Editors of the Year 2008: Sandy Rowe & Peter Bhatia
Posted: 2/1/2008  |  By: Joe Strupp
When the Kim Family of San Francisco went missing in southern Oregon during a Thanksgiving trip in 2006, it was the kind of story The Oregonian in Portland had become adept at covering: A local tale with daily breaking news and dramatic details that required expertise, talented writing, and old-fashioned persistence. But even when the initial story ended with the father, James Kim, found dead after leaving his wife and two daughters stranded in a snow-covered wilderness to get help, the newspaper went the extra mile, probing how rescuers had made mistakes in their search and posting an online video showing the family's route.

"We had a lot of the human drama, did a deep investigation, and showed off all of the resources of the paper," recalls Editor Sandra Mims Rowe. "We knew early on if we didn't cover it bigger and broader, no one else would have the resources to tell it."

Executive Editor Peter Bhatia remembers how one scoop by the San Francisco Chronicle on a piece of the story sparked an even more intense push for full coverage. "I remember pounding the table in a meeting saying, 'I don't want this to happen again,'" Bhatia says more than a year later. "From that moment on it felt like we owned the story."

The staff's efforts earned the Oregonian the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, one of three Pulitzer finalist nods last year (including two nominations in national reporting and feature writing). Such Pulitzer-level work is nothing new for Rowe and Bhatia, the editing team that has run the Advance Publications daily since 1993. In their time at the helm, the newspaper that had won only two previous Pulitzers in 76 years has racked up five more winners and nine finalists in 14 years, with winners in five separate categories.

"It is one of the finest newspapers in the country, easily in the top 10," declares Richard A. Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman and a Pulitzer Board member. "That is reflected in part in how well they do in the Pulitzer competition."

In addition to those awards, the Oregonian has drawn praise for numerous day-to-day improvements during the past dozen years that include an increased focus on specialized reporting; a reorganized newsroom that promotes "team reporting" concepts over traditional beats; and regular training sessions and seminars that most staffers credit for encouraging fresh ideas and competitive approaches.

For all of their efforts, E&P has named Rowe and Bhatia its Editors of the Year.

"I've stuck with the paper largely because of the job that they've done," says Richard Read, a 26-year Oregonian staffer and a Pulitzer winner. "Sandy and Peter had always put a great emphasis on a beat approach, expertise on a beat as opposed to having a lot of GA's around."

All about chemistry
Rowe, 59, and Bhatia, 54, put their stamp on the paper soon after taking over in 1993. Rowe, who spent more than a decade with The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, came aboard first, then hired Bhatia (who had abruptly left as editor of The Fresno Bee) in late 1993 as her managing editor. He rose to executive editor in 1997.

To say the Oregonian is in the heart of Portland is an understatement. The paper's glass-and-brick, five-story building at Broadway and Jefferson streets in the city's busy downtown sits just south of Pioneer Court House Square, known as "Portland's Living Room," and just north of Portland State University. Busy Interstate 405 curves just a few blocks west, while the mighty Willamette River flows a short walk to the east.

From the fourth-floor newsroom, Rowe's and Bhatia's day-to-day command stretches from her glass-enclosed office built in the center of the busy newsroom to his corner digs just around the bend. While Rowe is clearly in charge, the pair divides responsibilities as needed, with Bhatia closer to the daily news troops and Rowe as the general planning strategy.

"I see mine as essentially the mission clarifier and all of the leadership, anything strategy," declares Rowe, a former Pulitzer Board member and 2004 chair. "Be the primary leader of innovation and change. Reinforce the overall journalism standards."

Bhatia, who meets every Tuesday with Rowe, says the major decisions are hers: "The strategy, direction, is more likely Sandy, defining the direction. My job is to figure out how to carry it out." Rowe notes that the two can talk up to 10 times a day, adding, "It is not unusual to stop and chat for half an hour, or a quick drop by."

Adds Publisher Fred Stickel: "The two of them work very closely together. I have never seen any tension" between them. (Both have served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, with Rowe at the helm in 1997 and Bhatia taking charge in 2003.)

When it comes to the daily news meetings at 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., the top editors leave most of the action to their two managing editors, Michael Arrieta-Walden and Therese Bottomly, with Rowe sometimes not even in attendance. "We want them to have full clout," Rowe stresses. "Too many editors can muck things up." That also goes for breaking-news decisions. "I don't expect the paper to wait and contact me or wait and contact Peter," she adds. "I make sure people have authority to act and I show confidence in them."

