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peter bhatia
peter bhatia

The accomplishments of journalist Peter Bhatia are nothing short of astonishing.

Seven Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to newspapers he has helped lead, including one in 2007.

Bhatia is the executive editor of The Oregonian, based in Portland, Oregon. The Oregonian has won five Pulitzer Prizes during Bhatia’s time as executive editor, and those Pulitzers have come in five distinct categories. Bhatia has been the paper’s executive editor since 1997, and before that was its managing editor starting in 1993. Since 1997, the paper’s Pulitzers have included the following: in 1999 for Explanatory Reporting; in 2001 for Feature Writing; in 2001 for Public Service; in 2006 for Editorial Writing (though Bhatia is quick to point out that theOregonian editorial board does not report to him, so he had no role in the 2006 Editorial Writing Pulitzer other than celebrating it); and in 2007 for Breaking News Reporting for the paper’s coverage of the James Kim tragedy. [James Kim, along with his wife and two children, disappeared in the mountains of southwestern Oregon in December 2006. While driving from Seattle to their San Francisco home, the family became lost and stranded in their car due to heavy snow. Nine days after the family’s disappearance, Kim’s wife and two children were located and rescued. Two days later, Kim’s body was found in a nearby creek. He had died of hypothermia while trying to get help.]

The Sacramento Bee won two Pulitzers in 1992 (for Public Service and for Beat Reporting) while Bhatia was its managing editor. And the San Francisco Examiner won a Pulitzer in 1987 for Photography, for work produced while Bhatia had been its deputy managing editor.
He has also served as a Pulitzer juror four times.

Other newspaper posts on his résumé include editor of the York (Pa.) Dispatchand Sunday News, managing editor of the Dallas Times Herald, and reporter and editor at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

Bhatia is a Stanford graduate (B.A. History, 1975), and still a big fan of the Stanford Cardinal sports teams, especially football.

He is also active in the Portland community outside of journalism. He is past operating board chair of the Albertina Kerr Centers, a social service agency that provides services for abused children and developmentally disabled adults; he chaired its foundation in 2004-05. He is a member of the board of trustees of St. Andrew Nativity School, a Jesuit-founded inner-city school that provides educational opportunities to disadvantaged kids, and of the board of trustees of Jesuit High School. He served for four years as chairman of the school board at St. John Fisher School, which both his children attended.

Bhatia and his wife (and high-school sweetheart), Elizabeth Dahl, marked their 25th wedding anniversary in 2006. Liz is also a journalist. They are parents to Megan, 21, a junior at the University of Portland, and Jay, 18, a senior at Jesuit High School in Portland.
I interviewed Peter Bhatia via e-mail.

Would you please comment on The Oregonians receiving a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for its coverage of the James Kim family saga?

Breaking news is at the heart of what we do as journalists. Nine different staffers were involved in the entered work, as well as countless others who worked on related stories or behind the scenes. So it really is a Pulitzer for the whole staff. In many ways, this work was classic newspaper journalism: quick reaction to breaking news, followed by investigative work that revealed the flaws in the search for the Kims and showed that this was a tragedy that likely need not have happened.

The Oregonians on-line coverage of the story was an important part of the paper’s overall coverage. What did the on-line coverage consist of, and how did it add to your overall coverage?

The biggest component was a narrated multimedia piece that used Google Earth technology to plot the route the Kims took through the mountains. It was part of the Pulitzer entry and showed how they drove into more and more remote country while being tantalizingly close to being able to get back to a main road. The narration was done by one of our reporters who had been on the scene, and it was supplemented by our staff photography.

How is being an editor different from being a reporter?

The two are vastly different. For one, being an editor puts you into a management/leadership position. One day you may be pals with all your fellow reporters; the next you are making decisions about their work and careers. It is not easy to do and many make the mistake of making the step before they are ready. Being a senior editor requires a much broader knowledge of the company, a willingness to be a problem-solver, and a willingness to open yourself up to being more out in the community. Doesn’t sound much like journalism, does it? It still is, really, in that journalism underpins everything you do as a senior editor. But I still think the best job in journalism is being a reporter.

What’s your philosophy on editing?

I once worked for a great editor who just said our job was to make the paper better every day. I certainly still believe in that, but the world gets more complicated all the time, as we deal with shifting economies, new media, and the like. My basic philosophy on editing is pretty simple: Care about the community, edit the newspaper around the issues that make the community tick, be open to critics and grateful for fans, and dig, dig, dig—the community depends on you to hold the powerful accountable and to be its watchdog.

What does it take to be a great editor?

The editors I know and respect the most have very high ethical and journalistic standards, top-flight journalism skills and a compassion for the work we do, the people we cover, and the colleagues with whom we work. That’s a pretty powerful combination.

Can you describe your development as a reporter and then an editor, from graduation through today?

There are as many career paths as there are journalists. My path is uncommon, in that my plans were short-circuited by my being dragged into editing at an early age. Coming out of school, I could write a little and report a little less. I aspired to be a foreign correspondent (still do!), but I had a talent I didn’t know for editing (both words and visuals) and, ultimately, for leadership. (I probably should have known this, given my parents’ many skills.) But all those skills have been developed by working with many great editors in Spokane, San Francisco, Dallas, Sacramento, and here, who taught me how to improve all those skills through example and mentoring. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to do the same for the generation coming behind mine. And one of the things I love about newspapers is there is still opportunity to learn. I could never have imagined I would be learning all I am now about the online world.

I know that you’ve been interested in journalism ever since childhood. Tell me about the Bhatia Tribune.

It was a “newspaper” I produced when I was about 12 years old. I wrote little stories about what my buddies and I were doing, and probably broke copyright laws picking up wire stories from the local paper. My Dad ran off the copies on a dittomaster at his office, and I distributed them in my neighborhood. Thankfully, no copies survived.

How else did your late father influence you? [Note to reader: Peter’s father, V.N. Bhatia, was a professor at Washington State University for 45 years, and an internationally recognized pioneer in international education.]

My father was a man of great accomplishment and who lived his values. He was a man of great intelligence and integrity, and a pioneer. I will spend my life trying to live up to his example, which I consider a good thing. He set a standard for me, as I hope I am setting for my children. At the same time, he was a man of compassion and humor, who enjoyed life and enjoyed its challenges. How many would have taken the chance to come to post-war America in 1947 to pursue a Ph.D.? He died four years ago and I miss him very much.

You are just as big a supporter of Stanford now as you were while studying there. Why?

It was a great privilege to attend Stanford. I was exposed to incredible faculty and remarkable young people. Most of my best friends today still are the folks I went to school with there. It was (and is) a rich and stimulating environment that opened my mind to a world of possibilities. It helped set my course to journalism. I got my first job, in fact, because the hiring editor was a Stanford alum. I truly believe that all I have been able to accomplish is directly related to my Stanford experience. I have been an active alum, seeking to pay back some of what the university gave me. I served on the alumni association board of directors and am always happy to help out with alumni activities. In addition, I still hold season football tickets and have for 30 years, despite not living in the Bay Area since 1987. I still get to a couple of games a year.

Tell me the University of Oregon duck mascot story.

Since I have lived in Oregon the past 13 years, I don’t tell this story often!

My senior year at Stanford I organized a group of my fraternity brothers to steal the papier-mâché Donald Duck head worn by the Duck mascot at a basketball game at Stanford. Just after the second half began, a bunch of us bolted from the stands, pulled the Duck head off the mascot and passed it up a human chain of people we had organized and out to my car in the parking lot. The cheer that went up may have been the loudest of the game. We took the head back to the frat house and posed for numerous pictures, then took it back to the arena and returned it. The mascot was not amused.

What’s the importance of the South Asian Journalists Association?

SAJA has given voice to an emerging, growing and increasingly important segment of journalism in this country. It provides a common ground for journalists of South Asian descent and a place where journalism issues related to South Asians can be discussed, vetted and debated. It provides a network, too, and shows young journalists of South Asian descent that this is an industry for them. The growing number of bylines reflects it. SAJA has had outstanding leadership from the beginning—thanks to Sree [Sreenivasan], Deepti [Hajela] and many others. Its place in the journalistic world only grows; it has growing respect within the industry, which has been well-earned.

What advice would you give to a young person who is pursuing journalism?

Outwork everyone else. Volunteer for assignments no one else wants. Always keep your eyes and ears open—you can learn so much by watching how others operate, both good and bad. Strive to improve a little bit every day.

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.