“Grit & Ink: An Oregon Family’s Adventures in Newspapering, 1908-2018” a history of the 110-plus-year-old publishing company that became EO Media Group, is peppered with anecdotes about the rough-and-tumble events that defined early and even current journalism in the Beaver State.
Author and historian William F. Willingham recounts the stories of opium dens, frontier justice and general unruliness in 1880s Pendleton, Oregon, a town of just 1,000 that managed to support 11 saloons. “Almost every issue of the Eastern Oregonian told of fights, pistol-whippings, knife fights, racing horses on the major streets,” Willingham writes of the newspaper’s early days.
In some ways, things only changed to a degree or so as the newspapers reported on events of the 20th century and beyond. There was the insidious political power of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the furious public reactions when the papers offered an endorsement of a Democrat in a solid Republican region, including a 1968 The Daily Astorian editorial entitled, “Why this newspaper will not endorse Richard Nixon.” In this century there was the attempt by the Aryan Nation to establish a “white homeland,” and the takeover of a federal wildlife refuge by armed anti-government militants just two years ago.
But Stephen Aldridge Forrester said those events “are the seasoning of the story” told by “Grit & Ink.”
“It’s what he casual reader knows about, though they may not know the story of the Ku Klux Klan and so forth,” Forrester said in an interview.
Instead, the book’s emphasis on the business history will be of particular interests to family owners like the Aldrich, Forrester, Bedford, Brown and Chessman families who owned the newspaper group from the 20th century to today.
“The bulk of it is my grandfather borrowing money and paying it off, borrowing money and buying property, some of it that didn’t work, and had to (be sold),” Forrester said. “When it got to the 1960s, it’s about the transition to cold type and (other) technology… (and) the ins and outs of buying and selling share, shares changing hands at death and so forth.”
In fact, when Stacey Cowles, publisher of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, read an advance copy, he remarked, “i don’t know whether the book will have much appeal in the general audience, but for anyone intested in family business and newspapers, its a fun read. Every other page I recognized a circumstance or a decision!”
“Grit & Ink” in some ways is an expansion on a history commissioned in the 1960s by Stephen Forrester’s late grandmother Elsie Aldrich when there were just two newspapers in the company, both of them in eastern Oregon.
“We figured it’s been 40 or 50 years so we should take another shot at it,” he said.
The families engaged historian Willingham, a Pendleton native, to write a more encompassing story of the company, which has grown to 11 newspapers on the Oregon coast as well as in its eastern region. As a professional historian, Willingham made expert use of company archives, correspondence and meeting minutes to produce a book of “the ins and outs of how generations made it work over time—to stay in business and all that,” Forrester said.
“Grit & Ink” chronicles the company’s pioneering technology ventures, including publishing the first Oregon newspaper to have telegraph service, and the first paper west of the Mississippi to install an offset press, a Goss Community.
So what lessons does history teach the present-day EO Media?
“First, I think, is what still matters—resilience, being able to come back after being knocked down,” Forrester said.
“And the second thing is that the right people kept showing up through the years,” he added. “And lately, in last two years, we’ve made some really good hires. Oddly enough, we’ve benefited from the castoffs of Gannett and others…Because it’s still about people.”
EO Media’s community papers have the benefit of being close to their audience, and so able to read the market better than metros. But they also benefit from a lack of hubris, Forrester suggested.
“These days, especially if you read the business press…you kind of get the idea that everyone is looking for the next big thing, the big app, big score that will make them billions,” Forrester said. “In our case, we have no illusions about the big score. To use the baseball analogy, we’re looking for singles and doubles.”
“Grit & Ink” will be released as a paperback and ebook in November.