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Historic Oregon Newspapers

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Portland Morning Oregonian [LCCN: sn83025138] and Sunday Oregonian [LCCN: sn83045782]
Portland, Oregon
1878-1906

 

While the Portland Oregonian was not the first newspaper in Oregon—four other titles preceded it—it is the earliest paper of pioneer times to have survived to the present day.  Founded by the businessmen Stephen Coffin and William W. Chapman, the primary aim of the paper was to promote Portland’s interests in competition with rival pioneer cities such as Milwaukie, Oregon City and Salem. Chapman and Coffin went to San Francisco in the summer of 1850 in order to secure a printing plant for their new venture. Here they also met Thomas J. Dryer, a newsman who made quite a favorable impression, and they hired him on the spot to be chief editor of the Oregonian. Dryer had some ability and energy to spare, but he was only really an ‘experienced’ journalist in the pioneer sense. In a story titled “A New Whig Paper at Portland,” the Milwaukie Star [LCCN: sn99066017] touted Dryer’s credentials as ‘former city editor of the California Courier [LCCN: sn82015710].’ Perhaps this was true; but the debut issue of the Courier had rolled off the presses just 3 days prior to Dryer’s meeting Coffin and Chapman.

Dryer returned to Portland with his new employers, but there were long delays in shipping the printing equipment from California. As they grew impatient waiting for their new Washington hand press to arrive, the decision was finally made to begin running off the paper on an older Ramage press.  As a result, the earliest issues of the Weekly Oregonian [LCCN: sn83045781] were often typographically subpar, poorly printed and undersized. The first issue premiered December 4, 1850, bearing the motto “Equal Rights, Equal Laws, Equal Justice to All Men.” The front page contained miscellaneous items such as ‘The Trapper, a Legend of the West’ and ‘The Fashionable Church’—not much that passes muster as real news. But the new printing plant finally arrived in March of 1851, and the paper was quickly improved and enlarged.

Thomas Dryer was remembered by his contemporaries as an energetic worker and inspirational speaker, but a writer with “more vigor than polish” and a regrettably slipshod businessman. However, he did have a good eye for assessing the talents of others. When a new typesetter he hired in 1853 demonstrated strong personal initiative and business acumen, Dryer did not hesitate to promote him, though Henry L. Pittock was just 17 years old at the time. Young Pittock quickly became the editor’s trusted protégé and right-hand man, entrusted with day-to-day management of the paper whenever Dryer was called away on his ever-more-frequent speaking engagements.

The Oregonian was headquartered on the second floor of a riverfront building at the corner of Front and Morrison Streets. News carriers had it hard in those days: there were no sidewalks, Portland’s streets were not yet graded, and each boy was responsible for delivery of 100-150 copies daily. Readers paid $7 for annual subscriptions and were expected to tip their carriers once per year, usually on New Years’ Day.

In its early years, the Oregonian devoted itself primarily to the state’s economic advancement and stumping for Whig politicians and policies. As the Whig collation splintered in the mid-1850’s, the Oregonian adopted Republican principles. Thomas Dryer endorsed and campaigned for Abraham Lincoln; his efforts to get the Senator from Illinois elected President were rewarded with a diplomatic appointment to the Sandwich Islands (Hawai’i.) Upon Dryer’s departure, ownership and editorship of the Oregonian was transferred to Henry L. Pittock in settlement for unpaid wages. The paper was nearly bankrupt at this time, but Pittock announced ambitious plans to turn it profitable and begin issuing a daily edition. His confidence in his own abilities was well founded, as he not only managed to salvage the Oregonian but would continue to shepherd it through decades of growth and challenges.

