How does an Irishman teaching math in Africa wind up as a reporter covering the Paris Air Show for the newspaper in Boeing's backyard?

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How does an Irishman teaching math in Africa wind up as a reporter covering the Paris Air Show for the newspaper in Boeing’s backyard?

Dominic Gates is the fellow whose unusual career path brought him to the pages of The Seattle Times. He is also the model for a modern beat reporter. He combines breaking news, enterprise reporting and explanatory writing to provide coverage that is authoritative and accessible. He owns the Boeing beat. His skills will be on display this week as he covers the aviation industry’s biggest event, which alternates each year between the Paris Air Show and the Farnborough Air Show in London. This year it’s in France, and Gates will be there as more than 2,000 exhibitors and industry VIPs strut their stuff.

The lineup of stories through the week depends on what Gates finds there and on news that breaks. Readers can follow along in the pages of The Times or online at www.seattletimes.com/Boeing.

Rami Grunbaum, Times deputy business editor, said there are always a bunch of orders announced at these annual shows but that’s not the most important aspect from a reporter’s perspective. This is a chance to talk with the industry’s major figures, including manufacturers, suppliers and airline executives, about the strategic issues that eventually show up in the news. It’s a chance to better understand the entire global airline industry, he said.

“Dominic is amazing in how energetically he pursues developing contacts at all levels of the industry, from the shop floor to the boardroom. He’s very strategic in terms of who he interviews and what they can contribute to his understanding,” Grunbaum said.

So, while the week ahead undoubtedly will produce noteworthy stories, the real reward to readers will come later in the context and insight behind stories such as Gates’ coverage of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. Many Sunday readers will recall two particularly compelling stories Gates wrote under the “Building the Dreamliner” theme.

The first account took us inside the “creel room” at Toray Composites America in Frederickson, Pierce County. Gates described how “the long, flat threads of carbon converge and feed into a machine that squeezes epoxy resin deep into the fibers. This is how the fuselage, wings and tail of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner begin.”

The second went inside the Spirit AeroSystems plant in Wichita, Kan. Gates wrote, “Just as the 787’s pioneering all-plastic exterior makes it the airplane of the future, the plant where its nose section is built represents the airplane factory of the future. The plastic material enables unprecedented automation, drastically reducing the hand labor — and the jobs — involved in making airplane parts.”

“Building the Dreamliner” is in the tradition of “Making it Fly,” Peter Rinearson’s series on the birth of Boeing’s 757 jetliner. That work won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and introduced an era of explanatory reporting at The Times that continues today.

Gates describes his approach as “following the arc” of the Dreamliner story. An example was his examination of the new global business model evident in outsourcing part of the 787 wing design to Mitsubishi of Japan. That story was timed last month to coincide with the first ready-made 787 wings arriving in Everett from Japan.

“Gradually the focus shifts now toward Everett. But exactly what lies ahead in the series, I can’t divulge,” Gates said. Watch for the next part this summer. Boeing anticipates the first test flight of the 787 will be in late August.

So, how did this Irish math teacher end up a newspaper reporter? Gates explained that he was teaching in Zimbabwe as part of an Irish government aid program when he met his future wife, Nina Shapiro, a gifted American journalist who was doing freelance writing in Africa at the time.

“I’d always been an avid reader of newspapers and had a hankering to write. I’d even written some unpaid columns back in Ireland,” Gates said. “I had enjoyed teaching very much, yet knew I’d done all I wanted to do and when that contract in Africa was up I wanted to move on.

“But I knew nothing about how the journalism profession worked or how to get into it until I met my wife. Then I was an Irishman and a math teacher. Now, I’m an American journalist. And I owe it all to Nina Shapiro, now with the Seattle Weekly.”

The two came to Seattle from Africa in 1992. Gates built up a portfolio of work through freelance, contract and magazine writing. “The Seattle Times, specifically [former deputy business editor] Tom Boyer, lifted my résumé off a heap, liked my clips, and took a risk.

“If I had returned to Northern Ireland, with its stagnant economy and ongoing Troubles, I could never have become a journalist. I was educated as a teacher, my only experience was in teaching. There, I could only be a teacher. But in America, I learned that the ‘can do’ spirit is something real. How did I become a journalist? I came to America and just did it.”

Gates has broken a phenomenal number of stories in the four years he’s been with The Times. “He has a great capacity for understanding the technical issues and a great capacity for just talking to people,” Grunbaum said.

He added that Gates’ greatest strength is “getting it completely right. I think people respect the diligence with which he goes after stories. He is competitive, but he doesn’t get ahead of what he knows.”

For his part, Gates said, “It’s a great job. A great beat. Right now, with a new airplane about to fly, it’s immensely exciting. For many, many people working on the airplane it’s also emotional, which I think will become apparent in the months ahead as the program climaxes.

“The aerospace beat is brutally competitive and intense, but I love it and feel privileged. To think that I came here in 1992 just wanting to be a writer, you’ve no idea how lucky I feel to be the Times’ aerospace guy.”

The Northwest 100

For the 16th consecutive year, The Seattle Times today is presenting “Northwest 100,” its annual ranking of public companies based in the Pacific Northwest.

“The Northwest 100 ranking is considered an investors’ guide to who is tops in important financial-performance measurements, such as sales, profits, number of employees and stock-price performance. And, unlike other popular lists, which look only at sales numbers, our rankings are based on four key measures of performance over two years,” said Becky Bisbee, Times business editor.

“We think this gives investors a better read on companies with staying power.”

The seven-page special section is the result of a lot of number-crunching, fact-checking and analysis by a handful of people. Business reporter Drew DeSilver, who covers publicly traded companies and the economy, leads the effort. DeSilver along with lead news assistant Gary Dougherty compile all the data from Bloomberg News and company documents.

Business news editor Suzanne LaViolette keeps the information flowing to the graphics department. News artist Boo Davis illustrated the cover and designed the section, which was edited by desk editor Jane MacDonald and produced online by Mark Deichmiller.

All of the information also lives online at www.seattletimes.com/northwest100. In addition to in-depth financial data for the 128 companies ranked in our annual analysis, we offer the same information for the 33 publicly traded but unranked Northwest companies. Users can also compare company statistics in interactive spreadsheets.

If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to mfancher@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists