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November 4th, 2009 HENRY STERN | News Stories
 

The Daily Show

Can a new publisher reverse the slide at The Oregonian?

     
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IMAGE: Jonathan Hill

N. Christian Anderson III began his job this week as publisher of The Oregonian at one of the more harrowing times in the daily’s 159-year history.

Like most newspapers, The O has been devastated by the loss of advertising, the loss of readers, the explosion of competition from online news, and the recession.

Circulation numbers for the most recent six-month period fell 12 percent to fewer than 250,000 copies compared with the same period a year ago. And paid Sunday circulation has dipped below 300,000—down more than 25 percent from four years ago.

Staffers who didn’t take the paper’s previous generous buyout offers of two years’ pay and benefits are now weighing whether to take a new, less-kind buyout capped at six months’ pay and benefits. All told, The Oregonian newsroom will employ dozens fewer reporters compared to last year.

Even those who remain will have to take six unpaid furlough days next year. And there is now the threat of getting laid off—a possibility that was unthinkable not long ago at a company known for its paternalistic treatment of employees (born in part out of the paper’s anti-union history).

Anderson, 59, comes to this Rubik’s cube of challenges with a knowledge of the Northwest and journalism.

A native of Eastern Oregon and an Oregon State University graduate, Anderson became editor of Orange County’s Register in 1980 at only 30 years old—one former Register staffer said Anderson “had sort of been considered the boy wonder of American journalism”— after stops in Albany, Walla Walla and Seattle.

The Orange County Register won two Pulitzers before he left in 1994 to become publisher in Colorado Springs of The Gazette. He returned to the Register in 1999 as publisher and CEO, leaving in 2007 as part of a cost-cutting re-organization. Billed on his LinkedIn page as a media executive, strategist and consultant, Anderson also most recently has been a visiting professor of journalism ethics at Arizona State University.

Former Register staffers credit Anderson with elevating the paper in right-wing Orange County from a crappy, John Birch Society-influenced rag after arriving as editor in 1980. The paper was so right-tilting at the time that reporters could not use the phrase “public schools” or “public libraries” and were instead required to refer to them as “taxpayer-supported.”

Anderson—who, according to Orange County voting records, has chosen not to state a party affiliation—shielded the newsroom from the libertarian editorial-page politics of its parent company, Freedom Communications.

He added Orange County to the masthead and aggressively covered the county’s 31 communities to compete with the larger and more established Los Angeles Times. Anderson broke ground with heavy use of color photography and graphics, and he was considered an innovator in marrying Internet with print stories well ahead of other dailies.

One Anderson initiative that failed when he was publisher was the creation of the OC Post, a tabloid that aimed to attract new readers, and Squeeze OC—a weekly designed to have the feel of an alt-weekly. Both new print products flopped. “His theory was to create a host of niche publications,” said Norberto Santana Jr., a Register reporter for five years until leaving last summer to run an online news site called the Voice of OC. “But it was like a guy deciding to buy a very expensive house in 2006.”

The OC Post was “a dumbed-down version of the daily Register” and Squeeze OC “masqueraded as an alt weekly, but it didn’t have any pop,” Santana said.

So what does Anderson have planned to reverse The Oregonian’s freefall?

In the Oct. 27 Oregonian story about the hire, Anderson said he aims to cut costs while improving the paper’s print edition and its digital content at Oregonlive.com. The latter will be a challenge given the Newhouse newspapers’ perverse aversion to breaking a chainwide website template that critics blast as unattractive and hard to navigate.

One critic of Anderson who worked for him at the Register in the 1980s and 1990s predicts he will press for short, punchy front-page stories and may allow only one story to jump to an inside page.

“The president could declare war and you had to write it in four to five inches,” says one former Register staffer. “You won’t recognize The Oregonian in 18 months.”

Readers of The Oregonian aren’t the only ones who can expect changes with Anderson’s appointment as publisher. So can staff.

Anderson replaces Fred Stickel, who retired at age 87 after 35 years as publisher. In recent years, newsroom observers speculated he would be succeeded by Editor Sandy Rowe or Stickel’s son, Oregonian President Patrick Stickel.

Neither got the job.

Three Oregonian reporters told WW that Anderson’s background in journalism brings a sense of optimism to what has been a demoralized newsroom. Two of those staffers say the optimism is tempered by the question of whether layoffs will happen next year. Other former Register staffers say Anderson’s demeanor is unlikely to remind employees of Fred Stickel, dear to many Oregonian employees.

Santana said Anderson was rarely in the newsroom when he was publisher, usually a good thing from a reporter’s perspective.

Other ex-Register employees’ description of Anderson, from their dealings with him as an editor and publisher, ranged from “awkward” to “prick.”

“He is not touchy-feely,” said one former employee who went on to tell a story that the ex-staffer says may be apocryphal but is telling of many reporters’ perception of Anderson at the Register.

The tale starts with a meeting in which there’s a new idea expressed and somebody else says staff might push back on it.

Anderson’s reported response to the prospect of staff recalcitrance: “We can make the staff stand on its head eight hours a day if we want to.”


FACT: The National Press Foundation chose Anderson as its editor of the year in 1989. Editor and Publisher chose Anderson as its publisher of the year in 2007, the same year he left the Register.
 
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