Confessions and disclosures of a community hack

I was a twentysomething community journalist.

And what makes that a bold statement? Well, nobody sets out to be a "community journalist"; writers view neighborhood non-daily newspapers in much the same way baseball players view the minor leagues: The better you perform there, the sooner you'll be able to move on.

Moving on took a while for me. When I was hired at Seattle Weekly in February 1996, I had worked more than 11 years as a community journalist, the last seven as a writer/editor at The Seattle Press.

That job came along at the perfect time for me. After spending more than four years working on the outskirts of civilization (Lynnwood, then Silverdale), I was eager to write stories about my adopted hometown of Seattle. Fortunately, such obstacles as a low salary and long hours weren't an issue.

When I arrived at the Press, it was still two newspapers—the every-other-Wednesday North Seattle Press and the monthly Lake Union Review. Although we tried to keep the Press folksier and the Review more substantial and weighty, the two papers functioned as a single almost-weekly, owing to the fact that all our writers contributed to both. My initial goal for the paper was to print really fair, even-handed news stories and really slanted, crusading opinion pieces. (I think we managed both.)

I didn't feel I was at a huge disadvantage being at a small paper. As a community newspaper editor, you have the same tools as your daily-paper competitor: a desk, a phone, and a computer. The dailies can get to the big story first; the community newspaper has to consider medium- and small-sized stories, while finding angles on the others that the daily newspaper writers didn't.

My first year at the Press (1989) coincided with a Seattle city election and the golden hour of neighborhood political group Vision Seattle. That fall, every one of the five candidates we endorsed lost at the polls, including all three Vision Seattle candidates ("golden hour" is a relative term). We had a great time anyway. For the next six years, the Press functioned as the unofficial voice of Seattle's politically disaffected, elbowing its way into fights over the Seattle Comprehensive Plan, the School District's ambitious construction plans, and that Commons park they didn't build.

Some journalism folks didn't take kindly to a newspaper with a political agenda. I say every newspaper has a political agenda—we were just honest about ours.

Of course, I can't deny that some pretty lousy newspapering has been done under the guise of "neighborhood journalism." My own personal horror story came after I attended a huge citywide hearing on aircraft noise and a (mercifully) unnamed writer from a competing neighborhood paper sat through the whole thing, yet only quoted the three speakers who lived in his coverage area. What's more, since all three were in agreement, the guy then wrote an editorial backing their stand. Yikes.

But if you want to do good work at a community newspaper, nobody can stop you, and after people see what you're trying to accomplish, most are extremely supportive. At least that's my experience.

Working for a community newspaper is both a boon and a struggle. The good part is that you get to do everything; the bad part is that you have to do everything. (Note to community-newspaper writers: Feel free to steal this line for your next cover letter.) A community-newspaper journalist can get experience covering many types of stories: news, government, features, editorial writing. But the little details of putting out a newspaper and performing mop-up work behind a freelance staff is both tiresome and time-consuming.

A former colleague of mine once said that a neighborhood paper depends on many levels of goodwill. For starters, you need owners more interested in creating a quality newspaper than making a profit. Then, add freelance writers who are willing to produce for a pittance, sources who will give you the same respect they accord writers from larger publications, and community members who will pick up the paper and read it. Just as important are community businesses that continue running advertisements even when they don't necessarily see immediate results. Fortunately, we had all these things at the Press.

For the accompanying story, I chose to interview only people whose work I know and admire, so my list of disclosures is longer than usual. Here goes:

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I worked seven years for Terry Denton and Liz White, as editor of the Lake Union Review (1989 to 1994), North Seattle Press (1989-90), and the merged version of the two papers, The Seattle Press (1995-96).

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Trudy Weckworth and Stan Stapp were faithful columnists during my entire tenure at the Press.

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Clayton Park was my predecessor as editor of both the Press and Review. I was best man at Clayton and Susan's wedding in 1996.

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I've had lunch with Tom Herriman twice.

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Tim St. Clair wasted valuable time looking through back issues of the West Seattle Herald to help me with an item for my column.

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Jack Arends and I were once spotting pounding beers at the 13 Coins lounge after a Society of Professional Journalists forum.

Whew. I feel better already.

 
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