Bottomly, a 25-year newsroom veteran, says the approach helps the daily news demands move smoothly: "They let the editors in the room set the tone and the topic."

Bhatia also has Rowe's confidence, she stresses, citing their different personalities as a plus: "I am more change-oriented and, to his credit, he thinks things over more. It is a really important signal to me sometimes to slow things down." She says the duo has the kind of working relationship where Bhatia can speak up and she will listen.

The editor cites as an example the issue of photos. If an image might be considered an invasion of privacy or too offensive, Bhatia often makes the point. "He is more conservative there than I am," she says. "When should a photo of impact maybe not run? But I want editors like that, who can disagree with some reasoning."

Adds Bhatia, "It is a real ebb and flow on any given day. We talk about what we need to talk about, we don't make decisions in isolation. Sandra has the final call on anything she wants the final call on."

Mark Zusman, editor of local alternative Willamette Week and a staunch critic of the Oregonian, says the pair are known around town to be something of an odd couple: "Peter is a very buttoned-up guy, conservative, where Sandy is a little more wild. You will see her around town at parties."

Both are also keeping some jobs in the family; Bhatia's wife, Liz, is an Oregonian copy editor, while Rowe's daughter, Mims Rowe Copeland, is a page designer.

Shake it up
"The goal was excellent journalism," Rowe recalls about her first days at the paper. She quickly instituted the "team-based" structure, which she describes as reformatting some beats and editorial oversight of certain areas to reflect the interests of readers, not traditional newsroom boundaries.

Teams with labels such as "Northwest Issues and Environment" and "Living In the '90s" (as they were named at that time) were born. Among the early skill beats were an ethics reporter and one focused specifically on higher education. The current investigative team has four full-time staffers, while a "Politics and Accountability" team boasts 11 journalists.

"It allowed us to look at issues related to things like forests or salmon preservation, and with a set of people with expertise in those areas," Rowe recalls of those late 1993 shifts. "People incorrectly see team-based structures as something revolutionary. But it is just a way to get somewhere. The change gave everyone a fresh start."

Several months later in early 1994, Rowe made another major move, posting about 100 jobs in one day for potential changes and seeking anyone on staff who wanted to apply to take their shot. That led to some major job shifts. "We completely changed the structure," she says, adding that part of the overhaul was to get experts in certain areas where they could focus more on those beats. "I thought then and believe now that subject expertise was critical to developing excellent journalism."

Eventually, Rowe says the experts were placed in the teams most suited to them, allowing for better beat coverage and, eventually, investigative and enterprise projects. "They saw a lot of potential here from the moment they came in and wanted to get more decision-making power down to the beat level," recalls Bottomly. "It really put a lot of responsibility on those editors and developed talent on staff."

Adds Rowe: "I had grown up in a world of journalism of mostly generalists. We needed more people who really were experts in subject matter that was relevant to readers and readers' lives."

Bottomly, who early on oversaw the health, science, and medical team, recalls teaming up four reporters who had previously worked in the business, living, metro, and science sections. The initial result was early coverage of the physician-assisted suicide story that hit Oregon in 1996. "We were in a position to really cover the heck out of that story," Bottomly recalls. "Instead of having an assignment-driven newspaper, you have the beat reporters coming to editors with what is going on, and that [team leader] has the call to decide at their level."

Tom Hallman Jr., a longtime Oregonian reporter who has been a Pulitzer finalist three times and won once during his 27 years on staff, credits Rowe's approach with turning a routine drunk-driving story into a series about a drunk driver convicted of killing four pedestrians (which landed a 1995 Pulitzer finalist nod). "It was her idea, and a classic example of her strategy," he says of the series he wrote as a police reporter. "Someone else wrote a story about a drunk-driving death and she came in and saw it and said, 'Is there something more here?' She wanted me to look at it and didn't micro-manage it. That was the first signal it was a new era."

The Oregonian's first Pulitzer win under Rowe and Bhatia was in 1999, and was borne of a similar approach. The explanatory reporting award went to Richard Read for his story connecting a local french fry exporter with the troubled Asian economy. Rowe said that angle utilized local beat expertise as a way of explaining an international story. "By focusing on the particular, we could take something very complex and explain it very dramatically with a lot of humanity," she recalls. "We decided to show that impact on Oregon."

The paper's 2001 public service Pulitzer, won for its examination of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's systematic problems, was another beat- driven project. "It started as a big local story that we had exposed," Read says, referring to the Oregonian's revelations of harsh treatment of foreigners and other abuses by the INS. "They wanted us to take it national and see how this agency operated." Putting the team concept to work again, Read says he and fellow reporter Julie Sullivan were able to select two more reporters to work on the expanded effort.

