Bakers’ Newspaper Legacy Surrounds Us

If there’s ever a middle of a legacy, this newspaper is in it right now. After 88 years, the Baker family has handed the reins to Chris Anderson, the former publisher of The (Portland) Oregonian. The family plans to retain ownership and continue its day-to-day involvement, while preparing its next generation of leaders.

Tony Baker led this newspaper as publisher for 28 years. He followed his uncle, who followed his father, who followed his grandfather. The family has led Eugene’s daily newspaper since 1927. That was not a good year to start a business venture, but the Bakers’ history with newspapering was by then already well underway. The family’s story — it’s not too soon to call it a legacy — already was taking shape.

That story begins in 1898 in Cleveland, Ohio. A businessman named Liberty Holden bought the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but found himself ill-equipped to run a daily newspaper. What he did next changed journalism as we know it.

Holden hired not one executive to replace himself, but two. He poached the Cleveland Leader’s advertising manager, Tony Baker’s great-grandfather, Elbert Baker, to run the business end of his operation. And he hired Charles Kennedy from St. Louis to run the newsroom. These two men were described in legal papers as “co-lessees” — like roommates sharing and inhabiting the Fourth Estate.

Elbert took the title of general manager and quickly defied convention with a couple of innovative business policies. He told his advertisers what the newspaper’s actual circulation was, even though that number was lower than his sales staff had been quoting. And then he published a rate card, dictating that every advertiser would pay the same amount.

Taken together, Cleveland’s newspaper established a foundation of honesty and integrity with its advertisers and its readers. When Alton Baker came to Eugene and bought the Eugene Guard in 1927, he followed his father’s lead, earning the trust of skeptical business leaders. But the Bakers were just getting started.

During that era, only the New York Times and a couple of other big city newspapers gave its readers a full slate of political endorsements. Why choose sides at all if it’s not necessary? What business would purposely risk angering up to half of its customers?

Today it seems necessary to us, but only because Elbert Baker’s conviction brought it to community newspapering. The Bakers brought that sort of editorial courage to smaller markets like Cleveland and then Eugene.

The Bakers imagined a newspaper not as THE citizen of A community, but as A citizen of ITS community. Those words were probably written by this newspaper’s legendary editor William Tugman, but the words simply expressed the vision that the newspaper’s owners had already been living.

The Bakers introduced a fourth concept to community newspapering that might never have become reality without them. They wove community philanthropy tightly into their newspaper management ethic. They have always believed that the newspaper’s role in civic leadership cannot — must not — be separated from the overall well-being of the community whose trust it aims to earn.

Alton Baker Park commemorates that civic leadership. The Baker family did not donate the land. They led the effort to secure that riverfront property and to preserve it for all Eugeneans to enjoy for generations to come.

Ted and Marie Baker continued the family legacy into this generation by leading the Eugene Public Library Foundation’s fund-raising effort to build our downtown library.

The number of community projects in between that the Bakers have spearheaded defy the imagination. Very few communities have benefitted from three successive generations of continuous vision and benevolence. We’re in the middle of that legacy right now.

It’s a good time to wonder what the next three generations will bring. However the newspaper evolves, we can be sure it will remain a citizen of its community.

Eugene played a central role in remaking community journalism almost a century ago. What it becomes a century from now could be taking shape right here again, with all of us in the middle of it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs