History of Oregon Newspapers/The Strange Birth of the Mysterious News

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THE STRANGE BIRTH OF THE MYSTERIOUS NEWS


The Portland News (now the News-Telegram, since May, 1931) hasn't the longest history among the Portland papers; but its beginning makes a story none of the rest of them can approach. The date was 1906; the main actors in the drama opening were Thomas J. (Tom) Dillon and M. H. (Mel) Voorhees, both employees of the Seattle Star, Scripps newspaper. Mr. Dillon was asked by the writer of these lines, who used to work for him on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer more than 20 years ago, and who knew of his connection with the News, to tell the story of the beginning.

He replied, helpfully, with a most romantic story. Here it is, in his words, with only slight changes in the interest of condensation; the action opening in Seattle:

The history of the East Side News and the Portland News is so fantastic that I am quite certain no one possessed of your serious turn of mind will care to put it into print. . . . But what I am going to tell you is the cold, sober truth, and you can believe it or not.

In August, 1906, I was city editor of the Seattle Star and Mel H. Voorhees was advertising manager. One day in August Wells called me into his office and asked me how I would like to start a paper for Mr. Scripps. I was a blithe youngster of 28, newly married, and ready for any harum-scarum adventure so I said it would be fine. I was immediately informed that the whole business was very secret. I wasn't told where the paper was to be started or who was going with me. About a week afterwards Voorhees started to feel me out and we confessed, but neither of us knew where the paper was going to be started. We were finally called in together, told the paper was to be started in Portland, but not a word was to be said. We were to disappear from the Star office and never be heard of again. We were not to write letters back to Seattle and not even our relatives were to know where we were.

No details were given us, but the day before we started for Portland we were given a sealed envelope which was not to be opened until we were in Portland. We flitted out of Seattle like a couple of pickpockets and in Portland opened what is probably the most amazing letter any newspaper man ever had anything to do with. The letter told us we were to start a daily newspaper on the east side of Portland. We were to rent a building at $25 a month. We were given $15,000 which I think was banked in Voorhees' name. The paper was to be 5 columns with a specified length and breadth of page. We were given minute details as to what should appear in the paper. Among the details I remember there was to be a complete fiction story in it every day. Our daily expenditure was set down to the last cent. Our mechanical equipment was to appear from some mysterious place.

We rented a tumble-down storeroom on East Clay street between an Italian grocery and a hay and feed store. As was the Scripps custom then, the editor was responsible for the news and the composing-room end, the business manager for the rest of the paper. I undertook to buy some type and was refused unless I disclosed to what purpose I intended to put it. I threatened to go to the prosecuting attorney and finally got a couple of cases of type and a very skimpy composing-room equipment for which I paid cash.

I hired a couple of printers named McArthur, brothers, from the Oregon Journal. They were fearful that I was going to print lottery tickets. During this time we were in constant receipt of letters from Seattle from Chase and Wells [manager and editor, respectively, of Scripps' Seattle Star,] all in very mysterious language. There was no mention of the paper except "the Columbian proposition." No signature to the letters and no indication where they came from. In the course of a few weeks we received notice that there was a carload of machinery at our disposal in Vancouver, Wash. This was part of the melodramatic secrecy.

The machinery turned out to be a battered old flat-bed press and one battered old linotype. We installed the press and linotype side by side in the storeroom and one day printed an East Side News. Now, the entire staff—business and editorial —consisted of Voorhees and Dillon. I had no reporters, no press service, no typewriter; just a lead pencil and some copy paper. I rewrote the Morning Oregonian, and Mrs. Dillon used to buy copies of the Telegram and Journal as soon as they came off the press and dash over to the East Side News office and I would hastily rewrite a few items and then we would go to press. In the meantime, Voorhees was out soliciting subscribers and he finally got enough before we started to justify a carrier force of exactly one carrier. By the end of the month we had a circulation of 700 and four carriers. But by the end of the second month everybody had quit and we were down to a circulation of about 50. Nonetheless, we carried on more with the idea of seeing what in blazes would come out of this than of achieving anything, and after a year or so it was decided that we would move across to the west side. We got an office directly across—west—from the city hall and there started to get out a four-page, seven-column paper. By this time we were given a little more money and had two reporters at $12 a week each.

I still had no wire service. Karl Bickel, former president of the United Press, was the UP correspondent with an office in the Journal. Every day about 11 o'clock the joint office boy of the editorial and business office strolled into Mr. Bickel's office. Mr. Bickel would not be at his desk, but on his desk would be a pile of flimsy. This the office boy jammed into his pocket and tore back to the News office. We made little or no progress but still kept up the transparent fiction that Voorhees and I owned the paper.

One of Scripps' sons—I have forgotten which one—came in one day, and I stoutly maintained that I had never heard of E. W. Scripps and never had anything to do with him. My obstinacy drove him into a fury. He showed me his watch, his cards, and everything he owned, trying to convince me that I could talk frankly to him.

At this time on the east side Dana Sleeth was running a weekly paper raising hell with the city council, and I hired him and immediately took on a lot of trouble. Sleeth had a capacity for indignation which facts could not cramp.

