Great Astoria fire of 1922

Downtown Astoria smolders in the wake of the Dec. 8, 1922 fire.

The author of this slim book manages to recreate a world where newspaper editors shot up Western towns with their words while angry citizens responded with guns. The book recreates the excitement of reporting the first news about gold strikes, jail breaks and the closing down of opium dens in 19th-century Oregon. It tells the Wild West news as reported on the spot by early journalists.

In 1880s Pendleton, “Almost every issue of the East Oregonian told of fights, pistol-whippings, knife fights, racing horses on the major streets,” writes the book’s author, Bill Willingham. The town had 11 saloons — five on a single block of Main Street alone — to serve a population of 1,000.

And the editor did not mince words. Sam Jackson, a founder of the East Oregonian, wrote this about a rival newspaperman: “You are … an unconscientious, worthless, unprincipled adventurer who by accident gained control of a (newspaper) … Your purpose is low and unbecoming a thief …”

Jackson’s success as a newspaperman set the pace for the creation of today’s EO Media Group — the 12 daily, weekly, monthly and annual publications, including The Daily Astorian and Salem’s Capital Press. “Grit and Ink” is the story of the survival of these and other papers under the auspices of a series of families who shared a devotion to community news and good business practices. As an early founder, E.B Aldrich, put it, “A newspaper that is weak financially can’t be a strong voice in the community.”

Willingham must have had fun poring over crumbling stacks of old papers to find these lively stories to braid into a larger picture of the past and future of the newspaper business. On the one hand, he makes clear that there have been hard times before that caused many papers to die. On the other, today’s hard times stem not from cyclical economic crises but from the technological revolution. Newspaper readership has plunged nationwide as readers have turned to the internet for news (often supplied by newspapers). And that means that advertising revenue has plunged as well. The EO Media Group papers have experienced a significantly smaller circulation decline than the national press, but that is small solace when the bottom line is affected. Still they are surviving!

Today’s news isn’t as rootin’-tootin’ as it was in Jackson’s day, but the stories are similarly gripping. A recent series conveyed the excitement of exposing what climate change is doing to the agricultural, forest and fishing economies of the West. It was published throughout the group’s circulation area, in print and on the internet. And then there was the effort by the Aryan Nations to establish a white homeland and headquarters in Grant County in 2010, followed by the 2016 effort by armed anti-government agitators to take over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Harney County. Yes, this is still the Wild West and newspaper editors still courageously tackle these issues.

The EO Media Group of the 21st century is an example of a rapidly disappearing enterprise: the family owned and run newspaper. “The company traces its roots to the Bull and Jackson families of the 19th century and continues with the Aldrich, Forrester, Bedford, Brown and Chessman families of the 20th and 21st century,” Willingham writes. “Across time the connecting link has always been a commitment to providing objective reporting and honoring the diverse opinions and values of the communities served by their newspapers.”

Honest reporting always irks someone. Today, the president inveighs against “fake news” and calls journalists the “enemy of the people.” And newsrooms across the nation have bulked up security since June 28, 2018, when an irate reader shot his way into a small-city newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, murdering five employees of The Capital — two editors, two reporters and a staffer. Informing the public honestly and fearlessly is the job of journalists. Such reporting is essential to making communities thrive and for democracy to work.

It is pride-making that these families have carried the torch for truth for close to 150 years.

Carol Richards is an adjunct professor of journalism at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She has written editorials for USA Today and Newsday and op-eds for the Annapolis Capital.

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