Good Luck, Peter Bhatia

Steve Novick

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.

  • (Show?)

    I'm a native Oregonian, and I can't wait for it to die, so we can reboot and return to local journalism instead of corporate printtainment.

  • LT (unverified)

    Great column, Steve. And the choice of font looks really nice also.

  • Satchel Pooch (unverified)

    Nicely done, Steve. ::: clink :::

  • Grant Schott (unverified)

    I couldn't agree more that the Oregonian is an outstanding newspaper. Especially for state politics, it seems to be the only game it town, with the possible exception of the Salem and Eugene papers. I thought W Week had great political coverage in the 90's, but it seems to be very much scaled now outside of their murmurs column and an occasional article, usually by Nigel Jaquiss who is outstanding.

    Probably the greatest critiscm of The O, and an obvious one, is that they have been too establishment and cozy with some politicians. This was evident in 1984 when columnist Jack Anderson broke the Mark/Antoinette Hatfield being lobbied/paid by Basil Takos story.

    The Washington Post, of course, broke the Packwood sexual harassment story despite one of its reporters the victim of an unwanted Packwood advance. Who can forget the bumper sticker, "If it Matters to Oregonians, it's in The Washington Post?"

    Probably their greatest failing was in letting the Goldschmidt sex crime story sit for so many years, until W Week was ready to pounce, when The O gave Goldschmidt a front page opportunity to "confess" an "affair". It will take them a long time to live that one down.

    Hopefully The O will learn from those mistakes, continue their outstanding reporting and be better than ever.

  • John Silvertooth (unverified)

    We see on Wikpedia Steve you moved to Oregon in 1972 so maybe you don't share the old Oregon progressive's moss back hated of all things The Oregonian.

    The days have passed when Henry Pittock sat atop of Portland issuing his eddicts.

    The days of the union smashing violence arson and bombings of the Portland Reporter days are history when interests favoring the Oregonian reigned terror on unionism and labor.

    Take over of the Oregon Journal which firmly entrenched Oregon as a one newsspaper state is a distant dream in an era when the Oregonian's tenacles reached into virtually all of Oregon's major media.

    And they have always had a Republican agenda- that's why old man Dyer founded the paper in the 1850's. Look at the shameful way they sat on the Bob Packwood sex scandal (pun intended).

    In 1934 when Republican turned Progressive State Senator Peter Zimmerman ran for Governor his campaign literature proudly proclaimed "The Oregonian or Oregon?"

    Today it's a sign of the times I guess that progressives pander to the Oregonian and maybe it is best to move on- Afterall the new ownership is just another vacant distant corporation trying to turn profit. Newspapers are on the wane and will probably not survive in any event.

    The day the Oregonian closes will mark the passing of an era in Oregon- but hear this from an Oregonian certified since 1854, I delivered in Oregonian in the Portland rain and having been in the Oregonian many times, I say as an Oregonian, the Oregonian DOES NOT MATTER to me.

  • (Show?)

    Steve, I agree and wish him well as well. But I'm not so optimistic Peter Bhatia or anyone can turn the decline around. Revenues continue to go down. I'm not sure that there is a new business model that can sustain the Oregonian as we have known it.

  • Bill McDonald (unverified)

    Steve, We've just gone through some cold windy weather. Lips can become extremely dry and sore. I would refrain from this sort of post, unless you buy your Chapstick in big vats from Costco. There was a time when politicians feared the 4th Estate before mega-wealthy corporations bought Congress and the media, and began using newspapers as PR firms. Would Nixon's resignation have happened with today's papers? I doubt it. Would the newspaper of yesteryear kept us out of Iraq? Maybe so. The way you write about this in such a gushing symbiotic tone shows our decline. Where's the irony? The love-fest here between a politician and the 4th Estate is a big part of the problem. The key for Peter Bhatia is to make the Oregonian something that politicians have to read because they are afraid of what's in it.

  • Joe Hill (unverified)

    What I see in the Oregonian is paper-thin and full of errors of fact. Their coverage of Portland schools, for example, is downright embarrassing. The website is nearly unnavigable and unreadable.

