The Grim Reaper Appears

Or … why I miss Henny Willis at the R-G!

I’m worried about the future of one of our local newspapers. Granted we all have our obsessions and addictions, some healthy, some not. My parents, tough Catholic conservatives that they were, forced me to read our local newspaper early on. As I’ve told my young nieces and nephews: Third grade was the hardest four years of my life! Anyway, for the last 50 years, because of my parents’ unrelenting insistence on literacy, I resorted to newspapers — a total junkie. I was especially drawn to crossword puzzles and still blame them as the “gateway drug” for my preoccupation with cross words during my legislative career — as a minority whip — but that’s another story.

So, later as a union goon, and even later as a politician, my habit increased. I shamelessly admit now that I have read The Register-Guard and The Oregonian almost daily for the last 35 years. During my worst periods of addiction, I should disclose that I even occasionally glanced at another Oregon experiment in yellow journalism, Salem’s Statesman-Journal. (However, to my credit, even in the worst haze of my 10 years of elective office, I never succumbed to their editorial advice!) 

I’ve generally been a big fan of the R-G, a local institution, one of the last two family-owned newspapers on the entire U.S. Left Coast. I’ve lived in Oregon since 1976. I’ve not always agreed with the R-G’s editorials, but it’s done a good job overall, with talented journalists and editors covering essential local and state issues. Its editorial/opinion page masthead said it all (past tense): “An Independent Newspaper.” First published by Alton F. Baker in 1927 and handed down to Alton F. Baker II in 1961, to Edwin M. Baker in 1982, and then to Alton F. Baker III, editor and publisher since 1987.

Last week the world changed: The R-G made monumental news. It announced that N. Christian “The Grim Reaper” Anderson III, former chairman of the Oregonian Media Group and former publisher of The Oregonian, was named as the new editor and publisher of the R-G. According to another independent newspaper, The Portland Tribune, Anderson replaced Tony Baker at the R-G after Tony’s 28 years as editor and publisher. Baker, 65, remains on the Guard Publishing Co. board and will continue to oversee the Baker family’s real estate holdings, according to a report by the R-G.

This marks the first time in 88 years that a member of the Baker family isn’t running the newspaper. Baker said Anderson would lead the paper’s continued news coverage in print and its expansion into digital media. (Ironically, 40 years ago Anderson was editor of The Daily Barometer when he attended Oregon State University.)

What does all this mean in realspeak or realnewspaperspeak for those 11 of the 17 followers of this column who might actually still read the R-G? Well, just look at what Anderson did to The Oregonian in his few short years! He hacked the staff, changed the format to a tiny, stapled-together amalgam delivered four days a week, editions served up differently in various parts of the state, with cumulative articles on, say, PERS legislation, having no daily datelines: no longer resembling a daily newspaper. Ultimate result: a diminished quality of reporting on local and state issues, an increased piling-on of attacks on public employees and more right-wing editorials. Bottom line: today The Oregonian is unrecognizable as a daily newspaper.

Gee, golly, what happens next to the R-G? According to Baker III, Chris Anderson III — apparently all publishers have to have a have an “III” behind their name — has the entrepreneurial instincts, business savvy, news background and digital know-how that make him “uniquely qualified.” Really? For what?

We should’ve seen the handwriting on the wall in the R-G’s last two Sunday editorial attacks on the Oregon Supreme Court decision on PERS. The R-G’s latest editorial is already following the old Chris Anderson III Oregonian script: “The governor and the Legislature should seek constitutionally permissible PERS savings equal to those achieved by the 2013 changes.” In other words, screw the Oregon Supreme Court’s latest ruling, and screw the Oregon Constitution: We, the newspaper shills for corporate interests, must figure out a way to bypass our obligation. No mention of tax reform.

I have always had a deep respect for Paul Neville and Jackman Wilson of the R-G’s editorial board. But I think we’ve moved on from their days of influence. This is a new newspaper. Change may be an economic decision for the R-G, and I’ll continue to support the talented journalists of the Guild, the R-G union workers, in their struggle for fair representation. But where is the spirit of R-G politics reporter Henny Willis, rest his soul, when we need him?