I've been interested to hear the arguments against Measures 66 and 67 being knocked down by business analysts and the new polling that shows the measures with an advantage among voters, but I was really intrigued to read Rick Seifert's views on The Orangeonian's new publisher and his decision to wrap editions of the paper in strange advertisements against the measures. Seifert's a smart guy, so when he says that N. Christian Anderson III's choice "to explain an advertisement to readers, it should serve as a red flag that something is wrong," I think it's worth hearing him out.
Seifert's a "semi-retired journalist and college teacher of journalism" in Portland, and he's an active Quaker, and I don't attribute any ulterior motives to him. He publishes at a little blog called "The Red Electric," which I recommend.
Just to remind readers about what's going on in Oregon, here's the 30-second version: Measures 66 and 67 are straightforward ballot measures. Oregon lawmakers, faced with a $4 billion hole in the budget last year, stanched the wound with all of its 2009 federal stimulus dollars but still suffered hemorrhage; lawmakers cut public services by $2 billion over the biennium and adopted one slight tax increase on Oregon's super-wealthy individuals and another slight increase by bringing its circa-1931 corporate minimum tax into the middle-twentieth century. But conservatives balked and forced the new laws onto the ballot for public approval.
The Oregonian, the state's largest newspaper, might have come out in favor of the measures but its owners named a new publisher in October: N. Christian Anderson III, who was, until two years ago, the publisher of California's Orange County Register. In the intervening years, Anderson "has been consulting with media companies and private equity investors since then." Reports say that Anderson immediately put the paper's editorial board under his own direct control, taking it away from the newspaper's presumably non-partisan editor, Peter Bhatia, though Bhatia had been executive editor since 1997.
An Oregon newspaper with Orange County, California, values deserves an Orange County name, so I call it The Orangeonian. And in the past few weeks, The Orangeonian has published an ever-lengthening and ever-shriller series of editorials against the two measures. After reading the work of Steve Novick and Carla Axtman at BlueOregon, I'm convinced that Anderson's using his new newspaper to protect his own lucre; while The Orangeonian's taxes aren't likely to go up under the measures, Anderson himself will get to pay more in taxes because he collects more than a quarter million dollars in salary.
That's all nasty enough. But the pimple on The Orangeonian's nose right now is Anderson's decision to wrap Sunday's edition of the paper in a "spadea," a half-sheet political advertisement that he says was paid for by Oregonians Against Job Killing Taxes -- a strange assertion, given BlueOregon's reporting that OAJKT is out of money and one printing of this "spadea" totals something like $25,000. That jarring decision by Anderson is where Seifert's analysis began on Monday:
In yesterday’s Oregonian, publisher Chris Anderson explained why the paper had sold space on a front-page wrapper (called a "spadia") to a political campaign, in this case to the anti-measure 66 and 67 campaign. The ad was larded with quotes from a supportive Oregonian editorial.
The whole "spadia" device is intrusive — by design. And, yes, I know that newspapers are in crisis and desperately need the kind of revenue this sort of sleight-of-hand advertising can produce. Long-term, these slippery devices may simply hasten the exodus of readers. It makes matters worse when they effectively turn over the public face of The Oregonian to political advertising. Worse still, the advertising's content is the product of the Oregonian's own editorial board.
Sure, the top of the ad says "paid advertisement," but readers are utterly confused by what is and is not advertising, thanks in large measure to newspapers' blurring the lines. Take the Saturday "Autos" section, whose miserly editorial content is pure puffery that leads into a section that is a blatant a vehicle for car dealer ads.
Given the spadia's appearance, content and placement, the "paid advertising" label might lead readers to assume that the ad was paid for by The Oregonian itself. Anderson's anticipation of concerns like mine is no doubt why he felt compelled to write his "To our readers" column. If so, he failed to allay those concerns and simply alerted us to his need to try to write his way out of a deeply flawed editorial decision.
Rather than heed Seifert's thoughtful concerns about the "deeply flawed editorial decision," Anderson doubled down, wrapping TODAY's edition in ANOTHER "spadea." This one was slightly different, however, and the differences caught Seifert's eye, too.
Seifert wrote today:
This morning’s Oregonian "spadea" (the splashy half-wrap ad starting on the front page) provides graphic proof that, contrary to his "To our readers" note from Sunday, Publisher Chris Anderson has had concerns about how the huge front-page-engulfing ad appeared on Sunday. The evidence is three changes in today’s version of the ad. They are exactly the kind that only a publisher with misgivings would require of an advertiser.
The ad has been tinkered with to make it more clear that it isn’t, repeat is NOT, an Oregonian house ad for its editorial board position opposing measures 66 and 67. The "Paid Advertising" notice at the top of the anti-measure 66 and 67 ad has been increased in type size and weight. ... That change still assumes that readers know what "Paid Advertising" means. Don’t count on it.
