SO GIVEN THAT we are here, in a once-in-a-lifetime place — this will make more sense in a few minutes — I might as well ‘fess up for once: This piece is due in a matter of hours, and in the days leading up to it, my net amount of research has amounted to … absolutely nothing.
I know, I know: Business as usual, some folks will say. Very funny. Fact is, it’s an aberration, even for me, someone who, thanks to a long career in journalism, has been utterly ruined for ever doing anything proactively, ahead of time, without a panic-inducing deadline looming over my head. It’s an irreversible condition.
The lack of research part, though, is atypical. I’m more prone to make a story an excuse to go down multiple rabbit holes of curiosity before sitting down to write. But that applies to news topics that might be of general interest, not the squishier subject at hand here. This one is more musing than digging, and feels emphatically bittersweet.
Because to a lot of readers out there who I’ve come to know as friends, I’m saying, “So long.”
JUST TYPING THAT, much to my surprise, makes me emotional. (Are you happy now?)
Look: A goodbye piece is the most self-indulgent thing in the history of journalism (a high bar, indeed — especially if one adds to the profession the antics of those shiny-lipped, structural-hair TV people), and to be honest, I never saw myself doing this until later this decade, when I planned to slip away quietly, like foam settling into the top of a good stout, straight into the welcoming arms of my Coleman lantern workshop and quiet retirement.
But stuff happens.
A couple of months ago, through no fault of my own, I was contacted by what amounted to a local headhunter in my longtime place of residence, Bellingham, about a job opportunity — in journalism, of all things, which has not, of late, been a growth industry.
Having never been recruited for a job, at any time, in my entire life — including, even, an early job bucking hay bales in choking heat in the Snoqualmie Valley, where I grew up — this was rather shocking.
I fumbled and demurred and provided excuses about already having one of the last, best jobs in journalism, at one of the last, best places. But the pressures continued, and finally, I was forced to admit that the only reason to say “no” was a troubling combination of fear and sloth.
I made the leap. Not from journalism; my new gig will be leading an exciting new, daily digital/print news organization in Bellingham, set to debut this winter. There, I will write a column and lead a small, nimble newsroom in the hope of bringing a bit of rain to a longstanding news desert, sucked dry by corporate chain journalism. (You can see where this is headed, and which of my buttons got pushed.)
It felt like a calling. We’re in the all-hands-on-deck phase of The Truth Wars.
Which sadly leaves, for our purposes here, only the past. There’s been a bunch of it. I will touch on the parts that have made my work here truly memorable.
MY FIRST DAY on the job, in The Times’ North Bureau on the flanks of Mill Creek, was Sept. 8, 1988 — a date that will live in infamy among many former-editor occupants of the famed “glass cages” that once formed an imposing phalanx along one wall in The Times’ old building on Fairview Avenue. (Each of these good folks would be tasked, at some point, with dealing with The Judd Problem. And for the record, I have outlasted them all.)
I walked through the strip-mall door of the suburban bureau that morning to hear the news assistant for our scrappy little seven-person operation clunk down the phone, rip the top sheet off a notepad and say something like: “Deer vs. car in Monroe. It’s in rehab. Anybody want?”
Physically blocking off any challengers with my body, a la NBA great Wes Unseld, I bogarted this memo sheet and clutched it to my chest, much to the apparent surprise of my new peers.
“Every editor in the world,” I whispered to the news assistant, who was looking at me the way you look at an unbalanced person, “will wet their pants over an injured animal story.”
I made some calls. Figured out how to initiate a photo assignment, wrote my story on a green-bleeding screen that physically hummed, and I filed the story.
It ran the next morning as the centerpiece on A1.
I have no actual evidence of puddling editors, but no matter. I was off. As some longtime readers — including one who famously mailed to disdainfully inform me he had been “ingesting [my] crap for decades” — likely will insist, things have gone downhill around here pretty much ever since.
I KID MYSELF, and our readers. The point: This was more than 33 years ago. I know it is an unsightly cliché to say that seems impossible, but it’s true. My wife, Meri-Jo, also a career journalist until I took her away from all that and dragged her to the upper-left fog quadrant, thinks it is bizarre to have worked so long at one place. And while they are too polite to ask, I see many acquaintances who learn of this longevity marveling at how old that must make me.
“I started when I was 5,” I say.
Actually, I was 25 — seven years after graduating from high school with a listed life goal of working as a columnist at The Seattle Times, a newspaper I had grown up reading literally since I knew how.
