1959-1965: Portland’s Newspaper Strike

This is neither a Tip nor Trend, but an observance of a mega-moment in our local media history. Imagine this: Portland daily newspaper circulation drops. Reportorial staff shrinks. A new form of reporting emerges. And, old technologies are shoved out of the way.

Were these hot button issues on management’s desk at The Oregonian last week? Probably. But how about 50 years ago?

Today’s turmoil in the newsroom seems tranquil compared to the bitterness and violence during – what still may be a taboo subject inside The Oregonian – the five-year Portland newspaper strike. If for no other reason than being grounded in our history, it’s worth it for today’s communicators to look back on the path traveled by our local media.

There is little written about this event, a surprising outcome considering the national attention drawn to Portland at the time. Here are some key dates:

Post WWII: Decline of afternoon dailies

In post-WWII Portland, the locally owned Oregon Journal, founded in 1902, was the circulation leader. But changes in consumer trends across the nation would erode the popularity of afternoon dailies. Also, in 1950, the Advance Publications newspaper chain, owned by Sam Newhouse, purchased The Oregonian. By the end of the decade The Oregonian was secure as the circulation leader in the state.

1959: Portland Stereotypers Union strike

Unions at the two dailies became uneasy about the status of labor negotiations. In November, the Portland Stereotypers Union (production workers) struck Portland's two dailies. The stereotypers protested the introduction of automatic plate-casting machinery.

Members of other local unions, such as the reporters’ guild, refused to cross the Stereotypers' picket lines. A Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Wallace Turner, as well as many other capable writers and photographers walked out, never to return.

“Reinforcing the premise that the strike was provoked by The Oregonian's unyielding bargaining stance with the Stereotypers so that Newhouse could purchase the Journal was the timing of the strike's start on Nov. 10, 1959,” longtime labor editor Gene Klare wrote in a 2002 remembrance.

The strike was punctuated by picket-line brawls and the dynamiting of newspaper delivery vans, Time magazine noted in a 1963 retrospective. Although separately owned, the two dailies “published a "joint, typo-marred paper,” Time noted. Later, the papers hired enough nonunion help to resume separate operations.

1960: Portland Reporter starts

The unions launched the Portland Reporter as a weekly on Feb. 11, 1960. “To keep the Reporter going in the face of this determined opposition, the newspaper unions dug deep into their treasuries,” Time noted. “Eighty Portland locals put up $150,000 to buy and remodel an abandoned Wells Fargo stable.” Much of the Reporter’s staff came from the two dailies.”The strikers received "strike benefits" from their unions, but they received no paychecks from the Reporter,” recalls Leslie Wykoff, a staffer whose father was the publisher Bob Webb.

The tabloid-sized Reporter went semi-weekly April 12, 1960, and daily (except Sunday) on Feb. 11, 1961. At its height, circulation reached 78,000 in spite of the fact that the two dailies continued to publish using non-union labor.

1961: The Oregon Journal sold

Newhouse bought the Oregon Journal. Production and business operations of the two newspapers were consolidated in The Oregonian's building. The editorial staffs remained separate, located on different floors.

1963: Strike declared illegal

The National Labor Relations Board ruled the strike illegal in November 1963.

1964: Reporter folds

The Portland Reporter stopped publishing in October 1964.

1965: Pickets give up

Strikers continued to picket the dailies until April 4, 1965. The papers became open shops and the era of unions at the two dailies ended.

Long-term impacts

The end of the strike meant more than the end of unions at The Oregonian building.

It also hastened the beginning of the end of the hot-type printing press era, as well as the first baby steps toward the computerized newsroom. Which is why Portland became one of the first large cities to see its newspapers convert to offset printing press and changed the way newspapers could be designed and produced.

And, ultimately, the strike was one of many reasons for the death of the Oregon Journal in 1982, when the editorial staffs were combined.