In nearly 39 years at The Seattle Times, general-assignment reporter Jack Broom, retiring Friday, has seen many people, places and things — and a great deal of change in journalism.
From a small plane above Mount St. Helens in 1980, I watched the earth turn itself inside out.
From a darkened room at Washington State Penitentiary in 1994, I witnessed what I expect to be America’s last legal hanging.
In a Seattle hotel lobby in the late 1970s, I had an agitated Gov. Dixy Lee Ray shake a finger in my face because I’d written about the troublesome background of the man she chose to head the Washington National Guard.
And in 2014 and 2015, I interviewed passionate Seahawks fans at Super Bowls in New Jersey and Arizona, being on hand for one exhilarating victory and one gut-wrenching defeat.
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The work is “inner-esting.” I keep hearing the voice of the late Steve Johnston, my longtime friend and colleague, mispronouncing the word he used to sum up the best part of the career we chose.
And it’s been true. Every day. Even the day in 2010 I was tasked with writing his obituary.
As I enter retirement after nearly 39 years at The Seattle Times, I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to see, hear and learn about many things I might not have encountered in any other occupation.
My goals have been straightforward: To tell readers something about the community and world they live in, and — if possible — help them enjoy the time they spent with the newspaper.
I wish I had done better on both counts. If I and my colleagues had been able to make ourselves more enlightening, useful and engaging, I wonder, might newspapers be on a more secure footing?
Change has been a constant in this business.
When I was a college intern at The Times in 1973, we wrote our stories on manual typewriters, employing scissors, red pencils and paste pots to the point that stories weren’t just written, they were assembled.
Four years later, when I returned to The Times for a permanent job, we worked with an early generation word-processing system in which reporters typed stories onto forms that were read by scanners, and editors worked with them on display screens.
Years later, a young reporter asked the biggest change I had seen in the business. I told him it was the first time I could type a word into a story, and all of the other words moved over to make room for it. He looked at me as if I’d been telling him about painting stories on the walls of a cave.
Nothing has changed our profession more than the Internet, and I remember a day that hinted at its potency. We had published a story about a dog that had savagely attacked someone, and authorities were planning to euthanize it.
Don’t kill the dog, pleaded a flurry of emails. But it wasn’t the messages’ content that was striking, it was where they came from: Germany, Australia and all across Canada.
Some of the stories I remember best ran counter to expectation.
Case in point: About five years after Washington state created its lottery, we sent questionnaires to everyone who had won a jackpot of $1 million or more. A woman who had won $1 million in Lotto told us it had practically destroyed her family.
Her jackpot was paid out at $40,000 a year, with an additional $10,000 withheld for the IRS. But the $40,000 didn’t come near to meeting the needs that her immediate family and shirttail relatives decided she should take on. Resentment ensued. No one gave her birthday presents, figuring the family “millionaire” could just buy her own.
My job seldom involved interviewing celebrities, but I do have a photo of myself with Richard Nixon, who, long after he left office, came to Seattle for a Republican fundraiser. In the 17 seconds we had together, he wanted to talk about — of all things — the Mariners’ lineup. (The team was then owned by California real estate developer George Argyros, a Nixon friend.)
I also have a decades-old photo of me interviewing Bill Cosby, but I don’t show it off much.
First-person stories were rare, but sometimes afforded a useful perspective. Once I was in a group of people consuming drinks served by Seattle police officers to see what it took to get to a level illegal for driving. (Forgive me if I can’t recall the findings, but I do know that those conducting the test drove all of us home.)
A fun memory from my younger, fitter days was joining newly elected Gov. Booth Gardner for a jog around Olympia’s Capitol Lake in 1985. The highlight was outdistancing the state trooper assigned to protect him.
For nearly all of my Times career, I have been a general-assignment reporter, which means I did not have a specific beat. I might write about senior-citizen speed-dating one day and a looming snowstorm the next.
But there were certain topics I followed for prolonged periods of time. I was the Times’ death-penalty reporter for about a decade. In that role, I covered, with other Times staffers, the execution of Ted Bundy in Florida in 1989.
Over the next several years, I covered two executions at the Washington State Penitentiary and was a witness at one, the 1994 hanging of Charles Campbell, who had fatally stabbed two women and a girl in Snohomish County 12 years earlier.
As his body dropped in front of our eyes, my reporter instincts were engaged, and I concentrated on noticing every detail.
It wasn’t until later that I became aware of my own feelings, largely a sense of relief — relief, in some measure, that the hanging had not been as gory as death-penalty opponents had warned it might be. And a more selfish sense of relief that this troublesome case I had been tracking for years had come to its end.
I also worked on many stories based on public-opinion polls conducted for The Times by Elway Research, not just on political races but also other public-policy questions. Stuart Elway’s insights and sense of humor enlivened the process of poring through reams of data.
Sometimes I’m asked the biggest story I’ve worked on and the answer comes easily: the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
In the spring of 1980, the volcano burped to life two months before the actual eruption, and we had sent reporters to the area, on and off, for weeks, anticipating an eruption.
We envisioned perhaps a river of lava, or maybe some pyrotechnics. Nothing prepared us for the blast that killed 57 people, blew away the mountain’s top 1,300 feet and sent an ash plume around the globe.
On that Sunday morning, May 18, I was called at home and headed to Boeing Field where Times photographer Ann Yow and I climbed into a plane the newspaper had chartered in advance. A second plane carried another Seattle Times crew: Johnston and photographer Rick Perry.
As soon as we gained elevation, we could see a black wall across the sky in the distance.
As we approached, we saw that the lower right-hand corner of the wall was the volcano. A billowing column of smoke and ash continued to stream skyward, containing jagged streaks of lightning, as if nature wanted to highlight its powerful display with exclamation points.
We didn’t sleep much for the next several days, interviewing people rescued from the mountain, families of the missing and the experts — themselves trying to come to terms with what had happened.
I’m glad I was 29 at the time, and not 65, the age I recently turned.
A similar sense of awe hit the first time I saw the scene of the Highway 530 landslide in Snohomish County in 2014, and spoke to some people who lost loved ones there.
Reporters have often been criticized for pressing microphones and notepads toward those suffering tremendous loss. In interviewing victims’ kin and friends, I have tried to be respectful and genuine — sensitive without a faux tearfulness.
In those situations, I’ve tried to focus on what readers might learn from the tragedy.
More times than you might expect, families and friends have appreciated the opportunity to talk about the one they lost, as a way of making the person real and offering a measure of tribute.
Once I spent two hours at the home of a North Seattle woman whose son had been lost when a fishing boat sank in Alaska. It was a snowy Seattle day when photographer Alan Berner and I listened to her stories, and looked at the school yearbooks and other mementos.
When we left, she thanked us for coming, and I felt sad, not just for her loss, but for the fact that in the time we were there, no one else had stopped by. If I had been killed on the job, I figured, my wife or my mom might have had folks stopping by with plates of cookies or casseroles.
A word about my wife, Judy. We met at the newspaper that hired me out of college, The Wenatchee World. Judy was its food and church editor. (God and gut, she would say.)
When I left Wenatchee to take a job at The Times in 1977, she followed me across the pass and soon switched from journalism to law, becoming a paralegal.
Long term, it was better that we were in separate fields. But she was in journalism long enough to know why calls from editors could come at any hour.
Sometimes when the phone rings, it’s simply an editor checking a fact or spelling, helping me avoid putting an error in print.
But there are the other calls … In 1983, when 13 people were gunned down in a Chinatown gambling club. In 1995, when four Seattle firefighters were killed in a warehouse fire. In 2009, when four Lakewood police officers were shot in a coffee shop.
Large-scale tragedies challenge all of us in the news business. At The Times, their coverage sets in motion an energizing level of teamwork, teamwork that figured greatly in Pulitzer Prizes the newspaper was awarded for coverage of the Lakewood police shootings and the Highway 530 landslide.
If my work at The Times had been covering an endless string of tragedies, I don’t think I could have lasted.
Stories of a lighter nature, such as a dispute over whether potbellied pigs should be legally considered pets, or profiling longtime TV clown (and childhood hero) J.P. Patches, have been welcome changes of pace.
The common ground in all these stories: happy, sad or strange, is that they tell us something about being human, and about those with whom we share this place on the planet.
It has been, as Steve Johnston would say, “inner-esting.”