History of Oregon Newspapers/Introduction

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THE story of Oregon journalism properly told would be an index of the story of Oregon. To the limit of their resources in money and talent the Oregon papers, from the beginning, have reflected the community. They have themselves participated in the weakness as well as the strength of the community as it found itself through the various stages of Oregon history.

Pioneer Oregon was a political Oregon; men were politically minded. The United States itself was young when Oregon was settled, and many of the old-timers could speak from personal observation of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. James Monroe and John Quincy Adams were virtually contemporaries. The nation was not far from its beginnings, and the beginnings were the work of men highly political in their thinking. The newspapers reflected this, in Boston and New York and Philadelphia. They reflected 1t along the frontier, where the backwoodsmen had made rather a better job of the War of 1812 than was done elsewhere on land. The newspapers of Oregon could not be different. The frontiersmen had moved west with their political thinking; and Oregon itself was a big political problem. Was it to be British or American or British-American?

Oregon's oldest pioneers had their big economic problem; they had to make a living out of a new country, hospitable only along the rivers. But their conversation—the talk the men liked—was pretty sure to be political; their favorite forerunner of the modern movie was a political meeting; their heroes were politicians—statesmen, in some instances, perhaps—and the soldiers who settled the politicans' quarrels with Indians and foreigners.

It must have been disappointing to the readers of Oregon's first newspaper when the governor, who controlled the paper's policies through ownership and influence, barred, or tried to bar, for political reasons, political expression from the little newspaper's editorial columns. This, with the times and people what they were, could not last, and, as most people know and this story indicates, it did not last. Newspapers were either political or religious or literary—and so listed officially in the census reports of those days. The religious and literary publications were in the great minority.

This political emphasis was to diminish in later years, but not for a long time. Those were "times that tried men's souls," their political souls in particular; no sooner were the British pushed back beyond the 49th parallel—which, in the opinion of the typical hardy self-determining frontiersman, lacked five degrees and forty minutes of being far enough to avert conflict—than the political stagehands began setting the stage for the Civil war, over slavery and states' rights. This struggle through the fifties and early sixties, and for many years after, for that matter, was the sort of thing neither the citizens nor the newspapers could avoid discussing. They couldn't be neutral. Certainly it wasn't neutrality, in the eyes of the northerners, to favor as did some, a so-called Pacific Republic, which, out here on the west coast, would be immune from the strife of the North and the South. That was treason, or near-treason. So every body was on one side or the other.

The cleavage between Democrats and Whigs and, later, Republicans, was close. The political war was no less bitter than the strife on the battlefields of the South. The effect on the papers was what you would expect. They played up politics. There were other reasons for this than mere preference on the part of the editors. It was what the reader wanted—a point considered then too. It was easier to get. Uppermost in the people's minds, that's what they talk ed about. The eastern papers were doing the same thing. When they reached the coast, weeks after their publication in East or South or Middle West, they supplied European wars and politics; and Eastern politics, without the war as yet, loomed large and prominent in their columns. Headlines, on the whole, were still small, but in position and in column-inches these subjects, and crime, pretty well monopolized the emphasis.

What could the pioneer western editor do? Mostly, he followed along the same line. We have said that this was the line of least resistance. As a matter of fact, the hardest place for the pioneer news paper man to get news was right across the so-called street, in his home town. Eastern newspapers had only recently—thanks more or less to the James Gordon Bennett influence and more, perhaps, to the natural growth of local interest and the development of reporting ability—pulled out of the rut of filling their papers with the news from Europe to the virtual exclusion of their own local happenings. The identity between printer and editor was still close; the editor's job was, more or less, to get something for the printer to set up—and, left alone, many of the printers could do as well themselves. Re porting was hardly as yet a discovered art. Defoe, of course, seemed to have discovered it more than a hundred years before; but the follow-up had been slow. The immortal author of Robinson Crusoe could have given a good many nineteenth-century reporters pointers on enterprise, as witness the occasion when he galloped up to the scene of an execution, public in the England of those days, and, having arranged beforehand, took from the hand of the convicted prisoner his confession, giving him in return for the scoop for his paper a ten-pound note, the fate of which the newspaper historian of that day did not relate.

But this enterprise was not typical of eighteenth or early nineteenth century reporters or editors.

They took what was easy to get. Results— long accounts of meetings, political and otherwise, the promoters of which used the papers for publicity purposes; long political letters from non-staff members; short shrift to other types of news, which, indeed, in many cases would not have been recognized by the reporters or editors unless so labeled by the news sources. I can hear some city editors say sadly that some of their reporters are still like that; but let's give them the benefit of the doubt.

