558 N. Main St., Prineville, OR 97754 | (541) 447-6205
Telling local stories for 130 years
Although the name has occasionally changed, the Central Oregonian has been serving Crook County for 130 years
Front row (L to R) - Dena Marshall, Lynn McCann, Angie Bernard, Kathy Kludt; middle row - Brent Shields, Jason Chaney, Teresa Poland, Patricia McManus; back row - Ramona McCallister, Vance Tong, Lon Austin, Teresa Tooley. A 1950s-era newspaper is compared to a newspaper of today.
December 05, 2011
“Serving Central Oregon since 1881,” reads the sub-head just below the flag of the Central Oregonian.
However, even a cursory investigation into the newspaper’s history reveals that the name “Central Oregonian” - as applied to a newspaper in Crook County - didn’t come into existence until 1922.
Vance Tong, publisher of the Central Oregonian, explained that it’s all a matter of lineage. The Central Oregonian, it turns out, is a direct and continuous descendent of the Prineville News, first published on Dec. 18, 1881 (see sidebar).
“It’s still the same company,” said Tong. “It’s just a different name. Think of it as someone who just changed their name.”
That makes the Central Oregonian 130 years old this month, and the oldest, continuous newspaper in Central Oregon. It’s also tied with the St. Helen’s Chronicle as the 18th oldest in the state. By comparison, The Oregonian (Portland) was founded in 1850, and The Bulletin (Bend) in 1903.
A plethora of papers
The Prineville News wasn’t Prineville’s first newspaper, however. That honor belonged to the Ochoco Pioneer, an enterprise that started just a year earlier, in 1880, but it lasted only a few months, and had “no posterity.”
By 1885, the Prineville News had a competitor in the form of the Ochoco Review. Having at least two newspapers in a small town the size of Prineville was quite common in those days, and it was a trend that continued locally for nearly 40 years.
Was there really that much news in Prineville to warrant even one, much less two, newspapers?
“The biggest thing that kept the newspapers going was running the notifications of homesteads,” said Steve Lent, assistant director of the Bowman Museum. “It was a requirement that homesteaders had to put out notices of their intent to file a patent, so anyone who had any objection would know it. That's primarily why a lot of them survived, is they could get fees for doing that.”
Another reason was politics. Newspapers in the day were unabashedly biased toward one political party or another. In its 19th-century infancy, the various iterations of the Central Oregonian included both Democratic and Republican positions, as well as Independent, with Republican leanings.
“If a little town had a paper of one party, the other side would try hard either to purchase control or start another – and in those days starting a paper involved very little cash,” penned George Turnbull in his 1939 “History of Oregon Newspapers.” Turnbull went on to say that an old hand press and a few cases of type were all that were needed to set up shop.
The pioneer newspapers were dominated by advertising and homestead notices. A typical front page would have advertising – usually in the form of “business card” ads – occupying both the left and right columns. For an additional fee, an advertiser could purchase a larger, more visible ad near the center of the page. The size of the font might not be larger, but they would get a different typeface and a maximum of white space surrounded by a tidy border. Newspapers contained “all sorts of quack and semi-obscene medicine advertisements,” wrote Turnbull.
Local historian Frances Juris observed that actual news was often hard to find.
“The pages of the (homestead and timber) filings far outweighed the news,” she said. “They didn't have very much news in there, they just had the bare minimum about local people going to Portland, or whatever was going on, and then they had excerpts from other newspapers, like the eastern newspapers, the bigger newspapers.”
What news there was, was often regional or national in scope, and “stories” rarely exceeded the length of today's “tweet.”
“Four sorghum mills in Jackson Co., this State, are turning out 160 gallons of syrup daily,” read a typical news item. “Immigrants arrive in California at the rate of 600 per week,” reported another.
Lent frequently uses older newspapers in his research, and he said that it's often difficult to find local news at all.
“A lot of our local newspapers early on would carry stories from around the world,” he said. “Some of them would be several weeks or several months old. That's why if you look at some of the papers, you have to really dig in to find where local news was, because they were reporting everything to everybody.”
Lent said it wasn't until later in the 20th century that newspapers like the Central Oregonian began to focus on local news, in great part due to the public's improved access to regional newspapers, such as the Oregonian.
