Don’t Stop the Presses

Journalism Rebounds in The Gorge

By Rodger Nichols

Columbia Gorge News“COVID-19 claimed three more businesses in the Columbia River Gorge.”

That’s what a joint press release from the Northwest Newspaper Association might have said last year.

“The first is a 130-year-old daily from The Dalles, the second is a 117-year-old weekly from White Salmon and the third is a 111-year-old biweekly from Hood River. All had underlying conditions.”

The newspapers in question were, respectively, The Dalles Chronicle, The Enterprise of White Salmon, and the Hood River News. All had been owned by Eagle Newspapers Inc., which was founded in 1948 by former Oregon Gov. Elmo Smith.

At one time, the company owned community newspapers in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. In recent years, the company has divested to concentrate on printing, mailing services, and specialty publications.

When governors in Oregon and Washington responded to the pandemic by closing restaurants, gyms, theaters, and other places where people gather, the first thing those business owners cut was advertising. That resulted in an immediate revenue drop for all media, including newspapers.

Rather than ride it out, Eagle Newspapers abruptly announced it would shutter its three newspapers in the Gorge. The company had been hunting for a buyer for those papers for some time.

Then Chelsea Marr, publisher of two Gorge newspapers, came to the rescue. She had been with Eagle for 25 years, working her way up from an ad sales position in 1995. She came to an agreement to buy the three newspapers from Eagle, along with The Gorge Magazine and The Mid-Columbia Directory.

Given the state of the economy, and lacking the resources of a large corporation, Chelsea merged the three into a single weekly newspaper: the Columbia Gorge News. The News has appeared every Wednesday since.

Chelsea says her career path was driven more by circumstances than intent.

From left, Columbia Gorge News Co-Editor Mark Gibson, Publisher/ Owner Chelsea Marr, and Co-Editor Kirby Neumann-Rea.

“I never thought I’d have a career in newspapers,” she says. “But I had just moved to the Gorge and needed a job, and I just fell in love with it. I’m never bored, and it changes every day. There is always something to do.”

Along the way, Chelsea worked not only in advertising but in marketing and circulation, helping to promote subscriptions.

Former publisher Marilyn Roth gave Chelsea many opportunities, including operating the local Newspapers in Education project—part of a nationwide program explaining in classrooms how newspapers work and offering field trips to newspaper offices. She also shepherded the local version of the Read Across America program, sending adults into lower-grade classrooms to read to students every year on the school day closest to Dr. Seuss’ birthday on March 2.

After years in The Dalles, Chelsea was promoted in 2013 to general manager at the Hood River News. She ultimately became publisher of Hood River News and The Dalles Chronicle.

When Eagle announced it was going to close operations in the Gorge, “It was a shock to all of us to suddenly realize that what we’d spent our careers doing, what we loved, was coming to an end,” Chelsea says.

That meant not only loss of income but loss of benefits, such as health insurance.

Chelsea credits past Eagle Newspapers President Joe Petshow for helping convince her to take the plunge and buy the papers.

“I told him it was a scary idea, and I didn’t know if I could do it,” she says. “He said, ‘You’ve been doing this all along. You just haven’t been the owner before.’ So, it just came to a point where I had to roll the dice and give it a shot.”

Chelsea told each of the newsrooms she was going to carry on, but the only way it would work was by combining the three. In retrospect, she says that was the right decision.

The archives for each paper have been moved to local museums and—as part of the downsizing—so have the offices. In The Dalles, they relocated from a pricey downtown location to a former furniture store at 1800 West 10th. In Hood River, staff moved to share office space with the DMV. In White Salmon, the paper is in the Elba Offices at 228 Jewett St. The White Salmon office is open by appointment; the Hood River and The Dalles offices have staffers from 9 A.M. to noon.

One advantage of the combined paper is a circulation of 7,500—larger than any of the individual papers had before.

Chelsea says she would love to print more than once a week but is pleased to be able to publish at all. That they can do so, she says, is due to the many loyal readers and dedicated employees.

“I can’t do this on my own, obviously, and I’m very thankful to the employees that have stuck with me,” she says. “Even though they’re not working a full 40-hour week with benefits like we once had, they see the value in our mission for local news. And it’s a good feeling to be able to offer our readers the news and information they count on. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that people have really stepped up to help. It's really been nice that people are so supportive.”