On the morning of Tuesday, May 20, 1980, journalists arrived at The Daily News, turned on their computers, and were greeted with the daily message from managing editor Bob Gaston (’67 Journ.). That day’s message was far from typical.
This was two days after the devastating eruption of Mount St. Helens and less than 24 hours after the Longview newspaper staff published an astounding 45 of its own stories and numerous jaw-dropping photographs of the deadly blast.
Although his exact words are lost to time, the gist of Gaston’s message to the newsroom was this: After just one issue, there was a tremendous buzz in the community about their coverage. If they kept it up, Gaston said, they might just win a Pulitzer Prize. His staff was even greener than it was small, but they knew that few journalists ever get a shot at the most coveted award in the profession.
Andre Stepankowsky, then a young reporter and now the newspaper’s city editor, said Gaston’s message further motivated them to charge after the mammoth story. “I’d be lying through my teeth if I said no,” he said.
“We knew this [eruption] was going to make a huge impact on our community,” Gaston said earlier this year. “I didn’t want anybody else to do a better job than we did.”
In April 1981, 25 years ago this spring, the Pulitzer Prize Board decided that The Daily News accomplished Gaston’s goal and honored the staff for best local reporting. Despite fierce competition, including other Mount St. Helens entries from larger newspapers, the chairman of the jury that evaluated submissions rated The Daily News’s coverage “far superior.”
That accomplishment is proof that “a small staff can perform excellent journalism as well as a large staff,” says retired WSU journalism professor Tom Heuterman (’56 Engl., ’73 Ph.D. Am. Stud.).
Gaston arrived at WSU as a junior in 1965, the same year Heuterman left newspaper reporting to teach journalism. The professor remembers Gaston as sharp and unflappable. “His subsequent performance never surprised me,” Heuterman says.
After a year at WSU, Gaston landed a summer internship at the Longview paper, then owned by the McClelland family.
After graduation, Gaston returned to Longview. But this was the Vietnam era, and he soon left for the U.S. Air Force’s officer training school. After serving stateside, Gaston was an editor at two Oregon newspapers before the McClellands lured him back.
Still in his early 30s, Gaston became managing editor in 1976 and took over newsroom hiring from Ted Natt, a member of the McClelland family who rose to editor and publisher. Gaston lobbied his bosses to replace typesetter jobs—being phased out with the arrival of computer technology—with reporters and photographers. By the time Mount St. Helens erupted, Gaston had increased his staff by a third and had a newsroom stocked with hungry journalists.
Gaston is quick to turn the spotlight toward newspaper staffers and owners, who busted their buns and their budgets to cover the eruption. Others credit Gaston’s steady leadership and his guidance in keeping them on top of the ever-changing story as critical to their success.
“I doubt whether we would have won [the Pulitzer] or done the job that we did if it hadn’t been for Bob,” says Rick Seifert of Portland, a semi-retired writer and journalism instructor who was on The Daily News’s volcano team.
“One of his great talents was to spot talent,” says Roger Werth, photo editor then and now. Better yet, Werth and coworkers agree, Gaston entrusted employees with enough freedom to find untold stories.
Gaston retired from The Daily News in 1999, when a chain bought the newspaper. Leaving daily deadlines behind “was a real gift of time,” says Gaston, who is on the boards of his church and a local social service agency. He and wife Georgeann (’67 Ed.) also help watch two of their grandchildren. “I feel like I’m making a contribution to the community and my family.”
For five years, ending last December, Gaston was the volunteer editor of the Cowlitz Historical Quarterly. He resigned partly to pursue two book projects—one a family history and the other the story of a local character.
It is often repeated that journalists write history’s first draft. Gaston devoted one of his final Quarterly issues to a second draft of The Daily News’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning history and convinced many of his former staffers to write one last volcano story. The task stirred old memories and new pride in winning journalism’s grandest prize.
Click here to visit “Mount St. Helens: 25
Frequent contributor Eric Apalategui was a reporter for
The Daily News from 2000 to 2005 and wrote the newspaper’s first
story when the mountain reawakened in 2004. That effort did not
earn a Pulitzer Prize. Bill Wagner is a longtime Daily News