Some, perhaps many, might think this ad, which fits hand in glove with the paper’s editorial board position, is simply a "house" ad. That’s advertising in which the newspaper advertises itself. Could this be one of those? Such advertising presumably "costs" the paper in space that might otherwise be sold. In a sense it is "paid" for by the paper. Readers simply don’t know enough about these distinctions, especially when the very first line of the ad reads "The Oregonian’s editorial board urges voters to VOTE NO on Measures 66 and 67." Whose voice is that? Sure sounds like The Oregonian’s.
Another change. The quote from the Oregonian editorial is no longer "boxed" with a color background. Now it is depicted as a torn-out clipping with a ragged "torn" border. (See above photo comparison.) Presumably the new graphic device is to indicate that the advertisers have torn out and are "using" the editorial. The earlier boxed version might have suggested collusion with the paper.
And yet another change. At the bottom of each page of today’s version is the line reading "Paid for by Oregonians against Job-Killing taxes." On Sunday, the ID was limited to the last page.
Why these changes? Why were they needed, especially after Anderson so unequivocally defended the spadea in his Sunday note "To our readers." Could Anderson’s reader-blind decision-making and these unacknowledged tinkerings be signs of more trouble ahead for the beleaguered Oregonian?
Note: Several readers have written Anderson on-line to say the line between advertising and editorial content has been breached and that they are canceling their home subscriptions.
As I said, Seifert's a smart guy and his analysis seems pretty sound to me. It doesn't take more than a few mouse clicks to read some of the same blog comments he has seen, by Orangeonian readers announcing the cancellation of their subscriptions.
For a brand-new publisher hoping to preserve the financial health of his paper, this is a pretty poor way to start. But maybe this is just how things were done in Orange County, California, and Oregon will have to get used to it.
By the way, I haven't seen in the Orangeonian any mention of Jack Roberts' analysis of the state's business climate if the measures pass. Which surprises me, because Roberts is the last Republican to hold statewide office, and I would think that Anderson might have consulted him on business matters. After all, look at Roberts' current job: "As the head of the Lane Metro Partnership, Roberts has the job of attracting businesses to Lane County and keeping them here."
I had to find this at the Register-Guard:
Despite all the campaign-season noise about whether Measures 66 and 67 with their higher corporate and personal income taxes would damage the state’s business climate, Roberts isn’t hearing a peep of such concerns from the out-of-state business leaders he’s contacted.
"The hoopla we’re hearing is stopping at the border, as far as I can tell," said Roberts, a Republican who, as the state labor commissioner in the 1990s, was his party’s last elected state office holder.
Roberts' expert assessment doesn't stop consultant Pat McCormick, one-half of Oregonians Against Job Killing Taxes. When real evidence doesn't support his case, McCormick uses his own speculation:
Pat McCormick, spokesman for the campaign to defeat the measures, said their passage could add to the chill on individuals’ and companies’ willingness to invest in Oregon business, especially start-up companies. "The aggregate effect has got to be negative for jobs," he said...
On what does Roberts base his expert opinion, by the way?
Roberts said Oregon is attractive — and would continue to be regardless of the election outcome on measures 66 and 67 — for reasons that go beyond the overall tax burden. He said the particulars of Oregon’s business tax system include property tax waivers within "enterprise zones" and a tax formula that favors companies whose goods are sold outside the state. That makes Oregon an ideal home for the most sought-after employers: those who bring dollars into the state’s economy from markets beyond its borders, he said.
And what about the fear that the measures will ruin Oregon's standing among the 50 states in business taxes? The Register-Guard checks the facts:
A ranking of states according to their policy environments for entrepreneurship placed Oregon 38th among the 50 states if the two measures pass. The previous year’s report by the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council placed Oregon in 32nd place. The annual study takes into account taxes; health insurance requirements and costs; utility rates; the size and cost of government; crime; and roads.
But when it comes strictly to Oregon’s ranking by its total tax burden for government, the state fares far better than many other states, even if voters pass the two measures. Oregon ranks third-lowest among states for the overall burden of taxes on business, according to an Ernst & Young study. If voters approve Measure 67, Oregon’s ranking would move to fifth-lowest.
Still a pretty great place to do business.
And it sounds like voters understand that. Notice that this item comes from the Gresham Outlook, not The Orangeonian.
Backers of two state tax measures on the Jan. 26 ballot have the upper hand heading into the final stretch of the campaign, says Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts. A poll of 500 voters on Jan. 14 and 15 by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall Inc. showed Oregon voters favored Measure 66, an income tax increase for high-income individuals, by 52 percent to 39 percent. Voters also favored Measure 67, a corporate tax increase, by 50 percent to 40 percent.
"The ‘yes’ side is in a position to win these, but they have not closed the deal yet," Hibbitts says. "All things being equal, I think these things are probably going to pass."
The poll was conducted on behalf of Community Newspapers Inc., the Portland Tribune, Fox 12 and Oregon Public Broadcasting.
So, let's close the deal.