From AJR, March 2000 issue
In November 1994, AJR reported on Editor Sandra Mims Rowe's ambitious plans for transforming Portland's Oregonian. A second look reveals a reinvigorated newspaper with a penchant for world-class enterprise reporting.
By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (email@example.com) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.
PROFESSOR MERLIN R. MANN was witness to something in the newsroom of the Oregonian he hadn't seen in his entire career in journalism.
Tom Hallman Jr. had proposed a story about a Portland man who kept a promise to himself and to some children in the inner-Northeast Portland neighborhood where he grew up. The result was "The Pathfinder," a story that ran in a single, panoramic 4,400-word take beginning on the front page of the July 11 Oregonian.
Duncan Campbell, the son of alcoholic parents, had traded in a life as a successful businessman and created a $1.5 million endowment to start Friends of the Children. Campbell puts adults on salary to mentor at-risk children from first grade through high school graduation. This year, 32 full-time "friends" will look after 256 children. The nut graph, if a Hallman story can ever be said to have one, comes in paragraph 47. Hallman does not name the program for seven more paragraphs.
The Portland newspaper allowed the writer to tell an exquisite story his way.
From the time he proposed the piece to Managing Editor Jack Hart, Hallman insisted the story be Campbell's. Through four weeks, several meetings and as many as a dozen different versions, Hart challenged Hallman to consider whether or not some of the children ought to tell their stories, too.
Mann, who teaches journalism at Abilene Christian University, had politely pestered Hart to let him sit in on the meetings. The Institute for Journalism Excellence of the American Society of Newspaper Editors selected Mann as one of its 23 fellows, sending him to the newspaper he grew up reading as a boy in little Silverton, 50 miles south of Portland. Mann worked on the copy desk for the summer.
Mann has a father, two brothers and a sister living in the Portland area. More than a dozen of his friends work for the Oregonian. But Jack Hart was the real reason Mann wanted to come home. Hart did not disappoint him, Mann says.
"I was astonished," he says. "For the first time in my life, in my career, here was an editor expressing an opinion without imposing it on the story. Often, an editor will decide what the story should be and tell a reporter to go with it, leaving the reporter resentful or hurt. The old school would have been to get seven quotes from the kids and run with it.
"Hart wanted Hallman to think about what he'd said, but he wasn't going to take over the story. I learned that Hallman trusted Hart and Hart trusted the system. It's something I brought back with me to tell my students."
The Oregonian that Mann saw during his summer fellowship is, by and large, the Oregonian its employees see. A newspaper strong and confident enough to take risks on its way to carrying out a mission to be the best regional newspaper in America. A recent poll by Columbia Journalism Review ranking the Oregonian the 12th best newspaper in the country is just one measure that American journalism has taken notice.
Last year, senior writer Richard Read won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. Hallman was a Pulitzer finalist for one of his features. Oregonian writers picked up dozens of other awards for everything from reporting on human rights to writing about gardening.
Editor Sandra Mims Rowe, 51, a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, is considered among the brightest, most dynamic editors in the country.
The growing stature of the Oregonian mirrors dramatic steps forward at a number of Newhouse papers (see "A New Era at Newhouse," November 1994). It has allowed Rowe to cherry pick from the best editorial talent in the country; Managing Editor Amanda Bennett from the Wall Street Journal and Pulitzer Prize winner Kim Christensen from the Orange County Register are among the recent staff additions.
Since taking over the newsroom in June 1993, Rowe has created more than 60 full-time positions, bringing the editorial staff to 345, with the encouragement of the Newhouse family, owner of the Oregonian since 1950. While Newhouse does not disclose profit-and-loss statements for its newspapers, employees from Publisher Fred A. Stickel on down are aware that the Oregonian is among the more lavishly endowed newspapers in the country and one of the most profitable in the Newhouse chain.
While daily circulation is dropping at many newspapers, it has risen by more than 3 percent at the Oregonian over the past five years, to 351,085. The news is not so good on Sunday, where the numbers have declined by 1.7 percent during the same period to 436,084.
Circulation and advertising gains have come as Portland has transformed itself from a lumber town to a high-tech metropolis. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, metro Portland is the 22nd fastest growing of the nation's 349 metropolitan areas.
Few big newspapers can boast such a confluence of advantages, and the people who work for the Oregonian are aware of that fact. There is an uncommon energy and optimism in the newsroom. There is also a widely shared conviction that the best years of the Oregonian lie ahead. This faith has more to do with the collaboration of Jack Hart and Tom Hallman on "The Pathfinder" than with anything in a Newhouse ledger.
