My friend David William Foster, a regents professor at Arizona State University and Seattle native, marked his golden anniversary at ASU in 2017.
He told me, “After 50 years, I am ready to begin to be a university professor.” The emphasis was his and carried important wisdom about the value of experience and sustained achievement. Foster is still teaching, writing and leading student trips to South America.
After 37 years at daily newspapers, I am ready to begin to be a journalist. But after much reflection, I have decided to retire and focus on writing mystery novels and history, while continuing my personal blog, Rogue Columnist.
This is my last column in The Seattle Times (although you’ll see me one more time come January in Pacific NW magazine).
It’s been a great ride and I’m honored to finish it here. The Seattle Times is an extraordinary organization. I’m especially grateful to publisher Frank Blethen, the Blethen family, and my editors Becky Bisbee, Rami Grunbaum and Suzanne LaViolette.
To have the title of columnist is a serious responsibility. I’ve seen my job as offering opinion backed by facts, starting conversations, trying to see around corners, providing history and context. When I started writing this column, I said I didn’t have all the answers. I still don’t.
This isn’t a job but a calling. I accidentally became a newspaperman, to use an outmoded term.
And I’ll miss it every day for the rest of my life.
Only moments ago, or so it feels, I loaded my moxie and applied for a reporter job at a small-town daily. The crusty old editor (weren’t they all?) asked, “Can you spell?” When I assured him that I could, he hired me.
My background was as an EMT-paramedic and college instructor, never having taken a journalism class. I was bound for law school — but this wonderful adventure intervened.
I cut my teeth at small papers, mastering skills and discipline I still depend upon. Avoid unnecessary words. Deadlines are sacrosanct. You can never freeze. No drug can compare with the rush of working on a big story.
Newspaper journalism showed me the country as I worked up to the Dayton Daily News, Cincinnati Enquirer, Rocky Mountain News, Charlotte Observer and Arizona Republic. In some cases, the mighty presses were on-site and shook the building when they ran. In Dayton, high windows on the downtown pressroom allowed pedestrians to watch the mesmerizing making of the morning miracle.
I got into this specialty early, as business news was professionalized and became an important component to every major metropolitan paper. Who wanted to cover City Hall when the most important stories were to be found in business?
As my career blossomed, I became sought after as a turnaround editor for papers wanting to improve their business sections. All this was before the great collapse of the business model because of Craigslist, online missteps and dozens of self-inflicted cuts, especially at the big, publicly traded chains.
Only moments ago, or so it feels, I was a cub reporter, then an enfant terrible editor, now suddenly a graybeard.
One of my now-retired reporters from Dayton told me a few years ago, “Unlike Pliny the Younger, who watched Vesuvius bury Pompeii, and Mathew Brady in the Civil War, you have witnessed close up not one but two monumental happenings: The virtual end of industrial America and the virtual end of journalism in America. You owe America a nonfiction ‘dilogy,’ if that’s a word, on those twin tragedies. Absolutely no one understands them better. It was meant to be.”
Indeed. Over my career, America’s industrial base was hollowed out. The primacy of shareholders redistributed income up. Taxes on the rich were repeatedly cut. Middle-wage jobs were lost. All this helped produce the worst inequality since the Census Bureau began tracking it 50 years ago. Deregulation was among the many policy changes that weakened subtle checks and balances in the economy.
Through this, I also covered the Texaco-Pennzoil case, the Keating Five, AT&T’s hostile takeover of NCR, NAFTA and globalization, the big bank consolidations of the 1990s, the renaissance of America’s downtowns, warnings of the housing crash and much more. I was there. T. Boone Pickens tried to charm me. Jamie Dimon cursed around me (a tribute from him). I spoke before what seemed like hundreds of service clubs.
Seattle is a feast and challenge for a business journalist, with major corporate headquarters, the headwaters of technology, maritime industries and the most diversified economy I’ve ever encountered. At the risk of repeating myself, Seattle has an unusual gift for reinvention. It punches above its weight, and other cities would kill for the assets we take for granted.
Here, I helped cover such big stories as the collapse of Washington Mutual, the Great Recession, the Dreamliner’s delays, the exponential growth of Amazon and transformation of South Lake Union, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma joining in the Northwest Seaport Alliance, losses of iconic retailers, the promise and peril of Big Tech, and a decade of growth that seemed to leave an entirely different city. Now the biggest of all is the existential threat of climate change.
Seattle is a world city, with the opportunities and challenges that brings. Politics have changed since the district system was inaugurated and some of Seattle’s problems are self-inflicted.
Back in the 1990s, newspapers began to push journalists to offer solutions. I’m skeptical about that approach. Not every crisis or “crisis” can be solved. In most cases, the responses are constructive or destructive, as Steve Jobs pointed out. I’ve worked to offer the former.
I’ll wrap up where I began.
I’m so grateful to the editors and veteran colleagues from whom I learned. And for the journalists I had the opportunity to mentor.
Most of all, I’m thankful to our readers, especially the ones who said they hoped I would write for The Times for many years to come. I’m letting them down. I’m even grateful for my traducers — one wrote, “Talton your an idiot.” I don’t have all the answers.
After 37 years, I’m ready to begin to be a journalist. But other adventures beckon and I’m ready to begin the next chapter.