Ex-colleague departure revives memories

Cory Frye

Photographer Mark Ylen shocked multiple zip codes earlier this month when he announced he was leaving the Albany Democrat-Herald after 26 years to take a position with Samaritan Health.

I couldn’t let his momentous departure pass sans comment, being the sole New Era staffer who worked with him for most of his reign.

Many Sweet Home residents would likely recognize Mark’s face, as he has made many, many trips to this community to cover events of consequence – parades, football games, festivals and more.

I met the news of his departure with equal parts relief and funereal sadness. He and I spoke often, in long, wandering circles around the Democrat-Herald’s Lyon-to-Ellsworth block, about how the industry had changed in our tenures and how the atmosphere we’d called home had succumbed to corporate chaos.

We’d survived a few buyouts, from Capital Cities/ABC to Disney to, finally, Lee Enterprises, which, after two decades of distant acknowledgment, had grown increasingly post-2.0 meddlesome (beware the firm with a Superman complex).

Of us two straggling old-timers, I left first, ousted in the summer of 2020 by a hemorrhagic stroke; its aftereffects constitute a never-ending annoyance. (Let this be a warning: The biz is hell on diets and deadly to your health.) I’d worried about him since, navigating that madness, a newborn foreign language we’d never fully master.

But it’s hard to say goodbye to All That. He and I were among the last of an ancient breed, former young Turks aged into obstinate aftertaste. Mark and I go all the way back, man, to the morning he first worked in Albany. In September 1995, I was a part-time sportswriter with four years under my belt, a weathered wretch at age 22.

That was a wild, if dedicated, time to be young in journalism. People stuck around, excited for the future; you could actually grow old behind the same desk, working the same beat like Connie Petty, then in her ’60s, whose byline had graced our sheet since the mid-20th century. The D-H felt like an exclusive club.

Newspapers overall were flush with revenue; our office, only two or three years earlier, had undergone a major facelift that transformed our newsroom from a cork-boarded verbal slaughterhouse into a spartan hospital lobby. We’d gone uptown and upscale, with no financial ceiling in sight. Our bullpen thrummed with gallows humor and wall-to-wall humanity.

The Internet hadn’t reached us yet (like fools, when it eventually arrived, we assumed it’d work in service to its august forefathers; as we know now, it did not), so we were one of only a few layers between information and its audience.

We ’90s kids enjoyed our abundance to the hilt. We drank, caroused, canoodled, dined, camped, barbecued, snowboarded and even spent holidays together while somehow. Making deadlines.

Of our on-staff photographers, Mark had the most distinctive eye, often gamely injuring himself for shots (as we pen-wielders observed from neutral distances). Sometimes I joined him on these adventures, despite my second thoughts, like the time we covered a late-night hostage situation in the boonies, sitting outside a house, freezing, watching nothing happen as state police cars arrived.

Or I’d get collared into studying fresh, on-scene car wrecks, laboring to describe twisted metal wrapped ’round windshields like a fist. I got him back, though, when he had to accompany me to a Rolling Stones show in Portland.

Poor guy had to bail after “Start Me Up;” I stayed for the whole thing.

Our greatest collaboration, however, would result in my first book, “Murder in Linn County, Oregon: The True Story of the Legendary Plainview Killings.”

Our last true on-the-spot news collaboration came in July 2016, when the Burger King a block from my apartment went up in smoke mere months after its renovation.

He calmly toured its flaming perimeter, snapping shots – one of which won a major photography award – as I fretted through interviews with witnesses and employees, who clammed up at Question One.

Mark, as always, was in his element. I, of course, being more of a feature writer, was not. If he could have climbed into the dining area to capture a beam tumbling into his left eye, he would have.

That’s how dedicated he was, pushing us staffers to do better, whether it was flying out of bed when South Albany High School caught fire or finding story angles of his own through the interview process – even if we didn’t always appreciate it.

And believe me, the staff was vocal, annoyed sometimes to its (or his) detriment. When he was around, stories got covered, even if he had to do it himself. He remained steadfast, long after it seemed to matter, when so many of us were too tired to continue.

Mark Ylen’s a rare breed in the modern day: a true newsman. That he’s left the industry he bettered is a bad sign for a battered business.

What I most lament is that eventually it never truly understood his value and sometimes toward the end even questioned it. He remembered what the neutered art forgot. And he takes with him institutional knowledge and deep-rooted relationships the form can’t hope to replicate in his absence.

– Cory Frye is an editor for The New Era and Lebanon Local newspapers. He has spent two decades in local journalism, the vast majority of it at the Albany Democrat-Herald and Corvallis Gazette-Times.