What my press badge taught me


In college, I learned three things about myself.

One, I wanted to write for a living.

Two, without a firm deadline, I never finish anything.

Three, a press badge is a magic amulet. Talking with strangers had always been hard for me. Somehow it became so much easier when I could open a conversation with, “Hi, I’m with the newspaper. Got a second?” Journalism, to me, is a license to ask people about the most important thing in their lives, or at least the most important thing right now.

What could be more fascinating? What could be more meaningful?

So for my last two years at Western Washington University, I set aside other classes and other interests, such as sleep, to focus on the student paper, and it basically became my full-time job. I was an English major, but the news industry looked to be in sturdier shape than the poetry industry. This career decision came around 2009, just as the Great Recession decimated newsrooms. The Seattle P-I stopped its presses, journalists all over the country were getting laid off, and national news outlets ran reassuring headlines like, “The Year The Newspaper Died.” This was not an ideal time to break into print journalism, saddled with $30,000 in student loan debt, with no savings and no car.

I hitched a ride with a friend to get rejected for an internship in Port Townsend, and rode the bus to get rejected for a copy editing position in Mount Vernon. Eventually I landed a job at $11 an hour on the breaking news beat at The Bellingham Herald. Each day I had to become an expert on a topic, a person or a particular crime — and the next day the exercise started all over again. So many legal concepts were brand new to me, and I found myself in the back of courtrooms searching Google for “corpus delicti,” “writ of mandamus,” and other Latin phrases tossed around by lawyers in snappy suits. I spent as much time as possible in court, where I got an accelerated crash course in the justice system, what it can and can’t do, and the real human beings caught up in it.

Six years later, I was being interviewed for my job here in Everett. The city editor at the time, Scott North, asked me to describe the most difficult thing I’d done as a reporter. I thought back to my first month as a professional journalist, when a young mother had been shot to death point-blank in her downtown apartment. My boss told me to try to track down the victim’s family. So I did, but when I dialed the number, I felt woozy and sick, like all the blood rushed out of my head. Until then, I’d never interviewed someone who had suffered such a fresh, profound, unexpected loss. What could I say? Nothing would really make things better, or bring their daughter back, Maybe the family just wanted to grieve in privacy. Since then, I’ve found it’s far more common that people desperately want to talk about their lost loved one, so they’re not forgotten. But it’s a catch-22. You don’t know who wants to be left alone until you reach out.

Scott said something like, “If that ever becomes an easy phone call, then quit journalism, because that would mean it’s not for you.”

I think about that a lot. It eliminated any doubt that I wanted to work in this newsroom. Solid journalists are a dying breed. Everyone I’ve worked with in Everett has been here for the right reasons. Reporters are entrusted with other peoples’ stories, the good, bad, bittersweet and everything in between. That’s sacred stuff. Sometimes the best thing you can do is show that somebody’s willing to listen, and that the world is listening, too.

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