"The idea was to think big, grow smaller stories into big ones," Bhatia says about the project. "Unleashing really, really talented people to go after these stories."

Touting Rowe's leadership, Amanda Bennett, former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and an Oregonian managing editor from 1998 to 2001, cites the story of Jeffrey Grayson, a local union pension manager eventually convicted of defrauding workers. She says Rowe stood behind her and her reporters as they "pulled string and brought him down. ... I remember at least once a week going into her and saying, 'We could get sued big time on this,'" says Bennett, now executive editor/enterprise for Bloomberg News. "Every time, she asked the same question: 'Are you certain you're right? Then go for it, I'll take the heat.'"

Coaching pays dividends
Along with reorganizing beats, Rowe launched significant training efforts that continue today. Dubbed "Oregonian University," the paper consistently offers up to 50 seminars, brown-bag lunches, and training workshops annually.

Jack Hart, a veteran editor who retired in December after 26 years in the newsroom, was responsible for much of the reporter coaching in recent years. Rowe "linked training to the policy goals of the paper," he says. "So many papers have a vague commitment to training without any goals."

Hart cited a push years ago to get more "humanity" in the paper, which resulted in a regular Page One slot every Monday for profiles. But along with that planning was a profile-writing workshop launched in 2001. "It pays dividends," he says of the training efforts, adding that the paper is not shy about inviting experts from Poynter and other journalism institutions in for ideas.

Bhatia credits the ongoing training and improvement efforts with helping to attract and retain staffers. "Generally, people like working here, a place where journalism values are important," he says. "A lot of it has to do with an atmosphere of opportunity."

Yet the paper is seeing many of the same challenges facing its industry. As it comes off a buyout in late 2007 that sent 27 staffers packing, the Oregonian has entered 2008 with 288 full-time newsroom staffers and another 75 part time. That's slightly more than they had when Rowe and Bhatia came in 15 years ago, but some 50 fewer than at its peak in 2002. The paper's five outside bureaus, and one at the statehouse, are more than the four that were in place in 1993. But the Oregonian's editions, which once topped four along with an out-of-state edition, have been reduced to two.

"Resources, and especially production resources, designing and editing each night and changing them five times for metro was more time-consuming," Rowe says of the zoning-reduction needs. "We also dealt with complaints of not getting a story out in all zones."

Like most major dailies, the paper also has seen its circulation decrease, but only slightly. The most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX Report for the six months ending Sept. 30, 2007, shows Sunday circ dropping to 371,386 from 375,757 during the same period a year earlier, while daily circulation dipped to 309,467 from 310,805.

The Oregonian also has expanded into weekly and niche products. Every Thursday brings five zoned weekly sections of news, while three stand-alone glossy magazines spanning lifestyles, food and wine, and home-and-garden issues have been created in the past two years.

The paper's Web site, Oregonlive.com, remains under the control of Advance Publications' Web division ? criticized in some quarters for employing the same template for many of its sites. "We provide all of the content, but that is decided out of New Jersey," Rowe says, referring to Advance's online division. "I understand why it is done this way." Bhatia admits it is not at the level of some newspaper sites, adding, "we are still feeling our way, and we have a long, long way to go. The challenge that we have is still huge."

The daily also has had its share of embarrassments, most notably in 2004 when Willamette Week broke the story of former mayor Neil Goldschmidt's past sexual relationship with a 14-year-old ? a report that won the Week its only Pulitzer.

Bhatia admits that Oregonian staffers had heard rumors of such a relationship. "In hindsight, there are a lot of things we should have done differently," he says. "We made some mistakes along the way, including a headline that described it as an affair, which it wasn't." Willamette Week's Zusman commends the Oregonian for its talent and drive, noting, "I think they are serious journalists." But he adds, "it is clearly struggling mightily to engage Portlanders."

Other critics, such as Lynn Siprelle of Oregon Media Insiders, a local blog, agree. "Its relevancy tends to go up and down in this town," she says.

Still, even the Oregonian's most outspoken critics find it among the best news outlets in the area. "There is a genuine commitment to getting the news out, they don't miss a lot of stuff," adds Siprelle. "I think people there feel good about Sandy."

Even Dwight Jaynes, a former Oregonian sports columnist and editor of the rival twice-weekly Portland Tribune, has positive things to say. "I respect them both, they run a good newspaper," he says of the editors. "They are the only daily, and over time you are going to upset just about everyone."