In July of 2000, on my first-ever drive to Aberdeen for an interview at The Daily World, I experienced what many newbies to the Harbor remember all to well.
The sight of those massive cooling towers on Fuller Hill darn near made me drive off the road.
The former nuclear site is hard to miss on a cloudless summer day from Highway 12, but for me the towers quickly became much more than a stunning visual. Within my first two years at The Daily World, I became intimate with the details of the newly minted Satsop Business Park growing beneath the towers, and the growing pains it was experiencing.
By early 2002, the State Auditor’s Office was gearing up to release a scathing audit of the Public Development Authority that ran the park, uncovering that, in its infancy, it violated public bid laws, extended public credit to a private company, improperly entered into a business partnership with another company and invested public money in out-of-state banks.
Barely a year into her tenure as the head of the PDA, Tami Garrow was sitting in front of reporters and editors walking a fine line between defending the PDA’s value and viability while taking responsibility for the transgressions that had been overseen by her predecessor.
The upshot is that, in my estimation, she did a fantastic high-wire act. She took responsibility, but thoughtfully explained what happened. She didn’t try to wriggle off the hook with hollow excuses, nor did she try simply to pass the blame on to her former boss — even though it would have been understandable and all-too-easy for her to do.
“Excuses are like rear-ends,” Garrow famously told a Daily World reporter during the height of the scandal. “Everybody’s got one …”
It was big, big news on the Harbor. The PDA audit story was the first real time I felt the strong pangs of competitive juices flowing for my new paper. We were competing against the Olympian, the News Tribune in Tacoma and the then-independently owned Vidette in Montesano for the story, and it was intense.
Reporters, especially those on smaller newspapers, are much more concerned about getting “scooped” by other media than they are with pretty much anything else. You feel a lot of ownership of your territory. It’s yours. When someone else treads on it, you take notice — and you don’t like it one bit.
It was one of many really invigorating times to be a journalist on the Harbor. The competition creates its own urgency, regardless of the story itself. The importance of finding out details is replaced by the urgency of finding out the details first. It’s not the fault of the subjects of the story, and sometimes they are really put off by the frenzied sprint reporters find themselves running.
But, the bottom line is: Readers still want their hometown paper to have the story first. Just think how gratifying it is to read a story in the Seattle Times about something on the Harbor, and say to yourself, “I already read about that in The Daily World.”
It’s gratifying for us, too.
Just a little more than a year later, the staff of the World faced another, larger onslaught of regional media when human remains were discovered at the Pacific County home of David and Michelle Knotek. I was never more proud of our staff as I watched us, day after day, have stories and details consistently ahead of everyone else.
One former Daily World reporter who had moved on to a Seattle metro paper actually came into our office after nearly a week of covering the story and mused out loud, “I don’t know why I’m still here. I’m just reading your paper and following leads you guys have already followed.”
He went home the next day.
My favorite story was how we found out that some of the TV reporters had actually resorted to following our reporters around to see what they were working on. Even so, it didn’t always help them. A TV reporter later admitted to former World reporter Paula Horton that he had watched her “walk her dog” at one point, and didn’t think much of it. In reality, Paula was following a lead — taking out a dog from a local shelter who had belonged to one of the alleged victims of the Knoteks. It turned out she was right about the dog, and it became a stellar story — needless to say, the TV reporter felt pretty silly the next day when he read the story in the paper.
Stories like these solidify the character and resolve of a region, but, for a journalist, they also solidify your place in it. You have to ask yourself two questions: Are you invested in telling as many of your community’s stories as you can, bad or good, no matter the cost or the ridicule?
But, more importantly: Do you feel ownership of the community at the same time, so that you can understand the importance of the stories to the community while possessing the compassion it takes to understand their true weight?
Those questions can be harder to answer than you think, but they are essential ones to get right.
But, back to Satsop …
This week is a bit odd for me, because my first experiences with the Satsop PDA were so intense. You see, with little more than a quiet exchange of handshakes, the Grays Harbor Public Development Authority officially asked to be disbanded on Wednesday at the law offices of Ingram, Zelasko &Goodwin in Aberdeen. All that remains is a vote by the County Commissioners, and the PDA will litterally by history.
We’ve reported several times in the last year about the Port of Grays Harbor’s takeover of the business park on Fuller Hill, and the departure of Garrow. Considering the basket of rotten apples she was handed back in 2001 when she took over reins of the PDA, she did a darn good job of cultivating a viable business park in her decade at the helm. It’s had more than its share of growing pains, but everything’s been above board, and the Port is inheriting a decent foundation for growth.
But I’ll always remember that audit more than anything else, though not for the controversial reasons you might think. It really represented the point in my tenure at The Daily World where I started thinking of this as “my paper” and “my community.”
Other stories, such as the Knotek case, would continue to solidify that sentiment. Stirring the competitive juices has been much easier since. But I’ll always see the towers at Satsop as a gateway to the path of a young city editor understanding his job and his place in this community.
It’s a feeling that can’t be undone.
So, goodbye Grays Harbor Public Development Authority, and thank you.
Dan Jackson, The Daily World’s city editor, can be reached at 537-3929, or by email at email@example.com.