I think it’s going to take me longer than one week to get the information I’m seeking to be quite honest.”
Finally, West made a motion to approve which DeYoung seconded. DeYoung voted no but both other commissioners voted yes, approving the order 2-1.