Among the first conversations I had with Chris Rush after he became publisher of the East Oregonian in May 2018 was about the nature of self-obsessed journalists.
I’ll leave out the names (you know them; they’re not from around here), but he and I share the opinion that navel-gazing and mugging for the camera don’t benefit the profession or its mission. People pay us to report the news, to suss out facts from a world of falsehoods, to provide context they haven’t considered and answer questions they haven’t thought to ask. They aren’t interested in seeing us pat ourselves on the back for doing our jobs.
But I’ve also come to realize that the tendency of many hard-working journalists to keep their heads down and do their jobs, without taking a moment to explain its importance, is detrimental.
So with my last column as the managing editor of the East Oregonian, I’d like to tell you why your local newspaper has been and will continue to be a vital part of your community.
When speaking in public about the EO, I often begin by pointing out its 1875 founding. Nearly everything has changed in that time. Businesses and organizations and officials have come and gone, but the newspaper has endured.
Those editions, written and compiled by first-draft historians on a deadline, tell in intricate detail the story of Eastern Oregon. Writers and professors often ask for access to our bound volumes to research the threads of history uncovered and held together in that reporting. It’s humbling to have been part of that tradition, making decisions every day about what should go in the record and seeking out what we’re missing.
But what the newspaper was doing at the turn of the 20th century, and even the 21st, is only a small part of its value. The subscribers and advertisers of those days paid for those editions to be created and distributed.
Readers and advertisers still fund our work, but they have different demands — especially readers. The newspaper was once an understood staple of daily life, a product delivered, considered and recycled. It covered a breadth of topics, bringing news, opinion, humor, gossip and public notices into one place.
Now consumers can find many of these things readily on the internet. Garfield is no match for a YouTube rabbit hole. Our single page of opinion can’t begin to satisfy the modern hunger for hot takes, long reads and political memes. And gossip — the days of the newspaper’s Society page is long gone, replaced by the boundless depths of social media.
So rather than creating a product that attempts to replicate the newspapers of days gone by, we’re working to be a service that excels at the core function of offering irreplaceable local news.
A few examples from the past year:
Umatilla County is home to two of the state’s prisons with the capacity to house 3,500 inmates — about five percent of the county’s population. Kathy Aney and E.J. Harris spent time last summer shadowing inmates and corrections officers to show what daily life is like for both.
A conflict between an elderly Stanfield widower and his housekeeper spilled from the court system to social media, with each accusing the other of criminal mistreatment. A lengthy reporting process, including multiple interviews by Phil Wright with both parties, law enforcement and the district attorney, showed the story wasn’t as cut and dried as the debate on Facebook would lead to believe.
The abrupt resignation of Pendleton’s fire chief, beloved by many in the community, was yet another in a series of short tenures in the city department. While few officials spoke on the record, Antonio Sierra reported on public records that showed a clash between the fire chief and police chief, who has administrative oversight of his department.
We’ve done in-depth reporting on the influx of Amazon data centers near Hermiston and drone testing in Pendleton, the impact of homelessness on children and adults, and the influx of non-English speakers into the classroom and courtroom.
In all our reporting, we’re trying to simultaneously pique and satisfy our readers’ curiosity. We’re trying to provide context to the stories you already know a little bit about, and break ground on topics you haven’t begun to consider.
This newsroom will have a new editor in the coming months, but the mission won’t change. And I’d whole-heartedly suggest as a reader, you take advantage of the service we’d like to provide. Ask questions, write letters to the editor, stop by for a chat.
A newspaper can only be as good as its community, and vice versa.
On a personal note, I’d like to thank all the great people I’ve worked with inside and outside the walls of this newspaper office. I’ve had mentors who taught me the trade, but also that after the deadline passes we’re all people who must live with and care for one another. I’ve had the pleasure of leading a team of talented journalists who are passionate about reporting the news in rural Oregon, and hopefully I’ve been able to pass along some of those lessons. And I’ve been welcomed by every community I’ve set foot in, even though my home has always been in Hermiston.
It’s been a special place to work and I’m thankful to the readers who continue to pick us up each day.