Seattle institutions

Lately, my deskmates and I can’t converse without getting hungry.

It all started last week, when I solicited a coworker’s advice on where to get great seafood in Seattle. My parents are in town this weekend and are looking forward to eating wild Alaskan salmon, said to be some of the best in the world. They wanted something good, not too fancy and quintessentially Seattle.

Well, my coworker said, what’s more quintessentially Seattle than Ivar’s? It’s best known for the “Acres of Clams” sign ferry riders see on their way in and out of Seattle, but another location in Fremont specializes in salmon and overlooks Lake Union. It was settled.

Days later, we discussed where in South Lake Union we’d eat lunch to send off the winter-term news intern. Most of the South Lake Union neighborhood was purely industrial just a few years ago, but then came a connection to downtown and several biotech companies. And in 2007, when Amazon announced it would move its headquarters there, out went the decrepit warehouses and in went the upscale cafes, LEED-certified condo buildings and trendy restaurants. Most eateries are so new they haven’t yet established themselves among residents or Amazonians.

But when Dahlia Lounge and Serious Pie moved into a building on Westlake Avenue, their reputations preceded them. The owner, Tom Douglas, is a well-known and critically-acclaimed restaurateur here and already found a following at his eateries in Belltown. We concluded that Tom Douglas is, arguably, a Seattle institution.

Amid all this food talk was discussion about what makes something “quintessentially Seattle.” It’s tricky, because Seattle is a city of neighborhoods; one neighborhood might call a popular hangout a Seattle institution even though residents in another neighborhood haven’t even heard of it. Places like Kidd Valley, Buckley’s and La Toulouse Petit make up my impression of Seattle, but that’s because they’re all within two blocks of my apartment in Lower Queen Anne. For others, Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, Espresso Vivace or Bauhaus might sum up Seattle best.

There are a number of factors in what makes a true, city-wide Seattle institution. For one, it must be a citywide chain (see: Dick’s, Molly Moon’s) or it must be fabulous enough for locals and tourists alike to make the cross-town trip to visit regularly (Elliott Bay Books). For another, it should be old and/or decrepit enough that it’s firmly rooted in the Seattle community (Ivar’s). And it’s got to have that quirky, eclectic vibe that attracts hipsters, intellectuals and weirdos alike (King’s Hardware or, on the fancier end, anything tied to Ethan Stowell).

The absolute hippest in restaurants, bars and shops rarely endures–especially in Capitol Hill!–but Seattle institutions like these seem to infuse the right amount of hip with something classic. At King’s Hardware, you get the same old beer but you get to play Skee-Ball while you drink it. At Molly Moon’s, you can opt for good ol’ vanilla ice cream–or you can try a scoop of honey lavender.

Maybe that’s why I think Douglas’ restaurant Serious Pie, our chosen lunch spot today, can endure. It takes a classic favorite–brick oven pizza–and places it in a modern industrial setting with appetizers involving kale, pine nuts and carnation sunchokes.

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Birthday headlines

Today, the day I turn 23, is the ultimate in in-betweens: it will be exactly two years before I’m legally able to rent a car, and it’s exactly two years after the day I had my first legal drink (in the U.S., at least).

I have no wild plans for this particular birthday, since work consumes my life and last year’s “Where’s Waldo?”-themed blowout at my house in Eugene, Ore. was memorable enough to carry me through to Feb. 10, 2012. I’ll mark this as the year in which I discovered the small pleasures of birthdays: opening cards over coffee and smiling at the messages, going to work to find a platter of brownies, and hearing from friends I haven’t seen in years. I don’t need to celebrate my existence with bar-hopping or expensive dinners.

Today, I celebrated as only I would do: by looking up Seattle Times headlines from Feb. 10, 1988, the day I was born. Startlingly, some of the headlines I found could be in a newspaper today. I leave you with them here.

  • Americans Should Open Minds To Non-Western Cultures
  • Military Can’t Bar Gays, Court Rules
  • U.S. Offers Plan For Mideast Peace
  • Middle Class Seems Stuck In Middle — Economists Worry Over Increasing Gap Between Rich, Poor

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.

Election night

Yesterday, The Seattle Times was humming with even more purpose and productivity than usual. Reporters argued over fractions of percentages. Editors posted dozens of news updates every hour until midnight. Fifteen boxes of pizza vanished in an hour.