Longtime Portland journalism watchers have taken note of the improvements. And while the paper still has its local critics, even some of them say the paper has made progress.
"Nobody's putting any limits on what we can do as a newspaper," says Bennett, the managing editor for enterprise projects. "Everyone wants to do really great things. There is no ceiling, really."
N O CEILING EXISTED BEFORE Sandy Rowe's arrival either, according to Hart. People simply didn't look up often enough to notice. The Oregonian of the 1980s was not unlike many American newspapers that considered themselves pretty darned good, he says. Right there on the nameplate, the Oregonian pronounced itself the "Great Newspaper of the West," and many on the staff believed it.
But it was not exactly a high-energy newsroom. An extraordinary amount of daily news was gathered by telephone, Hart says. Editors and reporters were lazy, in his view. "Snake rules" prevailed. Snake rules, Hart says, are those phantom rules that become excuses to do things the easy way. All the better to insulate the cynical, bitter and defeatist among the staff. "In those days, nobody was telling you you
couldn't be good," Hart says. "By the same token, no one was holding a gun to your head saying you have to be good."
In 1982, Newhouse decided to shutter its afternoon Oregon Journal. In the longstanding Newhouse tradition, no one was dismissed, and the Oregonian newsroom absorbed the Journal staff. That year, Stickel named William Hilliard editor of the Oregonian.
Hilliard says his chief goal over the next 12 years was trying to make the Oregonian more relevant to readers. He brought in columnists to brighten "the gray old lady along the Willamette River." Hilliard, who retired in 1994, says he believed he was turning over to his successor a pretty good newspaper.
Hilliard's was not the consensus viewpoint in the newsroom. Shortly after U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) was re-elected in 1992, the Washington Post, following up on rumors that had been circulating for months, broke the story of allegations of sexual harassment by Packwood. For some in the Oregonian newsroom who were aware that the paper had failed to pursue the rumors aggressively, the Packwood story symbolized everything that was wrong with the Portland daily.
Packwood stung, but Stickel was more concerned with the chaos that might ensue if he promoted an editor internally. No one among the news staff had the vision to carry the newspaper forward, he concluded.
Stickel, 78, crisp in French cuffs and links, his golfing buddies staring at him from his computer screen saver, has what few other publishers have: the love of the news staff. He achieved his near mythical status over 32 years at the Oregonian for his honesty and for an impeccable respect for the independence of his editors.
Stickel, who delights in reminding people he has never been a journalist, concluded he would become a "shadow editor" if he hired inside.
"I wanted it to change, because I didn't think we were getting anyplace," Stickel says. "The newsroom needed an injection of energy and vision. When I first met Sandy, I remember her saying, The Oregonian is a good newspaper that can be a great newspaper,' and I bought into that. She has changed the whole culture of the newsroom." (See "A Brand New Ballgame," November 1994.)
Hallman, master of the telling detail, recalls the excitement the newsroom felt when Rowe introduced herself in June 1993. Stickel appeared in the center of the room and brought on Rowe. "First she calls him Fred. No one calls him Fred. And then she touches him lightly on the shoulder. It was so natural," Hallman says. "I'll never forget thinking, Something is happening here.' "
Stickel let Rowe know what he expected. "You give me a great newspaper, and I'll sell it," Rowe says Stickel told her. Stickel describes his approach to editors: "Leave them alone and let them do what the hell they do best. All I ask of Sandy is, don't surprise me."
Rowe says she understood what a delicious moment she was seizing in Portland: ample resources, a talented staff ravenous for change and a thriving community. "All I had to do was figure out a way not to screw it up."
I N A CASE history of the Oregonian prepared by Hart for the Poynter Institute, Rowe recalled that interviews with staff revealed what she was up against. Departments had stopped communicating, and what little communication there was amounted to bickering. Successes were engineered through political maneuvering. People throughout the organization were in the wrong jobs. The staff had no commitment to high standards of journalism. "I was in an organization that didn't work," Rowe told Hart. "I couldn't see a path to moving forward, and that scared me."
In Rowe's view, newspapers stand as one of the last creative enterprises, relying heavily on individual talent working in true collaboration. Shortly before stepping down as editor of Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, Rowe helped shape a plan to lubricate the collaboration. In an approach that has been adopted at a number of newspapers, editors would take charge of teams of reporters built around common areas such as politics, law enforcement and health. (See "Reinventing the Newsroom," April 1995.)