A century of change
Like most newspapers – and paralleling society in general – the Central Oregonian experienced tremendous change during the last century.
Most obvious to the reader was its appearance. Closely-spaced lines and columns – resulting in a product very difficult to read – gave way to typeface and fonts that were easier on the eyes. The invention of the half-tone process made pictures more economical to print, further enhancing reader enjoyment. Over time, the printed word became crisper on the page, and color images suddenly became the norm.
Methods of reporting also changed, and improved. Sports and society pages were added. The newspaper changed with the needs and expectations of Crook County's residents.
Much of this was driven and supported by relentless improvements in technology. The hand setting of individual characters of type (which limited the size of the early newspapers) gave way to the linotype, a machine that enabled an operator to key in a “line of type” that would automatically position itself so as to compose a complete story. Letterset presses moved from hand operation to steam, and then later, electric power. Soon came the offset printing process, first used with letterset presses and then with web (continuous sheet) printers.
A significant business change came in 1969, when the Central Oregonian was purchased by Blue Mountain Eagle, now known as Eagle Newspapers. The company was founded by former Oregon governor Elmo Smith, but by the time of acquisition was owned by his son, Denny Smith, who served as a U.S. congressman from 1981-1991. The new ownership afforded a move to the modern offset printing process, and also resulted in the acquisition of a new web press.
The 1980s brought the digital age – technology on steroids. It wasn't the easiest of transitions.
Teresa Tooley, a 27-year employee who is now the general manager, remembers the good old days. When she first started, she said, all the classified ads were typewritten, and the entire newspaper was positioned onto long layout boards to be photographed, made into plates, and then printed.
“There wasn't anybody who ever went to the grocery store that didn't have black tape hanging off of 'em,” she recalled. “Most of us have at least one scar from the X-Acto knife, 'cause you just have people running around with X-Acto knives, cutting and pasting.”
Then came the computers.
“I came down on Saturday and re-typed everything into the computer,” Tooley said. “I remember Jim Smith, who was the publisher then, came down to check on me to make sure I wasn't pulling my hair out.”
Kathy Kludt is the Central Oregonian's office manager and bookkeeper, and has been with the newspaper for 30 years. Did she remember the transition to computers?
“Oh yes,” she said without the slightest hint of hesitation. “1988. Jim (Smith) told me I looked at my new computer like a mule at a gate. I'd never done anything with computers – not even hardly seen one. Your whole desktop was covered with this stuff.”
While computers were a stretch at the time, Tooley said there are fewer mistakes now than when everything was done by hand, and she thinks the entire process is more efficient.
Vance Tong, who's been with the Central Oregonian since 2002, and publisher since 2004, cut his journalistic teeth at other newspapers. He recalled the Compugraphic, a Rube Goldbergesque contraption used to produce photo-ready copy for printing. A story was first typed at a computer terminal and saved to a floppy disk. The disk was then carried to an adjoining room where it was inserted into a reader. There it was coded - without benefit of a video monitor - to instruct the Compugraphic how to format it.
“It looked like something out of Star Trek,” he explained. “It was a big as this desk, and it had lights, and buttons, and a keyboard. It was the coolest thing.”
An electronic signal was sent to another machine where there was a strip of film (one for each font) with all the characters. Mounted on a wheel, it would spin as bursts of light exposed each character – as ordered – onto light-sensitive paper. The paper was removed, the image (story) developed, dried, cut and pasted on a page, photographed, converted to a plate, and then printed.
“Doing it on a computer like this?” he said, gesturing to his desktop PC. “Piece of cake.”
Now, he said, the paper is designed on the computer, goes to an image setter, gets converted to film, is burned on a plate, and then goes to press.
“At some point in the future we'll skip the film part,” Tong said. “It'll go directly from the computer to burning a plate for the press.”
Change and challenge continue
While the Central Oregonian's office had experienced some functional changes over time (the addition of computers and a myriad of connecting wires, for example), little had been done to the building itself since it was constructed in 1975. All of that changed this year with an interior remodel.
“That was a big one for us,” Tong said.
