Beyond the Beltway
By Suzan Revah
Suzan Revah is a former AJR associate editor.
R ich Oppel shook up Knight-Ridder 's 46-member Washington bureau. He pushed his reporters to steer clear of institutional news and spot developments, to concentrate instead on enterprise reporting and analysis and issues that really matter to readers (see "Changing of the Guard," June 1994).
So why after less than two years as bureau chief would he bail out on his own revolution to become editor of the Austin American-Statesman ?
After all, Oppel spent 19 years at Knight-Ridder, 15 at the Charlotte Observer , where he had been editor before heading for D.C. His decision to move to a Cox -owned paper not generally listed among journalism's elite prompted much speculation about the underlying reasons.
But Oppel, 52, says there's no mystery. "Knight-Ridder has been very good to me, and I've liked working in Washington, but I love editing a newspaper," he says. "I think there's more control and creativity in that experience.... I always wanted to work in D.C., but I never wanted to make a career of it." He adds that he didn't see the editorship of a major Knight-Ridder newspaper in the offing, so when Cox offered him exactly the type of opportunity he had been seeking, he simply couldn't refuse.
In fact, Oppel is so excited to take the helm in Austin that he canceled a planned vacation to Holden Beach, North Carolina, so he could get there sooner. "The prospect of getting to work at a newspaper again energizes and relaxes me in a way that I feel I don't even need a vacation."
The way Oppel tells it, it's only natural that he would choose Texas' capital over the nation's. His enthusiasm for his new readership makes him sound like an Austin native, even though he was born in New Jersey and calls himself a Floridian. "It's a highly literate, educated, animated readership, and the scope and the resources are there to do good journalism," he says. "I understand there are more books per capita sold in Austin than anywhere else."
He contrasts Austin with his current surroundings. "This was a good place to get a change of pace and a different perspective. Washington broadens and deepens one's knowledge of journalism, but it's a little bit vacant and narrow," he says. "There's very high quality people here, but also a lot of lazy blowhards who think they are high quality."
In Austin, Oppel will be joining his son, Richard Jr. , 26, who covers business and economics in the Austin bureau of the Dallas Morning News . Oppel's daughter, Shelby , 22, is also in the business, currently interning at the St. Petersburg Times .
Oppel says he doesn't yet have plans for transforming the 182,000-circulation American-Statesman. He says he won't make any until he understands the paper better. "My belief," he says, "is that you promise little and try to deliver a lot."