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.

Hard news, soft news–it’s all good

Western Washington University students work on the Viking 45, their entry in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. The car gets 100 miles to the gallon. Photo: Sophia McCloy.

This job is the first one in which I’ve truly been a general assignment reporter. Before that, I always had a certain beat. At the Santa Cruz Sentinel, my first internship and my first time working in a newsroom, I was supposed to cover everything but ended up mostly writing feature stories. At the Oregon Daily Emerald, I covered crime and health. At Monterey County Weekly and Palo Alto Weekly–two newspapers at which I worked simultaneously two summers ago–my clips were mostly of the arts and entertainment variety.

So when I got to the Seattle Times and in my first week alone covered four beats–science, crime, health and obituaries–I knew this internship would be an entirely different experience.

The subjects I cover have only increased since then. I’ve worked on stories about land usestate and federal politics, the environment and education. I couldn’t be happier. I always thought beat reporting was more interesting and more rewarding, but I should have known better. Even as a kid, I loved learning–not necessarily in-depth learning about one specific subject, but instead learning a little about a lot of things. As early as high school, I waxed poetic about the benefits of a well-rounded education. In college, while so many around me believed a liberal arts education was overrated and specific technical training was more beneficial, I maintained that I had an edge over other journalism majors with my multiple interests and varied extracurriculars.

It makes sense, then, that I so enjoy general assignment reporting. I get to learn something new every day. It matters little whether I’m calling the police station for information on a shooting in a state park or whether I’m visiting sleepy, pleasant Bellingham to chase the heartwarming story of some college kids who built a car from scratch and may win $10 million for their troubles. I always walk away from my workday satisfied.

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.”)

Thoughts on graduation

When I graduated from the University of Oregon, I felt like I was on top of the world. Over the course of two days, I got praised endlessly. I got awards, certificates, honor cords, honorary pins and diplomas that finally recognized all those years of hard work. It was sunny, I was wearing a pretty dress, all my friends and family surrounded me and all I did was sit there and smile.

That’s all, just smile. I seemed unable to turn off the grin through both those days. Probably because I didn’t know what else to do. I’ve never received compliments well; I never figured out how to react or what to say, so I always just smiled and said “thank you” over and over.

Getting a compliment never felt right. To me it always seemed like the conversational version of a see-saw: while one person is doing all the work to pull the see-saw down, the other is just enjoying the ride to the top without pulling their weight. So when my advisor, a no-nonsense kind of guy who doesn’t do sappy, presented me with a journalism award along with a glowing laundry list of my merits, I felt like marching up to the podium to set the record straight and give him the partial credit he deserved for my accomplishments.

My point: the praise I received blinded my smiling self into forgetting just how hard I worked to earn it all. The awards and the graduation ceremonies boosted my ego but made me forget about my past work ethic. I forgot that, once college is over, we have to start all over again to prove we’re as great as our diplomas say we are. Sure, we got a degree. Sure, our grades were good and our teachers liked us and we held leadership positions in school organizations. But when our skills are put to the test in the workplace, will we deliver?

I’ve worked really, really hard this week to impress people—people whose journalistic background is awe-inspiring and totally intimidating. It’s been a challenge. But I’m glad my temporary graduation amnesia is gone and the work ethic is back.