Anyhow, that's the kind of papers we are dealing with in the territorial period, and to a lesser extent after the Civil war. The nonpolitical tone of news and editorial in so many twentieth-century newspapers would have been difficult for the "old Oregon" folk or, for that matter, their old neighbors back east, to understand, unless the paper were frankly "religious" or "literary."

Sweeping generalities, of course, are at least as dangerous in deal ing with newspapers as with other phases and institutions of modern life. Not every paper was as highly political as, for instance, the Oregonian and the Statesman of territorial days. But these political papers, appearing often with a minimum of other matter and scarcely any local news in the early years, were the most successful and influential papers, apparently for the reason we are assigning.

The early Oregon towns sprang up along the rivers, which were the highways of those early days. Note some of the earliest of the Oregon towns, which, of course, were the seats of the first Oregon newspapers—Oregon City, Milwaukie, Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, The Dalles, and so on—river towns all. In the next generation other towns were to spring up responsive to railroad-building and promotion. Some rather well-established papers were to be doom ed to slow death because their towns, for one reason or another, were left off the railway.

The early days were days of relatively many newspapers in pro portion to population. Five hundred was a large community in the 1850's, and many towns smaller than that were contriving somehow to support at least one newspaper. Pioneer editors' living was hardly up to Reilly standard, but they got along. If a little town had a paper of one party, the other side would try hard either to purchase control or to start another—and in those days starting a paper involved very little cash. Credit was easy; there was no machinery beyond an old hand-press and perhaps a jobber or two. A few cases of type were a nominal expense. Circulation didn't bring very high white-paper bills. So the young country was plentifully served with newspapers. This condition continued—was in fact, intensified—un til the day of expensive machinery and otherwise increased costs. A newspaper has now become a big investment, figured no more in hundreds, but always in thousands, up toward the hundred-thousand mark in the smaller cities, much more in the metropolis. Finally, it seems, the day of fewer papers is here—with larger circulations for those maintained.

Railroad development and land settlement, naturally, went hand-in-hand through the seventies and eighties and nineties, and this brought newspaper numbers up toward the high mark of the 1920's, from which they have begun to recede somewhat.

Reasons for establishing newspapers varied. Politics was heavily at the bottom of the situation in the earlier years; and politically-minded lawyers and business men were prominent on the scene, as backers, publishers, in many cases editors. The relative dearth of trained newspaper men in pioneer days, had something to do with the kind of newspapers many of them were, though through imitation the non-journalistic editors often approached the standards of the others.

A little later more newspaper men drifted west, and we find them starting newspapers wherever there was a likely-looking com munity. If disappointed in the town, they'd shift, sometimes suddenly, as the publishers of the little Western Star of Milwaukie did in 1851. It did cost much to move the plant.

Later on with the railroads and land development came the era of land and timber notices, stimulated in the middle eighties by the hard-boiled policy of Cleveland's commissioner of the general land office, William Andrew Jackson Sparks, who, suspicious of everyone, did a lot to discourage squatting on land and informal cutting of the public timber. The West and Southwest drew many federal land inspectors, who managed to reduce land and timber evils and encourage actual filing and purchase—which required publication of notices of final proof and that sort of thing. Many of the papers were obviously installed on the basis of "mining" rather than a continuing yield; they would work the main ledge of land notices and move on, leaving later comers to try to make a living out of whatever other business there was.

County-seat fights (perhaps they can be regarded as political, though they are not party-political) were another reason for the establishment and development of newspapers in many western states and territories, including Oregon.

Besides all these, there was, of course, the occupation of news paper fields by qualified editors and publishers, who installed publications where communities seemed to need them and were likely to grow and prosper.

Despite a rather general impression that newspapers are precarious businesses, as indicated by the small number that have survived through thick and thin in Oregon since the 50's—only two, the Oregonian and (with one dubious period) the Statesman—despite this, several Oregon newspapers recently celebrating semi-centennials

Oregon newspaper publishers.png

ASAHEL BUSH, founder of the "Oregon Statesman"

C. S. JACKSON, of the "Oregon Journal"

HARRISON R. KINCAID, 45 years an editor

W. G. T'VAULT, first editor of Oregon's first newspaper

MARTIN LUTHER PIPES, first president of Oregon Press Assn.

THOMAS J. DRYER, first editor of the "Oregonian"


have been able to show that they had become the oldest business institutions in their towns.

In some other cases where publishers, starting with a salutatory that they were "here to stay," moved off within a few weeks or months, the papers themselves, conducted by others, lived on and have come through to the present.