One day out of a clear sky we were notified we should buy a lot and erect a building to cost $50,000. We went south a few blocks on Clay street and bought a corner and put up a one-story building. I don't recall that we had more than 1,500 circulation at this time. I got acquainted with a labor editor named Harris [R. A. Harris of the Labor Press], and made a deal with him to set his type and print his paper. The weekly payments were enough for me to buy a second linotype on credit and pay for an additional operator.

I have forgotten how we got hold of an old single-deck Potter press. We had one stereotyper and one pressman, two linotype operators and a foreman, two reporters, myself as editor, a business manager, and a circulation manager. After about two years I got tired of this and went back to Seattle.

I learned afterwards that all this secrecy was due to the fact that old man Scripps had promised Jackson of the Journal that he would not start a paper in Portland if Jackson would take the United Press. When left, Voorhees was still business manager and Sleeth succeeded me as editor. Boalt came down from Seattle later.

The date of the first issue of the East Side News was September 24, 1906. Price one cent, Mr. Dillon's wife, Clarissa Church Dillon, recalls, in a letter to this writer. As her husband says, she had a good deal to do with the publication of that not overstaffed newspaper of 1906. It was a two-page paper at the beginning, five columns wide on a sheet 12½×x18 inches. The masthead gave the fol lowing data: "The East Side News, published every evening except Sunday. One cent a copy, 6 cents a week, 25 cents a month or $3 a year, delivered by carrier. No free copies. Office of publication, 408 East Clay street." There was no hint of who the editor, publisher, or owner might be. Mrs. Dillon recalls that not even her family was sup posed to know where she had gone with her husband when they left Seattle. She did a lot of different jobs on the paper, but the only official job she held was bookkeeper at $3 a week. As bookkeeper at $3 a week she was more or less upset to have to record an expense ac count of $300 turned in by a business executive of the parent organization who spent several days at the Portland Hotel while he re searched on how the little paper could cut expenses. He discovered expenses could be cut thirty cents (correct) a week. Thus in 20 years it would be possible to save the cost of his trip.

A line on what the News was offering in that first issue to give it a flying start with its Portland readers may be obtained from the following headlines: "Much Work Under Way on East Side," "Boy's Fatal Injury Kills Grandmother," "Philadelphia is Flea-bitten," "Ten Killed in Atlanta Race Riots," "Mother Jails Her Daughter," "Murderer's Victim Chopped to Pieces," "County Valuation Greatly Increased," "Fresno Wins Last Game." There was also a sentimental bit of fiction, "Why He Came Back." "I just said to T. J.," said Mrs. Dillon, "Where did you pick up that little sentimental story?" "Pick up! I didn't have anything to pick. I prob ably wrote it," was the busy editor's reply. A copy of the second issue of the paper hangs (as this was written) in the office of the business manager of the News-Telegram. So far as known, no one in Portland has a copy of the first issue.

Dana Sleeth, mentioned by Mr. Dillon, after several years at the helm, was succeeded by L. J. Ritchie in 1917. Then came E. W. Jorgenson, who in 1918 went to Spokane to head the Spokane Press of the Scripps-Howard chain. Jorgenson's successor was Fred L. Boalt, who remained more than eleven years, succeeded in 1929 by Ralph J. Benjamin. Editor at the time of the consolidation with the Portland Telegram May 5, 1931, was Fielding H. Lemmon, and the present editor, Tom E. Shea, has been on the staff for close to 19 years, having worked, as the Scripps-paper youngsters have to do, in all branches of the editorial department.

T. J. Dillon, the first editor, after returning to the Seattle Star, went over to the Post-Intelligencer and served for several years as managing editor and associate editor. Returning to Minneapolis, where he had made his start, he became managing editor of the Minneapolis Tribune, which position he now holds.

Fred L. Boalt, who served longer than any other man as editor of the News, had a colorful career. After his early experience on Cleveland newspapers, he went to the United Press and became a correspondent in London. While there, he broke, in 1910, the news of the illness of King Edward, soon to prove fatal. This was one of his biggest scoops. He got it merely by obeying orders to go to see the king; his chief, Charles Steward, was new in London too, and didn't understand it couldn't be done.

Four years later as a correspondent for NEA he failed to handle the news of the American naval expedition to Vera Cruz in 1914 in a way to suit the officers in charge. He was actually tried for treason but was acquitted with credit. After a term in Seattle as editor of the Star he went to the editorship of the News. In Portland he was very successful, contributing vitality to the paper by his colorful writing.

The absorption of the Telegram in May 1931 gave the News a number of valuable staff members; but the previous character of the News largely remained and the Telegram has been little reflected in the consolidated paper.

After his retirement from the editorship, Sleeth continued to contribute a widely-read feature to the paper until his recent death.

On the business side, after the retirement of Voorhees, Lester Clark became manager, then William Tunks, then Charles W. Myers, who was succeeded by Harry W. Ely, former circulation manager.

The News-Telegram aim is always to get a little different slant on their big local stories from that reported in the other papers.