by Joel Smith & r & The reporter of the hour weighs in on car bombings, alt weeklies, and the saving grace of journalism.
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 end up in journalism, after years of oil trading? & r & I was writing this novel and I thought, it won't sell, or if it does sell, I can't make a living. And I'm making a phenomenally good living, and I can't really go from that to laying on the couch, calling myself a novelist. So if I'm not going to make a living as a novelist, I need to be able to make a living. I want to have a trade, a profession. I thought it could help my fiction writing.
And I really haven't written any fiction since I came to Willamette Week. But just the discipline of writing. It took me off the couch. Writing a story that really made a difference was really kind of a eureka moment for me, to tell you the truth. It does matter. I mean, you can write thousands and thousands of words for the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, but if you don't find something that matters, it just doesn't signify anything. If you're a paper as small as The Inlander, you've got to be really selective, like, "What are we going to go after? What sacred cows won't the Spokesman touch?" I get a freebie on a lot of really good stories because there are sacred cows I know the Oregonian's not gonna touch. Or they've committed themselves to a particular position. They've been wrong on this whole PGE thing; they were wrong on Goldschmidt. There are sacred cows that they won't touch. You don't have to have a lot of resources. If you find a story that they don't compete with you on ... that people care about.
But how did you first connect with Willamette Week? & r & I was rewriting the novel, and I came out there for three months to see if we wanted to live there, and I read the Oregonian and I read Willamette Week. There was a reporter who's at the Seattle Times now, Maureen O'Hagan, and she ... I remember very clearly what happened. I was thinking, well, with my Wall Street background and my Columbia degree I could get a job at the Oregonian. It may not be the job I want, but I could get a job there. Maybe work evenings. But do I want to write three-inch stories for five years before I get my big break?
So then there was three-inch story in the Oregonian that said, well, 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, Okay, 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 wanna know. 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: the context of the Russian community, who he was, why he died.
[I thought to myself] "That's what I want to do; that's the story I wanna write." So I didn't apply to the Oregonian; I wrote [WW editor Mark] Zusman a letter, and they had an opening. So I really wanted to write long stories and spend some time on them. And also, I wanted to be able to answer - and also work for people who answer - the questions that the intelligent reader of the daily would ask. Okay, you told me what happened the first day. Tell me, the next day, why it happened. Tell me, two weeks later, what it really means. I mean, that's a service that journalists can provide.
I think dailies just get caught in this rat race ... The more I find out about our industry, I think it's an exceptional place and [Zusman is] an exceptional guy.
Is it weird being the report-ed, rather than the report-er? & r & Here's your challenge, if you write something about me. A lot's been written about me. In almost everything that's been written about me, there's been at least one factual error. It's made me realize - and a lot of good reporters have written about me - it's very hard to get everything right. The LA Times did a profile, which is kind of cool, but like the number of brothers that I have [they got wrong]. Small stuff. But it does make me hyper-conscious.
It's also... There's still an air of unreality to the whole thing, like, did this really happen? But it's also ... So many things had to come together for this to happen. And then it almost didn't. Phil Busse at the [Portland] Mercury challenged the Pulitzer when I was a finalist. He wrote a letter saying everybody already knew about this, the Oregonian broke the story and Willamette Week was complicit in the cover-up. All of which were demonstrably false. Still, when you're an alt weekly in the finals for [an award] in which alt weeklies usually aren't, and somebody from your own business besmirches your reputation...
So there's definitely been an air of unreality about the whole thing. It's also the case, you know... Goldschmidt, the guy was the godfather. He was very, very good at it. Now when people are trying to sort of do that thing that he did, it's really hard to pull all the strings without appearing to be pulling any.
Have you noticed any changes at the newspaper since winning the Pulitzer? That story in Editor & amp; Publisher a couple months ago mentioned that anybody who's ever worked at Willamette Week is now putting that fact way up high on their resumes. & r & It's upped our profile, certainly. But Maureen O'Hagan, who wrote the story about the Russian, she was a Pulitzer finalist last year, in '04, for the Seattle Times. There are a lot of really good reporters who were there before me. The common thread may be Zusman. The paper's always done, I think, really good stories, and maybe now they're recognized a bit more, but I think in Portland they've always been recognized. It's definitely made people a little more interested.
Leah says you're looking for highly qualified reporters - like, former New York Times reporters - to fill the two vacancies in the newsroom now. & r & It's kind of weird. The pay is lousy. The pay is low, and the demands are high. But I think maybe what people recognized that might not have been so clear to them before is that, while both of those things are true, if you work there, it'll really make you better. I'm still there, and I'll be there for a while, but if I were somebody looking to get better, that's the place I'd go. Because it's like boot camp. It's still like boot camp for me. The other day Zusman and I were talking. He's like, "Would you get off your ass and go break some news?" So, you know, the demands don't change.
