JOE BIANCO, NORTHWEST MAGAZINE AND THE OATMEAL MIND
By Charles Deemer
On a fall evening in 1965, Joe Bianco answered the telephone to find his Managing Editor, Ed Miller, on the line. Miller told the Agricultural Editor that he wanted him to revive Northwest magazine, a Sunday supplement The Oregonian had published briefly some years before, with Miller as its editor.
Bianco, with a couple of after-work Scotches under his belt, remembers feeling “vulnerable.” He accepted the offer. But on Monday morning Bianco hurried into Miller’s office and retracted his acceptance. However, Miller wouldn’t take no for answer. Suddenly Joe Bianco was a magazine editor.
On paper, the farm editor looked like an unlikely choice for such an assignment. Bianco had come to The Oregonian somewhat reluctantly in 1955, thinking of Portland as a stepping stone to San Francisco. He’d already established an award-winning career in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as a crime reporter. He’d been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for solving a case involving serial murders on the turnpike. Without formal training in journalism or writing, Bianco managed to make a reputation as an aggressive, hard-working investigator. He’d come west to Oregon because his wife was from here and to find new challenges.
Tired of police work at The Oregonian, Bianco became Agricultural Editor at the conclusion of the ugly newspaper strike of 1959-60. Once again he quickly made his mark, exposing the realities of migrant labor life in a series of articles he wrote after posing as a worker in eastern Oregon. Bianco’s work received national recognition:
“It took months of preparation,” said an article in Editor and Publisher on November 13, 1971, “before Joe Bianco, Agricultural Editor of The Oregonian, was able to assume the role of a migrant farm worker for a week. His portrayal resulted in a series of three articles which aroused the interest of state and federal authorities concerning the plight of these people.”
Bianco, Miller must have thought, was just the kind of high-energy, fearless investigator who could turn the bland supplement Farm, Home and Garden into a general features magazine, something more widely readable.
When Miller refused Bianco’s retraction, the new editor asked if he would be free to make all editorial decisions for the magazine. Miller gave him free rein.
What happened in the next few years was the gradual evolution of Farm, Home and Garden into Northwest Home and Garden into Northwest magazine. A number of important benchmarks were reached along the way.
Bianco’s first challenge was to bring feature articles into the existing supplement, initially placing them in the back of the magazine behind the home and garden stories. He tried to lure Oregon’s best freelance writers to contribute but many were hesitant to participate, having experienced little cordiality from The Oregonian during their careers. Ken Kesey refused to be associated with the state’s largest paper, citing the way they had treated him in the past. Oregon novelist Don Berry, suggested as a contributor by Bianco’s artist wife, finally agreed to send him something – and then dared him to print it.
The story that Berry submitted was entitled “Kultur in Apathyville.” Earlier The Oregonian had run a story praising Portland’s cultural life and Berry’s story was a direct challenge to this appraisal. Portland, he wrote, was the “last and finest bastion of the oatmeal mind,” a place where culture was nothing more than somebody talking “arty over cocktails.”
Bianco kept the story in a desk drawer for weeks. He expected to be fired if he published it, but his wife encouraged him to publish it anyway. Finally making his decision, Bianco told his editorial assistant to prepare to take over the fledgling magazine.
Berry’s article created a firestorm. Letters to the editor poured in – both for and against the opinion. Subscribers cancelled the paper, and even the Oregonian’s editorial page wrote against Berry and Bianco. However, Bianco’s immediate boss, Ed Miller, supported him and the editor kept his job.
Berry’s article encouraged formerly reluctant writers to submit to the new magazine. Rick Rubin, a local writer with credits from Playboy, submitted an article that Bianco published only one month after Berry’s piece – and which created yet another controversy.
In “Westside, Westside, All Around the Town,” Rubin argued that only downtown Portland represented “the essence of Portland.” Folks who lived eastside over the river were merely “necessary to our continuing intellectual and cultural growth, much as the slaves of Greece in the Golden Age were necessary to support the more meaningful few.”
Most of the paper’s editorial writers lived across the river and didn’t appreciate Rubin’s attitude, however humorous. In only four issues, as 1965 ended and 1966 began, Northwest had created two firestorms of controversy – and the voice of Miller’s dream of a resurrected magazine was born in a feisty, sometimes irreverent and always challenging brand of journalism, enthusiastically nurtured by the new editor.
Early on, this style of writing was relegated to the back pages of the magazine. The primary content continued to be about home and garden. Bianco slowly began to change the focus and appearance of the magazine.
1966 started with a slight name change, to Northwest Home and Garden. Interestingly enough, at this time there was no masthead to identify Bianco at the helm. Not until the issue of February 20, 1966, does his name appear anywhere in the magazine – and then his contribution is listed as “Editorial Supervision,” which in September was changed to “Editorial Direction.”
At the end of 1966, Bianco wrote a short editorial introducing a new format and title for the magazine. Finally he was identified as the editor. “Features” became the first section of the magazine, receiving primary billing, with the home and garden stories following behind. This was the format that would define Northwest magazine into the 70s. In April, 1976, an Arts section was added. Six months later, a poetry page.