Journalists across the country watched as she transplanted the concept to the Pacific Northwest. Rowe told the core of her Oregonian staff, 84 reporters, that they would have to apply for 84 new jobs created by the editor and the new team leaders. The newspaper dismissed all but two of the about 25 part-time correspondents who staffed the four suburban bureaus and replaced them with 17 full-time reporters.
The Metro desk disappeared, replaced by teams of roughly eight reporters supervised by one or two leaders. Some of the teams had a familiar focus--Education was one of the teams, Health, Medicine and Science another--while others were less traditional, like Public Life and Living in the '90s. The teams system, Rowe believed, would break up old political alliances in the newsroom and promote collaboration based on expertise. Within the teams structure, ambitious reporters would have an easier path for getting their work onto the front page. The less ambitious might benefit from the help and encouragement of their team.
Therese Bottomly had been Metro assignments editor before Rowe arrived. In the new system, Bottomly lost out on the Metro editor job she coveted and, instead, became the Health, Medicine and Science team leader. "I didn't understand, at first, what she wanted, but she had spent time getting to know who the key players were and what their strengths were," Bottomly says. "Instead of the old ways, she was flattening the hierarchy, making decision-making more democratic."
Remarkably, these staggering changes were made with almost no upheaval, at least at first. A single reporter left because she did not like her assignment. Which isn't to say the teams system was an unqualified success. The structure in the Oregonian newsroom today bears little resemblance to the one with which Rowe began. In dozens of interviews from top to bottom in the organization, it's clear that the paper has taken what it needed from the teams system and discarded or ignored the rest.
For Hallman, who is no longer really a member of a team, the system fostered a fierce fraternity of reporters who helped one another succeed. For Bottomly, now the paper's managing editor for news, the system produced fiefdoms, whose barons only reluctantly surrendered personnel for breaking news outside their turf.
Less than two years after inaugurating her changes, the barons appeared prepared to topple the monarchy. On January 28, 1995, at a retreat called by Rowe, managers set upon Rowe and Executive Editor Peter Bhatia for hours, complaining that the teams system seemed to be more important to them than covering news.
The teams format produced the desired result in unleashing enterprise work, Bottomly says. Reporters felt liberated. But team leaders felt besieged, she says. Rather than communicate with other team leaders, they competed.
Team leaders answered to Bhatia directly for his first four years at the Oregonian, where he landed on November 8, 1993, after a brief stint as executive editor of the Fresno Bee. He had little time in his 12- to 14-hour days to plan ahead for enterprise projects, one of Rowe's goals with the teams. Eventually, Rowe conceded that steps needed to be taken to better connect team leaders to the paper's daily needs.
And so in 1998, Rowe revamped the newsroom structure. There would be three managing editors: Bottomly for daily news, Hart for weekends and Bennett for projects.
The teams themselves changed. The paper created separate Business and Living teams when the other teams were unable to contribute enough to the Business section and to the redesigned Living section, Bhatia says. Living in the '90s, a team that drew together specialties as disparate as religion, workplace and gardening, lost focus and momentum and was allowed to die, its reporters disseminated among the other teams. The Growth Team got started but fizzled when editors decided growth was better covered by suburban bureaus.
And the lineup isn't etched in granite. A team focusing on Census, Youth and Race and Ethnicity was launched this winter.
"There was no format for us," Bhatia says. "We're making this up as we're going. If something doesn't work or we need something new, we have to be brave enough to remake ourselves. With all of the change, the bottom line is that the journalism is dramatically better."
Rowe has been honest enough with herself to understand the criticism but has fought mightily to prove to her staff that her goal was to create an environment where talented people were free to do their best work. "This is a newsroom, for God's sake," she says. "It is hard enough for newsrooms to embrace any change. We had a newsroom that says, We're ready for change, but, hey, slow down.' "
And flexibility is key. "Leadership isn't primarily about what the leader wants, it's doing what's best for all of us within the institution," Rowe says. "One of those things is to find the best and highest use of all of us."
In this, Rowe is succeeding splendidly, according to Brent Walth, an environmental reporter who co-authored a December series on pesticides that drew national attention. Walth left Eugene, Oregon's Register-Guard to join the Oregonian five years ago.
"I think that whatever the system, Sandy Rowe attacked the bloated self-satisfaction of this newspaper," Walth says. "There was a sense, whether it was true or not, that the Oregonian protected friends, protected institutions, looked the other way. Sandy got rid of that complacency. People here wanted to be challenged. They wanted this paper to be smart. I can tell you this paper is willing to take risks."