The highly political newspapers of the early years were, in general, not of great value in promoting general culture. Educational institutions were not regarded as sources of news or matters of news interest until comparatively recent years. This statement has to be made cautiously. There are some references to this matter in the body of the book. School activities simply were not covered, as a rule, in the early papers, unless the school authorities themselves brought in the matter and asked its publication. This attitude is still met with occasionally among less enlightened publishers, such as one, not in Oregon, who not so long ago said he saw no reason to give the public library free space. Most publishers are on the other side of this particular fence. There has been, too, the attitude among some editors that only the sensational, the scandalous, or the athletic phases of the schools could possibly be the subject-matter of news. The schools, however, have grown in the good graces of the newspapers, which are increasingly willing and able to give intelligent coverage without leaning directly on school authorities or teachers actually to prepare the matter and bring it to the office.

Matters of general culture, such things as literary meetings, new books, etc., were not—judged by what was printed—highly regarded by the pioneer editors as a rule (with exceptions). In this respect it is doubtful if some of the publishers were up to the cultural level of their readers, for early Oregonians were distinctly literate and would not have insisted that politics crowd out other matters so decidedly.

Almost universally, the editors, from the beginning, have been hearty supporters of orderly enforcement of the law and have been active in the economic and physical development of their communities.

Freedom of the press from interference of censor has been upheld with fair success from the beginning. The little Spectator (1846) had trouble keeping its editors, who insisted on "being themselves" politically, in spite of the rules of the paper.

Not always has this freedom been used with the greatest wisdom and public spirit. The early papers, before and after libel-law severities, paid little heed to the protection of the other fellow's reputation. The legislatures of 1862 and 1878 tried their hands at restrain ing this sort of thing—the 1878 attempt made after defamation had resulted in bloodshed. Steady improvement is noted in this respect, however, not all of it due to more stringent laws.

The "personal journalism" of the early days had its bad points as well as its good. The editor was not always wise or just in the use of his great influence. The result—loss of much of that influence and the development of a less personal type of journalism which "ascribes motives only when motives go to the root of the matter" and respects, in general, the reputations of those dealt with in the paper.

There has been no sudden change in Oregon journalism which can be discovered anywhere along the line in the first 92 years of its life. The changes, for the most part, have been evolutionary. The greater part of the progress, however, has been in the last half-century.

In the first few years after the appearance of the little old Oregon Spectator, no particular general change took place in Oregon journalism. Since then the changes have come —

In typography and appearance of the papers

In mechanical equipment and processes

In news content and handling

In editorial attitude

In size of the newspaper investment and in nature of newspaper ownership

In size of circulations and extent of advertising

In nature and quality of advertising

In entertainment features

In quantity and treatment of sports

In handling of society

In width of subject-matter covered—due, practically, to expansion of what there is to be reported

Let us refer briefly to each of these points:

Newspapers were quiet-looking, dull-appearing, gray, when Oregon journalism had its birth. The heads in the Spectator were just as big as the eastern metropolitan papers were using. Newspaper make up was something less than an art in those days. Sameness, lack of variety, prevailed.

The Civil war, as elsewhere, built up and stimulated headlines in Oregon. The multiple-deck head appeared, though not extensively used. Within the next decade they were standard, and the Spanish-American war headlines, spreading to hitherto undreamed-of blackness, even redness, and area and dynamics, became, albeit somewhat reduced, the standard headlines of the next forty years.

The printers were setting their seven-point, sometimes six, solid, and the lines were close together, making the reading relatively hard; had there been in those days the kind of competition newspaper read ing has now from other forms of instruction and entertainment, such illegible printing would scarcely have been read at all. The change did not come, in general, until the cheaper paper, enlarged news papers, and increased business made large type faces possible. ties such as Gilbert Farrar and John E. Allen are predicting even larger type in the paper of the future. How to get it and still crowd in the news, together with all the other encroachments on newspaper space, is an unsolved question. Condense, condense, condense, is the cry; but if a little condensation is good, more is not necessarily better. Overelimination of detail must mean reduced interest—which is not good for the paper. Anyhow, larger type sizes, more legible type faces are in use than in the early newspapers, and the result is easier read ing for a reader that's harder to hold than the pioneer for whom reading had less competition.

The papers contain more news, better handled, now than ever in their history; and this is easily illustrated in the newspapers of Ore gon. If yesterday was the age of the editor, today is the day of the reporter. Old-timers who took the Oregonian turned to Harvey Scott's editorial page first; the younger readers are not likely to turn first to anyone's editorial page. Like it or not, that's the situation. But what has happened, is that the improving work of the reporters, here and abroad, has made the news so interesting, has covered vital situations so well, that there is an aroused interest, a hunger for interpretation and for opinion—which some daring innovators want given in the news story itself but which conservative editors want retained on the editorial page, fearing to trust interpreters not to vitiate the facts themselves. Reporters have built up, in the last forty or fifty years, an ability to get and to handle detail that has made reading of their news a thrill. How to save such detail in the reduced-sized papers for which there is so much clamor and so much cost-pressure is a present problem.

