I had hoped there would be good news this morning about Eugene Weekly, a free alternative paper in Oregon that abruptly shut down last week and announced that a former employee had embezzled tens of thousands of dollars. Instead, we’re still waiting to see if EW, as it’s called, will be able to raise enough money from its readers to get back on its feet.
The story began to unfold when people encountered a poster inside the bright red boxes that normally hold copies of the paper. The message: “Where’s the Damn Paper? Eugene Weekly is fighting to come back after a massive financial blow.” According to a letter to readers posted online, EW said it had been victimized by someone inside the company. Some $70,000 in printing bills hadn’t been paid. Money that was supposed to have been transferred into employees’ retirement accounts wasn’t. And on and on. The paper stopped print production and laid off its entire 10-employee staff.
EW, founded in 1982, distributes about 30,000 free copies of the paper each week, and is a vital source of news and information. Like most alt-weeklies, it offers a mix of arts and culture, investigative reporting, and entertainment listings. The homepage currently highlights a story about the local performing arts center, which is leasing security scanners for $170,000 a year from a company that is under investigation for letting weapons slip by at schools. Now all of that is in danger. Here’s part of the letter to readers:
Shortly before Christmas, we discovered that EW had been the victim of embezzlement at the hands of someone we once trusted. We are still counting up the damage, but it’s thousands upon thousands. The theft of EW’s funds remained hidden for years and has left our finances in shambles. A team of private forensic accountants is analyzing our books and accounts. We’ve reported the thefts to the Eugene Police Department, which is conducting an investigation.
The Associated Press interviewed Brent Walth, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, who said EW has had “an outsized impact in filling the widening gaps in news coverage.” Among other things, Walth said the paper runs obituaries of homeless people, a real service at a time when many papers have gotten rid of free obits and instead charge high fees to bereaved families. EW has also played an important role in launching the careers of young journalists, Walth said.
The paper is in the midst of a fundraising campaign, and, according to The New York Times, had received $42,000 in donations as of Monday. Camilla Mortensen, the editor, said the paper needs about $150,000, so it sounds like they’re on their way. If you’d like to help, just click here. My suggestion is that you give directly to the paper rather than to its affiliated nonprofit, which supports public interest reporting. EW itself is for-profit, so your donation will not be tax-deductible. But this is an emergency.