I am so pleased to welcome you to my hometown.
I was raised here in Eugene, at the southern end of the Willamette Valley, growing up with the rain, the fog, and the acrid tang of wood smoke in the air. This is a very special place and I'm a different journalist here than I was in Colorado, Kansas or Minnesota.
I had my first newspaper job here - joke editor of the Spencer Butte Junior High School Spartan Log. And I held my first senior editing position here - editor of The Axe at South Eugene High School.
I went to the University of Oregon because I always wanted to be a Duck - something only other Ducks can really understand. And because, more than anything I could think of at the time, I wanted to work at the Oregon Daily Emerald.
I learned hot-type-era newspapering there - even developing an ability to read type backwards and upside down. And because one job was never enough in those years, I also spun platters - classical music records, actually - at KLCC radio and wrote and announced for a weekly newsmagazine on KZEL.
After the U of O, I spent eight wonderful years on the staff of The Register-Guard - the paper I had read since childhood.
And when I left Eugene to see where my journalism would take me, I left a piece of my heart here.
Chris Peck last night quoted from the Grateful Dead's great "Truckin." I thought of the same song yesterday as I walked the bike and running trails that pass outside these doors.
"What a long, strange trip it has been" that brings me back to Eugene at this time and in this place.
You can see, of course, that I'm in a reflective mood. So please forgive me while I reminisce a bit and trust that this trip down my memory lane will bring us to a place that is relevant to today's civic journalism conversation.
Let me begin with a theory of mine, a genetics theory of a sort - the genetics of editors.
Just as our children carry the genetic material of their parents and the ancestors who came before them, editors carry a journalistic genetic material passed to them by the editors and other journalists they've worked with and learned from over time. Some of this genetic material is good stuff. Some truly mutated.
And without much work, we editors can map our genetic code.
Now, I have some great genes from some great journalists, though you may not recognize their names.
- Alyce Sheetz, the generous grand dame of Oregon high school journalism.
- Lloyd Paseman, Dean Rea, Ron Bellamy, Mike Stahlberg, Dan Wyatt, Don Bishoff and Henny Willis at The Register-Guard.
- And Alton Baker Jr., my publisher at The Guard, who lived the credo still found on the masthead of his family's paper, "A newspaper is a citizen of its community."
- And there are some great genes from the late John Hulteng, once dean of the U of O journalism school, who taught his students to respect the awesome power of the press.
Good genes from good people - great journalists - civic journalists, though they may not have known that term.
I have also inherited a good bit of editor DNA from a journalist some of you may know or heave heard of: W. Davis Merritt, Buzz Merritt. He was editor of The Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas when I joined the staff in 1988, first as assistant managing editor and later as managing editor.
Buzz is one of the fathers of the civic journalism we know. He's written papers and books on the subject, and he's written about his personal civic journalism journey.
He tells the story his way. But I have my own memories and my own spin if you'll indulge me a moment.
Times were tough for newspapers in the late 1980's and early 1990's. We weren't doing very well. Circulation and readership were dropping - a decade-old trend. Costs were escalating; newsprint prices were spiking. The economy was slow, so revenues were down while demands for profits were escalating.
Just as I arrived in Wichita, Buzz and several other Knight-Ridder editors had come back home from a disastrous meeting at corporate that ended with a mock burial, complete with casket, of quality journalism.
There was a palpable sense that everything good about our craft was slipping away. And with Knight-Ridder's corporate admonition - get with it or get out - ringing in their ears, editors like Buzz came home as depressed as their local economies. It was a very tough time.
Buzz had his up days, to be sure. But there were days when he'd sit in his office with the lights out, the TV on - maybe turned to his favorite tennis - clutching a University of North Carolina pillow to his chest.
On such days, I'd pass by his office and wonder what I'd gotten myself into.
Of course, I was depressed, too. We all were. The day Buzz told us we would have to cut 25 percent of our local news hole, literally overnight, I started looking for a way out. Get a Ph.D., I thought. Go teach. East Texas State had a job. They wanted me at the University of Arizona. I almost went.
But before I could get up the courage to leave the profession I loved so much, Buzz came out of his office - literally and figuratively - to reinvent himself, his newspaper, his profession - and me.
You see, he hadn't really been hiding in his office. He'd been thinking - now, there is a foreign concept to most time-starved editors. Some years later, he described for me his train of thought.
- "I can't fight the business of newspapering. It's too big. Too hard to get my hands around That will have to be someone else's fight."
- "The newspapering I knew is gone and won't be back. And that's not all a bad thing."
- "If I want to be a journalist, if I want to be an editor, I have to find a new journalism that means something, that makes sense in today's world."
And so, Buzz invented civic journalism.
Well, that's not really true. Buzz took some ideas he'd heard from John Gardner of Common Cause; from Knight-Ridder's new CEO, the visionary Jim Batten; from the pollster and writer Daniel Yankelovich and from a young New York University academic named Jay Rosen.
