Spring seduction

For the last five years, I haven’t been so pleased with the magazines, catalogs, radio commercials and billboards I start to see this time of year.

I feel like I’m suddenly inundated with images of sun and fun come March. In the local alt-weekly newspaper, a search for weekend activities turns up advertisements for boating festivals and oceanside cabin rentals. Every March issue of every women’s magazine urges readers to start getting fit for bikini season, to pull out the tanning lotion and to run, not walk, to the nearest Old Navy and buy the entire spring collection.

When I lived in a beach town whose four seasons are spring, slightly-colder spring, summer and spring, I didn’t mind so much. But I live in the Northwest now, and I’d rather not be reminded that though it is past March 21 and thus technically springtime, real warm weather likely won’t be upon us for months to come.

Over the weekend and earlier this week, skies in Seattle were almost suspiciously perfect. Not a cloud hovered over Seattle Saturday, and Sunday morning and afternoon were decently clear before the rain moved in.  On Wednesday, the high temperature surpassed 60.  It was the kind of weather one might see in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the middle of spring.

But now, I feel as if I dreamed the whole thing. This morning I woke up to the same gray skies and lazy rain I saw last Friday, and the sun only peeked through for a couple of hours before it disappeared again. Now, the forecast calls for the same old dreary clouds and rain.

This kind of meteorological bait-and-switch is one of the few reasons I don’t like living in the Northwest. Friends and family who still live in California often ask me, “Don’t you get sick of the rain?” I don’t, as long as it’s moderate and fairly constant. The only time rain bothers me is when it abruptly halts a multi-day run of beautiful spring weather–especially come May or June, when we expect beautiful weather after so many months of rainfall but keep getting inundated with storms.

I have countless stories of wacky spring weather in the Northwest, and I’ve only lived in the Northwest for five years.

In May 2008, a chilly rainstorm in Eugene, Ore. yielded to a weekend of suffocatingly hot weather. On Saturday, as my still-damp umbrella hung on a coat rack, I tried to walk to the corner market and nearly fainted in the heat. My roommates and I tried to sleep on the lawn in front of our house because the night air was slightly cooler than the temperatures in our stuffy bedrooms. On Monday, we walked to class amid a downpour, clad in rainboots and coats.

It rained every day for weeks leading up to my graduation ceremonies last June, forcing families and graduates to consider wearing plastic ponchos at my department’s outdoor commencement. The clouds parted for two full days of 80-degree sunny weather, and suddenly wide-brimmed hats were more appropriate. The very minute all our parents waved goodbye and drove off, the rain returned.

I grew up with such consistent temperatures and conditions that I groaned inwardly every time an editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel asked me to report on the weather during my internship there. (How many ways can I say “morning fog and afternoon sun; highs in the mid-60s,” I wondered?) Spring in Seattle is a completely different experience. In fact, the season between March and June shouldn’t be called “spring” in the Northwest; in these months, there are only short flirtations with sun sandwiched in between long spells of clouds and rain. A Northwest spring is simply a three-month tug-of-war between winter and summer.

It might sound hellish, but here’s the good news: summer eventually wins.

It must be love

Sky-high rents? Ten percent sales tax? Gridlock traffic, 4:30 p.m. sunsets, slim job prospects and rain ad nauseum? I wish I knew how to quit you, Seattle.

But the cliches are true: relationships aren’t easy and involve compromise. If the pros outweigh the cons, you dwell on the former to deal with the small frustrations that come with the latter.

My friend Emily Gillespie, a reporter at the Corvallis Gazette-Times, told me recently that I may as well be dating Seattle. I seem willing to trap myself in this city with a lease, a choir membership and roommates even if it slows down my professional life–something people in committed relationships often do to support their significant others. As I watch my friends and former classmates become full-time, exempt employees with benefits at small newspapers in Alabama, Arizona and Montana, I’m content to remain a perpetual intern at a major metropolitan daily who works nights and holidays and takes a second job outside her career field of choice.

Why? Because Seattle and I are to celebrate our six-month anniversary next week, and I think it’s love.

I’ll go up to my apartment building’s rooftop garden–which, might I mention, has gorgeous views of the Puget Sound and the Space Needle–and shout it, if you’d like. But I’d rather revel in the feeling quietly as I bake cookies here in my kitchen with O’Carolan’s greatest hits playing in the background–and revel in the fact that, for the first time ever, I’m content with working and being somewhere other than Santa Cruz over the holidays.

Snowmageddon

“You tell people they might see snowflakes out their windows tomorrow morning and then nothing happens…but you give no forecast at all and then I-5 is a skating rink.”

Ah, the weather reporting catch-22–as neatly summed up by a Seattle Times editor.

Today all the editors (I sat meekly in a corner and took notes) met to discuss how they’d handle the next “snowmageddon,” the nickname for 2008’s Northwest snowstorm, or other natural disaster. Among the questions on the table: Do we call in the troops at 3 a.m.? Do we let everyone work from home and post pictures and blog items to show how hard their neighborhoods were hit? Do we use bit.ly bundles so readers can be informed and prepared before The Big Storm hits? Should the information be prominent on the homepage, or does it deserve only a tiny square of seattletimes.com real estate?

At the root of all these ideas were two questions whose answers were more complex than just a “yes” or “no”: What exactly do locals want or need to know in the event of a major snowstorm? And do we have the resources, capacity and desire to give those locals exactly what they want?

Here’s the answer to the first question. Readers, they concluded, read the paper’s weather stories every morning not to marvel at meteorological miracles but to see how the weather will affect them personally. That’s why, if the city wakes up to a snowstorm, the most important information to disseminate immediately is road conditions, school closures and information on anyone who was hurt. People need to know how (and whether) they’ll be able to get to work, whether their kids need to be dropped off on the way, and whether everyone they know and love is safe.

Here’s the answer to the second question: no.

If everyone is most concerned about how the weather will affect them, they’ll probably be eager to know when a snow plow will visit their street, whether it’s safe for two-wheel-drive cars to drive in the neighborhood, whether the local convenience store is open, which day their youngest child’s daycare will be up and running again and whether church/bridge club/rehearsal/24 Hour Fitness will go on as it always has.

People have a lot of questions. For news agencies to answer all of them, they’d have to have an unlimited budget and an endless supply of reporters working around the clock. But let’s face it: not even The New York Times could–or would, for that matter, even if they could–supply all the above information.

However, it’s fascinating how much information we can provide in a short amount of time.

Among other things, Times editors want to tell people how many inches of snowfall their neighborhood has seen in comparison with other neighborhoods in the city; which major roads in their neighborhoods are open or closed; which school districts have announced snow days; and what the weather looks like later that day and beyond.

Someday, they also want everyone on staff to post pictures of the weather scenes near their respective places of residence and map the pictures in an interactive graphic. They’re also mulling posting reader-submitted photos in the same package, à la The Washington Post during its own snowpocalypse.

As for the catch-22, The Times has decided to err on the side of caution, informing people of any and all possible turns the weather could take on its brand new blog, The Weather Beat. So far I’m the blog’s sole contributor, but come snowmageddon season, I’m sure the entire staff will pitch in.

The nighttime police scanner: a hypothetical ethical dilemma

Today I pulled the night shift at The Seattle Times. On days when exciting things aren’t happening nonstop, it’s common for the reporter on the night shift to find him- or herself stationed next to the police scanner, listening for anything big. That’s me tonight.

It sounds boring, or perhaps to some it sounds depressing, listening to crimes happening in real time. But to me it’s actually fascinating. You get a glimpse into people’s lives all over the city, people who aren’t exactly having the best day–and it helps you feel what they feel. Crime reporters rarely feel empathy when they’re reporting; if they were empathetic all the time, they’d probably be emotional wrecks. But every once in a while, it’s good to sit by the scanner, keeping my normally detached self in check and allowing myself to feel emotions the victims of crimes feel.

I’m rarely emotional about the deaths, fires and car crashes I report on regularly. But as a fellow intern and I were chatting about the night shift earlier this evening, we asked a question we couldn’t answer: If something were to come up on the scanner that made us far more emotional than usual, could we in good conscience report on the incident?

More specifically, we discussed what would happen if, while we were alone in the newsroom, a victim on the scanner was someone we knew. Would it be a conflict of interest to report on the story?

What’s particularly difficult about this hypothetical issue is the time at which it happens: it’s late at night, and you’re the only one in the newsroom. All other reporters and editors have gone home. Were it during the day, you could easily pass it on to another reporter sitting near you if you felt uncomfortable covering a friend’s tragedy. But you’re alone, and someone has to cover the news. Is it too inconveniencing to ask any coworker to come in, especially considering that few Seattle Times employees live downtown, gas is expensive and there’s a lot of traffic in the city? Is it better to try your hardest to fight back the tears or nagging worry and do your job?

Please weigh in. This is something many young reporters–especially those in entry-level jobs covering the cops beat at night in small communities where everybody knows everybody else–might run up against.

A family tradition

Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman told us interns some great stories as he led us on a tour of the city last month. One of them concerned Frank Blethen, the paper’s publisher.

Years ago, a reporter investigated a few claims of unfair hiring practices at Nordstrom. The reporter found out the department store, founded in Seattle, treated minorities unfavorably and often denied them job opportunities. When Nordstrom caught wind of the Times’ intention to publish the expose, someone from the store called Blethen and demanded he pull the article, threatening to pull all the Nordstrom advertisements from the paper until further notice.

Many newspapers run by national corporations might have considered this a quandary. Blethen, whose great-grandfather founded the Times in 1896, needed all of one second to fashion a response. His answer to Nordstrom was, as Boardman said, “two words, and the second one was ‘you’.”

Nordstrom pulled their ads as promised, though a few months later, a meager number of Nordstrom ads once again began to appear in the paper. The store’s advertising presence in the Times has never been as great since that fateful article, but Blethen considers the loss in ad revenue well worth it.

While I know The Seattle Times, like other newspapers, has taken a financial hit in recent years, you’d never know it. Everyone here is jovial, friendly and enthusiastic , and I have heard not one word of post-layoff sadness or bitterness escape anyone’s lips. Breaking news appears on the website fast, no sweat. Even with a decrease in copy editors, investigative stories are always impeccably researched and fact-checked, not to mention mindblowingly thorough.

The newsroom environment here is by far the most positive and exciting I’ve witnessed. Why? I don’t have numbers to prove it, but I’ve heard several people say the fact that the Times is family-owned makes all the difference. Some say they’ve received job offers at bigger, more prestigious papers all over the country, but they turned down the offers because head honchos at other newspapers don’t look after their newsrooms the way the Times publisher does. Frank Blethen and his ancestors have all felt fiercely protective of the Times product and the company’s promise to expose the truth, so much so that they sometimes sacrifice profit to make sure the Times is the best it can be.

And in these a-changin’ times, someone who values the truth over money really stands out.

Storytelling

As if it isn’t cool enough that I’m actually getting paid to work at the Seattle Times for the summer, I also get daily sage advice from the best in the business, advice I’m sure I’ll remember throughout my journalistic career. Aside from the small gems I get from editors daily (I call them “gems,” they call it “bashing”), I also get hour-long, noncritical advice from people from all over the newsroom once a week.

Every Thursday at noon, the interns come into the Fishbowl–the large meeting room in the middle of the metro department so named because its walls are all glass–for brown-bag lunches. Every week, there are two or three employees from various departments waiting to tell us all their secrets and give us amazing tips. My first week, two of the most lauded investigative reporters here told us all about how to get the big scoop and do meticulous research on watchdog stories. The next week, we heard from the online desk and learned about how the Times website works.

The talks come at a good time during the week. For three and a half days, we’ve been slaving away working on daily stories and getting ripped apart by our editors, and we start to wonder–briefly, mind you–why we like doing this. Then Thursday afternoon comes, and I come away from the brown bag lunches totally refreshed and inspired, wondering  how I ever doubted my career choice.

This week’s brown bag was particularly inspiring. It was all about how to tell a story differently than you’ve been trained to do–how to get attention with unconventional but entertaining prose. Staff writer Eric Lacitis got stuck covering a mundane story about a black bear that was spotted in Seattle. The typical approach, boring as it is, would be to capture the shock factor: “Oh my gosh! A bear! In the city!” You’d proabably talk to people who were surprised or scared for their lives and quote them. But Eric, brilliant writer that he is, took a different tack. He sided with the bear.

“Give this teenager a lot of credit,” read the first graph. “He’s a black bear, estimated to be 2 years old. He’s lost, confused, lonely, scared and likely was kicked out of his home by his mother.”

Genius!

Here’s another one. The reporter was assigned to write about a woman who faced trial for homicide-by-abuse for the death of her adoptive son. Rather than use a newsy lead, like “The trial begins next Wednesday in the case of Carole DeLeon, who was charged….”, she painted a startling picture based on a one-sentence line hidden in the police report.

The lead: “The night before Tyler DeLeon turned 7, he was so thirsty he ripped a hole in the screen of his bedroom window to eat snow.

“By the next evening, Tyler was dead. He weighed just 28 pounds, the size of an average 2-year-old.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued and I’m going to read that entire article.

These examples have led me to conclude that the inverted pyramid in hard news stories is highly overrated. Sure, it’s important to get the most important information out there as soon as you can at the top of the story. But sometimes it’s equally important to show, not tell, right up front so that readers can get a visual idea of what’s going on. That expression–show, don’t tell–shouldn’t just be reserved for long-form magazine articles or novels or creative writing. Reporters, one of the staffers at the brown bag today observed, get so focused on detaching themselves from the story that they confuse lack of bias with lack of emotion. We’re human, and so are our readers–we have to relate to them by piquing some sort of emotion in them.

Some more storytelling tips I got today:

  • If you have a point you want to make, come up with the four things that’ll get you through it coherently. (For example, one reporter wanted to write a column ranting about annoying chickens that shouldn’t be in cities. So he took a look at the basic facts about chickens, the reason they ended up in Seattle in the first place, the people who liked keeping chickens in coops in Seattle and the people who really, really didn’t like chicken enthusiasts.)
  • Find a character to focus on. Sometimes there are more than one. Sometimes it’s not a person, but a building or a creature–like that bear.
  • Get a backstory that explains who that character is–or maybe highlights the difference between the character’s backstory and who the character is now.
  • Write lists when they’re compelling. In a story about the crazy things people steal and smuggle to other countries, reporter Craig Welch listed them: 200,000 pounds of geoduck, monkey blood, badminton birdies.
  • When you sit down to write a story, think about the five things you remember about the story that most stand out in your mind. They stand out for a reason–they’re interesting and readers will probably think so too. So highlight those five things. It’ll get people to say, “Hey Mabel, look what I just read–you gotta check this out!” (Throughout the brown bag, the reporters kept calling this “the Hey Mabel effect.”)