Attendees at the Oct. 30 Josephy Center Brown Bag luncheon received a history lesson on the importance and evolution of rural community newspapers. Steve Forrester, co-owner of Eastern Oregon Media Group, which owns the Chieftain and other newspapers, commissioned the writing of a historical book on his family’s journalistic adventures.
The book, titled “Grit and Ink,” contains 218 pages of the family’s four-generation saga. Historian William Willingham guided the project, which took more than four years to research and write.
A packed house at the center listened to Willingham’s talk about the book and both the author and Forrester answered audience questions about the book and journalism past and present.
After a brief introduction by Forrester, Willingham told the audience that the book had three themes: community, the changing nature of journalism over more than 130 years and the family that brought the previous two themes together though shaping communities through the written word.
For example, Charles “Sam” Jackson, one of the original owners of the East Oregonian in Pendleton, thought the city should change its rough cow town atmosphere into one of more gentility and wrote numerous editorials to that effect that eventually swayed the debate.
“It’s an example of how journalism can help a community find its values and focus over time,” Willingham said.
The family saga began when Edwin B. Aldrich took over editorship and part ownership of the paper in 1908 after several years as a reporter. It was Aldrich who through the publication steered the town toward reopening its defunct woolen mills and also pushed for the formation of the Pendleton Roundup.
Next, the company bought the Astoria Budget –– today the Daily Astorian. The purchase of The Twin Falls Times in Idaho was next, but it was sold about a year later at a loss just about the time the Great Depression hit.
The owners weathered depressions, world wars and financial crises into the ‘70s when they began picking up weeklies surrounding the daily hubs.
“You can learn a lot about what was happening in Oregon history just by following the adventures of this newspaper family while carrying out community journalism,” Willingham said.
Audience questions ranged from technical questions about how newspapers are printed in the modern era to charges of “fake news.” Willingham noted the company’s commitment to print journalism and said the company prints all of its own papers and even other newspapers.
The author discussed the changing revenue situation with newspapers due to the Internet, which cut deep into newspaper income formerly earned through classified advertising.
Forrester addressed an audience question about the relative health of rural community newspapers versus metropolitan newspapers. He believes rural publication seemed more focused on who they were serving.
“In terms of what your focus is, it gets very muddled, and if you’re not clear about it, you try to do too many things or not enough,” he said. “It’s easier to define ourselves in our markets.”
Obviously pleased by the presentation and audience participation and appreciation, Forrester said he’d only briefly considered doing anything else with his life.
Forrester said he’s only stepped away from the newspaper business once -- when he was 28.
“I ran a guy’s political campaign in Portland, and I became enamored with that line of work,” he said.
It wasn’t long before he was back in journalism.
“If I brought my grandfather back into our newsroom, he would notice three things: He would say, ‘No one is smoking in here,’ he would say, ‘It’s very quiet in here,’ and then he’d say, ‘Where did all these women come from?’” The nature of the workplace has changed.” Willingham said he enjoyed his work and admired the work the family has done.
“The true determination over four generations to maintain a commitment to the values of community journalism is something,” he said. “That’s quite a record. That’s where the grit in the title comes from –– they didn’t give up in the face of difficulties or roadblocks.”