Doug Bates extracts a memo pad and a pen from the back pocket of his new Levis, pulls back the chair and settles in across the kitchen table from his source, who spins a tale of small-town intrigue, power, politics and personality. Doug leans in to listen, maintaining eye contact as he scribbles a few notes.
His nose for news has developed throughout a stellar 40-year career in newspaper journalism. If there’s a story here—a verifiable, document-supported story—it will take hard work to uncover.
Doug is already putting in 80-hour workweeks—practicing the profession he happily retired from more than a decade ago—for the newspaper he got roped into starting in the town where he once vowed to never return.
Half an hour later, Doug drives his car 10 miles an hour down a deserted stretch of First Street. When he was growing up, this was the retail heart of his hometown of Oakridge, Oregon. One of the thriving businesses on that street was his father’s shoe store.
Back then, this rural outpost on the western slopes of the Cascades was at the height of blue-collar prosperity fueled by the “green gold” timber industry.
Like so many others, the town has since been battered by the successive storms of industry changes, recessions, the exodus of its young people and, most recently, the pandemic.
First Street is quiet, and many of the storefronts have long been vacant.
In front of one of those storefronts, Doug sees a man in an orange vest sweeping construction debris.
What’s going on? A new business? He gets out of the car, introduces himself, whips out the memo pad and conducts an off-the-cuff interview.
Then it is a quick drive down to the highway for lunch at a Mexican restaurant where the walls are lined with the colorful artwork from a local painter he interviewed in the spring for his Artist of the Month column. Miguel Perez, the young owner and chef, emerges from the kitchen. Between bites of his bean and chicken sopa, Doug conducts his third interview in as many hours.
More than a half-century ago, Doug—Oakridge High School valedictorian, editor of the school newspaper, president of his National Honor Society chapter and member of the student council—turned to his future wife, Gloria, and said, with the absolute certainty of an 18-year-old: “Good riddance to this town. I am never coming back.”
But four children, nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren later, Doug returned after a career that included editorial stints at The Oregonian in Portland, The Seattle Times, The Register-Guard in Eugene, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane and the San Diego Union-Tribune; a Pulitzer Prize; and writing
After decades in cities battling traffic and working in fast-paced newsrooms, Doug yearned for a quiet, countrified, leisurely life—a retirement made meaningful by
volunteering, pursuing long-ignored hobbies and spending time with family.
That was Doug’s life, until a year ago. That’s when two of Oakridge’s prominent citizens approached him about starting a newspaper to serve their forgotten community and the other little towns that lined Oregon Route 58: Pleasant Hill, Dexter, Lowell, Westfir, Cascade Summit and Crescent Lake Junction.
“Approached” doesn’t do justice to their full-court press. They begged him.
The struggling daily newspaper in Eugene, 45 miles west, had reduced coverage of Oakridge and the other rural communities along the busy mountain highway.
The Dead Mountain Echo—a weekly that had been a fixture in town for almost 50 years—had closed shop.
A news and information void threatened civic engagement and eroded a sense of pride and belonging. How would the people in these communities learn about the activities of their local governments, their schools, the issues that could affect their lives, the events that made their communities special?
Doug listened. He knows the important role of local media. He is a newshound through and through. And Oakridge was now home—again—and he loved it in a way he didn’t while growing up.
Doug says he thought to himself, “A new newspaper? Are these guys crazy?” During the previous 15 years, more than 2,000 newspapers throughout the U.S. had gone belly up. Many of those that remained did so by laying off staff and scaling back coverage. This was not the time to start a newspaper.
With the absolute certainty of a then-72-year-old, Doug proclaimed to the community leaders trying to persuade him otherwise, “I didn’t retire here to become a small-town journalist.”
Then, one drippy day at the end of October 2020, he was ambling down a stretch of the Greenwaters Trail by the banks of the Willamette River, breathing the fall air, enjoying the woods he knew so well from his youth. He was also thinking about this idea of a newspaper. Maybe it wasn’t so crazy after all.
In the small coastal town of Yachats, Oregon, there was a veteran newspaperman like Doug who started a news site devoted to local journalism that. Against all odds, it seemed to be doing well. YachatsNews.com—then a year-and-a-half old—was attracting almost 60,000 page views a month. Quentin Smith, the publisher and editor, had attracted not only readers, but local advertising.
