30 Years of Willamette Week

Thirty years. By our count, that's 1,322 restaurant reviews, 1,134 political endorsements, 14,007 music previews-and more angry letters about Callahan than we care to think about.

To celebrate, we chose to take a look at the last 30 years of Portland. (We did something similar five years ago and figured we should give it another shot.) Then we began to write an introductory column-one of those take-ourselves-and-our-accomplishments-too-seriously pieces. But the staff pleaded with us not to. Instead, they sat us down last Friday afternoon with a tape recorder. Here's a little of what transpired.

WW: People always ask, "Why does the paper have such a stupid name, and why do you keep it?"

RICHARD MEEKER: I know the answer to that question. Ron Buel created that name, once upon a time. He wanted to call this the Willamette Valley Truth, and he had the idea of having a paper in every city in the Willamette Valley. There was a lot of discussion at the beginning of the paper, and instead of the Willamette Valley Truth it morphed into Willamette Week.

MARK ZUSMAN: We never changed the name because we could never afford new stationery.

Why did you two come to Portland?

ZUSMAN: I came to Portland, in part, because it was so far away from where I grew up in Connecticut. This was sort of "Go west, young man."

How did you get here?

MEEKER: The first time I came through Oregon, I was 17 years old. I was driving across the country and reading Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey. Four years later, I wrote my English thesis about Kesey. I ended up going to the UO law school-and marrying Ken's attorney!

When I first came here, this town could have gone two different ways. It could have become a typical American city-no downtown, a hopeless sprawl. Or it could have become a kind of community that could sustain a newspaper like WW. The genius of Portland is that it chose the latter course.

ZUSMAN: I hitchhiked. I think it's hard for anybody to travel here and not realize this city is something special. Remember, in those days, it was post-Watergate, post-Vietnam. To me, and thousands of other kids on the East Coast, Oregon was this island of sanity amidst this sea of madness. Clearly, moving here was a good decision. Yet I'm convinced that WW's success is not because of us. It's because this is a city of readers and people who actually give a damn.

What's the biggest mistake you've made in the past 30 years?

ZUSMAN: Drinking on the job. Well, not this job. I came to the state in part because I idolized [former Gov.] Tom McCall. I was working my way through journalism graduate school at the U of O as a bartender at the Valley River Inn in Eugene. Once Tom McCall came in, and I introduced myself. He sat down and talked to me for about 20 minutes. I was 25, and it was like a religious experience. He leaves. I'm shaking. I pour myself a drink. My boss walks in. I wasn't working there much longer.

What was the toughest moment for the business?

MEEKER: When we got started in 1983 [when we bought the paper], we were relatively clueless. But from a simple business point of view, there was a time, years later, in which we had WW and papers in Santa Fe and Boise. Santa Fe was losing money hand over fist, Boise was losing money hand over fist, and WW's profits couldn't support them. That was a scary year.

What has surprised you the most?

ZUSMAN: I think we're both amazed that we still love what we do. This job never loses challenges. I never fail to get inspired by the people that we manage to attract and retain. That surprised me.

MEEKER: I thought there would come a moment where we could put our feet up on the table, lean back and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Nothing could have been further from reality. Instead, every year, it gets more complicated, more challenging and more fun. It's amazingly to be in my mid-50s and more energized about my work than when I was 25.

Have you guys gotten soft?

MEEKER: In the belly?

No, soft in journalism.

ZUSMAN: Take a look through this issue-you decide.

Editor Chris Lydgate

Copy Editors Ian Gillingham, Margaret Seiler, Matt Buckingham, Michael Nicoloff, Carrie Meech

Design Thomas Cobb

Contributors Mark Baumgarten, Byron Beck, Caryn B. Brooks, Matt Buckingham, Nick Budnick, John Buffaloe, Taylor Clark, Kelly Clarke, Philip Dawdy, Zach Dundas, Steve Forrester, John Graham, Rachel Graham, Brandon Hartley, Pete Hunt, Nigel Jaquiss, Paul Koberstein, Michaela Lowthian, Grant Menzies, Adam Moore, Becky Ohlsen, Janine Robben, John Schrag, Aaron Scott, David Shafer, Joel Smith, Marty Smith, Audrey Van Buskirk, Greg Veerman, David Walker, Patty Wentz, Bob Young


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