And he forged out of those very different, wide-ranging ideas a view of journalism for Wichita that would shape much of what we see today as early civic journalism.
- Newspapers exist to serve citizens, not just readers.
- A functioning press reinforces a functioning democracy and visa versa.
- A newspaper's news agenda must be set for journalists by citizens, not by journalists for journalists.
- A newspaper is a community square, a marketplace of ideas, a mouthpiece for many voices - the facilitator of the conversation that should be happening in a community but isn't happening.
And out of those ideas grew Wichita's great, seminal public journalism projects - the election projects of 1990 and 1992 and the People Project of 1991.
The excitement of those days, the urgency, the energy, the innovation, the debate in the profession and the overwhelmingly positive response from citizens, kept me in the business.
And so I owe the last 10 years of my career to Buzz and to those times.
I don't have to summarize for you the arc of the civic journalism debate in the '90s. There were some contentious times - some harsh words. But much of what seemed so radical in 1991 is ingrained in the newsrooms of 2001.
And we're better for that.
But all of the innovation, all of the change is not enough - and much of what we learned and gained could be wiped out by new, tough times.
In many ways, we're back to 1989.
Readership and circulation are still challenged. Costs - labor and newsprint - are going up. The economy is slowing so revenues are dropping. Yet we all feel the pressure to maintain or even grow profits.
So our friends and colleagues are cutting news holes, freezing or even cutting staffs. Last week, the Akron Beacon Journal, winner of a Pulitzer Gold Medal in 1994 for a seminal civic project on race relations, announced newsroom layoffs.
And editors all over the country are getting the message from their bosses: "Get with it - the cost cuts, the hiring freezes, the revenue growth. Get with it, or get out."
And so many, too many, are getting out, worn down by the tough times and the hard work.
We know, in our circle, that there is a psychic malaise amongst editors and that this may be the greatest threat to civic journalism and innovation.
So...it's time to be Buzz-like.
Alone, to rethink our journalism. To match it to our times. To reconnect to our traditions -- and to our innovations.
Little more than a year ago, I was blessed with an incredible opportunity to rethink my journalism.
I was fired - for all the right and ethical reasons, mind you - but fired, nonetheless.
It was a cleansing experience.
Because after the phone calls of condolence ended, after my colleagues at The Gazette moved on, past the going-away lunches, I was left alone to think.
A rare gift.
And this is what I thought. Consider it my manifesto, as it were, for this new, challenging decade.
- Being a journalist, being an editor remains a high calling. We are called to this form of service. I believe this with all my heart.
- Being a journalist in the United States has never been easy. We tend to forget our own history. Remember the Tom Hanks line from "A League of Their Own," paraphrased for us - "if it were easy, anyone could do it." But only those crazy enough, committed enough, talented enough - those called - can do what we do.
- So get over it.
- Understand that you tread in the footsteps of giants - the giants you know - Zenger, Greeley, Bradlee, Cronkite - and the giants you may never know - Buzz Merritt.
- And by following in their footsteps, no matter the challenges, you are enlarged and made better, whether you work for The New York Times or The Statesman Journal or the Stayton Mail.
- Understand that the journalism you may have known - or thought you knew - is gone. Let it go. What you're really talking about is journalism as defined by practice.
- Know that the values of journalism - the values at the core of the calling - remain intact.
- Values of community
- The marketplace of ideas
- Honesty and truth-telling journalism
- Voice to the voiceless
- Defense of the defenseless
Know these values. Know your values and the values of your organization. Live the values.
- Know that if we live the values, we can adjust our practices to fit these or any times. We can still be journalists, great journalists, whether we work for Gannett or Knight Ridder or Newhouse or Microsoft or the marvelous Baker family.
- We can be great journalists with a narrower web width.
- We can even be great journalists with Page 1 ads - if the journalism that appears above those ads has value.
That was my line of thinking during my alone time.
It's why I decided to do this again - even though it is so hard, even though so much of it is so wearying, so often.
I can't lie to you. There are days when tight budgets, tight news hole and perpetual hiring get to me. Ask my managing editor, Rich Luna, with whom I too often commiserate.
There are times when I feel my whole life is tied to hiring, to reading resumes and interviewing reporters young enough to be my own children.
But this is what I remind myself...
Every day I have 130 to 200 columns of news space, delivered to up to 65,000 homes and businesses in my town, to document the daily life of my community in all of its wholeness and complexity.
This is the greatest gift...the greatest responsibility.
And this gift is in my hands and in the hands of 85 other journalists in the Statesman Journal newsroom - who tread in the footsteps of giants - and who know that great journalism doesn't come from the marbled halls of corporate or the glass offices of publishers and editors.
It comes from here - the heart.
And it always has.