Could this be a model for Oakridge? As a hometown boy and a seasoned journalist, wasn’t Doug obligated to do something like this?
When he got back from his hike—later dubbed “the epiphany in the woods”—he called his friend, Dean Rea. The two had known each other more than 50 years. Doug had been a student in one of Dean’s journalism classes at the University of Oregon and later a colleague in the newsroom at the Eugene paper. Since the Dead Mountain Echo ceased publication, Dean had been bugging Doug to buy it.
Dean was a 92-year-old firebrand who had “retired” so many times his pronouncements had long been greeted with laughter. He referred to himself as an “over-the-hill reporter,” but his feet were firmly planted on the top of whatever hill he thought he was over.
Doug told him about his idea. He wouldn’t resurrect the Dead Mountain Echo, as Dean and others had urged, but what if he tried to replicate the model of the Yachats news site? He imagined a digital-only newspaper would offer Oakridge and the surrounding towns accurate, unbiased news about their communities.
The site could be a watchdog of government, because that was the job of a free press in a democracy. It also could be a community booster—a place where its citizens could learn about the lives and accomplishments of their neighbors.
This news site would have no pay wall. There would be no subscriptions. And it would be run by a nonprofit.
What did Dean think?
Dean sent his entire stimulus check to the nonprofit that had not yet been founded to support a news site that existed only in the mind of his friend.
With that unexpected check, Doug opened a bank account in the name of Highway 58 Herald. He liked the alliteration, and the name needed to include a reference to the little towns along the highway east and west of Oakridge. They, too, deserved a voice.
Quickly, Doug created a seven-person board of directors to helm the new nonprofit. Just as quickly, all board members chipped in their stimulus checks.
The news site—created by the web designer behind the Yachats site Doug admired—went live February 28, 2021. Doug bravely proclaimed it “an auspicious experiment in Oregon journalism.”
Meanwhile, in the tiny back room of the yet-to-be finished newspaper office—an erstwhile beauty salon in Oakridge—Doug sat hunched forward staring at the computer screen.
On that first day, H58H had 18,000 page views. Within the first month, page views were up to 30,000, and community members had donated more than $6,000 to the enterprise. A humble man, Doug says he couldn’t help himself. “We are hot stuff,” he thought.
Buoyed by that initial success, Doug jumped in with both feet. He wrote stories about city budgets and local elections; drive-ins, diners and dives along the highway; music events; shootings; traffic accidents; aging dams; and fire danger. He wrote obituaries and artist profiles. He reported on everything from vaccine clinics for dogs to discount broadband service for low-income households.
Dean, meanwhile, volunteered to act as chief correspondent for the outlying communities, covering city government and schools. A Lowell High School sophomore mentored and edited by Dean would write a column. A local woman with a green thumb and a green conscience volunteered to write about nature and the environment.
But mostly it was Doug in his baggy jeans, oversized Oakridge sweatshirt and vintage Greek fisherman’s cap listening in to city council meetings on Zoom, making phone calls, roaming the streets and working late into the night.
Monthly page views plummeted to half as the novelty wore off, but slowly climbed back to around 25,000. Doug has gotten smarter about social media. Local advertising dribbles in. He keeps at it. There is plenty of time to retire, again, later.
Highway 58 Herald’s Supporting Cast
From learning how to run a Linotype machine in the 1940s—dreaming that someday he would own his own newspaper and would have to know everything about its operation—to quickly adapting to the world of micro stick voice recorders and Zoom meetings, Dean Rea has enjoyed an 80-year love affair with journalism. After decades as a reporter and editor, and writing and self-publishing eight books, he is now a correspondent and columnist for the Highway 58 Herald. The 92-year-old has been a champion of weekly newspapers throughout his long, productive life.
Doug Bates calls Lydia Plahn—his youngest correspondent—a gem. Now a junior in a rural junior-senior high school with barely 200 students and no student newspaper, she says she feels “super lucky” to be getting experience as a journalist. Lydia says she is especially fortunate that Dean Rea—old enough to be her great-great-grandfather—is teaching her the ropes. She’s a triple-sport athlete who writes about sports. She also is a curious student interested in chronicling high-school life for alums, old-timers and kids her own age. Lydia says she might even be interested in a career in journalism.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite magazine, is shining a light on rural arts in the Northwest and West through early 2022, revealing how the arts enrich communities and sharing comeback stories in these challenging times. The series, The Heart of Community, receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest.