Former TNE publisher starts new gig: writing for county

Scott Swanson

Alex Paul sits in a small cubicle-like office in the Linn County Courthouse, a few hundred yards from where he’s spent most of the last 16 years.

Life’s moved fast in the last few weeks. A month ago he was a newspaper reporter for the Albany Democrat-Herald, responsible for covering the county and a wide range of other stories.

He’d been planning to retire from his newspaper job and was looking for something to keep him busy when County Administrative Officer Darrin Lane told him the county had decided to establish a new position – a communications officer.

Now Paul is newly hired in that role and he’s looking to make residents aware of what the county government is doing, from running the COVID vaccination clinic at the Fairgrounds to fixing roads, things that impact residents in ways many may not be aware of.

“The county hasn’t really put out a lot of information about what it is doing and the commissioners want to do more,” he said. “There’s 129,000 people in the county, there’s 700 employees. We’ve got 600 camping spaces, more than 1,000 miles of road that the county road department takes care of. There’s a million stories, things going on that the public needs to know about.”

He’s gotten busy quickly. In two weeks he’s issued approximately a dozen press releases, set up two media visits to the county’s vaccine clinic, participated in a county wildfire recovery meeting and prepared a white paper for commissioners.

“The nice part is that everybody I’ve talked to and the staff are excited. They want to do this and the commissioners, they want to do this,” Paul said.

Paul, 66, wasn’t angling for this job, he said, but it’s turning out to be a fitting way to end what has been a 50-some-year career in journalism that started when he was a farm boy in Iowa and included 20 years as publisher of The New Era.

His interest in the field was ignited as a boy, when he saw his name in the “little hometown newspaper every week.”

“It all started because I could hit a baseball,” Paul said. “I hit a lot of home runs.”

He lettered in three sports in high school, but he also wrote for the school paper, which gave him enough training and experience to land a job as a part-time sports reporter at a local newspaper after he broke his leg playing football, which “kind of ended everything.”

He went on to graduate from Iowa State as a journalism major, covering feature stories and Cyclones wrestling for the college newspaper. Out of school, Paul went to work for the Times Republican in Corydon, Iowa, then became managing editor and chief operating officer for the Centerville Daily Iowegian. Then he went to the Drover’s Journal, then the leading livestock publication in the world, which published a weekly newspaper, a monthly magazine and a yearly book.

“That was a great adventure,” Paul said. “I traveled to many, many states and I got to meet a lot of people.”

He was recruited by Fletcher Mayo Associates, the world’s largest agricultural advertising agency at the time. He and his wife Debbie and three children lived in St. Joseph, Mo. For two years “I saved money to buy a newspaper.”

That had been Paul’s goal for years, and they’d been looking around the Northwest, he said.

“I always wanted to come out West, to at least try it. I have something about the mountains and the rivers and the beauty of the state. I really knew very little about Oregon and Washington.”

But when a newspaper broker sent him information about a newspaper called “The New Era” in Sweet Home, Oregon, he balked.

“I told him, ‘I’m not interested in a town called Sweet Home.’ He said, ‘I’m going to send the information to you anyway.'”

Paul found himself on a sales trip to Washington, where he had to stay over for a weekend.

“I’d talked to the (then-The New Era owners) Dave and Sonia Cooper before and I said, ‘Look, I’ve got a rental car and I’ve got all weekend. Why don’t I just drive down to Sweet Home?’

“They said, ‘Fine, we’ll be at the football field.'”

On a Friday night, Paul drove to Sweet Home, arriving during a Huskies game.

“I got there and the football field was packed and it looked beautiful and I thought, ‘This is a town I want to be in.'”

He returned to St. Joseph and “Deb and I kept comparing Sweet Home to everything else we looked at, and finally I said, ‘Let’s try Sweet Home.'”

Initially, he said, he thought they might stay for a few years, then move on.

“After the first year, I realized we weren’t leaving.”

The Pauls ran The New Era for 20 years – to the day, before selling it, which was also part of his plan.