    I would like to see a paper of record here in Portland, but the Oregonian would have to go a long way forward to make that happen.

    I think that they are congenitally wedded to the corporatist agenda. That's too bad. Imagine what could be done with local coverage, for example, if they would have hired the One True B!x to head up their City Hall reporting. Remember when he did blogging from there? There hasn't been as much good reporting about local power before or since. And there are others as well . . . imagine if Steve Buels or Steve Rawls were reporting on education instead of the shills that they have now. Carla from this site has done some excellent reporting on environmental legislation. It is too bad that the Oregonian won't simply look at the people who are doing the best work and say: create a next generation medium of information and opinion that everyone will have to read if they want to be in the loop.

    I think that anyone who is now associated with the Oregonian, though (and I literally don't know anyone except through their work), is not likely to favor the mammals over the dinosaurs.

  • Sir Humphrey Appleby (unverified)

    Yes, reading the O provides a person with a lot of important information. Along with a heaping helping of extremely harmful disinformation.

    All hope is lost for the Oregonian because people are waking up to fact that the O is a mouthpiece for corporate lobbyists first, and a newspaper second. Whatever balance there is exists purely to provide cover for their constant advocacy on behalf of elite moneyed interests.

    And to those who say the O is dying because newspapers are going extinct: The Merc seems to get thicker every week, and keeps hiring more reporters. I think what's dying is the notion that Americans will continue to swallow corporatist propaganda masquerading as news forever.

  • (Show?)

    Print is dead. Period.

    Whether it's ten years or a few decades out, books, libraries, newspapers, and all related will be electronic, and the hard copy stuff will be a niche market populated mostly by ancient boomers.


    As a current subscriber to The Oregonian, I actually open one about three or four times a week. All the ads have fled to craigslist and other online venues, and any news from outside Oregon is instantly available online from my phone.

  • Tom (unverified)

    This is the first time I've been so disappointed in Steve Novick's sense of reality. The strong left hook is being used to kiss a whiny corporate ass.

    From persecuting the mayor over getting legally laid to obsessively spreading a dishonest narrative about how their poooooooor business class golf buddies were supposedly shut out of the corporate tax debate in the legislature, the Oregonian has gotten even more pathetic lately than when it endorsed George "He's open minded and bipartisan because he says so" W Bush back in 2000.

    I wish all corporate national conglomerate media a speedy demise, including the Oregonian even if it isn't quite as odious as the Knoxville Klansman or the Greensboro Gaybasher or whatever. In other words they have a progressive constituency and there isn't an excuse to be anything like papers in those areas, even if they aren't as bad.

  • Bob McNaughton (unverified)

    So, Steve, do you spit or swallow?

  • JK (unverified)

    Posted by: Bob McNaughton | Dec 15, 2009 9:47:22 PM

    So, Steve, do you spit or swallow?

    Speaking of dead media, when one considers the level of general rudeness on here, along with the noise to signal ratio, this isn't exactly the future.

  • (Show?)

    Let me agree with Joe Hill on the low quality of the online Oregonian. I often can not find online an article that appeared in the printed version delivered to my home. I also do not like the fact that everything disappears after three weeks or so.

    Let me disagree with Joe on the Oregonian's coverage of education in Portland. I think it is generally good.

  • GWeiss (unverified)

    I was an associate editor in Washington, D.C., when I moved to Oregon 23 years ago, and I had hoped to continue working for a daily paper when I got here--until I started reading the Oregonian editorial page and looking carefully at how stories were edited. I noticed the stories that never appeared--and I realized that I didn't want to be a corporate flack with a byline. Nothing in the paper since has led me to change that judgement.

