Even before I came to the Tri-City Herald for a job interview in April 1976, among the first things that struck me was its devotion to covering its community, a term that has since come to be loosely defined as community journalism.
Even then, it was a challenging task: Cover three cities, an array of school districts, irrigation projects, the still highly secretive Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the three nuclear power projects being built by the Washington Public Power System. Plus the local arms of several federal and state agencies, public ports, fire, public utility and library districts and an array of community organizations.
In the days before I arrived for the interview, I read recent papers and saw every edition included stories about more government agencies than even my hometown of Helena, Mont., — a state capital — possessed. In addition, regular feature stories told of Tri-Citians’ successes, frustrations, failures and challenges facing the booming area’s roughly 70,000 people.
I realized that if I took the job as the city editor of this feisty newspaper run by its crew-cut, bushy-eyebrowed publisher, Glenn C. Lee, life was unlikely to be dull.
And in my 35 years as the Herald’s city editor, assistant managing editor, managing editor and executive editor, it seldom was.
In the first couple years, then Associate Editor Jack Briggs and I had to calm down and usher out the door an agitated man carrying a mace — the medieval weapon that included a spiked ball connected by a chain, not the much more recent, and much less frightening, spray-on stuff. He had planned to use it on a reporter, who luckily wasn’t present.
The story, a routine account of a burglary, had prompted the man’s girlfriend to leave him, he insisted. At least that’s what her note said. We never could make a connection.
But it was a vivid reminder of how our daily reports affected people. The reporters and editors regularly were surprised and sometimes gratified by the results.
One of Jack’s columns on a down-and-out couple who were down to their last dime after moving to the Tri-Cities for a promised job that evaporated had generated several hundred dollars of cash delivered to Jack at the Herald to help them out. The day after the story ran, Jack asked me to come with him on an errand to deliver the wad of money.
“I want a witness to see that I delivered this,” he told me. When I saw it, I understood. Back about 1980, it was a substantial amount. The money was well spent. It kept them afloat while he found a decent job and kept the family fed.
That’s one face of community journalism. But I remember best the stories that made our community a little better — reports that spurred efforts to clean up dairy wastes that once polluted the Yakima River, that put a crimp on the activities of two scofflaw Columbia Basin farmers, that helped encourage efforts to combat domestic violence and to create a drug court.
And a story that may have made a small difference in our community, changed one family’s life for the better. Recently, a new friend told me the Herald had really made a difference in his family by writing a story about his son, a returned veteran struggling with PTSD, with fitting back into the community and with finding a decent job.
Soon afterward, an official with Local 598 of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union contacted the veteran. His dad told me that the union official said something like: “We’ve got a program designed just for you that helps veterans out.”
And that veteran is now well into a several-year apprenticeship and on his way to a future better than he could have imagined. That is the kind of community journalism the Herald also has always been committed to.
And despite the hard days facing newspapers across our nation, I’m proud to say, I still get to read it regularly in the newspaper where I proudly worked for 35 of its 70 years.
Ken Robertson is the retired executive editor of the Tri-City Herald.