From father to son to son, the Woods family is passing down traditions of tough journalism and benevolent community building in the Wenatchee Valley
By Jackie O'Ryan
At the turn of the 20th century the Wenatchee Valley was nothing to write home about–just an arid basin of sage and windblown sand on a great looping bend of the Columbia River. Steam boats puffed past on their way up the Okanogan and the Great Northern Railway ran through on the main line, but that was Wenatchee’s only claim to fame: It was where the river met the rails.
In time, Rufus Woods would change all that. A "Bull Moose" Republican and Roosevelt man, Woods bought the then two-year-old Wenatchee Daily World newspaper in 1907. It had only 465 subscribers among the area’s 2,000 residents, but Woods believed with childlike fervor that he and his newspaper could put Wenatchee on the world’s map. "The Columbia stands in a class by itself with water in abundance," he wrote. "The river is our heritage, and that of our children, and our children’s children."
So strong was his vision, that before there was ever a dam on the Columbia, the paper’s masthead proclaimed (and still does today): "Published in the Apple Capitol of the World and the Buckle of the Power Belt of the Great Northwest."
It was a good prophecy. By the start of World War II the Grand Coulee Dam, the largest concrete structure in the United States, was virtually complete. It issued forth the waters Rufus Woods had promised, quenching thousands of farms and feeding industry with cheap electricity, a result that gave new meaning to the phrase "power of the press."
The long fight earned Rufus Woods the status of folk hero and the title: "High Priest and Prophet of the Columbia," and his children’s children still prosper in the valley.
Fast forward half-a-century. Today’s publisher of the Wenatchee World proudly points to a photo of his grandfather standing on the edge of the river and wearing a confident smile, while the great dam rises in the background. Named for his revered forebear, this Rufus Woods (Puget Sound Class of ’80) knows he commands a far different domain.
The valley’s population now stands at about 64,000, and the Wenatchee World counts nearly half that number as subscribers. The World cranks out news to the region with a staff of 16 reporters, four photographers and nine editors and delivers the paper across 1000 square miles. But with the influx of radio, TV, cable, local, regional and national papers, specialty news publications, and the Internet, the World is fighting for readers and advertising dollars.
"Competition is at a level it’s never been before," says the younger Rufus, who at 43 is handsome, if a little rumpled. "The business is definitely tougher. But we try to provide an excellent product. We hire the best people and work to make our paper look the best."
If that sounds like good business sense, it’s because Rufus is a businessman. An Asian Studies major while at Puget Sound, he went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration at Dartmouth. And while it’s an oft-heard cry in newsrooms that too many papers have been taken over by MBAs, Rufus will tell you that is precisely what’s needed.
Seated with Rufus in his large, spare office off the newsroom is his father, Wilfred ’42. At 82 this weathered son of the legendary folk hero still casts a long shadow. He keeps stories of the past on the tip of his tongue and steals the attention of the room whenever he launches into one.
As the second publisher in the family sequence, Wilfred took over the paper when his father died in 1950 and ushered it through some colorful years. In the old days, his dad’s 89-year-old cousin did the billing on a hand-operated adding machine. But when Wilfred took over he hired CPAs, bought new linotypes and replaced the dusty old air conditioning. By 1955 the World had 17,000 subscribers.
"We were a forward-thinking group in the 1950s and ’60s," Wilfred says. The World was involved in the promotion of highway construction and supported the establishment of port districts with an eye toward getting water transportation extended from the Tri-Cities upstream to Chelan and Douglas Counties.
The World also began a program of regional meetings on resource issues, such as conservation, water use, energy, water transportation and state recreation trails. During that same period the paper hosted trips to examine water resources in British Columbia, Alaska and the Northwest Territories in response to a drive to divert the Columbia south to Oregon and California. The trips proved there was water aplenty north of the border.
"Before TV and radio," says Wilfred,
"newspapers were the only means of mass communication. That’s not so today, of course. But this paper is still the only local medium of any depth. When it comes to local issues and the news of record, there’s still no one else." He adds, "It’s important to maintain a sense of place. And part of our role is to report on what’s unique about here. We believe no one else can do that but us."
Rufus nods his head in agreement with his father and straightens his tie. He’s a quiet and thoughtful counterpoint to his dad’s gruff style.
These days Wilfred has slowed down, but just a little. He still reports to work. He travels and writes columns for the World, and he’s writing a history of the family’s influence on the region.
But in the World’s newsroom, reporters (many are transplants from larger markets) work silently, staring at computer screens. The scene is a far cry from Wilfred’s newsroom in previous decades. Today there is no ticker hammering out the national news from the Associated Press–no noisy typewriters (there’s not even a pencil in sight). And after work, the reporters and editors will surely go directly home. There’ll be no post-mortem at the corner bar, with rounds of scotch and bourbon on ice. No one is even smoking–no signature ashtrays filled with smashed butts on every writer’s desk. Reporters from Wilfred’s era would be aghast.
