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BY MARK L. ZUSMAN


 

Nineteen years ago, I arrived in Portland from the East Coast, fresh from an internship with columnist Jack Anderson. I was one of thousands of liberal-arts college graduates for whom Oregon appeared to be an island of sanity amid the sea of weirdness that was post-Vietnam and post-Watergate America. Back East, we had heard of a governor named Tom McCall. We also had heard of the beach bill, the bottle bill and this odd thing called land-use planning. It sounded so damn romantic.

When we got here, however, we found Oregon struggling through a recession. A good number turned and went home. I stayed and found a job at Willamette Week.

In 1980, the newspaper was run by Ron Buel, a former bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal who later did a stint as aide to then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt. Buel was WW's founding inspiration, a man whose sustained moral outrage was exceeded only by his devotion to the idea that citizens can't make wise choices unless they understand their options.

This idea was a powerful one--that journalism's role was to connect the dots or, to use the symbol we've chosen for our 25th anniversary issue, to provide a bridge between readers and the world around them.

Buel eventually left the paper, and I became editor; in 1983, Richard Meeker and I took the reins of Willamette Week.

That was 16 years ago. Since then, a few things have changed.

The paper was once a paid publication; now it's free. It once was published as a broadsheet; now it's tabloid. We once avoided color; now we use it freely. We once circulated fewer than 12,000 copies; now we print 85,000. We've moved our offices twice and redesigned the paper countless times. A few years ago, we took on a new partner, Sales and Marketing Director Russ Martineau, whose energy and drive have been invaluable.

Over time, we've refined our craft. We've won buckets of national and regional awards, been sued for libel several times and received death and bomb threats (including bullets sent in the mail). We've helped good restaurants, plays and musicians receive the attention they deserve. We've changed laws, gotten some people thrown out of office, helped to elect others and gone after the stories and issues the daily newspaper wouldn't touch. We've watchdogged institutions of power and offered vital commentary on lifestyle matters (anyone remember that feature on reverse circumcision?).

After 25 years, Buel's original vision still holds. We're still a local newspaper that is locally owned. We still have an obsessive belief in journalism that is genuinely independent of conventional wisdom, of commercial pressures and of the wretched trends--the timid coverage of serious matters and rabid reportage of the irrelevant--that infect much of modern-day media. And we still seek, week in and week out, to provide a bridge between readers and their world.

That we have occasionally failed is beyond doubt. That we have often succeeded is testimony to the hundreds of Willamette Weekers who have graced this company over the years with their loyalty and hard work.

To mark Willamette Week's 25th anniversary, however, we chose not to celebrate this newspaper. Instead, we chose to honor 25 years of this city.

We've chronicled the comic, the tragic--even the obscene. We've identified the issues, people and developments that have been central to this city's identity. In essence, we've tried to publish an owner's manual for Portland, complete with illustrations, explanations and cautionary tales.

In the process of putting this issue together, we took inspiration from, of all places, a comment once made by Andy Warhol. "They always say that time changes things," he said, "but you actually have to change them yourself."

Portland's character has been defined by citizens who have not waited for time, but have sought to change things themselves. We're proud to think that for the past quarter-century, WW has been part of that process.

Mark L. Zusman

 

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