As we look toward the New Year, we think about all the people we wish well in the year to come. Of course, for the most part, our wishes are directed to people we know personally. But sports fans also think about our favorite teams and players. And we political folks probably spend some of our emotional energy hoping that our favorite politicians have good years.
I’m going to spend some of my emotional energy hoping that Peter Bhatia, the new editor of the Oregonian (replacing Sandy Rowe), has a great year.
I don’t know Bhatia personally; I think I’ve had two interactions with him – once, years ago, when I called to complain about something or other, and once when I asked him a question at the City Club. (He responded thoughtfully both times.) But it is incredibly important for our state that Bhatia succeed, somehow, in stemming the tide of pink slips at our largest newspaper.
I know that it’s fashionable in some circles to deride the Oregonian. Fashionable, but idiotic. When I worked at the Justice Department, I did a fair amount of travel. I’m a diehard newspaper reader, so wherever I went, I’d read the newspaper. And if you think the Oregonian is a bad paper, you should try the Dallas Morning News or the Kansas City Star or even the San Francisco Chronicle on for size.
But it’s not just by comparison that the Oregonian is a good paper. It’s just a good paper, period. If you read the Oregonian regularly, you’re going to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on the state. Of course, whenever I’m working on a specific issue, I’m never satisfied with their coverage. Goes with the territory. But when I read a story on something I’m not working on – like Brent Walth’s stories on Social Security and SSI, or Betsy Hammond’s piece on a brilliant math teacher in Lebanon, or Harry Esteve’s report from Josephine County when it looked like the Federal timber payments were going away, or Jeff Mapes’ ‘from the archives’ blogs from the past, or Michelle Cole’s profile of Bruce Goldberg, or Ted Sickinger’s latest piece on energy, or Janie Har’s article on Medicare prescription drug plans, or Jim Mayer’s ‘final thoughts on state budget coverage’ piece, or Andy Dworkin’s story on ‘dual eligibles’ – I am, quite often, not just impressed, but impressed and grateful as all get out.
I feel the same way about the editorial page. Well, I confess, I have a special soft spot for the editorial page. I still can’t believe they endorsed me. But I’m also more than grateful for their unyielding support on the obscure issue of video lottery retailer commissions. I was delighted when they took a strong stand against ballot-title shopping. And I think they share my obsession with letting people know where tax dollars go. (Thanks again, Susan Nielsen, for highlighting the Open Books Project.) And I gotta say, I’m still tickled that Bob Caldwell took my urgent Saturday call and heeded my suggestion that he read Gerald Ford’s 1975 State of the Union address before writing the Ford obituary editorial.
I don’t want to lose any of those stories and editorials for myself. More importantly, I want Peter Bhatia to somehow stop losing, and if possible regain, regular newspaper readers. Because I don’t see how a healthy democracy survives the collapse of the mass newspaper. Sure, the news junkies will still get news But that’s what, 12% of the population? What worries me is the thought that there were probably many tens of thousands of people who don’t have the time or interest to go out of their way to get much news – but who used to get some news, almost accidentally, by glancing at the front page before turning to the sports or Living section. The people who don’t usually spend much time thinking about education policy or health care reform, but who saw a headline that caught their eye and wound up reading at least one good article.
I suspect that the existence of a somewhat functioning democracy has been sustained, in large part, by those accidental glances at the front page. And as fewer and fewer people ever see a front page, the twin threats of apathy and demagoguery grow greater.
So this holiday season, let’s all raise a glass to Peter Bhatia, and wish him well. Let’s hope that somehow, against all odds, he finds the magic formula to stem the tide and then reverse it. Let’s hope that no more of the writers who have informed and amused us over the years disappear from view.
Because if you’re an Oregonian, the Oregonian matters to you.