Frankly, in pioneer Oregon there were no real news-reporters. They came in, slowly, with D. C. Ireland, and Pat Malone, and Urban Hicks, and some of the others of the fifties and sixties. They felt their way toward form. Chronological approach, starting at the very beginning, when someone turned in the fire alarm, was their only known method of handling a story of any length. Early-day news stories reeked with the reporter's reckless comment, revealed his inability or unwillingness to gather detail or to get names or do any of the things on which the city editors of the last fifty years have more and more insisted. In those days the readers bought the paper for the political editorials, for the news from the East, for every thing but the story of what was going on in town. That was to develop. No one then was using the now overworked illustration of news interest by picturing a pebble thrown into a pond, with the surface less and less disturbed as one got away from the point of impact. Newswriting was getting better in the seventies; newsgathering was much improved in the eighties without much advance in the writing; the nineties were approaching more recent standards.

Sports writing (see chapter VII) was practically non-existent in territorial Oregon, for the very good reason that there was very little sports to write. There was another reason—no one knew how to write sports, and the busy pioneers were somewhat ashamed of any amusement. Sports writing has been keeping pace with the development of the games, with an occasional lapse into something that is not so good but develops into an advance—such as the slang writing of the early nineteen hundreds, now developed into lively, colorful writing in English.

The society-page curve started up even less abruptly than that of sports. (See chapter VI.) The early newspaper-writer didn't know how to write social events. He was without mechanical processes to dress up a society page, if there had been a society page. The whole advance came about normally. Of recent years, women have largely taken over the society-writing.

Comics in the early days meant jokes, more or less stale, perhaps with an occasional wood-cut or line-drawing or chalk-plate illustration. There were no cartoons, and, of course, no strips. The advance of cartooning has been within the last sixty years or so, and in Ore gon in the last fifty years—although we mustn't forget "Billy" Adams' cartoons drawn more than eighty years ago, Oregon's first. Since there is no chapter dealing with cartoons in this work, we might inject here a word or two about some of the Oregon cartoonists. Homer Davenport, of course, is mentioned in connection with his work outside Oregon. This talented man did very little work for any Oregon paper. The Oregonian had him awhile very early in his career, but let him go. Lute Pease, columnist, was one of the early Oregon cartoonists, and his work was played in the Oregonian. Harry Murphy was another of the good old-timers. The late E. S. ("Tige") Reynolds, of Portland, Vancouver, B. C., and Tacoma, won national recognition for his pictorial interpretations, for a cartoon is really an editorial in picture, and Quincy Scott, his successor on the Oregonian, a versatile philosopher, is widely recopied. Daniel Bishop, of the Journal, was called up to "big league" company in St. Louis a few years ago, and Harrison Fisher, his successor, has readers seeking out his creations on the Journal's editorial Lack of facilities—even the chalk-plate was too costly — page. smothered what talent there was in the early days.

So far as comic strips and colored comic sections are concerned, opinions clash severely. This particular writer would never miss them if all the strips and colored sections aside from an occasional subtly comic cartoon such as George Clark's "Side Glances" were eliminated. But he isn't obtruding his own prejudices, and he is not saying that if he were publishing a paper he would eliminate comics; they appear to have definite circulation pull, and it isn't all among the "morons" either. Well, if you think they're an advance, that's one big improvement modern newspapers (except the New York Times) have made in the last few years. since Pulitzer made a place for "The Yellow Kid, of Hogan's Alley."

Circulations have gone up, amazingly. Newspaper prices have not declined much since the early years But newspaper improvements in news coverage and in the number of appealing "features" carried, has created increased demand for the fewer papers printed. What is going to happen to circulation is not yet "history," so we'll not go into that.

The next topic, radio, is something that is taking the attention of newspaper publishers more and more. This, of course, is the result of an invention which the old-timers would have regarded as impossible—and many of us can hardly realize it yeti What has happened is, that the radio, through increasing invasion of the news field, has already altered the attitude of newspapers and their readers toward the treatment of spot news. Extras—which used to be shot out to the readers with every important flash that came in over the wire to the old, capable, much lamented Phillips code operators, now a memory—are rare in these days. The radio broadcaster already has chanted the news into your ear without your having to do anything more than turn a knob (you, of course, sometimes have to go to the trouble of shutting the station off again when someone begins to tell you why a certain cigarette is better for your throat, or is it your liver?) The field of detail and of interpretation appeared to be left for the newspapers; but the radio commentators are, some of them, now very popular, and detail appears to be lengthening. Then there is television coming in—but that's hardly history yet. But what is going to happen to the newspaper boys who think the only way to run a paper is to cut everything to the bone and give the reader's eye less than the broadcaster gave his ear an hour or two before?