Thirty-three years, marked by tens of thousands of pushed deadlines and thousands of stories, columns and snarky rejoinders, is indeed a long dalliance. And it’s one that would not have been possible or even advisable except for the simple — and uncommon — reality: My life’s work, so far, has been doing a job I love.
A LOT OF JOURNALISTS, on their way out the door of a place, will say that. And most of them really mean it. Sure, there have been times — a lot, in recent years — when I’ve pondered where I might have wound up if I’d devoted the same amount of time, energy and writer’s-block stress to literally any other line of work.
But it always has been in my blood, and I can’t imagine spending three decades doing literally anything else. Which is why, despite it all, I still can’t quit.
What’s kept me going on these pages for so long is that it has not, in fact, been the same job, but a succession of many in different eras, with different approaches, yielding different results. My greatest compliment to The Times is that it has provided me space to reinvent, more than once.
I’ve covered hard news, starting with K-12 education and progressing through a number of other beats during the 1990s. After working my way into The Times’ main newsroom, I worked as a jack of all trades, filling in for reporters on leave. I worked on deadline stories about everything from broccoli (food section) to the timely death by execution of Ted Bundy (weekend metro-desk duty). And I loved it.
A highlight: working for a full year and a half on a single story, the pending and very possible departure of the local baseball team, your Seattle Mariners, to Tampa Bay, back in the early 1990s. My partner in crime was Joni Balter, a veteran Times newsie who had shocked the city by breaking news that the team’s owner, Jeff Smulyan, had used the promise of great riches in moving the Mariners to Florida as collateral on a loan.
Smulyan was dumb enough to put this in writing, which was leaked to The Times and reported to the world, starting a process of machinations that resulted in the team’s new owners promising (cough, cough) ongoing “championship-level baseball” in perpetuity, in exchange for a publicly financed stadium. (Someone should’ve asked for that in writing.)
It might be fair to say this work helped save baseball for Seattle, a feat for which Joni, still a good friend, likely would say thank you, and I would say I’m so, so sorry.
FOR MANY YEARS, my focus shifted from hard news, and news, period, and into the outdoors. I enjoyed a yearslong reign as The Times’ outdoors reporter, serving as a bridge between the old hook-and-bullet coverage of fishing and hunting and the more modern, breathable-fabric recreational pursuits, capitalizing on the fresh-air ethic most of us hold in common.
I “covered” camping, hiking, fishing, boating, cycling and the like — work that led me to write a number of outdoor guidebooks. I hobnobbed with some of the world’s greatest mountain climbers; told stories of adventure, danger and hypothermia; and launched a weekly column about those travails, “Trail Mix,” which apparently attracted a following of a subset of Puget Sound peeps with far too much time on their hands.
The outdoors column morphed, under the guidance of then-sports editor Cathy Henkel, into a weekly acerbic sports column. This was fun, and its out-of-left-field perspective proved shocking to some column subjects, including a guy named Ken Griffey Jr., who hijacked my cellphone number and began calling in utter disbelief about being called out for, if memory serves, loafing it to first base and threatening to leave for greener pastures.
It was not long-lived: Sports readers, it turns out, didn’t like even occasional interruptions in their hero-worshipping routines. I recall telling one angry caller: “We publish dozens of pages of mythmaking stuff about these guys every day of the week. Can’t you take a single column of reality once a week?” His screamed response; “I DON’T WANT ANY REALITY ON MY SPORTS PAGES!”
Point taken. I moved on.
SOMEWHERE ALONG the line, I discovered that occasional application of doses of dry humor to written work helped spark interest and form a bond with certain readers. During the early when Jon Stewart ruled the fake-news airwaves, former executive editor David Boardman and I conceived a news column that would attempt an acknowledged high-wire act: bringing the same acerbic humor to news events. The column, called “The Wrap,” launched on Sundays in 2006 and ran for nearly nine years.
Readers either loved or hated The Wrap. It wasn’t just for knee-slapping one-liners. Most of the material in the column was carefully chosen to make, often in blunt fashion, some point that I felt was missing from our pages but that was front/center in the minds of many of our readers.
Some people liked the humor, others the sharp points contained therein. A few people: both. Of course, frequent well-deserved targets (not to mention any names, such as Alaska Airlines and Boeing, formerly of Seattle) found it offensive, and whined like stuck pigs through their vast corporate PR channels.
I found all of this terrifically amusing.
It was, of course, too good to last. The column ultimately was pulled by previous managers at the newspaper, not me. To this day, I receive notes from readers who say they miss it — or any traces of humor left in the local press.
OTHER ASSIGNMENTS CREATED memories I will take to my grave.
