So long, Peter

20 years, 6 months, 11 days. That’s how long the Peter Bhatia era lasted at The Oregonian. And now he, too, is gone.

Wednesday, May 21, marked the last day at work for Peter, a talented editor and widely respected industry leader, after two decades of award-winning journalism, daunting challenges and head-spinning change. He’s leaving as editor of The Oregonian to teach at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

On his last day in the office, Peter Bhatia talked, hugged, shook hands and spoke with dozens of staff members.

On his last day in the office, Peter Bhatia talked, hugged, shook hands and spoke with dozens of staff members.

Coincidentally, today is his 61st birthday, a fitting bridge from the newsroom to the classroom. He starts Wednesday in Tempe as one of the faculty who will work with a select group of college journalists on a group investigative project.

Yesterday was a day to celebrate Peter and his legacy, and so the newsroom staff gathered in the room known as The Well for a formal sendoff. It’s the same room where we’ve eaten pizza on election nights, held in-house training sessions and celebrated Pulitzer Prizes — a string of six since 1999, the most recent one just this year for editorial writing. It’s also the place where we came together during the recession years to listen to buyout offers and say farewell to departing staff members.

Some of us veterans have been there even longer than Peter and we’ve seen a steady stream of tech-savvy younger journalists join our ranks. Together we’ve made the wrenching (and ongoing) transition from a traditional print newspaper, with daily home delivery across the entire state of Oregon, to a digital-first company that publishes 24/7 with interactive features, photo galleries, videos and more while cutting back on home delivery and introducing a tabloid-sized compact newspaper.

Has it been challenging? Yes. Has it been difficult? Yes. Is it working? We hope so. We think so.

Peter joined The Oregonian in late 1993 as managing editor (the No. 2 job in the newsroom) at age 40. I was a member of the in-house committee of editors and reporters who interviewed candidates for the position and I remember thinking we made a great hire in snagging him from The Sacramento Bee. For 15 years, he and former editor Sandy Rowe led The Oregonian to unprecedented success, compiling all sorts of prestigious journalism awards in addition to the Pulitzers, and molding the paper into one of the country’s very best regional newspapers.

A mock front page was a parting gift.

A mock front page was a parting gift.

Peter rose to become president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and seemed to be involved in a thousand things at once: accreditation visits, ethics seminars, advisory boards; diversity programs, short-term teaching gigs, etc. As someone of Indian heritage and the son of a university professor, he was (and continues to be) a prime supporter of the Asian American Journalists Association. He had a boundless work ethic, an enormous capacity for work, a facility with numbers, and an amazing recall of details. He rooted for the 49ers and Giants; Stanford (his alma mater) and Washington State (where his dad taught); and Jesuit High School (where his son attended; their daughter went to St. Mary’s Academy).

After Sandy retired at the end of 2009, The Oregonian became Peter’s newsroom to run. The stellar journalism continued, even as the recession hit and readers’ habits changed. It fell to Peter to make wrenching cuts in newsroom staff even as we scrambled, like the rest of the industry, to deliver the news to an audience that increasingly wanted its news delivered electronically.

It was my great pleasure to work closely with Peter and Sandy for some 10 years or so as the newsroom recruitment director and training editor. By changing the face of the newsroom through aggressive hiring that made us more diverse, we raised the quality and breadth of our journalism to better reflect the entire community. Success bred success.

With the creation of the Oregonian Media Group last fall, and the demise of the old Oregonian Publishing Co., a new era began and another one ended.

In the midst of such radical change, it’s understandable that Peter would look for new opportunities. I’m glad he’s found a good fit and I am sure he will bring passion and a first-rate mind to his new job in academia.

And so I say to a great colleague, good luck and best wishes in the next phase of his career.

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