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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Reporter"? Not any more.

There's a heavy conversation going on in some quarters of town today over the "news" that Metro, Portland's extra special layer of government, has hired Nick Christensen as a "reporter," to cover the goings-on at Metro, supposedly from a neutral perspective. It's been known for months that Metro was planning to do this, but now that the guy's on the job at $26 an hour, without benefits, the O has written it up and some of the usual hens are clucking.

To us, it is hardly surprising. The mastermind behind the move is Metro's chief flack, Jim Middaugh, who is a dyed-in-the-wool member of GIGL -- the Goofball Ideas in Government League, founded by the now-departed Portland commissioner, Erik Sten. Middaugh, as you'll recall, ran unsuccessfully for the Portland City Council on the taxpayers' dime three years ago as part of Sten's quixotic and short-lived "clean money" experiment. (Although Sten tipped him off early to the impending vacancy to give him a head start on his opponents, he still lost.) Now Middaugh's apparently read a magazine article somewhere that says an agency having its own "reporter" is a cool thing to do. And so onto the public pad goes Christensen.

Is it harmful? Aw, heck no. As long as this fellow's readers understand that he's a paid flack, and that everything he writes is as suspect as a press release from the Metro bureaucrats themselves, who cares? Just remember that if he ever got too far off the company line, this experiment would be terminated with extreme prejudice.

Moreover, Christensen might do a better job covering Metro than the mainstream media itself. Given the many puff pieces emanating from the O these days, you wonder whether the younger writers over there are learning how to do more than rewrite government press releases, anyway.

No, don't miss the bigger story here: how much money state and local government is paying for public relations and public information flacks these days. Somebody needs to start running a tally of how many millions the government is spending on Tweeters, press release writers, spokespersons, "reporters," and other spin doctors. Not to mention what they shell out for the Gard and Gerber-type outside flacks, "branding" specialists, poll-takers, and media strategists. There's no doubt that it is many, many millions of dollars every year. Just how many millions would make an interesting read. Now, there's a summer project -- somebody got a grant for that?

There's a lot of harm done by the size of the government p.r. machine. For one thing, it eats up perfectly good tax dollars that ought to be spent on... you know... actually governing... rather than sitting around making announcements. Is it all that important that the whole world hear the exciting news that Nick Fish gave a speech at some banquet over the weekend? Fix a pothole with that money.

But more importantly, it seems that there are now more government-paid flacks than there are professional journalists. If you wonder why the members of the mainstream media let the politicians and bureaucrats get away with murder, keep in mind that those politicians and bureaucrats may be the journalists' next paycheck, in desperate times. And everybody in the picture knows it. It's a sad state of affairs.

Plus, am I reading this right -- Christensen is also the president of the Lents Neighborhood Association? Can you say "potential conflict of interest"?

Comments (30)

"keep in mind that those politicians and bureaucrats may be the journalists' next paycheck"

Like Amy Ruiz and Sammy?

BTW - If the O is looking for topics, maybe an update on Cylvia (that'll probably die though.)

Hard to tell which is worse. Getting no information at all from our MSM, or a skewed story from an inside "reporter".

It seems there is an overwhelming number of print media journalists who are losing jobs (as our culture shifts), and to survive they look join a government agency with protected funding.

Local government bodies meanwhile are grabbing up some of the PR talent out there to help create a positive image for obtaining the coveted public dollar. Sure seems like a misuse of money and talent.

Yep, he is pres of Lents and he should resign.

Also, isn't he a reporter at the Argus?

Instead of trying to replicate the dying newspaper model (19th century technology), governments should set up several dedicated blogs open to public comment.

"Instead of trying to replicate the dying newspaper model"

Heck they keep the Post Office alive, maybe govt should just print their own papers.

Sammy Times could be several weekly volumes based on his Tweets alone.

Just call it what it is - a PR position, not a reporting position. That's all.

So before this, someone wrote a press release and the O would publish it as news. Now he's going to write articles and what...the O's going to publish it as news?

I feel a whole lot better -- seriously! -- when it's Rupert Murdoch buying groceries for these guys.

I do think the youth of The O's staff is a factor in some of the maddening things we criticize the paper for. They need a few more years, thicker skins, and more extensive networks of sources . . . if the paper is around long enough for them to do so.

As one hopeful sign, let's give Ryan Frank a little credit for a reasonably good job on his articles on the city's skimming off of water and sewer funds for pet projects this weekend. He started strong, but sort of petered out towards the end of both, like he was looking for a happier ending to both stories. But he did some good reporting and looked beyond the face value of public figures' statements to ask some skeptical questions, which we're always riding him for not doing.

The idea that my tax dollars are being used by the government to turn around and sell new (expensive) ideas to me really drives me up the wall.

"WES is Working!" We're paying people to put together what amounts to a lie, and then buy the ad space for this propaganda aimed at ourselves. Why am I paying for that? How many filled potholes does that money represent?

Ditto on giving props to Ryan Frank. He needs to keep it up and dig even deeper.

How much money has been paid to promote the agenda for those who live here?

While we are at it, how much money have we all paid to PR market and promote our city to the outside area? Am not against marketing to bring business to our area, but am concerned that much of it is to promote insider's agenda.
Takes an investigative reporter here, but since there is a scarcity in that department, citizens need to carry on with news and information.


Portland, Oregon, in the news:
A sampling of recent accolades and feature articles

- Articles from 1997-2010, might be an interesting read about what has been said about us during those years.

Bicycling Magazine has repeatedly named Portland the "Best City for Bicycling in the USA." Portland has one of the most active bicycle racing scenes in the United States, and the League of American Bicyclists has given Portland their highest rating for a bicycle-friendly community.

There's a reason that there is a federal law banning the Voice of America from broadcasting into U.S. territory.

A similar law should be enacted at the state level, banning the use of any "news reporter" from spreading propaganda from government bodies without full disclosure, and requiring that any government news release be fair and balanced, with the opposition's views presented alongside it.

Gonna happen? Of course not, because certain people only champion for a "free press" when they aren't in power.

Why would a journalist be tempted to take a cushy taxpayer funded job instead of continuing to work for the public syndicates?
Maybe because, even before the economic crisis, journalists around the country were being laid off in droves because 1. newspapers idiotically presented their product online for free.
2. Any moron with a blog can pretend that he or she knows the whole story,making assumptions the whole time.

One of the initial benefits of journalists lay, theoretically, in that the public would them accountable for their actions by looking at the validity of what they actually wrote.

I have read Christensen's work for a long time, and have found him an unbiased reporter (especially when comparing his articles to his editorials). If he is Metro's lapdog now, then the proof will be in the work he produces - not in assumptions about what the work he will produce in the future might have in it.

25 PR positions at Metro and they add another? At $120K a year Middaugh should lose his job over this idea. No one from the inside Metro has credibility as they hold four hour long public information meetings that are poorly attended to tell people how they are going to do a project. Tell me how many new hits the Metro website gets a day?
Also, the story in the Oregonian today, it's all about Middaugh. No good PR person pitches a story about themselves personally! Is he running again or what?

Speaking of the press, how about a story on what has happened to our city and ranking since 2002?

Portland Ranked #2 In CNN & Money Magazine's Annual "Best Places to Live"
In 2002, the editors of CNN and Money Magazine ranked Portland #2 among the best places to live in the nation, and second to none other than New York City.

Top ranked cities all had in common a strong sense of community, nice weather, low crime, low property taxes, and excellent education. They go on to say that "among [Portland's] attractions is Forest Park, the largest wild park within a U.S. city's boundaries."

Social engineering through information management to foster a 'correct thinking' community. Thank god we have such beneficent and forward thinking leaders to guide us through the darkness!

Lessons from Eastern Europe, mid 20th century.

I will add - has it all been for the children?

I feel a whole lot better -- seriously! -- when it's Rupert Murdoch buying groceries for these guys.

So you approve of Metro's ITAR/TASS division, then, eh?

Call me old-fashioned, but I just wish the Oregonian could get their PolitiFact guy to put on a collared shirt for his byline photo.

Erik H, your thinking about banning governments from using reporters is similar to mine.
The state legislature should seriously review this matter and pass a bill.

I think politically it would have to be modified from "banning" to maybe having a graduated expenditure based on a governmental bodies budget-a percentage formula. Such as a body having a budget of X with employees of Y would be limited to .10% of the whole bodies budget for PR. Then have definitions, restrictions on types of PR.

It is fundamentally wrong what government has become in it's own self promotion.


Knowing Nick Cristianson and having dealt with him I would not believe him to be less than forthright. I have even been on the opposite side of him on isssues and found him to be upstanding and bottom line oriented. As the preceding Lents Neighborhood President I stepped down prematurely due to family and work comitments changing.I felt at the time and feel now tht with Nick and the board in place that Lents is in capable hands. I really believe that those who want to throw stones should take a turn at the NA table especially in outer southeast. AND why in gods name for someone wanting to put food on his table especially in the econmy as it stands today. Well my two cents worth, and you are free to dispute me BUT knowing Nick I have no issue with his integrity

Wonder how many in our Mayor's office are there for the purpose of promoting the Mayor and his - or the insider's agenda? . . . if so, at what cost?
How much would we save if we had a crew down there just taking care of basics?

Damien, it's isn't about Nick per se. It's about the situation, in which there is the appearance of impropriety. Nick happens to be the centerpiece.

And, BTW, I wouldn't presume to assume that no poster here has ever had experience at the NA level.


No, thanks, I'll have a Red Stripe if you've got it.

I don't suppose that showing you what decorates my cube wall will make anyone feel better, but I'm hoping y'all get a chuckle out of it, anyway: http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5247/5368542591_45232ab684_z.jpg

Look. My job is to help people figure out — and understand — what Metro's doing. It's what I did in Hillsboro and it's what I go in every morning trying to do now.

Is it going to be perfect? No, but no reporting ever is. I would encourage all of you, though, to offer your critiques to me personally — call or e-mail, my information is on all of my stories. I may agree with you, I may not, but I don't want to exist in a bubble.

As for the potential conflict of interest - sure, it exists... but I'm not going to go move back to an apartment in Beaverton just so I'm no longer vested in my community. My 'night job' is a separate affair from what I get paid for, and that line is wide and bright in my mind.

I don't want to just be throwing information out on the Internet. I look forward to a dialogue with readers about ways the coverage can improve, ideas for stories and thoughts on whatever Metro's doing.

Thanks all for paying attention.

I agree that Nick's work is no substitute for private journalism and folks like you speaking out.

That said, I think we all agree the current model most governments use to give people meaningful access to information and decisions isn't working all that well. So we're trying something different. It's an experiment that warrants skepticism and careful monitoring.

Keep the criticism and ideas coming. We're listening. And, we're working on opening more channels for people to provide comments. New approaches are definitely needed (see www.optinpanel.org for one example).

If you want, you can reach me at jim.middaugh@oregonmetro.gov.

And, don't forget to check out www.oregonmetro.gov/connect.



It is kinda after hours and this is only the second time I have seen you post on this blog. Seems like you are trying really hard to impress the newly elected bosses that your affiliations and services are worth $120K a year.

Nick, the moment your started taking money from those your are "reporting on"; you are no longer a journalist, but a flack.

Besides yourselves, who do you think you are representing?

Hint - it is the officials that were just elected, you know the Metro ones.

Jim Middaugh: "And, we're working on opening more channels for people to provide comments."

How much will that cost me?

Middaugh, there's so many "channels" that we're all drowning. And I'm not being snarky. Ask around. The average person, even at the younger ages realize the "drowning" feeling.

I had an interesting conversation with my friend's 21 year old daughter who I've known since her birth. College educated. Smart. Well adjusted. Wants to help the world and will. When the topic came to media....finally facebook and twitter, she laughed. She found it more of a disconnect than connected.

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