The Oregonian editorial board

The Oregonian was among the largest newspapers in the northwestern United States, with a circulation near 300,000. The papers audience centered in Portland, Oregonwhere the Oregonian was headquarteredbut extended into the surrounding counties and parts of Washington state. Like most major American newspapers, the Oregonian devoted the last two-page spread of its Metro section to opinion writing. The convention had arisen in the mid-19th century as US newspapers, until then often instruments of partisan politics, gradually moved toward presenting the news in an objective, neutral tone to appeal to wider audiences. The opinion pages represented an attempt to separate partisan analysis of current affairs from the facts presented in the news pages.

This history was reflected not just in the pages, but also the staff structure, of modern newspaper organizations. A news staff typically reported to a managing editor, in charge of day-to-day newsgathering. A separate opinion staff reported to an editorial page editor, in charge of the opinion pages. The staff separation was meant to ensure that a newspapers editorial slantthe points of view expressed in its opinion pageshad no impact on the way its reporters gathered and wrote the news. In addition to individual columnists, the opinion staff also included an editorial boarda committee of writers charged with reporting and collaboratively writing a few daily, short arguments about issues facing their community.

Founded as a Republican newspaper in 1850, the Oregonian remained editorially conservative for much of its history, endorsing its first Democrat for President with Bill Clinton in 1992. The papers editorial slant was determined in part by the priorities of its owners, the Newhouse family, who had purchased the Oregonian in 1950. In theory, the Newhouses could steer its papers editorial positions as much or as little as they chose. In practice, the Newhouses, who owned over 30 newspapers nationwide, delegated editorial autonomy to local management at individual newspapers. In the Oregonian s case, President and Publisher Fred Stickel appointed the editorial page editor. Himself a staunch conservative, Stickel in 1995 had sought out a political moderate to lead the seven-member board, and had chosen Caldwell. At the time, Caldwell was Oregonian Metro Editor; he was not a registered member of any political party, and he tended to hew to the center. Stickel only occasionally weighed in on editorial decisions, and did not expect Caldwell to defer to his judgment.

The ideological composition of the board was not constant over the years as writers came and went, but Caldwell, Stickel, and Sandra Rowe, the papers editor, tended to hire experienced, politically moderate reporters for the board. In 2009, most of the boards members considered themselves in the center-left of the political spectrum. There were six in addition to Caldwell, and they functioned as beat reportersfocusing on law, education or state government, for example. Though each member suggested topics, wrote editorials, and participated in daily discussions about what the Oregonian s stance should be, Caldwell himself ultimately determined what positions the Oregonian took. He explains:

[The board is] not a democracy. Im responsible for what appears on the editorial page We dont vote or anything along those lines. We have discussions. In the end, the author of an editorial and I have to agree what the opinion is going to be and presumably the opinion presented is informed by the discussion and the views of other members. [But] we dont try to reach a consensus and we dont try to ask people to represent views that they dont actually own. [1]

Listen to Caldwell describe a typical board meeting.

The Oregonian s editorial slant was thus colored by Caldwells own idiosyncrasies. For example, not all of Caldwells staff agreed with his support for capital punishment, yet the Oregonian s official stance was pro-death penalty. Caldwell had also seen to it that the Oregonian endorsed George W. Bush over Vice President Al Gore for President in the hotly contested election of 2000. [2]

Board members in 2009. Rick Attig was the boards lead writer on state government, politics, and issues surrounding energy and the environment. Attig shared a 2006 Pulitzer for commentary with his colleague, Doug Bates, for a 15-part editorial series exposing ghastly conditions at a state-run mental hospital in Salem, Oregons capital. Bates was the boards lead writer on health care, and he also wrote frequently about child-welfare issues, government ethics, and state politics. Mary Pitman Kitch covered primarily Portland city government, land-use planning, gay rights, and immigration. Mike Francis covered business and maintained a blog about the 2003 Iraq wars effect on Oregonians. Susan Nielsen , in addition to writing a Sunday column of her own, primarily covered education and the courts for the board. David Sarasohn , who also had his own column, covered mostly national and statewide political issues.

Like most American newspaper editorials, Oregonian editorials were unsigned, that is, their authors names were not attached. New York Times Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal explained the practice in an online discussion forum with readers:

Editorials are unsigned because they are the product of a group of people, who bring their experience and intellect to bear on a wide range of topics. They are meant to represent an institutional opinion, not a personal opinion. The editorial board is the voice of its board, its editor and the publisher of The Times . (By the way, it is most emphatically NOT the voice of the newsroom, which is entirely separate from my department.) We are not striving for unanimity and we do not take votes (except for political candidate endorsements, which is a bit more formal process). But we are looking for positions that make sense to this group of highly qualified, educated and deeply experienced professional journalists. They should be based on the principles for which the board stands and grounded in a solid understanding of the facts. [3]

In addition to overseeing staff editorials, which appeared on the first page of the opinion section, Caldwell also selected letters to the editor for print, and oversaw the contributions of opinion columnists and guest writers. Those columns appeared on the page opposite the editorials; their name, op-eds, referred to their position in the newspaper.

[1] Authors interview with Bob Caldwell on May 20, 2009, in Portland, Oregon. All further quotes from Caldwell, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[2] The Oregonian endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in its history with Bill Clinton in 1992, three years before Caldwell took over the editorial board.