W ITHOUT UNDERSTANDING Perry Morgan, one would be hard- pressed to understand Sandy Rowe and what she is trying to do at the Oregonian, says Bob Giles, senior vice president of the Freedom Forum. Morgan, a former writer, editor and publisher at the Virginian-Pilot, shepherded Rowe during her 22-year career there. Morgan died at 72 on November 7.
"Perry was a Southern gentleman through and through," Giles says. "He was a storyteller in the Southern tradition, a graceful writer who could tell a great story. He was a very demanding editor who could convey the sense of the true values one needs to adhere to in order to run a great newspaper."
Morgan was also Rowe's intellectual companion, a friend and a father figure, according to Cole Campbell, now editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Rowe's managing editor for three years in Norfolk. "I learned a lot about how to use power from Sandy," Campbell says. "She has access to and command of standard male and female leadership models, the assertive and the nurturing. In some ways, it's the carrot and the stick. She knows when to use the carrot and when to use the stick."
Months after his death, the mention of Morgan's name brings tears to Rowe's eyes. She has always been candid about her managerial missteps, but about issues of integrity and character for a newspaper she professes a perfect clarity: "The vision to see what a newspaper can be, to set the very highest standards for yourself and others, to show respect for readers. How I define those is very heavily influenced by Perry Morgan. He taught in parables, and it turned out I learned in parables. He was one of the two or three best I've ever known."
Far more than the teams system she used as the instrument, colleagues say it has been Rowe's uncanny ability to wed talent to task that has propelled the Oregonian. "What I didn't see at first was how carefully she had chosen the team leaders, seeding the clouds with experienced editors who could help her succeed," Bottomly says. "She met with every single person on this staff and asked what it would look like to create an environment where all of us could succeed. She has a great gut about people."
Staffers are proud that Read and Hallman, two of the most successful reporters, were on staff long before Rowe arrived. Rowe simply knew how to deploy them. Hart, Bottomly, Senior Editor John Harvey and Special Assignments Editor Michele McLellan are just a few of the newsroom leaders who are Oregonian veterans.
"What Sandy did is what Bill Parcells does when he takes over a team," Hallman says. "He just wins."
Rowe has made specific hires to punctuate what the newspaper is doing. To further the goals of more aggressive reporting and more powerful writing, Rowe signed up Jacqui Banaszynski, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has since moved on to the Seattle Times. Amanda Bennett, the Atlanta bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, had little interest in Portland or the Oregonian at the outset, she says. Rowe changed her mind.
"I saw a sense of urgency that is difficult to build in a one-newspaper town," Bennett says. "I was very impressed with the paper's drive to get better, pushing reporting and writing standards and the standards of proof. You could see the interest in taking a serious, national perspective on local issues."
Perhaps more than any individual, Bhatia is responsible for the urgency, for ensuring that the changes instituted produce better newspaper stories. Aware of the damage the Packwood story caused to the paper's credibility, Bhatia insisted that the Oregonian be more aggressive, "more in-your-face." In January 1994, when it was discovered that the assault on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was planned by a tumbledown retinue of rival skater Tonya Harding in Portland, Bhatia loosed the dogs. Far more than the tabloid importance of the story was the message to the staff that it could and should dominate national stories, Bhatia says.
Eight days before riots rocked the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last November, Oregonian reporter Bryan Denson predicted the disruptions and identified Portland radicals who would end up at the center of it. The paper then dispatched a team to Seattle.
As part of its commitment to ASNE's fairness and accuracy initiative, Crime, Justice and Public Safety Team leader Susan Gage has changed the approach to crime coverage. Homicides are not automatically front-page news. Coverage is evaluated based on its impact on the neighborhood and the community, Gage says. The event must have context, she says. Without it, a homicide might become a brief inside the Metro section.
Bhatia has overseen the continuing expansion of the newspaper's zoned editions. There are now 60 full-time staffers serving six primary metro zones around Portland. And with a promise from Stickel that there will be a new plant with new presses within the next three years, Bhatia believes as many as 14 zoned editions are likely.
Regardless of bottom line considerations, Bhatia says the Oregonian will continue to distribute two state editions, making the paper one of the last truly statewide newspapers in the country. A truck still drops off "a few dozen" Oregonians every morning in Boise, Idaho, 400 miles southeast of Portland, he says.
Jim Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute and a former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a skeptic about the teams system, but is convinced that if anyone can make such a system work, it is Sandy Rowe. After more than six years, the most recent slew of national awards and the paper's improving reputation symbolize the groundwork laid by Rowe, Bhatia and the others, he says.