Wilfred launches into another story, telling how his young, long-haired son patiently laid out pages and worked on the presses as a kid.
"Rufus started at an early age," he says. "He was a ‘printer’s devil’ and a ‘stereotyper,’ rolling page mats and casting solid plates. He killed out pages in hot metal."
He did what?
Rufus smiles and explains, "The metal type we produced was melted back down and reused. We sorted out the type that couldn’t be used again and threw it in the ‘hell box,’ saving what we could for reuse. That’s why we called it ‘killing out the pages.’
Wilfred takes over again. "Rufus also sold advertising in the circulation department, worked in the accounting office and even stuffed newspapers."
"I’ve done just about everything here," Rufus adds with a shy grin. He took over as publisher in 1997.
Despite his brief tenure, Rufus already holds a unique record. "I borrowed $7 million my first year," he says. "We did a reorganization and a major purchase. My dad reorganized and improved the facility when he took it over from his dad, and I did the same thing."
Though in his time Wilfred never borrowed a cent, he bellows support for his son, "Damn right. He’s doing a hell of a job. You can quote me on that."
Later we head down to the Wilfred Woods Production Facility on the south side of Ninth Street, a mile from the newsroom. Rufus exclaims excitedly, "We’re in luck! The presses are running!"
This space, 30,000 square feet of building formerly used for cherry packing and controlled atmosphere storage, is now refurbished for newsprint storage, insert-pallet storage, press and packaging machines.
Rufus greets a few workers and leads his guest to the back where the new press, 700 tons of streamlined purring chrome and steel, quietly spews out 65,000 newspapers an hour. Rufus is beaming as he sings the praises of his new KBA Comet printing press from Germany, which was put into operation last November.
The press has four towers that enable 32 pages of full color to be printed at once. Automatic changers attach huge rolls of paper weighing as much as 1,400 pounds to the press. Then the unraveling rolls are fed to the towers in a blur. This offset press, which measures 135 feet from end to end, is one of the world’s breakthroughs in high-quality printing.
Rufus walks one of the metal catwalks 20 feet above the floor and points to where the press feeds the racing paper into a jaw-like folder, cutting and folding the printed pages. Once the papers pass through the folder, they are transported to the packaging center by a system of conveyors.
This sleek machine is a far cry from his father’s and his grandfather’s world of linotype and solid press plates. Back in 1971, in Wilfred’s days, the World bought a Goss Urbanite offset press which required a total change in pre-press production, as ‘cold type’ took over from the old ‘hot type’ system. Gone were the linotypes, the stereotype department that re-melted the type and the press plates. After that, it was a paste-up system of producing stories and ads on paper, then making full-page negatives on a large camera and exposing the negatives to aluminum-sensitized plates for the press.
In the last two decades production technology has come to rely increasingly on computers. There is no longer printout type for paste-ups; everything that’s printed is seen first on a computer monitor. The paper’s pages are composed digitally and then transmitted electronically to an image setter, which turns out a finished page-size negative.
Rufus Woods is celebrating one year of a new masthead and a major reorganization of the paper’s content.
"Our mission is to write about people," he says. "To write about folks who are doing interesting things. It’s challenging and exciting to continue a great newspaper."
Not a week goes by when the Woods family doesn’t get an offer to buy the Wenatchee World. But this family is not selling. "As long as one of us is willing and able to run it, it’ll remain a family business," says Wilfred Woods.
Though Wilfred doesn’t underestimate the challenge his son faces, he’s optimistic about the future. He spent 56 years as a newspaperman and working on community projects, and he’s eager to see his son do the same.
There’s a Woods Conservatory of Music in the center of town and a new $8 million Performing Arts Center with a black box theater funded in part by the family. Wilfred served as the state’s parks commissioner for a decade and was a member of the Centennial Commission. Rufus is a Special Olympics coach with a cycling team that participates in state games.
Today Wenatchee’s streets are laid in long clean ribbons of asphalt with an endless border of colored plastic signs. It’s a regional center: a draw for recreational sports, and the fruit industry remains omnipresent.
"My father and my father’s father," says Rufus Woods, "each had a powerful and rare way to love the World. My job," he adds, "is simply to get this family operation to the next generation. Times are tough, but that’s my job–to get it to the next generation in good shape."
Jackie O'Ryan was a Seattle broadcast journalist for more than 15 years, producing documentaries for public television and reporting for KIRO TV news. She is currently director of public affairs for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington.