Newspaper Histories as Marketing Devices: When Newspapers Publish Their Own

04 Jul 2017 6:14 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

By Dane S. Claussen, Thiel College

How newspapers tell their own histories has been a minor interest of mine for a long time. A few readers of The Intelligencer might remember my article, “Otis did not found L.A. Times, and Taylor did not found Globe,” in the Spring 2006  issue (Vol. 40, Issue 3) of Clio Among the Media, published by the AEJMC’s History Division. There, as the headline indicates, I cited numerous examples in which newspapers had recently made inaccurate claims in news or feature articles about who founded their newspaper. Also, Joseph Medill did not start the Chicago Tribune and James McClatchy did not start the Sacramento Bee (a lie that started with his sons, not a sloppy journalist 100 or 150 years later), and so on. At least The New York Times never claims it was started by Adolph Ochs, perhaps because he bought it 45 years later!

On June 4 this year, the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard published a special 150th anniversary issue, with its history spread and sprawled out among three sections that include plenty of advertising. A friend passed it along to me, as he knows my interests and he and I are both University of Oregon graduates who have some experience with the newspaper (he a lot more than me, as I lived in Eugene only three years and he has lived there the overwhelming majority of his 60-plus years).

The Register-Guard holds many distinctions for those of us from Oregon who studied and/or practiced journalism. It is the Register-Guard that has won many state overall excellence awards over the Portland Oregonian, the (Baker) family newspaper in the medium-sized city beating the Advance Publications (Newhouse) metro daily year in and year out. It is the Register-Guard that was by far the best designed Oregon newspaper, and one of the USA's best, when I first saw it in the 1970s. It was the Register-Guard that for decades (has?) had the highest newspaper salaries in Oregon (probably due to its unions) and forced the non-union, anti-union Oregonian to more or less keep up or probably lose some or most of its best employees to the small newspaper down I-5. It was the Register-Guard whose long-time managing editor, Barrie Hartman (one of the few top execs at the paper in the last 90 years who was not a Baker), was very well respected and whose wife, Mary Hartman, was a long-time University of Oregon journalism professor and executive director of the state high school press association (from whom I took a course).

The Register-Guard had (and has?) the respect of Oregon journalists, journalism professors and journalism students in ways that The Oregonian (where I was an intern in 1983 and where many of my friends have since worked at some point) never did. When, in the 1980s, the Register-Guard employed a receptionist/operator with an accent that made the paper’s name come out, “Eugene Register-God,” it was only slightly humorous.

Anyway, in June the Register-Guard went all out with the broadsheet two-section special issue (plus special front page on the main section). And it gets off to a rather shaky start. It claims that the front page has been designed to look like it did in 1930, but the effect  only partially successful, most notably with the 1930s Eugene Register-Guard flag (which is called “nameplate”) and two one column stories at left and right with three- and four-deck, all caps headlines followed by three-deck upper-and-lower dropheads. But the page is dominated by a large circa 1910 photo of the Daily and Weekly Guard building, something you would not have seen in 1930.

The first section covers the first 80 years (1867-1947) of the Register, Guard, and Register-Guard. An introductory piece on the second page, written by Editor Mark Baker of the owning family, is romantically headlined, “A story of hope, challenge, and survival.” Well, that’s one way to put it. 

The first page, covering 1867 to 1877, is headlined, “Several Eugene papers had short-lived histories,” which tells you only part of that period’s story. Yes, five Eugene newspapers did not last long: Eugene City News (an election year paper in 1856), The Pacific Journal (founded 1858), The People’s Press (founded 1859), State Republican (founded 1862) and the Union Crusader (founded 1863). The Oregon State Journal did better (1864-1909). The special section does not point out that such a history is not unusual, except perhaps so many newspapers starting in a city that did not yet have even a railroad (1871) or the university (1876). (In fact, Eugene had only 1117 residents as of the 1880 US Census.) As for The Guard, started 1867, it had five different owners (each owner an individual or partnership, making eight different publishers), in its first 11 years. Hope and challenge indeed, but not much survival.

What is one to make of this historical section characterizing “most local news stories” as being like an 1867 advertorial for Lager Beer Saloon? It is unclear whether the reader is literally supposed to think that most items that looked like news were, in fact, ads (and the typical reader needs background/context for that) and/or that the newspaper had little if any real journalism, or if the special section writer did not realize the Lager Beer Saloon piece is an advertorial and not a news story at all.

But the most perplexing point on this page is its assertion that the Guard, not founded until more than two years after the Civil War, “supported the rights of Southern states to own slaves and editorialized that freeing them was an unwise thing to do.” (Not that as of the Guard’s founding on June 1, 1867, the 13th Amendment already had been ratified, and 21 states had already ratified the 14th Amendment, with more about to.)

The current newspaper comes into better focus on the 1877-87 page, as we find out that the Guard’s sixth owner, Ira Campbell, bought it at 22 in 1878 and owned it for 26 years until he died of a stroke at age 48. We find out that in 1884, Silas Yoran, then 49, launched the Eugene City Register, and that both the Guard and Register became dailies in the 1890s while the Oregon State Journal remained a weekly until it folded. We also find out that the Guard was Democratic while both the Journal and Register were Republican papers.

The 1877-87 page is headlined, “UO’s first graduating class: five students,” and illustrated with a period photo of the UO’s first two buildings (the 1876 Deady Hall and 1877 Villard Hall), despite the University of Oregon playing no role in the newspapers’ histories.

The 1887-97 page switches emphases from the newspaper’s history to Eugene’s history, focusing on a big flood in 1890, Pres. Benjamin Harrison’s stop in Eugene on May 5, 1891 (when 2000 people showed up to greet him but he never publicly appeared), the UO football team’s first victory in 1894. Almost incidentally mentioned are that the Register was taken over by Yoran’s sons (“after their father left to run a shoe store and work as a bank vice president”), that the Yorans took the paper daily in 1895, then sold it to three Eugene printers, the Register went back to weekly in 1896, then daily again in 1898. Meanwhile, the reader has learned nothing about Campbell’s ownership during those 10 years and very little about his first nine years (1878-1887).

The section’s 1897-1907 page attempts to tie the Eugene Daily Guard to Yellow Journalism by extensively recounting the paper’s coverage of a murder and the primary murderer’s execution in 1899. The section is careful to say that such coverage “perhaps reflect[s] the sensational yellow journalism” and asserts that "Readers were surely riveted” by the stories but, frankly, it’s a little bit of a stretch, the story starting with a “creepy” rhyme notwithstanding.

This part of the history also notes that the Eugene papers got linotypes during 1897-1907, “allowing an entire line of hot metal type to be set at once.” Unfortunately, the section has never pointed out that previously type was set by hand one letter at a time, a fact that we cannot assume the casual reader would know. This section points out that the Guard then cost $6 per year for delivery five days a week, although what the newspaper(s) cost during most other earlier and later periods goes unsaid. But we do find out that Charles Fisher bought the Guard in 1906, and that Fisher knew what he was doing based on previous experience in Oakland (Ore.), Roseburg (Ore.) and Boise (Idaho). That supposedly was also true of Campbell, although we haven’t been given enough detail to tell. The 1897-1907 section, and also the 1907-1917 sections, tell us nothing at all about the Register, nor anymore about the Oregon State Journal’s 1909 demise.

The 1907-1917 focus heavily again on Eugene’s development and thus the stories the Guard was covering, with only the bare bones about what was going on at the Guard itself: Fisher sold it in 1913 to E.J. Finneran and bought Salem’s Capital-Journal newspaper, but Finneran essentially went bankrupt in 1916, and the Guard was run by a receivership for three months until Fisher bought it back again. But he apparently stayed in Salem until 1919, appointing the Register’s news editor (and former Guard advertising manager) Joseph Shelton to run it in the meantime.

The 1917-1927 pages start with Eugene’s history during the period, then quickly move to the question of how Fisher editorialized against the Ku Klux Klan (which in the 1920s essentially ran the government of Oregon, the state where it was illegal for black Americans to live until 1926) at the same time evidence showed he was a KKK member! The section’s author asks, “Could Fisher have joined the Klan to keep an eye on them?” Apparently no one knows.

In any case, Fisher sold the Guard in 1924 to Paul Kelty, a long-time editor at The Oregonian (and nephew of its editor, Harvey Scott) who previously had worked at the Portland Telegram and the Los Angeles Examiner. But Kelty was not a good fit for Eugene, and in 1927, he sold it to the current owners’ patriarch, Alton Baker Sr. from Cleveland (and son of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s president). Baker paid just under $100,000, or about $1.3 million in 2017 dollars.

The 1927-1937 pages do not explain why a daily newspaper with a daily competitor, in a city of perhaps 16,000 people, was worth almost $100,000 in 1927, or even more so, in the 1927-37 section, why the Register was worth $244,000 (about $3.5 million now) when Baker bought in November 1930. (In this history, the Register disappears into the Guard without the reader ever finding out much at all about it, not even why its name came first in the new one.) The section does admit that the Register price was “steep” and the acquisition “risky,” and that salaries were twice cut 10% between 1931 and 1933 to keep the now Register-Guard afloat. (Perhaps this is the Baker third generation way of admitting that their grandfather grossly overpaid.) Oddly, the section does not mention the October 1929 stock market crash and coming Great Depression, or that the US newspaper industry already had been consolidating for about 15 years.

The 1937-1947 page is almost entirely about Eugene and Oregon history, not the newspaper’s, with the exception of Alton’s sons, Alton Jr. (“Bunky”) and Ted, joining the newspaper staff in 1946 and “soon” thereafter, respectively, and that Ted Baker became an important Eugene philanthropist.

Which tells you just about everything you need to know about the 1947-2017 section of this special issue of the Eugene Register-Guard: a puff piece in which it is not clear that the Baker family gives credit to anyone but themselves for the newspaper’s last 70 years, with the exceptions of long-time editor Bill Tugman, Don Bishoff, and several (ex-)staffers who eventually won Pulitzer Prizes. The section never admits or even hints that anyone in the Baker family ever made any mistake (although noting that former Oregonian publisher N. Christian Anderson III lasted only six months in 2015 as Register-Guard publisher comes close). The woman who answered the phone, “Eugene Register God,” is not mentioned, nor is Barrie Hartman, who went on to be editor and editorial page editor of the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera for 18 years (1983-2001).

Claussen is Editor of The Intelligencer and the James Pedas Professor of Media, Communication & Public Relations, Thiel College, Greenville, Pa. Regardless of what he might say or write about them, he appreciates newspapers that recognize and commemorate their own histories.

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