What a week it was in the newsroom of The Oregonian/OregonLive.
In the space of a few days, our former publisher died; recreational marijuana became legal in Oregon; a mass shooting in Roseburg turned us upside down and inside out; and two more veteran staffers said sayonara to daily journalism.
All this as the Oregonian Media Group, parent company of the print and digital operations, marked its second year of operation.
It was a week of highs (no pun intended) and lows. A week that began with us recalling a golden era of print journalism and the man who presided over it. A week that didn’t quite end, but simply wrapped into the start of another week with a talented multimedia staff scrambling to tell the world of the human devastation wreaked by a young man’s murderous intentions.
Nothing I say here can approach the power, the pain and the elegance of the words, photos and videos captured by my fellow journalists in reporting the tragedy at Umpqua Community College. So I won’t even try.
Instead, let me offer a few snapshots and personal observations as each day unfolded:
Sunday: Fred A. Stickel, who transformed The Oregonian from an underachieving daily into one of the country’s best newspapers during a 34-year run as publisher, died at age 93. Known to one and all as “Mr. Stickel,” the impeccably dressed ex-Marine from New Jersey left an enviable legacy in building a financially successful newspaper and a talented newsroom that won five Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure.
I had the good fortune to be hired by Bill Hilliard, the paper’s first African American editor, and to assist in a hiring spree that added top-tier journalists from around the country — including many rising stars of color — to a staff already brimming with local talent.
What I will always appreciate most about Mr. Stickel is the fearless stance he took in writing an editorial against an anti-gay measure in 1992 and publishing it on the front page of the Sunday paper just before the election. The measure was defeated and we in the newsroom were served notice that this conservative Catholic would stand by his principles in insisting people be treated for who they are.
Monday through Wednesday: While many of us veterans shared stories about Mr. Stickel, we also joined newer hires who never knew him in ramping up for the first day of retail sales of recreational pot. The comprehensive effort explained the new law and what to expect going forward, drawing on the expertise of our full-time marijuana reporter, Noelle Crombie, and many others who pitched in with stories specific to their beat.
I, for instance, compiled yet another Q&A piece warning people that just because it’s now legal to smoke weed, you can still get fired for off-duty pot use if you test positive for the drug, even if you’re not impaired. Employers still have the right to adopt drug-free policies based on the federal government’s listing of marijuana as an illegal narcotic. Unlike alcohol, which can pass through your system relatively quickly, marijuana stays in your body much longer, which means even trace amounts are enough to give your boss the ability to fire you.
Thursday: Retail sales of marijuana began at 12:01 a.m. and we had several reporters and photographers out there to record history with real-time tweets, videos and blog posts. We hadn’t even made it to noon when the first chilling reports of a mass shooting at a college campus in southern Oregon started popping up.
Instantly, an entire newsroom pivoted from reporting about marijuana to making sense of the tragedy unfolding in a quiet town four hours south of Portland. Sports writers, already in Eugene to keep up with Ducks football, rushed to the scene. Every hand on deck — editors, reporters, video producers, data specialists, news assistants — helped in some way, whether hustling down to Roseburg or pitching in from Portland.
I followed through with plans to interview and photograph someone for an unrelated story in a suburb east of Portland, but then switched gears. I drove to a city park, sat on a bench in the bleachers at a youth baseball field, opened up my laptop and — knowing one of the Roseburg victims was an assistant professor killed in his own classroom — started doing research for a story summarizing workplace homicides in Oregon since 2011.
I tracked down media contacts I knew from my previous reporting on workplace deaths and wound up interviewing the state’s top safety and health administrator via speakerphone on my smartphone as I took notes on my laptop in the open air. It made for a great running start the next morning when I came into the newsroom to write the story.
In that moment, I was struck by the memory of Fred Stickel and the era he represented, when we reached about 350,000 readers a day in print, and how we now reach so many more, not just in the Northwest but around the globe. As our editor would note in his weekly recap, we achieved an all-time traffic record on OregonLive of about 4.3 million, crushing our previous single-day record by about 750,000 page views.
Friday: The newsroom-wide response continued on the day Mr. Stickel was laid to rest. Under normal circumstances, the newsroom would have emptied out so people could attend his funeral. But with the Roseburg story commanding worldwide attention, those of us who stayed behind told each other that if anyone understood the need to put the news ahead of a memorial service, it would be Fred A. Stickel.
I wrote my story that day, collaborating not just with my editor but also with a data specialist on an interactive map and our graphics editor on a print version that would appear the next morning. I posted it along with everything else just after 4 p.m. and updated it about 90 minutes later with a photo gallery I created from our archives.
Mine was a small contribution, to be sure, but one that made me marvel yet again at the technology and teamwork that allows us to publish news with speed and breadth we could scarcely imagine during the Stickel era. I couldn’t help but think that readers who live and die by the print version — or who get their local news from television — miss so much rich content that’s served up online every day, every hour.
As I left for the day, I learned that one of our most talented photographers, Bruce Ely, was leaving us for a job with the Portland Trail Blazers, a team whose ups and downs he has chronicled over the years with a superb eye and steady hand. That surprising news came on top of the planned departure of a longtime news assistant, Vickie Kavanagh, one of those invaluable staffers whose contributions answering the phones, writing news briefs and doing myriad little things to keep the trains running go unnoticed by the public but are greatly appreciated by those of us in the newsroom..
After 26 years working with more editors and reporters than she could count, Vickie, one of the most cheerful people I’ve ever known, was ready to move on. We will miss them both.
Final thoughts: Researching workplace fatalities data and interviewing a key state official from a Gresham park bench made me realize my transformation from desk-bound editor to mobile journalist has been pretty thorough. It’s been 11 months now since I left our Hillsboro bureau, where I was the editorial page editor for two of our community newspapers, to come back downtown and take over the workplace beat. It’s been fun, rewarding and relatively painless.
As I thought about what headline to give this post, this first and most obvious that popped to mind was this: “As one era ends, another begins.”
But that would be too simple. Two years in to the digital transition, we are well past the day when The Oregonian/OregonLive committed to an online-first, print-second approach to the news. Though the subject was beyond sad, the Roseburg story challenged us to deliver accurate, timely and compelling information to a huge audience trying to make sense of another act of carnage. I think we met the test.