That’s right, it was election day–only the most simultaneously stressful and exciting day of the year for the news media.

In the summer, I was around for the primaries and was thrilled to see the entire staff working well into the night to gather statistics, opinions, feedback and fallout from all around the state. I stayed five hours past my regular shift and dreamed of being on the team that helped produce the content on the real election day in November.

Amazingly, that dream came true. After two months away, I returned to The Times Monday to temporarily cover the nighttime police beat.

As I predicted, the “welcome back”s and “we missed you”s lasted mere minutes before I was whisked away and enlisted to help cover breaking news. Since Monday, my waking hours haven’t been boring for even a minute. The entirety of Tuesday was defined by pure euphoria and sleep deprivation.

Being part of election night at a newspaper–the hustle, the bustle, the political jokes running rampant–reminds me why I want so badly to land a career in print journalism. The things that happen here don’t happen in any other workplace, no matter how much more sophistocated or technologically advanced those workplaces may be. There’s a kind of casual give-and-take here, a special brand of slightly rude banter that actually strengthens the quality of the work, that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else. Though I still believe there are multiple possible career paths out there for me, this particular path–insanely demanding and underpaid though it may be–is still my number one choice.

Something’s in the water

I’ve now been through two weeks of Seattle Pro Musica rehearsals, and never have I felt so quickly assimilated into a choral group before. It reminds me of other, very different first rehearsal experiences I’ve had since I started singing in choirs at 14.

I remember walking into Cabrillo Youth Chorus auditions as a middle school student absolutely petrified. I’d been dragged there against my will, and as a result only halfheartedly sang “America the Beautiful” for the director, Cheryl Anderson, and grudingly glanced at some children’s music with other timid youngsters. Several years later, the days CYC rehearsed became my favorite days of the week.

In high school, the first time I sang with the jazz choir was intimidating: I was a sophomore in a crowd of juniors and seniors, some who would go on to study at prestigious music conservatories. But several trips to jazz festivals later, I felt right at home in the group.

In college, too, I was one of only a handful of freshmen among mostly upperclassmen and music majors when I joined University Singers. In the middle of my late-summer audition, my cell phone rang, leaving me flustered and embarrassed. I was so scared I’d embarrass myself again in the first University Singers rehearsal–Sharon Paul still let me in after that awful blunder!–that I didn’t initiate a conversation with anyone. Luckily, a gregarious bass next to me asked to borrow a pencil, sparking a long conversation about British comedy shows. He and many other fellow Singers became my closest friends in college.

Seattle Pro Musica’s members are so genuinely and unfailingly nice that I felt right at home uncommonly quickly considering my shy personality. Just like at The Seattle Times, the veterans have approached me and introduced themselves sooner than I’ve found the courage to approach them–and they seem genuinely interested in learning more about me.

There must be something good in this Puget Sound water.

Networking

Our last brown bag session of the summer was a full two weeks ago, but some of us are still talking about it.

It was all about “networking,” a word I confess I detest. Even in high school, the idea that I could get a job over someone equally qualified by simply knowing the right people horrified me. Unlike everyone else I knew, I didn’t get my first job through someone who knew someone else. I literally flipped through the white pages and dialed local restaurants, shops and cafes until I found one that was hiring.

But since the economy has worsened, browsing companies and cold-calling, especially when you have a specific career in mind, won’t get you anywhere nowadays. Newspapers that publicly announce job openings on journalismjobs.com are so flooded with applicants that we recent grads hardly stand a chance. It seems increasingly apparent that the way to get a job isn’t just through hard work–it’s so much about being in the right place at the right time.

Since almost all of us interns are recent grads struggling to find post-internship work, we were on the edge of our seats to hear what the three reporters leading the brown bag had to say about how we could get gigs. They had us sell ourselves effectively in quick introductory speeches where they encouraged us to use enthusiasm and the word “I” often. They put us in a faux-mixer situation and had us interrupting each other to get a word in edgewise when standing in groups with a prominent person. They stressed that if we wanted something from someone, we had to ask them for it sooner rather than later–usually with some form of the words, “Do you know anyone who is looking for a reporter?”

I’m sure that works for lots of people. People in public relations or advertising, people in modeling auditions. Lobbyists. And maybe even some journalists. I know a lot of publishers or editors who might appreciate such a blunt and forward approach, who might reward an aggressive attitude.