Volume 1 Number 1 of the Morning Oregonian [LCCN: sn83025138] appeared on February 4, 1861. The four-page paper featured one column of local news and 8 columns of ‘business’ from 56 advertisers. There were in excess of two columns of editorial content, all laden with national politics on the eve of the Civil War. The daily paper would be laboriously run off the hand press for more than a year before Pittock managed to procure a powered Hoe cylinder press from San Francisco.
In its early years the Morning Oregonian went through a series of capable but ultimately undistinguished editors. This changed in May of 1865, when Harvey Whitefield Scott assumed the post. Scott had begun his association with the Oregonian as a part-time editorial writer, having attracted the publisher’s attention while serving as city librarian and studying law. Harvey Scott was already celebrated around the state for his scholarship; he was Oregon’s first college graduate, being the sole member of Pacific University’s Class of 1863. With both first-hand Oregon Trail pioneer experience and a formal education in Latin, Greek and the classics of world literature, Scott seemed, despite his young age, uniquely well-positioned to steward the Oregonian. His career in journalism was to last nearly a half-century, and his achievements would help to cement the Oregonian’s position as the state’s paper of record, winning  for Scott widespread acclaim as the preeminent Northwestern newspaper editor of his era.

Under Scott, the editorial voice of the Oregonian was partisan and assertive. One of the first pieces he published after assuming the editor’s seat was a fierce denunciation of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. A loyal Republican, Scott’s cardinal principles were free trade and sound money. Throughout the contentious currency debates of the 1890’s Scott earned a reputation as the leading gold standard advocate in the largely ‘free-silver’ West.  This gained him no small amount of local notoriety; the Oregonian’s editorial thundering was said to have inspired the founding of many opposition newspapers all over the state. Scott’s social views were complex but essentially conservative. Unlike most newspaper editors of his day, he thought it perfectly appropriate to publish material of a religious theme. While he had been a committed abolitionist in the days before the Civil War, Scott was sympathetic to the South during Reconstruction and opposed the extension of full voting rights to all African Americans. He was also an outspoken critic of the burgeoning women’s rights movement--this, despite the fact that his own sister, Abigail Scott Duniway, was the leading suffragist in Oregon. From 1871 to 1887 Duniway published the progressive Portland New Northwest [LCCN: sn84022673] and the siblings often exchanged pointed barbs from their respective editorial pages. It should be noted that, notwithstanding his own strong opinions, Harvey Scott always believed in granting latitude for personal expression to the writers he employed, and so the pages of his Oregonian often reflect greater diversity of viewpoint than Scott’s political opponents generally liked to concede.

In 1910 Harvey Scott passed the torch to his successor, the experienced newspaperman Edgar B. Piper. A serious-minded but personable leader, Piper maintained as editor the conservative ethos and appearance of the Oregonian, while also helping to usher the paper (however cautiously)into the new era of ‘jazz’ journalism marked by livelier writing style and increased pictorial content. Throughout the early decades of the 20th Century the Oregonian employed a particularly distinguished staff of writers including Lawrence K. Hodges, William J. “Uncle Bill” Cuddy, Albert Hawkins, and Ben Lampman. The redoubtable Henry L. Pittock continued to put in long hours managing the business side of the paper’s operations right up to his death in 1919. By the time of his passing he had built a financial empire via investments in the state’s first paper mill, Portland banks, real estate, transportation and timber. Anything but an uncontroversial figure, Pittock would be remembered as an irascible personality who got embroiled in a number of feuds and political controversies over the course of his long life.

1934 would mark an important turning point for the Oregonian. This was the year that Guy T. Viskniskki, a former Hearst executive, was brought in as an ‘efficiency expert’ to entirely revamp the paper. Key changes were made in personnel, in mechanical layout and appearance, and in news arrangement, editorial philosophy and reporting style. Aimed at ‘popularization,’ these changes did lead to a significant increase in circulation, but this came at the expense of alienating many old-time readers who had cherished the Oregonian for its steadfast, conservative ways. For good or for bad: Portlanders debated, but ultimately it was a matter of personal taste. A decisive break with tradition had occurred, and the modern era of the Oregonian was now underway.

-- Written by Jason Stone