My work took photog Dean Rutz and me to New Zealand, where we tagged along for a month while a syndicate of Seattle tech guys working for Craig McCaw and Paul Allen competed for sailing’s America’s Cup. It was a self-created assignment that one editor reputedly called “the greatest boondoggle in the history of journalism.” I’m proud to carry that mantle. And, incidentally, our readers loved it.
Nothing really compared, of course, to the dream job of covering a half-dozen Olympic Games. From the day I first saw the Olympic torch approach the outskirts of Nagano, Japan, in 1998 — and the adoration it invoked in the tens of thousands of citizens who braved the cold to catch a glimpse — I was hooked on the rings.
For a columnist, the Olympics are a dream — a 24/7, three-week series of unfolding dramatic moment and absurdities. (Sort of like covering Congress, with less flop sweat.) I loved every minute of those long days in Nagano; Sydney, Australia; Salt Lake City; Athens; and Torino, Italy. The Games took me around the globe and gave me access to the lives and stories of great athletes and human beings such as the great swimming phenom Megan Quann Jendrick of Puyallup, and an all-time favorite larger-than-life character I later was able to call a friend, swimming legend Gary Hall Jr.
In 2002, during the run-up to the Salt Lake Games, I carried the Olympic torch around the streets of Seattle, a true thrill. As I was writing a column about the experience on deadline, my editor picked up the still-warm torch and carried it around the newsroom, where a lot of people just wanted to touch it.
Those were the gravy days, when we could travel the world and bring readers with us. Sadly, newspaper budgets nixed that coverage after the 2010 Vancouver Games. But the timing wasn’t all bad. The International Olympic Committee’s greed, rot and doping scandals that have plagued the event ever since have caused it to lose its luster, not only with me. I’d find it hard to cover another one with a straight face, given the drift.
MY FAVORITE ASSIGNMENT, in many ways, has been my most recent, and now my last. Granted the invaluable commodity of time to focus and hone one’s work, bringing the Pacific Northwest home to readers every Sunday in this magazine has been a dream gig.
The Times has always kept an eye on its role as a leading voice not just for the city of Seattle, but for the broader Northwest. During healthier economic times, we covered what amounts to the Columbia River drainage and beyond, even reporting from the outlines of the Pacific Rim. By financial necessity, those boundaries have been pulled back. But that laser focus on what makes the Northwest special has lived on in the Sunday magazine — one of the last survivors of its kind in the country.
I’ll always cherish the past half-dozen years here, working with talented editors, photographers and designers, to create work that we hope stands above the daily churn of news. Most memorably, the job has allowed me to spend not just moments, but hours and even multiple days with subjects that make the Northwest special: people like rising star U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Jessica Shafer; Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody and scientist Woody Sullivan; Northwest icons Jim Whittaker, Bill Anders, Warren Miller and others; and fascinating places like the ancient cliff dwellings of the Palouse River, Astoria, Port Angeles, Dabob Bay and the Channeled Scablands.
I’ve been able to write about the nature we love — competing fishing rights, bison, caribou and our once-dark skies — and the dangers it can pose. And I got to write a memorable ode to the first 747, the crowning achievement of a company my own dad spent a lifetime working for as a machinist.
And, yes, I guess I can take credit — or accept blame — for making Unsightly Big Blue Tarps and Left-Lane Campers part of the local lexicon.
On and on. All uniquely Northwest.
THE VARIED NATURE of that list has been a gift to my own shifting curiosity. But honestly, as nice as that’s been, the memory I will carry away from this work, this time and this place, is a long-running conversation with many of you good folks: readers.
Throughout my career, I’ve tried to take the time to respond to almost every non-crank letter, phone call, email or Tweet. I believe it is a journalistic obligation, but it’s also mostly been a labor of love.
Without a consistent stream of encouragement, kidding, puzzlement and ardent support from readers, I would have moved on to something else many years ago. Over the years, you have laughed along with my work, and on occasion even agonized along with me, offering support to a person you didn’t even really know. This conversation, often noting a longstanding relationship with my byline, has been humbling. Frankly, it has kept me writing.
I can’t say thank you enough, with sufficient sincerity, for what that has meant to me not only as a journalist, but as a person. It has bolstered my stubborn faith in humanity, convincing me that despite where we are, a lot of good folks are still out there.
And in here, too, inside these walls, of a worthy local institution. My greatest wish upon going out the door is that those same readers keep supporting the mission here. It is honorable and necessary. And for being a part of it for so long, I can only say thanks. And I hope to see you all down another road.
Rest assured: The hair may be graying, but the smirk shall endure.