NEW PAPER CHALLENGES MIGHTY ‘OREGONIAN’

By: Joel Davis

E&P Profiles Robert Pamplin Jr.’s ‘Portland Tribune’


Welcome to the velvet newspaper war, which – like most things in Portland, Ore., the City of Roses – is unfailingly polite.

In this clean, rain-kissed metropolis, literacy is high and rudeness low, reading is a religion, horn-honking is gauche, and locals joke of “drive-by wavings.” It’s also home to one of America’s wealthiest men, businessman/farmer/minister Robert B. “Call Me Bob” Pamplin Jr., who has smoothly launched a free, city-focused, semiweekly newspaper to great fanfare seemingly everywhere but in the pages of The Oregonian.

With generous use of red and black colors suspiciously similar to those of the worshiped Trail Blazers basketball team, Pamplin’s Portland Tribune made its debut last month with sharp pictures, well-known columnists, all-local news, high-profile advertisers, and, perhaps most tellingly, former staffers from the mighty Oregonian, the city’s 150-year-old daily and the closest thing Oregon has to a media monopoly.

The 150,000-circulation freebie – which has a circulation goal of 400,000 – papers the town via green plastic news boxes alongside the ubiquitous yellow Oregonian news racks. Pamplin, a newspaper neophyte whose overnight media empire also includes 19 suburban Portland weeklies and shoppers as well as a Portland AM radio station, has fired an effective first shot across the bow in what sounds and feels like a newspaper war.

OK, maybe a gentleman’s war with Nerf balls instead of cannonballs, but a war just the same. Prior to the Tribune’s Feb. 11 launch, Pamplin told E&P that The Oregonian “maybe isn’t as balanced as it could be” and that “it tends to look one way instead of how it is.” Local media observers say Pamplin is smarting from what they call a fair but hard-hitting series of Oregonian articles, dating back to 1998, on the Pamplin-owned Ross Island Sand and Gravel Co., near Portland. The Oregonian had reported that the company used debris and contaminated dredge spoils to fill in the island’s lagoon beaches.

Although his mantra of fair and balanced local coverage remains a veiled dig at The Oregonian, Pamplin now has nothing but praise for the Advance Publications newspaper he raided for high-profile (if a bit long in the tooth) talent.

“I think The Oregonian is a very good newspaper because I read it all the time,” the dapper, trim Pamplin says. Pamplin’s family wealth – estimated at about $560 million – dates back to his father, Robert B. Pamplin Sr., who rose from humble beginnings to become president of Georgia-Pacific in the 1950s.

Pamplin Jr., 59, conducts business in ornate, downtown Portland digs that house two secretaries, his 89-year-old father (who still comes to work regularly), and Civil War treasures (Pamplin is a history buff). The office also sports, oddly enough, a tinny doorbell that seemingly pays homage to Piggly Wigglys and 7-Elevens when visitors enter. “All we want to provide Portland with is another forum for an exchange of ideas,” Pamplin adds in his tidy Southern accent.

Port of entry

Across town, it’s hard to gauge how The Oregonian, with its daily circulation of 348,468 copies, feels about Pamplin. When asked about the Tribune, Publisher Fred A. Stickel suddenly becomes reticent. “The Tribune is out of bounds,” Stickel huffs, resisting the temptation to criticize or praise. “I don’t think about it; I don’t pay any attention to it,” the 79-year-old Stickel adds. “All I think about is The Oregonian and how we can make it better.”

And what about the rest of The Oregonian staff? “Don’t ask them any questions,” Stickel admonishes a visitor touring the paper’s expansive newsroom. In addition to a gag on staffers, The Oregonian has barely reported on the new paper’s existence. “It was a news decision,” Stickel says, grinning.

Before the media blackout, Oregonian Executive Editor Peter Bhatia told E&P that his paper is actually taking the Tribune seriously. The Oregonian has boosted City Hall coverage in response to the Tribune’s all-local content, Bhatia said. Although the Tribune, which has lined up some big-name retailers that also advertise with The Oregonian, is trying to undercut its rival with its ad strategy, Bhatia said confidently, “Our resources far exceed theirs.”

Newspaper analyst John Morton, president of Morton Research Inc. in Silver Spring, Md., agrees. “If you’re going to pick a town to do something like this, I probably wouldn’t have picked Portland, only because The Oregonian is a good newspaper,” he says. “They do a good job of covering that town and have a lot of resources – and that just makes it tougher for anybody else.”

So why did Pamplin do it? Ego? A desire to avenge unflattering Oregonian coverage of his sand-and-gravel company? A genuine craving for better local news? Profit potential? Philanthropy from a man known for generosity (Pamplin calls the Tribune “a gift to the city”)?

“All of the above, probably,” says Mick Mulcrone, a University of Portland journalism professor. He’s familiar with Pamplin because Pamplin holds two University of Portland degrees, is an adjunct business professor, and recently endowed the university with $10.8 million. “He’s going to lose money for years,” Mulcrone predicts, “but clearly he’s made a commitment to subsidize it for some time.”

