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American Journalism Review
A Brand New Ballgame  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 1994

A Brand New Ballgame   

New leadership is transforming the Oregonian, jettisoning the newsroom structure of the past and creating new reporting teams and new beats.

Back in August, when Sandra Mims Rowe turned her newsroom inside-out, she had a mantra. "Works-in-my-head," she'd say, trying to assure herself that the newsgathering system so good in concept would make a better Oregonian.

More than a year before, two factors had made it impossible for her to turn down the editorship of Oregon's largest newspaper: A strong, growing market, and a publisher and staff who, while they thought they'd done good things in the past, were raring to do more.

"The people here were eager for change," Rowe, 46, recalls. "And I guess I was eager to bring it about....

"Newsrooms change glacially in a world that changes dramatically. What we have thought of as change has been incremental, it is not noticeable to our readers and it does not have lasting effect."

What she wanted to try in Portland was a "fundamental rethinking of what our obligation is to our reader, and how we can best fulfill it."

What she got are among the most sweeping changes an American daily has ever made over such a short time. There have been staff casualties. But as Rowe sets about showing Portland that it has a new newspaper, much of her newsroom is behind her.

Gone are the Oregonian's metro and business desks and most of the features department. In their places are 10 reporting teams organized by topic--Health, Medicine and Science; Living in the '90s; Education; Family and Children; Public Life, to name a few.

During the summer, more than 80 new reporting beats were posted as open assignments. Nearly every writer, including senior staff with acknowledged expertise in their subjects, had to apply or reapply.

Four suburban bureaus staffed with full time employees replaced the old system of using mostly contract correspondents. The paper went on a hiring spree. Rowe is now authorized to hire a full time staff of 320, up from 290 when she arrived.

And what the Oregonian covers has been transformed. The emphasis is on enterprise--stories that tell readers something they haven't already heard or something important to their lives--preferably both. Of almost 70 downtown reporting jobs, Rowe says, more than two-thirds are completely new. Among them:

*Kids' and family rights--covering the rights and responsibilities, legal and moral, of family members.

*Cultural divide and social justice--defined as the clash of society's principles or fundamental values, as well as conflicts of class, race, sex, age, ability and sexual orientation.

*Taxes--tackling state and local tax policy as a comprehensive subject rather than one fragmented by government jurisdictions.

*Shopping and apparel--what shapes Northwesterners' decisions to buy. The beat, according to an internal Oregonian guide to the teams, "covers the fashion of shopping as well as fashion itself."

Both critics and supporters say lapses have come where enterprise butts heads with breaking news. One tends to suffer at the expense of the other. But Bob Caldwell, the paper's ombudsman, says the Oregonian's readers "are receiving [the changes] well.... What they're picking up on is a different philosophy toward daily coverage, more a tendency to look forward than to look back."

Rowe was asking, "What's the best structure for this paper for the future? Flexible and agile enough that you don't need to tear down the whole thing when you need to react to changes in your community and in journalism?" The new system's keystone is the team, drawn from Rowe's study of organization theory and workplace psychology. She had implemented teams as editor of the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star in Norfolk.

At the Oregonian, a team is roughly a dozen people with a shared mission. The Business team's is to "be a must-read section for the Oregon business community ...first to report important business developments and ... explain them in the context of local industry, the local economy and readers' lives." The "New Northwest" team is charged with reflecting "the special character and personality of our immediate world," paying "special attention to the forces of change that are altering the physical, emotional and social landscape of the Northwest."

Teams write for all sections of the paper. A story that crosses more than one team's responsibilties may require naming an ad hoc team. The traditional barriers--between state and metro desk, business and features--are down. The team is just a device. "Teams will not create great journalism," Rowe warns. "Great journalists create great journalism."

But teams do discourage fiefdoms. They develop shared expertise. They require reporters to make the key decisions. And they allow what, to Rowe, is the only way to continuously improve: "to make sure the most possible people feel responsible for the whole paper."

Managing Editor Peter Bhatia, to whom the team leaders report, explains, "We're trying to create a more collaborative environment," one in which "reporters have more ownership, where middle managers feel more like creative decision makers and where senior editors are mentors and not traditional newsroom autocrats."

Rowe also flattened out the Oregonian's top management. Instead of assistant managing editors, she named senior editors with responsibilities paperwide. Jacqui Banaszynski, for example, leads the New Northwest team, but is also senior editor for enterprise. She can be called in at any time to work with any team. Sports Editor Dennis Peck is senior editor for breaking news, because breaking news is what sports does all the time.

Pieces of what the Oregonian is attempting have been used elsewhere--the "newsroom without walls" at the Orange County Register, for instance; a complete restructuring of beats along topical lines at Minneapolis' Star Tribune. But Rowe's system doesn't just cater to journalism fashion. It's a whole new runway.

Some traditions remain.

Reporters still mind Portland City Hall and, in Salem, the state bureaucracy. There are day and night police beats. And longtime news editor John M. Harvey, now a senior editor, can dryly describe his new National, International, Local Connections team as "the reinvention of the news desk."

But, by Rowe's count, there are 25 new reporting beats in the suburban bureaus. Only 15 or so people in the downtown newsroom do something similar to their pre-August duties.

"We've changed everybody's job...," Rowe says. "I can't believe that with the level of change they're not coming at me with knives."

At the top, Publisher Fred A. Stickel Doesn't hesitate when asked if the new system gave him pause. "Yes. I'd be less than truthful if I said it didn't."

But he hired Rowe with a mandate for change. When Bill Hilliard, Rowe's predecessor, told Stickel he planned to retire, Stickel abandoned a practice of hiring from within and searched for talent outside. "I was not unhappy with the product," he stresses. "But I felt because of the market--it's a changing market, a growing market--there had to be a general change."

He contacted a New York City headhunter, Farrell and Phin, which gave him 30 to 40 names. Steve Newhouse, grandson of S.I. Newhouse, who bought the Oregonian in 1950, did the initial screening at Stickel's request "because he's the journalist in the family," Stickel says. Newhouse narrowed the list to 10. The final choice was between Rowe and Jim Willse, former editor of the New York Daily News.

Stickel recalls Steve Newhouse's father, Donald, asking which he was going to pick. "Rowe," he answered. "But we ought to hire them both." (Willse has since joined the Newhouse Newspaper Group as director of new media. He is rumored to be in line to succeed Mort Pye as editor of the Newark Star-Ledger. Steve Newhouse points out that Pye "has outlasted so many editors-in-waiting that the question is almost academic.")

Stickel explained his decision: "What Sandy had done in Norfolk needed to be done in Portland." He praises Rowe for involving the staff in planning, "which gives them some ownership in the change.... The initial concerns that I had are gone."

The newsroom's reaction to the upheaval isn't uniformly enthusiastic. But it is largely so.

Rowe "really shook the place up," says reporter Tom Hallman Jr. "But it wanted to be." Reporter Dee Lane calls the changes "both awful and wonderful.... It's a bit like the French Revolution. I agree with the goals, but the process has been bloody."

David Austin, a leader of the Crime, Justice and Public Safety team, describes three camps in the newsroom. First are those who say, "Sorry, I'm a traditional journalist. I don't buy this. I'm only doing it because the new boss says to." In the second are those who will give the team system the benefit of the doubt. In the third--where Austin includes himself--are the believers.

Austin's coleader, Doug Bates, says that had such changes been attempted at any of the four dailies where he worked before, "reporters would have been out picketing and forming unions." And there has been talk of a union at the Oregonian, particularly given a clampdown on overtime that in part financed the staff expansion. But it has only been talk.

According to Mark Wigginton, senior editor for presentation, some staffers "just knew what a magical moment this was in their careers." All jobs were open; to chase a dream "you didn't have to wait for someone to die or retire."

Suburban Editor Quinton Smith says he spent the spring and summer breaking in new staff, interviewing as many as six job candidates per day, changing bureau chiefs, finding and outfitting new suburban offices, defining new beats and "trying to edit stories.... It's really been more chaotic than you'd ever want it to be."