    Many of the news stories in the Oregonian are fine. The reporters do a good job. Where are the other stories--the ones that make it a news source to be sought out--Like:

    Where is the ongoing story about the Chasse murder fallout? Where is the story about Homer Williams being handed prime waterfront property to build condominiums for the wealthy? Where's the story about Wyden's sellout of the public option? Where's the story about Potter effectively stopping work halfway through his term? Where's the story about the teachers' union interfering with effective teaching practices? Where's the story about Leonard trying to ram the stadium into Lents? Where's the story about the African-American churches whipping up opposition to gay marriage?

    Where are these stories? Every one of them is part of the fabric that makes up Oregon. Sometimes it isn't so much what's in the Oregonian that's disappointing--it's what's not there that makes me wonder how it can ever be a trusted news source. Other news sources have these stories.

  • Bill McDonald (unverified)

    I've been through this feeling before. It was years ago when Newt Gingrich's lesbian half-sister appeared at an event in Washington, D.C. My joke explored what that upbringing must have been like - the shame and suffering they went through when they first realized one of the family was a politician. See why that's innocent? The audience assumes you're going someplace and you veer off. It's a gotcha because it exposes their own built-in prejudices. I see the Gingrich family around the dinner table when the daughter announces she's gay. The response is, "That's perfectly okay with us. We love you and accept you for who you are." Then a young Newt Gingrich clears his throat and says, "Mom, Dad, I think I may be a politician." Immediately the wailing starts. His Mom yells, "Why God? Why?" The Dad storms out. It's good comedy, right?

    That joke went on national TV. It introduced this particular topic to the comedy troops around America and they jumped all over it. By the end of the week, I heard a joke about Newt hating his sister because she got more girls in high school. In short it started innocently and just deteriorated going from mildly funny to ugly in record time.

    I had the same feeling tonight with my Chapstick bit as I watched it degenerate in the ensuing comments.

    Let me take another approach:

    As a freelancer, I have applied to the Oregonian maybe a half dozen times. Since a member of my band grew up with Peter Bhatia in Pullman, Washington, I sent the emails to him. He invariably handled this ongoing application process with class. I like him for that.

    One frustration I had was seeing my lines reprinted in the Oregonian along with in Time Magazine, and on countless websites. At least once, my line was reprinted in the paper in big letters on the editorial page with a nice ink illustration.

    My point to Peter was, I'm already sort of in the paper. Why not hire me as a columnist? He didn't go for it, but I did end up writing over 150 columns for the Portland Tribune. That ended rather abruptly right around when I questioned the war in Iraq just prior to the invasion. Still the overall experience made me realize how great being a columnist is, and to this day, reading some of the national competition frustrates me no end. I felt I could do better. I still feel that way.

    For one thing, I have quite a background. Forget the comedy stuff for radio and television - I was born in the Middle East for Christ sake. I know I could make more sense of some of these things than the so-called pundits who go on getting promotions after being wrong over and over again.

    Bill Kristol ended up with a column in the New York Times. The call girl-escort service individual Ashley Dupre who brought down Governor Spitzer just got her own column in the New York Post.

    The newspaper business is in trouble. Yes, the Internet is a huge factor, but so is the staid, arrogant dullness. Too often an editor acts like newspapers are required reading. They are not. Not anymore. Meanwhile, individuals such as myself who would gladly try and revive the industry are shunned. Hence, the frustration.

    So in conclusion, I withdraw the Chapstick bit. I agree with Steve: Best wishes to Peter Bhatia. He is a credit to Portland and a class act. Peter, contact me if you need me. It's close but I'm ready to make the call: The Oregonian now needs me a lot more than I need it.

  • DanOregon (unverified)

    Oregonians should be grateful that the new editor of the paper IS an Oregonian. Quite rare for the top job at a state's leading paper to go to someone who has actually lived in the state for more than 15 years, let alone worked at the paper. Congrats and good luck Mr. Bhatia.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    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.

    I don't think either Pat Ryan or myself are fashion conscious nor are we idiots. This Dem logic that "we're not that bad because the other choices are awful" has worn quite thin.

    What is more significant is that by becoming a responsible, objective voice, the O could really get a shot in the arm in readership. One can only conclude that they continue in the same old vein because suppressing debate is more important than readership, and that is why they are finished.

