by Joel Smith & r & Willamette Week writer Nigel Jaquiss caught the state of Oregon by surprise last year when, after a two-month investigation, he reported that former Portland mayor and state governor Neil Goldschmidt had serially abused an underage girl during his rise to power in the 1970s. The story shook Oregon's political structure to the foundations and netted the soft-spoken, 43-year-old former oil trader a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting earlier this year.
In town to talk about how he landed the story, Jaquiss agreed to sit down with his former intern at Far West Billiards and talk shop.
How did you first connect with Willamette Week after years of oil trading? & r & I was rewriting [my] novel, and I came out [to Portland] for three months to see if we wanted to live there. And I read the Oregonian and I read Willamette Week. I remember very clearly what happened. There was a three-inch story in the Oregonian that said, "Oleg Babichenko died in a car bombing in Vancouver." (Pauses.) Well, that's more than a three-inch story. I was waiting and waiting and waiting for the Oregonian to follow with, OK, there are 10,000 Russians in the metro area, and 62 of them are involved in organized crime, including chop shops, prostitution and stolen credit cards. Tell me. I want the context. Why did this guy die? Willamette Week came out with a cover story, "Why did Oleg Babichenko Die?" which told me everything I wanted to know.
That's the story I want to write. I wrote [WW editor Mark] Zusman a letter, and they had an opening.
You hinted in a recent interview that perhaps only an alt weekly could have done the Goldschmidt story right. & r & I think the great thing about an alt weekly is that you have the ability to tell a story in more than one way. In many cases, you've got several thousand words to tell a story. Ideally, you have more time to work on a story. On most cover stories, I'll do five, six, seven, sometimes 10 drafts of a story. That's a lot. The dailies don't have that luxury. The dailies, you've got to see it today and sell it tomorrow. We have the ability to do better writing and more storytelling.
So rather than a typical daily story, "He said, she said, and we don't know," I think the weekly gets the luxury of doing enough reporting to say, "We've gone out and done the reporting, and here's what we know." I think there's a big difference. Because readers are busy, and they want to put the paper down smarter than when they picked it up.
What about the argument that American papers should forget objectivity and take firm positions in their coverage? & r & I agree with the premise that objectivity is a myth, because human beings are not computers. If ... you have a point of view and [then] do the reporting to support it, I really disagree with that.
I think you report like crazy, and that should get you to a position. And I think you should put that position in the paper. There are perhaps two sides to every story, but that doesn't mean they have equal validity. Too many times in daily journalism, they give equal time to two sides that don't have equal validity. But you can only figure out whose point is [valid] by actually doing the reporting.
I think objectivity too often is a cover for "We didn't do enough reporting to know what's really going on." You gotta go out and, like a third-grader, show [your] work, do the nuts-and-bolts reporting. Then you can have a position.
When Goldschmidt went to the Oregonian to confess, you decided to save your scoop by breaking the story online. Is that where journalism is headed? Into the online universe? & r & I think a third of our budget at Willamette Week goes to buying paper, which people then recycle. It's a really illogical business model. We're buying stuff that people throw away. Most people in the journalism business haven't really come to grips with that yet. It's an enormous threat to a business model, but the business model is failing.
But if you look at what are considered the four best dailies in the country, all four of them are laying people off. I think alt weeklies are struggling less than dailies, but we're all struggling. Because the world's changing and we're not.
Are you sick of talking about Goldschmidt yet? & r & You know, yeah. On the other hand, it's the kind of story that I would offer as a counterpoint to people who are cynical about journalists, who don't think journalism serves a purpose. Real journalism, in my mind, tells people things they didn't know and helps them understand the world better.
What's next? & r & Funny, after almost eight years of working at Willamette Week, I still am excited when I check my voice mail or my e-mail, hoping that next big tip is going to come in. I know I won't recognize it when it comes in ... [Goldschmidt] came out of nowhere; the next big story's gonna come out of nowhere. People will do things that they shouldn't do, and we in the press will find out about it.
Nigel drank an Anderson Valley IPA and Joel had an Oktoberfest Spaten. For the full transcript of this conversation, visit inlander.com.
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