He took three months off to work on the farm they’d purchased along the way, then learned the Democrat-Herald was seeking a business reporter.

“I called (then-editor) Hasso Herring and rode my motorcycle over there on a beautiful day.” He left with the job.

Except for a brief period when he took a job as publisher of a newspaper in Washington – leaving after realizing he missed Sweet Home too much, he’s been there ever since.

“I never dreamed I’d be there 16 years,” Paul said of the D-H. “It just went so fast. I covered, basically, everything from business to church to feature stories.”

During the past 13 years, he was also the county reporter, attending nearly every Linn County Commission meeting and reporting on activities far and wide throughout the county.

One of those was the county’s decision to lead a group of 14 counties in Oregon, in a class-action lawsuit filed in 2016 against the Oregon Department of Forestry charging that the state failed in its obligation to manage its Forest Trust Lands for the greatest permanent value, pursuant to the Forest Acquisition Act of 1939.

He said then-Managing Editor Mike McInally made a “big decision” to allow Paul to cover the entire trial in Linn County Circuit Court, which lasted 30 days in October and November of 2019, and in which the counties won.

“I spent every day in the courthouse, 30 days – probably 200 to 250 hours of testimony. I had 500 pages of notes, and probably 200-plus hours to write the stories. We ran a story virtually every day.

“I was gone every day. I would check into the office and come to the courthouse and bring my lunch. Even if I went back to the office at lunchtime, I would eat a sack lunch. I didn’t get back to the office till 4 or 5, and then I would write the story. That was a big commitment (by McInally). Not many people would have done it.

“It wore me out, because you’re listening all day to highly technical stuff. You had to pay attention. Fortunately, having worked in Sweet Home and having lived in Sweet Home for 36 years, I know about timber. I understand how it works and I own a small tree farm. It’s in my bailiwick, my background too. I didn’t understand the technical terms from the attorneys and I had to work with that, but the timber part I get – I know how trees grow.”

His efforts did not go unnoticed.

Oregon State University Professor Tamara Cushing, the university’s Starker Chair of Private and Family Forestry and a former president of the Society of American Foresters, brought students to some of the court sessions. She nominated Paul for the society’s Outstanding Forestry Journalism Award, which he received earlier late last year.

“I sat in that courtroom with him most of the days of that trial,” Cushing said. “I know what it was like. I was interested in the topic because I’m in forestry. For someone not necessarily in the field, to endure, for lack of a better word, the amount of information that was coming – it was a lot.

“His reporting was pretty balanced. Even on days I wasn’t sitting in the courtroom, I’d read Alex. I talked to him several times and I never knew what he thought about it all.”

Though Paul has won other national awards – for editorial writing and education coverage, from the National Newspaper Association, and The New Era won three General Excellence awards from the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association during his tenure as editor, he said he was caught off guard by the forestry award,

“That was a complete surprise,” he said. “(Cushing) said it was unbiased and very factual, that it took a lot of heavy technological terms and put them in words people could understand.”

Helping people understand is important to Paul, which is one reason why he’s enthusiastic about his new job, in which he will submit reports of county activities to local media.

“Newspapers are changing, particularly the way people subscribe or don’t subscribe and the fact that staffs are one-quarter or one-half what they were a few years ago. So they are asked to do more with fewer and fewer people.”

Paul officially retired from the D-H on March 4.

In addition to his new job, he and his wife run a 300-some-acre farm in Crawfordsville and he’s involved in the Knights of Columbus at St. Helen Catholic Church, and he serves as statewide publicity director for the Oregon Knights of Columbus.

Since he’s arrived, reaction has been “excellent,” Paul said. “People are really happy to be getting information and they’re calling me. Some of the radio stations are eager. They’ve already called me up and said, ‘Hey, have you seen what I put on our Facebook page’ or ‘Here’s how we’re running your story for the next three or four days.'”

He noted that the county has 700 employees, who work for the residents. Paul plans to provide speakers for service clubs and other groups who want to hear what’s going on.

“Call me an I’ll get people to come.”