    Maybe it would have been more intellectually honest to have entitled this, "Good Riddance, Sandy Rowe". This seems to be a study in how the rules of PC speech twist statements 180 degrees. I'll be the first to be delighted to be proved wrong, but, returning to reality, what are the odds?

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    Shorter Steve Novick (ho ho!):

    "Doesn't it look like itself? It looks great. They did a great job."

  • (Show?)

    Steve, my brother, Aaron, works at the KC Star. you need to pick a different target!

    he's the tv writer, however, and not your typical "hey watch this!" hack. he writes about tv, culture, the community and more. his site TV Barn is one of the best and most highly regarded in the industry. the Star may have problems, but Aaron's not one of them!

  • Unionresource (unverified)

    The Oregonian is one of the most regressive newspapers in the nation. When in 2003, the majority of editors and writers at the Oregonian refused to endorse George Bush, the publisher of the paper overruled them and endorsed him anyway.

    Those who own the presses control the news.

    The Oregonian, as an institution, tends to ignore progressive events and selectively deliver relatively biased news which is most often favorable towards corporate sponsorships and the Fortune 500.

    This paper is generally unwilling and unlikely to provide adequate, fair, or accurate progressive community resources and information. The publication is all about Wall street and not real concerned about Main street. It is no friend to working people.

    Steve Novick is a good man, but he is clearly not a journalist. To say the Oregonian is relatively no better or worse than most corporate whores would be accurate. But to pretend the Oregonian is either fair or unbiased is ridiculous. It is flat delusional to claim the Oregonian is "a good paper."

    The managment and owners of the Oregonian are proactively anti-union. They endorsed Steve, but this transparent tactic is no good reason to begin kissing collective patooties. I wish the new editor well, but I hope Mr. Novick reconsiders his curious claims. Disappointing.

    Tim Flanagan local writer, editor, & organizer

  • blackandblue (unverified)

    The Oregonian endorsed Kerry in 2004. You must be one helluva editor.

  • Jason (unverified)

    "From persecuting the mayor over getting legally laid..."

    Oh, yes, and I never inhaled.

  • Dan Hortsch (unverified)

    So strange that people would call a newspaper that endorsed Steve Novick a corporatist newspaper. Not to mention the fact that former publisher Fred Stickel liked Sen. McCain in the last presidential race, but went with the strong majority on the Editorial Board who supported then-Sen. Obama.

    As for the comment that it is "Quite rare for the top job at a state's leading paper to go to someone who has actually lived in the state for more than 15 years, let alone worked at the paper": Until Fred Stickel named Sandy Rowe Editor in 1993, the top editing position forever -- or just about that long -- had been filled by someone on the news staff for decades. In 1993, Mr. Stickel made a wise choice to go outside for a different perspective. This time, the new publisher made a wise choice in Peter Bhatia. Different times call for different approaches.

    Good piece, Steve. The Oregonian has not always been perfect, but it has made great leaps in the past 20 years. Your examples of first rate reporting underscore your argument. With great effort and some kind of break with the economy, that work will continue.

  • blackandblue (unverified)

    "In 1993, Mr. Stickel made a wise choice to go outside for a different perspective."

    Yes, it was a wise choice, considering that the "insider" editor he was replacing had sat on the Packwood story (and as we now know, thanks to Bob Landauer's confession to Nigel Jaquiss, the Goldschmidt story in '86).

  • Sen. Nob Peckerwood (unverified)

    Posted by: blackandblue | Dec 16, 2009 3:36:42 PM

    "In 1993, Mr. Stickel made a wise choice to go outside for a different perspective."

    Yes, it was a wise choice, considering that the "insider" editor he was replacing had sat on the Packwood story

    Now that's progressive!

  • Writingresource (unverified)

    The Oregonian supported George Bush on their editorial page during most of his run in 2004.

    They finally voted to switch their endorsement to Kerry October 10, 2004, less than a month before the election, but their editorial page continued to support Bush.


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