The “New” Medford Mail Tribune: What We’ve Lost
Below is an excerpt from the Oregon Encyclopedia
For over a hundred years, the Medford Mail Tribune has argued against what it perceived to be dangerous, irrational, or unfair—if often popular—political measures, facing libel suits, jailings, death threats, and boycotts as a result. The newspaper was created by a 1906 merger of the Southern Oregon Mail, a proponent of political reform published in Medford since 1888, and the Tribune, which began publication in Ashland in 1894. The Mail Tribune earned recognition and respect from journalists for its public service and was the first Oregon newspaper to win a Pulitzer Prize (1934).
George Putnam was the Mail Tribune’s first owner and editor. Among his early editorial campaigns was an effort to improve the city’s drinking water, which he referred to as “so muddy that it is clogging the meters.” Putnam suggested that the city was “obtaining money under false pretenses” by selling polluted water to residents, and published his own eyewitness account of the president of the local railroad company chasing the mayor down Main Street with an ax. He was jailed and convicted of libel; the Oregon Supreme Court reversed the lower-court verdict. “The paper that has no enemies has no friends,” Putnam wrote of his ordeal.
Putnam sold the Tribune to Robert Ruhl and S. Sumpter Smith in 1919. As editor, Ruhl proclaimed the paper an independent force for better government in the Rogue River Valley. In the early 1920s, the Mail Tribune editorialized strongly against the increasing influence of the Ku Klux Klan in the state, one of few Oregon newspapers to do so. Facing a boycott of the newspaper by advertisers and Klan supporters, Ruhl hoped that in a “time not far distant, the widespread report that Jackson County is a hot bed of Ku Kluxism, can be finally and permanently denied.”
During 1932-1933, in the depth of the Depression, the Mail Tribune survived another boycott and threatened violence by supporters of a local populist insurgency called the Good Government Congress. Led by the demagogic owner of a competing daily, the Medford News, the Good Government Congress staged an electoral takeover of the county courthouse that ended spectacularly in ballot fraud, theft, street violence, and murder. The Mail Tribune’s coverage of the movement, which gained national notoriety, won it a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism
Eric W. Allen Jr. took over the editorial reins of the paper in 1964 and soon gained a reputation as a supporter of civil rights, handgun control, land use planning, controls on air and water pollution, and other issues that were unpopular with many Mail Tribune subscribers. Under Allen’s leadership, the newspaper supported progressive candidates for state and national offices regardless of which party they represented. “It’s never pleasant to be damned, and I was,” Allen wrote, adding, “I’m a good forgetter, too.” He was a fervent believer in the First Amendment. “Cherish it as you would your lives,” he wrote, “for without the First Amendment, your lives would almost assuredly be hardly worth living.”
From 1973 to 2007, the Mail Tribune was owned by a subsidiary of Dow Jones. It dropped “Medford” from its nameplate and became more of a regional publication. News Corporation bought Dow Jones in 2007 and sold the Tribune in 2013 to Newcastle Investment, which assigned operations to GateHouse Media, which oversees some 400 newspapers and 350 related websites. The Mail Tribune, the Ashland Daily Tidings, and the Nickel (a weekly shopper) now make up the Southern Oregon Media Group, created when News Corporation purchased the three publications. The Mail Tribuneand all other Southern Oregon Media Group properties were sold to Rosebud Media LLC in January 2017.
Today’s Mail Tribune is a far cry from the Southern Oregon paper that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1934. A recent petition, “Save the Medford Mail Tribune From Its Owner’s Changes!”, begins:
“On Sunday, Feb. 28th, Steve Saslow, owner/publisher of the Mail Tribune of Medford, Oregon, wrote an editorial announcing big changes in how the paper would be run. He will take over from an editorial board to decide which editorials run & which don’t. He will fire any reporter who he thinks is slanting the news. He will no longer run stories from the Washington Post or other newspapers he thinks are ‘slanted’ toward the liberal side. He will also reject all letters to the editor on national topics because he said liberals and progressives submit 10 to 1 the number of letters that conservatives submit. He’ll only accept letters about ‘local’ and ‘regional’ issues – without defining those terms.”