The weekly Eugene stops publication after employee embezzlement

An Oregon weekly newspaper abruptly ceased publication and laid off all of its employees after an employee embezzled tens of thousands of dollars and left months of unpaid bills, its editor-in-chief said.

The Eugene Weekly newspaper announced Thursday that it would stop printing after discovering financial problems, including unpaid money in employee retirement accounts and $70,000 in unpaid bills to the newspaper’s printer, Camilla Mortensen, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, said on Sunday. .

The paper’s entire staff of ten was laid off three days before Christmas, although some employees, including Ms. Mortensen, were still volunteering to publish articles online.

The Eugene Weekly, a free newspaper, was founded in 1982 and prints 30,000 copies each week, which can be found in bright red boxes in and around Eugene, one of the most populous cities in the ‘Oregon.

Recent articles featured a hike for the New Year led by guides in a state park, the efforts of a nearby unincorporated community, Blue River, recovering from a wildfire in 2020and a memorial to people who died homeless in 2023.

Executives at The Eugene Weekly said in a letter to readers that the newspaper’s finances had been left in “ruin”, but they planned to fight to keep the publication alive.

“The damage is more than most small businesses can handle,” the letter said. “The magnitude of this moment is unlike anything we have ever faced. But we believe in the mission of this newspaper and we remain committed to keeping EW alive.”

Melinda McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Eugene Police Department, said police were investigating but could not provide further details while the investigation was ongoing. The current former employee accused of the embezzlement, who was involved in the newspaper’s finances, has not been publicly identified.

Ms Mortensen, who joined the paper in 2007 and became editor in chief in 2016, said charges had been filed against the person accused of embezzlement, who had worked there for at least five years.

The employee was out of the office earlier this month when questions arose about closing financial records for the year and suddenly a host of problems emerged, Ms. Mortensen said.

“Every time I find out something, I just feel sick to my stomach,” she said. “And again, this is someone we worked with who came into the office every day.”

These problems were discovered as the newspaper tried to recover from financial losses it suffered earlier during the Covid-19 pandemic, when businesses, such as local restaurants and event organizers, ceased operations. to buy ads, Ms. Mortensen said.

In recent years, as local newspapers quickly closed their doors and dramatically downsized, The Eugene Weekly took steps to cut costs by reducing the number of pages printed.

Nearly 2,900 newspapers have closed their doors since 2005, according to a 2023 report by the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. All but a hundred of the closed newspapers were weeklies. Most communities that lose a newspaper do not receive a replacement.

Before the pandemic, The Eugene Weekly was doing well financially, Ms. Mortensen said.

The owners, Anita Johnson, who Ms. Mortensen said is 94 and went to the office twice a week, and Georga Taylor, never took profits from the newspaper and always reinvested the money into the business to pay expenses, such as worker bonuses and new equipment. They also covered the costs of the last printed edition of the newspaper, which appeared on December 21.

Mrs. Johnson and her husband, Art Johnson, along with Mrs. Taylor’s husband, Fred Taylor, purchased the newspaper. in the 1990s. Ms. Johnson was a journalist at the Washington Post and Mr. Taylor, who died in 2015, was a former editor-in-chief from the Wall Street Journal.

Ms. Mortensen said that while newspapers have paid a lot of attention to their digital product, in Eugene and the rural towns that surround it, “print is still something that people really value.”

The weekly Eugène accepts donations to help him publish again and created an online fundraiser that raised more than $35,000 as of Sunday morning.

Ms Mortensen said people had also stopped by the office to make donations. A local bookseller who passed by cried as she described how she told visitors to her shop what happened to the newspaper when they asked her for a copy.

Support also came from unexpected sources, such as retired journalists from the Register-Guard, the city’s daily newspaper, who offered editorial assistance.

Ms Mortensen said the support gave her hope the paper could print again.

“I’m thinking about the $150,000 we need to become a viable newspaper again,” Ms. Mortensen said. “And I look at some of the money and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, can we do this?’