Mainstream Media Peels Off The Portland Gloss

by | Mar 27, 2009

Powell’s Books recently dropped plans for a $5 million expansion

The New York Times decided that Portland would make a good case study for cities feeling the pain of recession.

Portland, a metropolitan area of 2.2 million people, affords an ideal window onto the spiral of fear and diminished expectations assailing the economy. The area has long attracted investment and talented minds with its curbs on urban sprawl, thriving culinary scene and life in proximity to the Pacific Coast and the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades. In good times, Portland tends to grow vigorously, elevated by companies like the computer chip maker Intel — which employs 15,000 people in the area — and the athletic clothing giant Nike.

But in recent months, Portland has devolved into a symbol of much that is wrong. Housing prices have fallen more than 14 percent since May 2007. Foreclosures more than tripled last year, according to RealtyTrac. The unemployment rate for the metro area surged from 4.8 percent at the end of 2007 to 9.8 percent in January 2009, according to the Labor Department.

With a major deepwater port on the Columbia River, Portland has benefited from the growth of global trade, gaining jobs for stevedores, truckers and warehouse workers. But as the global recession tightens, Portland’s docks are a snapshot of diminishing fortunes.

On a recent day, parking lots at the port were full of 30,000 automobiles that had been shipped in from Japan and South Korea, yet sat unclaimed by dealerships as sales plummeted.

I’m not sure what to make of this story. Facts are facts and the fact is times are tough. Yet, something resembling normal life is clearly going on at the same time. New restaurants are opening in revitalized Old Town. Bands are playing. Coffee shops are full. Conferences are going off as planned.

As someone who writes stories, I know first hand how you shape a story by leaving things out. The story above and most stories on the economy today leave the good news out (on purpose) because it doesn’t fit with the story their editors are asking for. Why editors need to ask for that same negative reinforcement story over and over is beyond me, but since the habit is well established it pays to look past the paper directly to people in the community for news.