July 16, 2009 in Washington Voices

Changing career after 19 years

Richard Roesler
 

OLYMPIA – This is my last column.

I’ve never liked all-about-me columns. So what follows feels unseemly for someone raised to stay out of the story. I’m going to say it anyway.

Journalism’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. As a young boy, I typed up little newspapers on my dad’s old Smith-Corona portable, selling them to my parents and grandparents for a nickel. As a pre-teen, I delivered morning and afternoon papers.

After college, I set off in my Datsun with my journalism degree and headed for the great Northwest. I was convinced that the region’s big newspapers would greet a prize like me with open arms. I quickly learned a needed lesson in humility.

That was followed by a long series of odd jobs. I worked in an all-night film lab in Seattle, made windows in a factory in Kirkland, and worked on a processor ship in the Bering Sea. I lived for a while in a roach-infested apartment in Portland, where I worked for a few months as a telemarketer, the worst job I’ve ever had.

I eventually landed a $12,000 a year job at the Hermiston Herald – long may it publish – a small weekly in parched Eastern Oregon. I cut my teeth like most young reporters at the time, covering highway wrecks and city council meetings. I spent Friday nights shivering on the sidelines of small-town football games, clutching a battered Pentax camera and praying for the ball to come within range of my “potato masher” flash.

Then on to jobs in Yakima and The Spokesman-Review’s bureaus in Coeur d’Alene and Pullman. I lucked into the great job of “roving reporter,” covering whatever seemed interesting across five North Idaho counties. There was the Harrison City Council race decided by a coin toss. There were Nordman’s death-or-glory “Downhill Boat Association” races on an icy winter hillside. And there was one November at Thompson Lake, when its islands – which turned out to be floating – broke loose and began moving around the lake.

When the landmark Bunker Hill smokestacks were due to be blasted down, I chanced upon the electrician whose job had included climbing, hand over hand, 715 feet up to change the flashing lights at the top. Favorite detail: He’d sometimes tote along a watermelon, just for the joy of lobbing the fruit into the abyss.

From there, I went overseas for several years, working for Stars & Stripes. My first office was a freezing quonset hut in Taegu, South Korea. After a couple of years, I moved to Japan to become the paper’s Tokyo bureau chief.

In late 2000, I returned to the Spokesman, taking the job in Olympia and trying to translate the political theater of the statehouse into something understandable and relevant here. You’re the best judge of whether I succeeded.

I’ve written thousands of stories over the years. I’ve pored over thousands of pages of documents about notorious killers and rapists, profiled political leaders, and, in my travel-filled days at Stars & Stripes, filed stories from at least a dozen countries.

Strangely, one of the articles closest to my heart is one that was totally devoid of news.

It was about a 10-year-old boy in Coeur d’Alene who was fascinated with flying. He was trying to build an airplane in his back yard. And he was convinced – utterly – that it would fly.

“The cockpit is a sink, the wheels salvaged from lawn mowers, and the runway a 20-foot swath of backyard under a wide-open summer sky,” the story began. It talked about his fifth-grade schoolmates mocking him, and the boy’s determination.

“Undaunted, he’s hammered a propeller out of a copper pipe, flattening the metal at offset angles,” the story read. “He’s used a jigsaw to cut aileron flaps in the board that serves as a wing. He’s scavenged parts: an old gyroscope, gauges, a piece of metal to serve as vertical stabilizer.

“Wood came from a nearby construction site; a pup tent serves as temporary control tower. He’s saving his allowance to buy another old lawn mower engine, and hopes people will donate parts.

“There’s going to be an air pump right here, because this is not an electric gyro, it’s an air gyro,’” he explained, pointing to the cockpit. “Here we have the altimeter. You set it for like two thousand, niner hundred and eight – that’s how you say it.”

I’m not sure why I still like that story so much, except that I tried to capture the hope and dreams of a young boy at an age when dreams still feel real enough to touch. On its best days – and others have said this before and better – a newspaper is a mirror of its community.

I fear for that role as I watch my chosen industry scrabbling for a toehold. There are blogs, sure, and Facebook, and Twitter. I write on all of them. But I’m not convinced that those forms of new media, overwhelmingly done by people in their spare time, are up to the pick-and-shovel work of daily chronicling our shared history. I hope I’m wrong.

Regardless, I’m out. After 19 years in the business, I’m leaving it to go to work for the state insurance commissioner’s office.

The reasons are the same ones that have cut the Olympia press corps in half in less than 18 months. We and our families have sweated through round after round of layoffs, a pay cut, and a furlough, while watching health insurance costs bleed dry whatever raises we once got. I ended up working two jobs, doing Web site stuff on nights and weekends. In the end, I chose to leave for a job that seemed like a good fit and a new opportunity. Friday is my last day as a reporter.

The paper’s management is still figuring out what to do, but all indications are that they’ll replace me. That’s good news indeed. Eastern Washington readers in particular need someone keeping an eye on the puzzle palace that Olympia can be.

For the past week, I’ve repeatedly tried to draft this farewell column in my head. But now, typing just before midnight in the creaky old house that serves as our Olympia office, I’m at a loss for how to end it. (I can still hear my first editor, a retired master sergeant, bellowing on deadline “Just put a period on it, for Chrissakes!”)

So that’s what I’ll do.

It’s been an honor. Thank you for reading.


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