THE NORTH PORTLAND Sentinel's slogan is "Ever Vigilant." But as of next month, some other newspaper will have to keep an eye on the city's North and Northeast neighborhoods. After nine years, six offices, and five names, the paper is going under.
I miss the Sentinel office the first time I walk by. It's a low, triangular building in the parking lot of the Disjecta art space out in Kenton, under the shadow of the Paul Bunyan statue. Editor, Publisher, and Owner Cornelius Swart hollers out to me when I open the door to the two-room office.
"I'll give you the nickel tour, if it's even worth that," says Swart. The staff has not started packing up the office yet—framed front pages line one wall and messy desks another.
The Sentinel started in 2001 as a newsletter called the Portsmouth Press. From there it became a paper called, over the years, What's Up?, Neighbors Between Rivers, and In and About. Its reporters covered the Interstate-renaming debacle and the closing of the police bureau's North Precinct, not to mention feel-good neighborhood stories about crack-dealers-turned-do-gooders and an autistic nine-year-old who started a rock band.
Swart, who bought the paper in 2004, channels a sort of hippie professional activism. He once hosted a four-month-long series of community discussions about dogs (yes, like pets) as symbols of gentrification. When I ask what he'll do now that the paper is closing up shop, he replies, "I will go wherever magic is happening. Wherever there is a concerned neighbor, I'll be there as the magic man, as the storyteller. For me, that's it, I go forward as a media professional or I'll have to find a new trade."
In concrete terms, that means Swart is hoping the paper can make a run of it as a nonprofit media experiment, estimating the start-up costs at $50,000 to hire a grant writer, rework the business plan, and build content. Fundraisers will soon commence.
For now the paper is run with an entirely freelance staff, which meets in the office six days a month for an intense layout and editing session. "It's a love/hate thing. We love it for 24 days and hate it for six," says Managing Editor Rebecca Robinson. In addition to covering the Columbia River Crossing project, Robinson pioneered the office costume box, which resides beneath one of the paper's two ancient iMacs, overflowing with retro clothes.
Copy Editor Michele Elder is crushed to see the paper go. She joined the core freelance staff back when the Sentinel was the Portsmouth Press. Elder called the newsletter's office to complain about its appalling number of typos and Swart recruited her to help edit. Since then, she says, "I've been raising the bar one nag at a time."
The death of the Sentinel is a twist on the internet-killed-newspapers story. Swart and the other staffers built a relatively dynamic website for the little paper, hosting a blog which this year ranked as the 10th most popular for generating discussion about the city, placing it just below the Oregonian's blog ["Rise of the Blogs," News, Jan 21]. The newsroom, albeit scattered and part-time, was multimedia, with print articles occasionally directing readers to online videos.
But despite the embrace of new media, the internet ad revenues weren't there. The hybrid of community, volunteer-run paper and professional newsroom costs about $6,000 a month to run. Since 2007, says Swart, ad revenues have dropped 40 percent.
So what will happen to the nine years' worth of dead-tree editions that fill one corner of the small office from floor to ceiling? The current plan is, of course, to put them all online.