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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Striking it rich, part 1

"There were anti-management feelings everywhere." - Wallace Turner

The Oregonian had been the most loosely managed of Newhouse's papers. It was, thus, the one most susceptible to budget cutting.

"The reins were first tightened around 1958," recalled a man who was then in the paper's management. "They brought in a new, efficiency-minded composing room superintendent from California, and Don Newhouse began to assert himself."

This Newhouse was S.I.'s younger first cousin. After starting as an office boy at the Long Island Press and graduating from MIT with a degree in engineering, Don was sent to Portland in 1951. At first, he did little more than watch what went on in the back shop and was conspicuous more for his bashfulness and badly crossed eyes than for any technical expertise. Over the next five years, however, he became a force to be reckoned with.

The savings Don Newhouse and the new efficiency expert effected in production did not go unnoticed in the newsroom. Solely to cut costs, for example, the Oregonian's design was simplified, and fewer banner headlines were used. Late sports scores were held for subsequent editions, and last-minute changes on breaking news stores were discouraged.

These changes were minor annoyances, however, compared to management's sudden stinginess about pay raises. By the mid-1950s, it was clear to everybody at the paper that the Oregonian's financial position had improved markedly, yet non of the benefits seemed to be accruing to the employees.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Wallace Turner, who left the newsroom in 1956 to begin his rackets investigation and then received a fellowship at Harvard, was perhaps in the best position to observe the results of management's newfound tightfistedness. He recalled that, when he left, the Oregonian's newsroom was a happy, upbeat, hardworking place. "But when I came back [a year later], I suddenly realized the animosities I couldn't imagine." Money, Turner explained, was the central grievance: "There were anti-management feelings everywhere, because there were limits on everybody."

In 1959, when the stereotypers' cushy contract came up for renegotiations, publisher Mike Frey, after consulting with Newhouse in New York, ordered the Oregonians's key labor negotiator, Bill Morrish, to fight on every issue that pertained to to salary or productivity. Toward the end of the unusually harsh negotiations, Morrish pulled out a surprise much like the one Newhouse had employed in St. Louis.

This time, it was a new piece of equipment, known as the M.A.N. machine. Not yet installed at any other American newspaper, it would eliminate three out of every four stereotypers' jobs at the Oregonian. With this one masterful stroke, the paper's leas productive union was backed into a corner. The stereotypers could either accede to the gutting of their department or strike. Their international union, fearing the installation of the M.A.N. machine at other papers, ordered a strike.

(© Richard H. Meeker, "Newspaperman", p.193-194)

Part 3 in a series, "Newhouses and labor unions"

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