"I would venture to say that if you pressed everyone who was surveyed [for the newspaper poll], they would tell you the Oregonian is a place that cares about news," Naughton says, "that isn't hidebound, that is willing to take risks. When you see work being done with consistency, when you unleash a staff to do work the community will benefit from, it will be recognized."
Edward Seaton, who succeeded Rowe as president of ASNE and who has served with her on the Pulitzer Board, says he believes the Oregonian has attained the stature of a newspaper that can expect to regularly have one or two Pulitzer finalists. Early in Rowe's tenure, he says, the newspaper established its reputation on feature stories like Read's and Hallman's. Seaton, editor in chief of Kansas' Manhattan Mercury, says he is betting that the investigative projects the paper is now stressing will be of a similarly high quality.
T HE PERVASIVE CHANGES at the Oregonian have had a tangible impact in its home state, according to John Knowlton, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Most important to readers, Knowlton says, is the apparent effort on the part of the paper to break down a kind of "fortress mentality" that had persisted for decades.
With the attractive redesign of the paper Rowe ordered a few years ago, the advent of the public editor or ombudsman and the printing of reporters' telephone numbers and e-mail addresses at the bottom of nearly every bylined story, readers are being invited to interact with the Oregonian, Knowlton says.
"The reporting is much better, there is an emphasis on strong writing, and they have turned their attention to special projects," the professor continues. "Circulation is going up, so clearly the population is saying yes with their pocketbooks to what they are doing. I hope there is a lesson to be learned by other publishers around the country that a sound investment can be made in journalism. They seem to be doing a lot right."
Perhaps because Portland has had a pretty good newspaper for a pretty long time, readers sometimes tend to be unduly harsh or take the paper for granted, says E. Kimbark MacColl, a retired educator and Portland historian. When MacColl arrived 46 years ago to teach at Reed College, the Oregonian reflected its city--both were dull, he says. Now a more complex and interesting city, Portland is much better served by its newspaper.
"I don't think people here even realize what a hell of a good newspaper we have," MacColl says. "As I travel--not as much as I used to--I'm struck by how much better a job the Oregonian does than other papers of comparable size."
Even local skeptics admit the newspaper is better than it once was. Mark Zusman, a professional critic of the Oregonian by dint of his position as editor of the alternative weekly, Willamette Week, has perfected a way of diminishing by compliment. Yes, he says, the ambitious Rowe has drawn attention to the Oregonian from the "Eastern media elite." Yes, the paper is more attractive graphically than before.
But when it comes to breaking news, Zusman adds, "It's never been easier to beat the Oregonian." And while he appreciates the nobility of producing projects or series to broaden understanding of issues relevant to Portland, Willamette Week has criticized some of the efforts as obtuse or wrongheaded.
In his view, the Seattle Times is in better touch with its community than his hometown paper. And, Zusman adds, "In terms of challenging the power structure in a fearless and independent way, I can't say the Oregonian acquits itself well."
Kenneth Lewis, a longtime city activist, former Port of Portland president and retired shipping company president, agrees with Zusman. Lewis, who participated in some of the WTO meetings, says the Oregonian failed to give context to the protests, instead falling into the same trap as many of the nation's news organizations by playing up the violence.
"The paper is deficient in allowing things to occur without pointing up the consequences of what is occurring," Lewis says. "The Oregonian needs to better understand its responsibility to arouse public opinion."
Allan Classen, whose monthly Northwest Examiner thrives on intensely local coverage of a section of Portland, says he sees daily what the Oregonian chooses not to cover. And Classen questions whether the paper can explain the big picture without mastering the details that make up the whole.
Nevertheless, most of these naysayers agree the Oregonian is better than it was and seems committed to continued improvement.
Rowe dismisses much of Zusman's criticism. As for his notion that she could be more visible in the community, she believes her more important role is inside the Oregonian. For all of its growth and change, Portland remains provincial, parochial, populist and proud, she says. After nearly seven years in Portland, Rowe says she occupies a place somewhere between newcomer and outsider.
Rowe thinks of herself as a "nester," someone who had chances to move to bigger and more prestigious newspapers while at the Virginian-Pilot and did not take them, someone who did not seek out her position at the Oregonian. Rowe came to Portland to do what Fred Stickel asked of her, and she isn't finished.
"I truly love it. This paper is family to me. I have seen what people are willing to do to produce great journalism," she says. "The vision I have conveyed and shared is that this enterprise isn't about what I can do, but what a couple hundred of us can do together. That is the reason we are so optimistic here.