Mail Tribune owner’s push to reshape local news cost Medford its daily newspaper
By Jeff Manning and Janet Eastman
Damian Mann, longtime reporter for the Medford Mail Tribune, remembers the moment he realized there might be no place for him in the media world envisioned by the newspaper’s new owner, Steven Saslow.
A local television station had asked Mann to appear on camera to discuss a recent story.
Next thing he knew, makeup was being applied to his face and he was being instructed to simplify and energize his script.
“OK, this is not the same world I knew,” the veteran reporter remembers thinking. “I almost quit that day.”
Saslow, an East Coast media entrepreneur, came to Jackson County in 2017 convinced he could transform a daily newspaper into something better and more relevant. The vision he laid out was of a hybrid source of local news combining the best of print journalism and the compelling visuals of broadcasting — packaged with the reach of social media and streaming video.
How exactly he settled on a small-town daily in Southern Oregon was a riddle the Mail Tribune journalists never figured out. Some speculated that if he could pull it off in Medford, it could be a template for other markets nationwide. And newspapers certainly could use a lifeline: Hundreds were closing as print ad revenues plummeted.
“I think he liked the idea of having a property that was remote, free of competition,” said Bob Hunter, a longtime editor at the paper. “He wanted this isolated newspaper that could be like a lab experiment.”
The Medford experiment lasted nearly six years. Then, in 2022, Saslow put the paper up for sale. It’s unclear whether anyone submitted a bid. “He had made such a mess of things, it was irredeemable,” said Steve Forrester, chief executive of EO Media Group, which owns the East mmmmmmmmmmmmmOregonian in Pendleton and 13 other Oregon newspapers.
On Jan. 11, Saslow informed his staff he was throwing in the towel. The paper closed just two days later.
Saslow’s supporters said Rosebud Media was a good-faith effort that just didn’t work out. If the pandemic had not struck when it did, they said, the outcome may have been much different.
Others felt the abrupt closure cemented his legacy in the Rogue Valley as a right-wing carpetbagger who didn’t much care that his misguided theories killed off the paper.
“I am beyond sad to see this paper shutter,” said Sanne Specht, a former Mail Tribune columnist. “I am angry. It didn’t have to happen. She should have been nurtured and supported. Instead, her bones were picked as her staff was overburdened and betrayed by outside sources.”
“I can’t even tell you the void it left in my life when it went under,” said Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland. “I don’t know that Saslow ever had the community’s best interest at heart. He diminished the news coverage. So many of his decisions seemed so ‘shoot from the hip.’”
Saslow has left the area and is not granting interviews. He also threatened to sue any of his top managers if they didn’t keep quiet about company inside information, sources with knowledge of the situation said. They said Saslow made severance packages contingent on signing non-disclosure agreements.
Saslow did reach out to The Oregonian/OregonLive, apparently in response to a reporter’s efforts to learn more about him. “Maybe you can be of assistance with (job) openings,” he wrote in a message on the LinkedIn professional networking website in reference to the laid off Mail Tribune employees. He did not respond to a request for an interview.
Saslow, 70, was more familiar with Madison Avenue than the Rogue Valley. He sold advertising for big-city radio stations and founded or cofounded several media companies.
One of those companies, SJS Entertainment, was acquired for $62 million by SFX Broadcasting in 1997. In documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, SFX explained the $62 million deal included a second company and multiple sellers. It’s not disclosed how much Saslow got.
Saslow became friends with Lee Abrams, a Chicago-based broadcasting industry veteran. Together, they would form a number of companies.
“He was the salesman, I was the guy creating content,” Abrams said. “He was driven.”
Saslow’s most recent venture with Abrams was called TouchVision, which called itself a digital broadcast and internet video-on-demand television network. “There were no anchors, no cliches, a complete and total reinvention,” of the traditional news station, Abrams said.
“Sales did not go well,” Abrams said. TouchVision “was ahead of its time.”
The company went offline and off the air on Jan. 14, 2016.
Saslow was undeterred. Sixteen months later, he made his next move.
Staffers at the Mail Tribune, many of whom had survived years of painful layoffs and budget cuts, feared the worst when they learned that its owner, GateHouse Media, had sold the paper.
GateHouse, an arm of a New York-based private equity firm, had become the largest owner of newspapers in the country. It was notorious for its strategy of slashing payrolls and other costs.
Instead of another austerity campaign, the Mail Tribune got what seemed like a miraculous reprieve. A GateHouse official introduced Saslow as the paper’s new owner. His company, Rosebud Media, reportedly paid $15 million for the paper.
Saslow vowed to invest in the operation, and he proved good on his word. In subsequent months, he brought in more than 10 videographers and purchased high-end video cameras and other equipment.
Incorporating video into newspaper websites was not a particularly innovative idea. GateHouse had already instituted a new policy requiring reporters to produce one video a week.
But under Saslow, video became a major component of every story. He brought in Bill Carey, a Tampa-based media consultant to help make it happen. Carey was an imposing figure – “loud and large,” as one reporter described him. Carey declined to comment.
Video production is a long and painstaking process. “This was not about chasing stories anymore,” Mann said. “Now, we were chasing these videos. As a result, the story count dropped.”
Saslow explained his rationale in a Feb. 28, 2021, column.
“I did not come here to ‘save a newspaper,’” he wrote. “No one can. But rather to evolve this organization to a 21st century news, information and entertainment source, one that this valley can be proud of and can rely on.”
In the same column, Saslow promised the Mail Tribune had undergone a profound metamorphosis to political neutrality. “The change in this organization’s reporting led by Editor Justin Umberson has been successful,” Saslow wrote. “We present an unbiased cache of fact-based reporting. We will continue on that path.”
Saslow added a threat: “I have told reporters, if they put their bias into a story, I will reconsider their continued employment with this company.”
Questions about Saslow’s politics were fueled by Rosebud Media’s close ties with a local news affiliate owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Sinclair is one of the largest operators of local television stations in the country. It has been widely criticized by journalists and media analysts for what they consider its right-wing slant. It commonly features conservative columnists and in one notorious incident required many of its local news anchors to read a canned statement warning viewers about “false news” from other news outlets.
Sinclair’s local affiliate, KTVL, moved its studio into the Mail Tribune building at 111 N. Fir St. in 2019, occupying about half the building. The newspaper and television station began working together on a handful of projects.
But the business relationship began even earlier. A 2017 Uniform Commercial Code financing statement filed in Delaware indicates that Rosebud had put up much of its assets as collateral for a debt. The secured party listed on the form is Sinclair Television Group.
UCC statements are a way lenders can legally register a debt that is not secured by real estate.
On Jan. 14, 2021, Rosebud sold the Mail Tribune building to WSMH Inc., a Maryland-based company licensed to operate a local television station in Flint, Michigan. WSMH 66 is a Sinclair affiliate, and the Jackson County property files state that all tax statements should be sent to Sinclair’s corporate headquarters in Hunt Valley, Maryland.
The demanding style of Saslow and Carey, took its toll on the editorial staff. The paper went through four editors in the six-year Saslow era.
For Hunter, the last straw came in the fall of 2018. He had sent an email to senior managers questioning the coverage of a local political race. Both Saslow and Carey heatedly rejected Hunter’s criticism.
Hunter decided he’d had enough.
“I was really uncomfortable with the tone of those messages, I thought they were hostile and disrespectful,” he said. “I resigned that day.”
Saslow was also protective of what he considered his. In May 2022, Zach Urness, the outdoors writer for the Salem Statesman Journal, received a “cease and desist” letter from a New York city law firm demanding that he stop using the phrase “Oregon Outdoors” as the title of an email newsletter.
A recreational industry trade group calling itself the Oregon Outdoors Coalition got a similar letter. The Coalition’s parent organization is the Mazamas, the prominent mountaineering nonprofit known for its volunteer rescue efforts.
The Rosebud lawyer said his client had obtained a trademark on the phrase from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The Mail Tribune’s outdoors writer Mark Freeman used the same phrase in his own work. Freeman was so successful, the phrase “Oregon Outdoors” had become “universally associated with the Mail Tribune and its outdoor recreation-related content,” Saslow’s lawyer wrote.
The lawyer threatened to sue if the others continued to use the phrase.
Gina Binole, spokesperson for the Mazamas, confirmed the group received the threatening letter. The controversy fizzled because the coalition was being dissolved. But the Mazamas agreed not to use the phrase Oregon Outdoors should the trade group be resurrected.
Urness declined to comment.
By 2022, there were abundant signs that Saslow’s dreams were withering.
In September, the Mail Tribune stopped publishing a print edition and went online only. The high-priced talent departed.
Saslow quietly tried to sell the paper, approaching several other operators of Oregon newspapers. Adams Publishing, which owns the Klamath Falls Herald and News and several other smaller papers in the state, reportedly did submit a bid, though leaders at Adams declined to comment. Others said they wanted no part of it.
The shutdown came in January.
And then came an entirely unexpected potential happy ending. EO Media Group announced it will start up a new newspaper in Medford. The company has hired Dave Smigelski, editor of the Mail Tribune when it folded, to lead its new newsroom. The Rogue Valley Tribune expects to publish its first edition on Feb. 18, said Heidi Wright, EO chief operating officer.
There is one possible hitch in the plan. Saslow has threatened to sue EO Media Group, Wright said. Saslow claims only he and Rosebud have the rights to use of the name “Tribune.” Wright said EO has no plans to alter the name of its new publication.
At the same time, the Grants Pass Daily Courier said it will move aggressively into Jackson County. It has hired three former Mail Tribune staffers.
Two weeks since the shutdown, it’s not just the Mail Tribune that has disappeared. Several former employees of the paper said the 1934 Pulitzer Prize medal that for years had been on display in the Mail Tribune’s office has also gone missing. The Pulitzer, the highest prize in American newspapering, was the first won by any paper in Oregon.
– Jeff Manning, email@example.com
– Janet Eastman, firstname.lastname@example.org