After purchasing new window treatments, and changing out the windows and entrance door, he approached the board of Eagle Newspapers about replacing the 30-year-old carpet. Instead, they approved the remodel. Now, the office is graced with new lighting, a drop-down ceiling, carpet and mopboards, insulation, countertops, and an entryway. They've also installed a cutting-edge computer network.
“It's the fastest one in Prineville, except for Facebook,” Tong said.
A dozen employees now support a circulation of about 3,500 – a drop from what it was, according to Tong, and a result of both tighter bookwork and the down economy. While a large circulation is desirable, making money in the newspaper business depends on more than just subscription revenue.
“The amount of money you make from a subscription,” he said, “doesn't come close to paying the expenses. We're grateful to have it, but if I could make enough money otherwise, I'd give free papers away.”
Advertising is what makes a newspaper profitable, and for a time the recent economy fueled an ironic – although unfortunate – source of income.
“We had foreclosure notices, and we made a fair chunk of money from that, but those are going away as well,” Tong said. “We've been feeling the (economic) hit along with everyone else, and this year is tight. Real tight.”
Tong said that to compensate, he's shuffled job duties, and when three employees left, he didn't back fill. Processes within the office have been streamlined and new sources of revenue found. For example, the Central Oregonian is now the only local source of custom printing, and Tong emphasized that they can do any job, big or small.
One decision he made, though, wasn't popular – not popular at all – even though it saved $20,000 a year.
The Central Oregonian did away with newspaper carriers.
“I love the nostalgia of kid carriers, and I wanted to keep them,” he said. “It was a hard decision for us to make, but at the end of the day, we had to take certain actions to remain profitable.”
As radio and television challenged the perceived relevance of the printed press in the 20th century, so too does the Internet force the issue today.
“That's something newspapers throughout the country are really struggling with,” Tong said, “is how to continue to keep the newspaper part of peoples' lives. One of the things that people see all the time is, 'Oh my God. The newspaper's dying! The Internet's killing it.' And the truth is really far, far different.
“The reality is, and I have data to back it up,” he continued, “that in independent surveys, people overwhelmingly trust the advertising, they trust the content, of newspapers far and away above anything else. Ninety percent of the news content generated on the Internet comes from newspapers. We're our own worst enemy. The reality is, community newspapers are even more insulated because you don't have CNN, you don't have Internet sites, anything like that, covering the Prineville City council meeting.
“People like reading their news on the Web, they just don't want to pay for it. Right now the printed product is paying the way for the online product. And at some point, if you just picture it on a fulcrum, that teeter-totter of profitability is going to switch the other way. Someday some publisher will be making enough money online and will stop printing, mailing. A huge expense, gone. But we're just not there yet. It will happen”
Tong said there's a very good chance the Central Oregonian's Website will become pay access – but free to paper subscribers. If this happens, the Website will be expanded and offer everything the printed copy does - similar to the (Bend) Bulletin's. This will be especially useful to those who have moved away and don't need week-old news in the mailbox.
“It's just going to continue to evolve,” he said, “and newspapers in general are in a big state of evolution right now. And community papers aren't immune from that.”
Turning contemplative, Tong said you never see newspaper reporters driving a Mercedes or BMW, but even though there aren't financial rewards in working for a newspaper, people still do it.
“I think there's a driving need to inform the public, and to tell stories that don't get told,” he said. “That, in itself, that's why the paper's still here 130 years later. It started out under those auspices, and it's still here under those auspices. The reality is, I hope the Central Oregonian just continues to be a good newspaper.”
Central Oregonian Chronology
• 1881 - Prineville News begins publication
• 1884 - absorbed by, and named, Ochoco Review
• 1915 - renamed the News
• 1917 - succeeded by Central Oregon Enterprise
• 1920 - succeeded by Prineville Call
• 1922 - Central Oregonian formed from merger of Prineville Call, Western Stock Grower, and Crook County Journal
• 1969 - purchased by Blue Mountain Eagle, now Eagle Newspapers
• 1971 - obtains its own offset press and publishing plant
• 1972 - changes from a daily to twice weekly
• 1975 - moves to its present location
Source: "History of Oregon Newspapers," by George Turnbull; Central Oregonian