Oregon journalists are experimenting with new way to report on governor’s race

No candidate on the Republican or Democratic ballot for governor was left out of this reporting effort

April 19, 2022 5:30 am

Ballots have been set out for the vote-by-mail May 17 primary that includes Oregon governor. (Salem Reporter)

Oregon voters, you’re about to benefit from a novel effort to report on the governor’s race.

Between the Republicans and the Democrats, more than two dozen candidates are on the primary ballot for governor.

Most news organizations don’t have the reporters, the space or the time to report on them all.

Yet voters deserve to know something about them besides what they see in mailers, campaign ads and Voters’ Pamphlets.

Journalists found a way to provide at least some useful information once ballots go out April 27. Soon, you can expect to start seeing news outfits large and small publish answers the candidates gave to common questions.

This media approach results from a determined effort to consult voters. Earlier this year, a series of listening sessions – “Let’s Talk – provided voters across the state a chance to talk to the media. Our job was to listen.

We wanted to know what voters would like to get from the press. Two vital “asks” emerged. One was that voters wanted the press to avoid picking winners based on volume and type of coverage. They didn’t want Oregon journalists to just key in on those who could raise a lot of money. Let the voters decide who warrants consideration, they said.

The second “ask” was for more information about issues and topics that matter to Oregonians. Campaign contributions? Not much. Political scandals? Yawn.

From that emerged the idea of pulling together newsrooms in common cause to deliver more information that Oregonians want. We had to act fast.

We settled on this approach just last month. Journalists around the state would first pick broad topics of importance to Oregon and its people. Then they would work to craft questions to be presented to every candidate, no matter how they were polling, regardless of how much money they had or had not raised.

In a matter of days, reporters and editors settled on the topics: climate change and the environment, crime and safety, education, economy and housing.

Questions under each topic flowed in from newsrooms all over the state. A corps of editors tackled the job of reducing the list to just three questions per topic and revising the questions for clarity and uniformity.

That work was undertaken by Joe Beach of Capital Press, Erik Neumann of Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Rachael McDonald of KLCC in Eugene, Danielle Jester of the Lake County Examiner in Lakeview, John Schrag of Pamplin Media Group, K. Rambo of Street Roots, Andrew Cutler of the East Oregonian in Pendleton and Dana Haynes of Portland Tribune. I joined in as well.

The Agora Journalism Center in Portland, part of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, kept the communications flowing and finally took on the task of getting the 15 questions out to all the candidates.

A sampling:

  • The Oregon governor’s office is usually reactive when it comes to dealing with drought – sending relief money to affected counties or providing water deliveries in communities after wells have gone dry. What specific steps would you take to provide long-term solutions for years of increasing drought?
  • Some rural counties with small populations and small tax bases struggle with adequate law enforcement funding. What steps would you take to address this chronic problem?
  • Coming out of the pandemic, we are seeing unprecedented stress levels in educators, students and parents. As governor, what steps would you take to address this stress and keep our public K-12 schools from imploding?

Once candidates respond (they have until Friday, April 22), all the answers to each question will be placed together, question by question. They will be edited only for length for those who exceed the limit. (If you are backing a particular candidate, nudge them to respond.)

The state’s largest news organizations, including The Oregonian and Oregon Public Broadcasting, elected not to participate. That’s fine – they have far more resources than the rest of us.

But the lineup of media organizations that so far are partners in the project represent newsrooms large and small, from big cities to rural outposts. Pamplin Media Group has 26 newspapers all over the state, from Forest Grove to Prineville. EO Media is participating, and has 15 newspapers from Astoria to Baker City.  Other newsrooms include Jefferson Public Radio, KLCC, Lake County Examiner, Portland Record, Street Roots, Columbia Gorge News, Grants Pass Daily Courier, Keizertimes, KGW, Portland Monthly, Willamette Week, Malheur Enterprise, Salem Reporter, Seaside Signal, The Way by OR360, The Times-Journal and Yachats News.

Other newsrooms are still welcome to join in and use the governor material (just send an email soon to [email protected])

Voters, I hope, will be eager to read the results. I know I am. There may be political gems out there that aren’t obvious from campaign finance reports and headline counts. And if we succeed in getting more voters interested and engaged, then all those newsrooms have done their duty to provide the kind of public service so vital to our state.

Related commentaries:

Oregon voters want more help from the press to learn about candidates for governor

For those outside Oregon’s urban areas, the urban-rural issue is an opportunity for next governor

Oregonians don’t want a party hack in the governor’s office

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Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz

Les Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter, serving Oregon for more than 45 years. He reported for The Oregonian for 25 years and owns community newspapers and a digital news service. He is a national SPJ fellow, two-time Pulitzer finalist, including for a lengthy investigation of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon and five-time winner of Oregon’s top investigative reporting award. He has investigated corrupt state legislators, phony charities, and an international cult that moved to Oregon, and the biggest bank failure in Oregon history. He also has been active in reforming the state’s public records law and was appointed by the governor to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council. In his spare time, he operates a ranch nestled in a national forest, feeding horses and assorted animals.