Formats have changed more in the last few years than in the whole previous period of Oregon journalism history. This is not to say that a "tabloid" shape was not known in early days. The little Astorian in 1873 was a graceful tabloid in form—5 columns. The Oregonian and the Statesman were small in area when they started their dailies in the sixties. But these were the exception, and newspaper sizes ran all the way from the awkward six-column through the more graceful sevens, to the eights and the nines. But only within the last few years have Oregon weekly papers taken heavily to the tabloid form (not the sensational tabloid tone). The number of country tabloids is growing in Oregon. More pages, and smaller, appears to be the idea. Reader convenience is being considered. There is not a single sensational tabloid in Oregon, and with an occasional short—lived exception in Portland, there has not been.

Pictorial journalism—under which the Oregonian, formerly almost solid type, is now nearly one-fourth picture, has made a rather more rapid advance than other aspects of the changing newspaper. It makes for rapid reading, gives a better idea of some stories than verbal description can give, makes the paper more decorative, not to say more artistic. It's definitely in, and it's a change of the last few years. Such a change would have been financially impossible under the old expensive processes, but Frederic Ives' invention of the half tone process, nearly sixty years ago, made the newspaper picture a more economical feature, adopted in the late eighties and in Oregon more than ten years later. The telegraphed picture, the Wirephoto, giving the accompanying picture right along with the news, from the remotest corners of the earth, is the latest great advance in pictorial journalism, and it is very popular.

The newspaper chain is something that has come to Oregon only to a limited extent. Portland has one chain daily paper. There are several chains of small country weeklies. This writer does not know what the future holds in this respect; chains have their obvious ad vantages and obvious disadvantages, and there will be no attempt to evaluate them here.

In no department of the newspaper has there been greater advance than in the advertising department. This advance has been sweeping, covering every phase of advertising. What was the matter with advertising in the pioneer days? Well, just about everything. It was worse than the news and didn't compare at all with the editorial. Type faces were good, though the printer often mixed them badly in the same ad. But there were no illustrations aside from an occasional conventional logotype or an infrequent big wood cut. The advertisements usually were mere cards, without the slightest attractive pull, and "the same yesterday, today, and . . ." The newspapers apparently preferred not to have the ads changed, since in many cases there was an added charge for composition in changing copy. They were run on either side or both sides of the front page, in many cases. All sorts of quack and semi-obscene medicine advertisements were run by the column. Reading notices were mixed with news without any tip to the reader. In short, advertising was in its not too attractive infancy, and its improvement, in Oregon as elsewhere, has been one of the marvels of journalism.

Reasons for the improvement: cheaper processes, linotypes, fast web presses, better machinery in general, more study of advertising on the part of both business men and the copy-writers; a more ethical, more intelligent attitude toward the whole subject. The improvement, apparently, continues, with all the most recent typographical and pictorial processes and all the arts of the good writer collaborating to produce an attractive advertisement, which will benefit alike the newspaper, the advertiser, the consumer—for, really, they are all in the same boat.

Generally, the story of Oregon journalism, the history of the newspapers of Oregon, has been one of improvement, of advance, until the papers of this state have every reason to be proud of their appearance and their content. Self-respecting, clean, issued from modern, healthful quarters by staffs no longer doomed to overwork under insanitary conditions, themselves on they may congratulate what they have been able to help the people of Oregon do for them selves.

Indications of their standing among American newspapers are brought to Oregon this year (1939):

  1. Oregonian's R. G. Callvert wins Pulitzer prize for editorial writing. (Medford's R. W. Ruhl won a Pulitzer award in 1934.)
  2. Oregon Journal's Donald J. Sterling elected head of American Society of Newspaper Editors.
  3. McMinnville Telephone Register wins N.E.A. contest as best all-around weekly newspaper in the United States.
  4. Hood River News wins N.E.A. trophy for best editorial page.
  5. Hillsboro Argus wins honorable mention for general excellence in N.E.A. contest and second in classified advertising contest.
  6. Oregon Daily Emerald (U. of O.) wins all-American col lege daily rating twice in succession.

The future? Well, that's, of course, not history. But let us hope that the future will be as bright as the splendid personnel of the Oregon press so richly deserves. Could we ask for more?