By 1969 Northwest had gained national attention. In an article called “Not For Oatmeal Minds” in the May, 1969, issue of Quill, the Magazine for Journalists, James J. Doyle wrote:
“Much of Northwest’s high-voltage has come, and has been retained, by its dynamic editor Joe Bianco. Trained in the hard school of East Coast dailies, Bianco works from the premise that this country is undergoing a great social upheaval – a potentially rapturous calamity which calls for investigation and social analysis beyond the scope of newspage content. What has resulted is an open forum of ideas for freelance writers and professional reporters.”
A 1967 survey identified Northwest magazine as the most popular and widely read section of the newspaper. Ed Miller explained to Doyle: “I suspect a large share of our readers pick up the section now with the subconscious query, What the hell is Northwest up to now?”
About his hand-picked editor, Miller said, “Bianco has a talent for picking today the controversial subjects of tomorrow.”
One of the ways Bianco brought these subjects to his readers was through frequent theme issues, in which a series of articles would look at different aspects of the same subject matter. The content of theme issues varied widely, including:
· practical subjects -- a gardening issue each spring, a skiing issue each fall, periodical Northwest travel issues
· current events -- hippies and the counter-culture in April, 1967; student revolts in January, 1969; the gasoline crisis in August, 1979; a royal wedding issue in August, 1981
· social and political issues -- abortion in March, 1969, and again in October, 1979; family violence in February, 1977; Oregon’s rural poor in July, 1968; the role of the church in the urban jungle in December, 1980; the changing family in May, 1981; victims of rape in July, 1981
· issues not receiving the attention Bianco believed they deserved -- cults and deprogramming, an ambitious three-issue series in July and August, 1977, largely written by Bianco himself; Portland’s air pollution in August, 1973; the gay lifestyle in April, 1975; blacks in the community in January, 1968, followed by a special issue on the black woman in January, 1972; the controversy surrounding Portland’s downtown redevelopment in December, 1973, with a magazine proposal for its own priorities of development
About the special issue on the hippies, Doyle wrote: “…before the hippie sub-culture had its own periodicals, Northwest blasted the minds of editors and readers with a cover story on the burgeoning pop culture, light shows and hippie enigma. At the time, few national magazines had examined this phenomenon to such an extent.” Thus did Joe Bianco exercise his talent “for picking today the controversial subjects of tomorrow.”
Doyle concluded his Quill article by writing, “But Northwest has proved beyond all doubt that a magazine can grow and develop and reveal the controversies that readers seem to want more and more, time and again. It has also proved that readers in what was once an easy-going and folksy town, have less fear of social icons than newspapers normally presume.”
Don Berry had ended the article that catapulted Northwest into public consciousness with advice to those who were happy with Portland’s gray complacency: “Don’t make waves.” Northwest magazine – even as it offered advice on home and garden, even as it wrote in praise of the Oregon landscape and offered travel tips over the state’s backroads, even as it profiled interesting Oregonians known to all or unknown by many – never turned its back to a story that Bianco thought its readers needed to know about, it never ran from controversy or avoided a new challenge. Northwest was where the action was.
In the summer of 2004, I spent many happy hours preparing this book by going through the archives of Northwest magazine. Even though I had been a regular contributor myself for a time, much of the history of the magazine was unknown to me. After my first issue-by-issue inspection of the archives, 1965-1982, I found myself with a list of several hundred stories I wanted to reprint.
Clearly I needed criteria by which to retain and eliminate stories. I also wanted a device by which to communicate the wide field of interests in the magazine, yet without producing a book too large to attract average readers. I finally decided to organize the stories into sections: People, Place, Issues and Concerns, Sports, History and Nostalgia, Arts, the Lighter Side. My strategy for suggesting the abundance of material in each category was to reprint a few stories in their entirety and provide excerpts from many more.
The most challenging section to put together was Issues and Concerns. Here was the very heart and soul of Northwest’s primary thrust, the source of most of its controversies, and yet here, too, was the material most topical and in need of contextual explanation to be appreciated by contemporary readers. Soon enough, however, I identified the issues I should focus on – because these same issues face us today. The stories here about the Environment, Civil Liberties and the Changing Family, which were published by Northwest between 1969 and 1981, could have been written today.
Our title, Oregon Fever, comes from the affliction attributed to families who would abandon everything at home in the East or Midwest to take to the Oregon Trail in a sudden search for a new beginning, a new life. A similar journey and mindset informed the journey of Northwest magazine and its adventurous writers and readers. This was an exciting era, as anyone who lived in it will tell you. Northwest was both a product of and an instigator of the era, a magazine made possible by Joe Bianco and his “hands off” supporters, people who understood the times. As a result, the magazine attracted writers like Don Berry, Rick Rubin, Barry Lopez, Thomas Gaddis, David Shetzline, Ivan Doig, Larry Colton, Larry Leonard, Charles Gould, Art Chenoweth, Daniel Yost, Dorothy Velasco, Art Chenoweth, Paul Pintarich, Beth Fagan, Buck Hannon, Don Holm, Jack McCarthy, Ralph Friedman, Penny Avila, Jean Henninger, Ferris Weddle and others too numerous to mention, writers eager to participate in such an energetic and era-defining regional forum.
When Don Barry threw down the gauntlet – “Don’t make waves” – even he must have had no idea how creatively and energetically Joe Bianco would respond to create a special publication for a special time, a newspaper Sunday supplement like none before it and few after, a weekly publication full of good, great and challenging writing, a magazine “not for oatmeal minds.”