But Smith supports the new approach. "Any time you turn over much of the control of the product to the employees, you're going to be better off."

Bates is also among the believers. "There's a long way to go," he says. "But Sandy, with Peter's help, is forcing editors to think instead of always react.... The old Oregonian notion that you come in, see what's happening, put out the paper and go home has changed."

The Health, Medicine and Science team, led by Therese Bottomly, was one of the first to organize and begin work. Team members praise the results. Steve Woodward, health business writer, says, "Before, when you had a top-down structure, editors generated a lot of story ideas on their own. Reporters were like another class of human being." Patrick O'Neill, health policy and breaking news writer, adds, "It's a positive value in this system for everybody to pay attention to each other's business. And under the old system, that would be considered ill-mannered."

No revolution accommodates everyone, and the Oregonian's has been painful for some. Reporter Don Hamilton was called back from Washington, D.C., where he had been covering Congress for less than two years. He joined a suburban bureau. Sixteen-year veteran Kathie Durbin left the paper when Rowe and Bhatia told her she faced a change of beat.

"I was the paper's lead environmental reporter for five-and-a-half years," Durbin says. I wanted to continue doing that work, and the opportunity was no longer available at the Oregonian." Durbin is freelancing and attempting to sell a book.

Smith calls the small conference room off the fourth-floor lobby his "crying room." There, he personally broke the news to some of the Oregonian's contract correspondents that they were out of work. (Correspondents got 60 days notice and six months' severance pay.)

General assignment is gone, a fact that makes some reporters nervous. Several former GAs are in Austin's first camp, skeptical of the new Oregonian. "Sandy's petri dish," they call it.

One former GA, noting that he'd done nearly every reporting job on the paper, argues that Oregonian editors "got that [experience] every time they sent me somewhere.... I prided myself in that. I thought it was my special calling. I was insulted that they didn't value that."

He complains that while the staff helped plan the teams, it had no say in whether to adopt the structure to begin with. "It would be as if I told you, `We're going to put a lake here, and you get to pick the plants.' Don't we get to say that we don't want the lake?"

He also believes the paper has been overpackaged into what he calls "the daily magazine." "We write very little hard news anymore," he says. "It all starts, `Once upon a time."'

For Caldwell, the paper's ombudsman and former metro editor, the biggest issue in the transition has been news judgment. When a choice must be made, what wins? Breaking news or enterprise? Harvey, the ex-news editor, makes the same point. "We're still too slow in reacting to breaking stories. Stories will be inside on the first day and outside the second."

But the team structure, because it encourages initiative, can produce solutions. Early on, the Crime, Justice and Public Safety team assumed much of the work general assignment reporters used to perform. "What we learned over the first four months is that there's a lot of breaking news to be covered by the Oregonian, and for it to fall on eight reporters isn't realistic," says Bates. Enterprise was suffering.

The team asked Bhatia for a meeting, where members expressed their frustrations. "We started talking about what we could do to deal with it," recalls reporter Erin Hoover. "Before teams, you'd go out with a few reporters, have some beers, vent and nothing would ever be done."

Ultimately, they formed a SWAT team, a set of go-to reporters to be drawn from all reporting teams. They took the concept to Rowe, who embraced it. "That's the kind of reaction you need and want, rather than defensiveness," Bates says.

Rowe acknowledges that "we will make a lot of mistakes here. We will have to redo things on our way to becoming a great regional newspaper."

But if she is cautious at one moment, in the next she can't contain her excitement. "How good we get is limited only by our collective vision and how well we execute it," she says. "That's wonderfully freeing, and it's challenging, and it's a little scary. But I like that. It gives us an edge....

"If this works," she muses, "and if a paper this size cannot only operate effectively, but dramatically improve the level of journalism, if it works and they aren't stretched too thin--think of the power in that!"

Then she repeats her four-word mantra: "Works-in-my-head."



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