However, I don’t naturally have a personality that hits you in the face the minute I walk in the door, nor do I really want one. I’m going to put my best foot forward and be assertive, sure, but I’m not going to stray too far from my personality. If I do, I’ll mislead a future employer.

Though all of us felt we wouldn’t follow the brown bag leaders’ advice to a tee, we learned valuable lessons on how to pitch ourselves to important people and how to  make sure to ask for help rather than assume someone knows you want their help. But we also learned that one approach doesn’t work for everyone. We vowed to tailor the advice to our specific personalities and tone down the aggressive maneuvers.

Visit from the POTUS

Yesterday was the busiest day I’ve seen at The Times thus far. Not only was it the day all the state primary votes would be counted, but it was also the day a certain U.S. president was coming to visit.

And in the middle of it all was a surprise sonic boom heard ’round the Sound.

It’s an understatement to say we all kept busy. Even I, a lowly intern, wasn’t bored for a second. The minute I got to the newsroom that morning, I was immediately whisked off to the Westin Hotel downtown, where Obama was expected to visit for a private fundraiser for current U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the incumbent in the primary race. Hours before he arrived, mobs of protesters surrounded the hotel. Some of them wanted to open the U.S.-Mexico border and let all immigrants in. Some of them wanted the government to stop spending money on stimulus bills and bailouts. Some of them wanted the president to resign.

And some of them just wanted to sneak a peek of Barack, known in the newsroom as the POTUS (President of the United States).

Alas, even I didn’t get to see the guy, save for a glimpse of his silhouette in the back seat of a black SUV with tinted windows.

I did, however, get to see my name tacked onto the end of the front page story in the next day’s paper for contributed reporting. Plus, I got to see a photo I took on my cellphone on the newspaper’s home page!

And later at night, as the entire Metro staff was busy with election coverage, I went to Rainier Valley to cover a shooting that made it on the top 10 most read list today.

How can it get any better than this?

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.

Flying with the Blue Angels

A story assignment I got yesterday was perhaps the most fun assignment I’ve ever had.

I’ve been told that if someone gives you the opportunity to fly with the Blue Angels, you don’t say no. But initially, I did say no. I’ve never been big on risktaking, and I’ve never derived much pleasure from an adrenaline rush.

Then I learned I’d be riding in a chase plane alongside the Blue Angels and since photographers would be hanging out of the plane’s open side, there wouldn’t be any funny business. So I said yes.

Boy, I’m glad I did! My flight earned me a front-page centerpiece story in today’s paper and a biography and mug shot of myself to boot. Plus, the experience reminded me once again why I love this job so much: it lets me meet people from all walks of life and do things I’d never get to do were I not a member of the press. It enlightens me to perspectives I previously didn’t understand or wasn’t aware of. And it lets me begin sentences with conjunctions and end sentences with prepositions!

Another thing I love about this job–something few people mention when they wax poetic about the life of the reporter–is the feedback I get after I’m done with my work. The positive feedback reminds me that I’m making a valuable contribution to society, while the negative feedback (when it’s logical) makes me think about what I can do better in the future. I get plenty of both kinds of feedback here at the Times, more than I’ve ever gotten.

However, there’s always the occasional angry comment that isn’t useful to me, and I got several of those today. More than half the calls and e-mails I got this morning and afternoon following my page A1 debut concerned the headline. People were angry it called the Blue Angels “daredevils,” as it implies they’re reckless rather than practiced.

This morning I suggested to an editor that tomorrow’s front page read, in 100-point bold font, “REPORTERS DO NOT WRITE HEADLINES.”

Here’s a question I’ve been mulling all day today: as transparent organizations, how far should newspapers go to make readers aware of the news-gathering and -editing process? Is it necessary for readers to know the specifics, or is it just necessary for them to know the news?

In my thesis, I interviewed newspapers to find out about their copy editing practices both in print and online, and I came to the conclusion that newspapers should make these editing practices clear to readers, if only in a small box at the bottom of their web page. Readers who spot a mistake in a staff blog and ask, “Don’t you people have copy editors?” should know that blogs are not, in fact, copy edited at many newspapers.

In the same vein, I think people who angrily ask reporters why they chose specific words in a headline should know reporters don’t, in fact, write the headlines that adorn their stories.