One of the many historic “firsts” of Clackamas County pride is that Oregon City was the home of the West’s first newspaper.

Before California or Washington had mass-produced news, the Oregon Spectator, established in 1846, was the only typeset paper published west of the Rocky Mountains.

by: PHOTO COURTESY: OREGON HUMANITIES AND MICHAEL ANDERSEN - Michael Andersen's presentation next Thursday at the Museum of the Oregon Territory will focus on the changing news business.The Spectator informed Oregon Territory settlers of new laws that affected their land claims, told them where to locate vital provisions, published the opinions of “respected gentlemen,” debated politics and the consumption of spirits, and provided what lean sprinkling of national and international news could be found in the days preceding a transnational telegraph.

Now, 150 years later, the future of large daily newspapers is in question across the nation. This is the focus of “Yesterday’s News: The Future of Local Information,” a free conversation with journalist Michael Andersen at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 27, at the Museum of the Oregon Territory, 211 Tumwater Drive, Oregon City. The program is hosted by the Clackamas County Historical Society and sponsored by Oregon Humanities.

Andersen will lead an interactive community discussion, building around economic and historic cornerstones. In the 21st century, electronic publishing has come to favor nonprint media in terms of production costs, leading to an explosion of online blogs and other specialized “niche” news sources. Many centralized, mass-media giants of old have experienced a degree of collapse in the last decade, Andersen says.

“In 2009,” he points out, “American writer Clay Shirky predicted that ‘every town in this country of 500,000 or less’ people was likely to ‘sink into casual, endemic, civic corruption,’ fostered by the decline of local newspapers.” Andersen provokes Oregonians to anticipate what this might mean for our communities, by presenting statistics, historical data and scholarly observations.

The Oregon Spectator was a prime example of a central news source as public “watchdog,” recording and announcing the political steps that led to statehood. It was co-produced by an unlikely alliance of local leaders, including George Abernethy (Oregon’s provisional governor), Francis W. Pettygrove (who gave Portland its name), Wm. G. T’Vault (postmaster general, with a reputation as both an ill-tempered editor and a bad speller), former fur trapper and frontier medicine sage “Doc” Newell, sea captain John Heard Couch, Rev. Wilson Blain, militiaman turned Supreme Court Judge James Nesmith and more — all of whom invested together to satisfy the clamor for news.

After waiting for 10 months for a printing press to be shipped from New York around Cape Horn, the first printing of the four-page Spectator numbered 250 copies in a city with a voting population of only 500. Eventually, it was published weekly, with a peak subscription rate of 155.

The Oregon Spectator informed readers of where small shipments of soap, cigars, blue jeans and coffee could be found, of emerging tax laws, agricultural-chemistry tips, and the West’s first sports news, reporting on a Vancouver horse race in The Spectator’s first summer season. Often, efforts were made to lift the reader’s spirits. “Happiness depends on the mind, and that on organization and improvement ... no amount of care or anxiety will pay a particle of debt.” (May 28, 1846).

After a decade of organizational tumult and eventual competition with upcoming Portland journals, the Oregon Spectator was discontinued. However, its work had been vastly important — if not eloquently expressed — in that it connected ordinary people to their provisional and territorial government’s every move.

Andersen, presenting this program in Oregon City at MOOT, is the publisher of Portland Afoot, a nonprofit news magazine and website about low-car life in Portland, and news editor of Bike Portland. His work also has appeared in The Oregonian, Crosscut and the Columbia Journalism Review.

Through the Conversation Project, Oregon Humanities offers free programs that engage community members in thoughtful, challenging conversations about ideas critical to our daily lives and our state’s future.

Oregon Humanities seeks to “connect Oregonians to ideas that change lives and transform communities.” More information about Oregon Humanities’ programs and publications, which include the Conversation Project, Think & Drink, Humanity in Perspective, Idea Lab, Public Program Grants, and Oregon Humanities magazine, can be found at Oregon Humanities is an independent, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a partner of the Oregon Cultural Trust.

Visit or call 503-655-5574 for more information.

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