Former Tri-City Herald reporter's long path back to journalism

Matt Benoit, Murrow News ServiceApril 27, 2014 

Erik Smith in front of the Capitol.

ERIK SMITH

OLYMPIA -- From the state capitol building to Spokane car lots, Erik Smith's journalism career has taken a winding path.

Smith, 51, who recently joined the editorial board of the Seattle Times, worked for the Tri-City Herald from 1989-97, covering politics and writing an award-winning column on state government that he described as "snarky."

But after working briefly in California and moving to Spokane to start several small businesses, he found himself out of journalism and in a bad financial position.

Smith ended up working as a car salesman in Spokane for four years, but never stopped thinking about writing.

"I was making decent money by selling cars, but journalism was always my first love," he said. "I especially looked back at that time that I spent covering Olympia for the Tri-City Herald, and wanted to do anything in my power to try to recapture that."

After being born in Richland and growing up in Spokane, Smith attended the University of Washington, graduating with a history degree in 1986.

He covered his first legislative session in 1987, working as a reporter for UW's Daily newspaper and as a freelance reporter for the Aberdeen Daily World.

"I really fell in love with the Legislature," he said. "The institution, the ceremony of it all. It was great."

In 1989, Smith covered his first session for the Herald, living in a rented apartment in Olympia before returning to the Tri-Cities for the rest of the year.

He left the Herald in 1997 to take a job in California at the Riverside Press Enterprise, but called his time in the Tri-Cities among his favorite life experiences, especially when it came to getting to know the community through his column.

"I always think of myself as an average, ordinary Joe from Eastern Washington, reflecting traditional Eastern Washington values," he said.

Smith left newspapers briefly to do some freelance writing before moving to Spokane with his wife. They had done well during the housing boom in Los Angeles, Smith said, and sunk the profits into an apartment building and two Curves franchises.

The businesses, and eventually his marriage, failed.

He turned to selling cars for several years, saying it helped him learn a lot about conflict and people.

"I started to recognize that, if I was ever going to get off the car lot and do something that would get me back into ... the (journalism) field where, hopefully, a few people would still remember me, I was going to have to invent that job for myself," he said.

Smith and a few others in Olympia, including former Tri-City legislator Jim Boldt, developed Washington State Wire, a business-oriented news website covering state government.

For five years, Smith wrote as an independent blogger, helping the website grow a following among both legislators and lobbyists.

Smith said he covered issues like unemployment insurance, workers' compensation and pollution regulations.

This month, he joined the Seattle Times' editorial board, writing opinion pieces for the paper's "Opinion Northwest" blog.

Smith said he'll continue following the Legislature, but will do so by phone from Seattle instead of the legislative halls of Olympia.

Although he said he could imagine himself doing many other jobs besides journalism, Smith said he wouldn't do any of them with as much enthusiasm.

"I knew that I had to figure out some way back," he said. "And I did."

-- Tri-City Herald intern Matt Benoit is a Washington State University student: 509-947-9277, mbenoit@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Matt_Benoit

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