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One man's cheating heart likely cost Portland its local newspaper

Was the shooting of Donald Newhouse the action of a Union thug, related to the strike at the Oregonian and Journal? Or was it a cuckolded husband taking revenge in a case of mistaken identity?

The Oregon Journal building as it appeared in the late 1950s. Although the Journal had no problem with the stereotypers’ union, it was drawn into the Oregonian’s battle through a deal the two newspapers had made to negotiate labor contracts together; this made it possible for the Oregonian to indirectly break the Journal by picking a fight the Journal couldn’t afford, which is essentially what happened in 1959. (Image: Bud Holland/ Vintage Portland)

It may be true that the movement of a butterfly’s wings can seed a hurricane thousands of miles away, or it may be hyperbole. But minor events sure can lead to big things — as was the case with a Portland man who, back in the early 1960s, got into a little affair with a married woman.

This fellow’s infidelity led directly to a shooting, and that shooting led to the complete takeover of Portland’s metro newspaper market by the New York mogul whose company still owns the Oregonian today.

An amateurish duo of car bombers with a box of dynamite also played a key role in the outcome — and it could never have happened at all had not several hundred Portlanders had their inheritance stolen from them, a few years before that, by the crafty attorneys in charge of a deceased widow’s estate.

All in all, it was a bad few years for Portland.

Now, before we get into the story, it has to be said that the “unfaithful husband” narrative is a theory, not a proven fact. Despite a generous reward offered for his arrest, the man who shot and wounded Donald Newhouse through his basement window on Oct. 16, 1960, as he stood at his workbench, has never been identified, so the shooter’s motives can’t really be known.

What is known that Newhouse had just moved into the house; the previous resident had a reputation as a womanizer; and the gunman, from the position the shot was fired, had not been able to see (or shoot) his face and head. Hence, the theory goes, he took the shot thinking he was blasting the philandering former owner of the house, not realizing he had the wrong man.

But Donald Newhouse wasn’t just any innocent bystander. He was the production manager at the Portland Oregonian, the nephew of the New York mogul who owned it. He was the man in charge of defeating the various newspaper unions which had been on strike there for nearly a year. That union had already shown itself willing to get heavy — one member had threatened to shoot Newhouse as he crossed a picket line, and another had been caught bombing company vehicles.

A stereotyper makes a mold at a printer’s shop in Leipzig, Germany, in 1953. (Image: Deutsche Fotothek)

So the competing theory — that the shooter was a thug sent by the union — is far more often heard today. It’s certainly what Newhouse and his wife believed, and when Newhouse died in surgery 12 years later — from complications he might have survived if not for the damage the gunman inflicted — his widow publicly blamed the union for his death.

The fact that Newhouse’s injuries came from a shotgun blast to the pelvis — not the usual target for an assassin, but a very popular one among vengeful cuckolded husbands — suggests she may have been mistaken. But it scarcely mattered. In the minds of most Portlanders, the union now had the moral taint of attempted murder upon it. It would take several more years to play out, but for the union, the battle was already lost — and with it Portland’s only remaining independent daily, and the city’s status as a true two-newspaper town.*

 

The events that led up to this fateful shooting were complicated and controversial, and involved some of Oregon’s most powerful people; this is most likely why the story has been so little told or studied. Until recently (with the work of historians like Caleb Diehl), information about it came generally from two sources: The newspaper itself, and its former union members. Obviously, both these sources are at pains to present themselves in the best possible light at all times, so the real story can be hard to pick out. What follows is my best shot at doing just that:

Late in 1959, the Stereotypers Union No. 49 at the Oregonian voted to walk off the job, thereby — according to union historians’ interpretation — taking the bait in a cunningly laid trap. From a public-relations standpoint, their position was terrible: Samuel I. Newhouse, the owner, had installed new technology that would automate the expensive, labor-intensive stereotyping process, eliminating their positions. To the public, it looked like they were going on strike to force the company to stick with inferior technology just so they could keep their jobs.

Union sources said it was more complicated than that — that they’d been willing to work with Newhouse, but Newhouse had wanted a fight and liked how it would look to have the strike break out over this particular issue. Union sources also claimed it was all part of a complicated and cunning plot to take over the competing newspaper, the locally owned Oregon Journal — thereby establishing a local newspaper monopoly — and to break all the newspaper unions, in one fell swoop. The level of prescience Newhouse would have had to show for this to be true makes it seem pretty unlikely. But everyone agrees that, whether that was the plan or not, it’s basically what happened.

It didn’t look like it was going that way at first, though. After the stereotypers walked out, they threw a picket line up around the building, and a picket line was not something one lightly crossed back in ’59. Hundreds of other employees stayed away from work, effectively swelling the number of strikers. In response, Newhouse brought in a cadre of out-of-state strikebreakers — some of whom turned out to be thugs with sawed-off shotguns and prison records — to keep the paper going. These turned out to be better at making trouble than they were at making a newspaper, and the Oregonian’s quality suffered shockingly, which made the union organizers’ door-to-door efforts to get locals to cancel their subscriptions that much easier.

Meanwhile, over at the Oregon Journal — the competing Portland daily newspaper, which was still locally owned — one might have expected things to be going rather better. In fact, they were going much worse. The Journal and the Oregonian had made a deal for both newspapers to bargain together with the unions; this meant that even though the Journal had no dog in the Oregonian stereotypers’ fight, it was forced into it, essentially, by treaty obligations. And unlike the Oregonian, the Journal was not financially prepared for it.

The Journal was no longer being run by the family that had founded it back in 1902. Fearsome newsman Sam Jackson, and later his son Philip, had built it from nothing into Portland’s leading newspaper. But by the late 1950s all members of the family were dead. And the last surviving Jackson, Sam’s widow Maria, had left specific instructions in her will that the paper was under no circumstances to be sold to Newhouse.

But it was no secret that Newhouse wanted very much to buy it, so that he could enjoy an effective local monopoly; and the trustees were quite willing to sell it to him, if they could just figure out how to get around Maria Jackson’s posthumous edict.

They’d already defeated one such edict. In her will, Maria had instructed that all the family’s stock in the company was to be distributed to the employees. But the trustees had challenged the bequest, and got a judge to rule that she had made it in “wishful” language, and that it was therefore null and void; so, the trustees got to keep control. Needless to say, Newhouse found these trustees far easier to work with than would have been the case had the Journal been owned by its employees – especially during the strike.

 

So the year 1960 found the Journal hard-pressed, and the Oregonian not much better. They’d teamed up to produce a single edition, the Oregonian-Oregon Journal, which was delivered to all their dwindling subscribers; but delivery was suddenly very uneven, and the quality of the newspaper was terrible. Cancelations were pouring in. It would have appeared to anyone looking, in early 1960, like the unions were going to win this fight.

But that’s when one of the members of the stereotypers’ union — the union that started the whole thing — made a crucial mistake. And although that mistake wouldn’t put the kiss of death on the whole operation — that would happen the following year, with the shooting outside Donald Newhouse’s basement window — it would set the stage for it. Because, how hard is it to believe a union will try to murder the manager, after the union has hired bombers and given them dynamite?

We’ll talk about that bombing, and the events that followed, in next week’s column.

* EDITOR'S NOTE: There will be those who will want to quibble over whether or not the purchase of the Journal by the Oregonian constituted the demise of Portland as a true two-newspaper town. If you are one of them, we will probably have to agree to disagree. My view on this matter has probably been influenced considerably by my time at Gannett and Lee Enterprises newspapers in similar situations. Early in my career I worked at the Silverton Appeal Tribune, which "competed" with the Salem Statesman Journal while being owned by it; later, I served as editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel, which "competed" with the separately owned Eugene Register Guard. The difference between the two situations was profound and undeniable. In a town that has two newspapers, common ownership, in my view, is a thing that cannot be masked by any amount of "competitiveness" in the respective newsrooms — although in the case of the Portland Journal, longtime editor Don Sterling did a phenomenal job of playing the lousy hand the situation dealt him after the merger. — fjdj

(Sources: Diehl, Caleb. “The Newspaper Wars…,” Portland Monthly, Dec. 2015; Klare, Gene. “Let Me Say This about That,” nwlaborpress.org, 1/01/2002; Diehl, Caleb. “The Portland Reporter,” oregonencyclopedia.org)