Well, Pamplin certainly has plenty of money to lose. Ranked 300 on the Forbes 500 list of private companies, R.B. Pamplin Corp. manufactures asphalt, concrete, and textiles. The company’s Mount Vernon Mills is one of the largest denim producers in the country. Pamplin’s cattle ranch, at more than 50,000 acres, is as big as Seattle. And so on.

Although Pamplin Sr. is said to be none too thrilled with his son’s shotgun media empire and its risky prospects for profitability, Pamplin Jr. seems unconcerned, at least in the short term, with the bottom line. “He can bankroll it,” Mulcrone says. “And he’s hired people away from The Oregonian who will never, ever be able to go back, so he had to offer them some kind of rock-solid contract.”

Bob Barr and ‘Bibleman’

In addition to proffering generous salaries and benefits, Pamplin – who concedes, “I don’t really know much about the media business” – has promised to keep his conservative politics and Christian preachings out of the Tribune. So far, he’s been true to his word. And his hires are convinced he will stay that way: To a person, news staffers at the Tribune – and they are savvy veterans averaging about 17 years of newspaper experience apiece – say the man who hands over the money keeps those hands out of the newspaper.

“I wanted no part of an alternative paper or something that might forward [Pamplin’s] agenda,” says Dwight Jaynes, a well-known ex-Oregonian columnist. Jaynes, also a regular on KPAM, Pamplin’s news/talk radio station, was among Pamplin’s first hires, drawn by a high salary and a large say in the Tribune’s focus. “He seemed to understand from the start it just wouldn’t work that way.”

Federal election records obtained by E&P reveal that the Pamplins have donated money to conservative Republicans far away, such as New York’s Rick Lazio and Missouri’s John D. Ashcroft in U.S. Senate races as well as California’s Bob Barr in a U.S. House contest. But they’ve also shown their practical side, covering their bets closer to home by giving money to each of their state’s U.S. senators, Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden.

While he doesn’t seem too concerned about making his mark in the Tribune’s editorial pages, Pamplin Jr. is obviously very concerned with his image: He employs attentive, efficient public-relations people who, in addition to sitting in on interviews, have crafted a sort of multimedia Bob’s World, including a “press room” link, at http://www.pamplin.org.

Then there’s the Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. press kit, replete with numerous photos and likenesses of Pamplin, including an image of him as a fitness buff doing push-ups on several pages (he’s known to offer donations to Oregon universities whose students can best him in push-ups – few have).

It is here one learns of Pamplin’s eight college degrees; his high grade point averages; his honors and awards; his considerable charitable work; his Civil War historical park in Virginia; his position as founder/senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Newberg, Ore; the Pamplin Museum Indian art collection; and the 13 books he’s written or co-written (albeit some with the help of professional writers and published by a vanity press).

Then there’s the chain of 25 Christian Supply Centers, billed as the Pacific Northwest’s largest provider of Christian books, music, gifts, and home-schooling resources; and the Pamplin Music Co., the fourth-largest force in the $6-billion-a-year Christian music business. Another wing, Pamplin Entertainment, created “Bibleman,” a Christian crusader who has been featured in videos and also in a traveling show – according to an article in The Oregonian last year, “Only Billy Graham sold more tickets than ‘Bibleman,’ among live Christian shows” in 1999. Flipping through the press kit, one half expects to see angels fly out singing, “It’s a Bob World, After All.”

All the world’s a stage

Shining such a bright light on one’s accomplishments, however impressive, seems akin to blowing one’s horn with a full brass section. Pamplin and his spin masters say they just want to get the right message out for a man who enjoys being a positive role model. Pamplin, who seasons his talk with platitudes, historical references, analogies, and the occasional “golly,” seems almost surprised when asked about his considerable image-building. “You come out on the stage, and the spotlight follows you,” he says.

Pamplin Sr. is not known to take the stage so much; he stayed in his office the day E&P interviewed his son. A self-made man, Pamplin Sr. joined Georgia-Pacific in 1934 and worked his way up to chairman of the board, turning G-P into the country’s largest forest-products company. When he retired in 1976, its sales were in the billions.

Pamplin Jr.’s handlers contend that he, too, is more or less self-made. “His wealth is from his grandmother leaving him $150,000,” spokeswoman Wendy Lane says. “Then he and his father with their money formed R.B. Pamplin Corp.”

Whereas R.B. Pamplin Corp. is a father-and-son success story, Pamplin Jr.’s media empire is seen as his and his alone. Next to buying the Trail Blazers, which aren’t for sale, buying a bunch of media outlets is a high-profile way to move out of his father’s shadow while tweaking The Oregonian.

“He’s always lived under the shadow of his dad, never gotten credit for doing anything on his own,” says one Portland journalist who’s written about Pamplin and doesn’t want to be named. “He keeps talking about this as his gift to Portland, which is beginning to annoy quite a few people.”

Among the annoyed is Dan McMillan, news editor of the Portland Business Journal (another property of Advance Publications). Tongue firmly in cheek, he wrote of the Tribune launch: “What really had me excited was how the Great Philanthropist was reinventing the language of commerce by making commerce something akin to philanthropy.”

Though it’s a stretch to call the Tribune a gift, profitability does not seem to be Pamplin’s main concern with the paper. “There’s a lot of costs involved,” notes Pamplin, who is not revealing the actual dollar figures, as he scurries about his office preparing for a business trip. “What is success? Is success the accumulation of wealth, or is success doing what is right? I’ve always said I am in this for the principle. I don’t want to lose any money. But I’m not anxious to make a lot of money.”

Northwest ‘USA’?

It doesn’t hurt that the Tribune hit the racks with several big-name Oregon advertisers in the fold, including Safeway and Thriftway stores. Advertiser Bill Gander, owner of Portland-based Standard TV and Appliance, a 29-year-old local business with six stores, says he signed on as an advertiser for a trial period. Gander, who also advertises in The Oregonian, echoes a sentiment voiced by many so far: The broadsheet Tribune looks fabulous. “The quality and integrity of the layout certainly is a leg up on The Oregonian,” Gander says. “It has more of a USA Today look, certainly more crisp.”

Advertisers will also have the option of group buys with both KPAM and the many suburban newspapers, such as the Beaverton Valley Times and Clackamas Review, Pamplin has scooped up since August. Because Portland’s population is aging, the potential for growth is in the suburbs – hence Pamplin’s purchase of the community newspapers (with a combined circulation of 294,000) prior to launching the Tribune.

At the very least, Pamplin seems to hire well. The scholarly, bearded Don Olson, the Tribune publisher, has picked The Oregonian’s pocket before, but, like Pamplin, he politely sidesteps the rivalry issue. “At twice a week, we aren’t ready to go to war with anybody,” he demurs.

Olson was previously publisher of Oregon’s This Week magazine, a total-market-coverage (TMC) shopper/entertainment guide that definitely got The Oregonian’s attention – as well as some of the Big O’s revenue, estimated to be around $400 million a year. According to Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week, a highly regarded Portland alternative, “The Oregonian started a new publication to compete. This Week filed a federal antitrust suit, lost, and then sold to The Oregonian.”

The smooth launch of the Tribune appears to be a combination of Pamplin’s open checkbook, Olson’s savvy, and the staff’s experience. “I’ve done a launch before, and I learned a lot,” Olson says. “I knew what not to do. I learned that if you don’t put a distribution system together that’s going to click on opening day, you’ve got problems, and if you don’t have depth in journalism for content and you come out weak, you’re going to get shot at.” Olson says the only glitch is an underestimation of demand for the paper, which, in addition to being distributed free in Portland, is mailed to anyone who will cover postage.

While the Tribune’s look is universally praised, the verdict is still out on its journalism. The ambitious, all-local philosophy is an admirable trait, rival journalists say, but the paper so far is no threat for a Pulitzer. “Bland, a bit ‘chamber of commerce,’ and struggling with the odd twice-weekly pattern,” Willamette Week’s Zusman says. “They have broken very little news. That said, they have provided a few stories in which they share good overviews of local subjects.”

Journalists at The Oregonian, who agreed to talk only if they weren’t identified, say the Tribune has provided little to worry about to date. One even goes so far as to say that Pamplin mainly has hired Oregonian has-beens. “They got all of the disgruntled 47-year-old white guys,” grumbles one high-profile Oregonian staffer. “They got a lot of perpetually pissed-off people there, but they do have a lot of resources.”

Adds a Willamette Week staffer: “Almost all of The Oregonian writers that Pamplin has hired had already either been put out to pasture or were sort of out of favor with [Editor] Sandy Rowe.”

On the money

Tribune President Jaynes, who is white and 53, says he left The Oregonian because he was tired of traveling to national sporting events. “Our work will speak for itself,” he counters. “Whatever I say doesn’t really matter, and whatever they say doesn’t really matter. We’ll be judged on what we do.

“I’m sure there are people who would tell you that The Oregonian didn’t mind losing the people that they lost,” Jaynes adds. “That’s fine, too. I don’t care whether they mind losing them or not. I know who we got, and I know how good we are, and I’m real comfortable with the people we have here.”

Whether the city of Portland will remain comfortable with Bob Pamplin’s upstart remains to be seen. But one thing seems certain: Whether The Oregonian likes it, loathes it, or ignores it, the Portland Tribune is not going to go away soon.

“The Oregonian has a long-standing tradition of ignoring the competition,” Zusman says. “They have done so with us for years, refusing to acknowledge stories that we break and they follow, for example. In the case of Pamplin, The Oregonian has something new to fear: not great journalism, but very deep pockets, which is what scares them the most.”



Joel Davis (jdavis@editorandpublisher.com) is West Coast editor for E&P.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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