I remember Zusman's bellow all too well. & r & I think it's really a good thing. The guy's got very, very high standards. Sometimes it pisses me off. A story will be ready to go, an inside news story, edited by [former managing editor] John [Schrag] or [current managing editor] Hank [Stern] and Zusman will say, "Hey, this story's no good." I don't know how the guy - he's, whatever he is, 52. I mean, he basically eats raw meat for breakfast. I don't know how he does it. He's still, you know, he was reediting my Murmurs (news gossip) this week. He's not reediting them because he's a control freak; he's re-editing them to make them better. Some people get into a kind of power struggle. I sort of feel like it's different with me. He's not doing it because he doesn't like me. He's doing it because he wants the reader to get it. I think a lot of people have a hard time with that. A lot of reporters' favorite game is talking about what a shitty editor they have. Which may be true.
Have you gotten any other offers since winning the prize? & r & (Shakes his head no.) And I don't know why that is. My wife and I talked about that after I won, and I said, "It's likely that I'll get some attractive offers." Of course, as it turned out, wildly inaccurate. We've lived in New York and we've lived in Singapore, Boston. We moved to Portland not to be at Willamette Week but because we wanted to live in Portland. Even though I haven't gotten that offer, it would take an incredible offer to get me out of Portland.
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. So, I'm 43 years old and I'm used to holding a paper in my hands every day. I don't think that kids who are 15 or 18 or even 25 are used to holding a paper in their hands every day. I don't think that people are any less hungry for good stories, and I don't think they're really any less hungry for local news. I think they just consume it differently.
You know, most people in the journalism business haven't really come to grips with that yet. Part of which is logical, because it's very hard to generate advertising dollars online in a way that's meaningful. You get an ad from a retailer or an ad from a department store, that's real money. You get a little pop-up ad, there's not much money behind it. It's an enormous threat to a business model, but the business model is failing.
If you ask me why I haven't gotten offers from other papers, one is they may consider the award a fluke. But if you look at what are considered the four best dailies in the country - the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post - all four of them are laying people off. They've all had layoffs. They're all struggling financially. Everybody in the business is struggling today. I think alt weeklies are struggling less than dailies, but we're all struggling. Because the world's changing and we're not.
Do you ever feel constrained by sticking to local news? & r & I was thinking today as I was walking around Spokane, maybe I should go to work for a magazine. Or be a regional guy for a big daily. Because I like getting around. But when the New York Times writes about Portland, they never know as much about Portland as I do. When the Washington Post writes about Portland, they don't know as much about Portland as I do. I struggle with that. I really like to feel confident when I write a story that I know that it's accurate, and I know that I covered the bases. I worry that I wouldn't know that if I covered it (for an outside newspaper).
It's probably just my own lack of ambition. Sometimes I think about that. But again, I'm 43. If I were 25, I might be trying to figure out how to get to Washington (D.C.) or New York. But I'm not interested in going to Washington.
I think, like Tip O'Neil said, "All politics is local." All news is, at some level, local. I think the metro section is more interesting to most people than the front section. I don't know.
Let's go beyond the local for a minute. What are your thoughts on the following three things? The Valerie Plame secret sources scandal? Post-9/11 journalism in general (seeing as how your career has sort of saddled that divide)? And the recently announced merger of New Times and Village Voice Media? & r & I think let's get another beer before I answer that question.
(One trip to the bar and back.)
So, the Plame issue. I had the opportunity to interview Joe Wilson a couple weeks ago. You know, the thing that he said that resonated with me, because we talked bout the various aspects of that case, is that this is all a carefully orchestrated diversion from the underlying issue, which is that the intelligence that we went to war on was suspect, if not completely bogus. So all the Judith Miller, all the issues of freedom of the press, are really a diversion from - not that they're not important, in and of themselves - but the whole Plame-gate thing is the Bush administration's ability to push the public's attention away from the fundamental issue of "Did they have the rationale for going to war?"
You can see how Bush is managing the news. I mean, Libby gets indicted on Friday, so he rushes out to name a new Supreme Court Justice on Monday. He wants to keep the bad news off the front page, which all administrations try to do. I think this one tries more transparently than others.
But is the press doing enough to shape its own coverage? Or is it simply taking the bait? & r & I don't know how to answer that except to say that Bush's approval ratings are really extraordinarily low. Considering what's going on in the country. The economy's really coming back - although we can't really see that individually - but the economy is really strong right now. He won a pretty clear reelection. I think the people do see it. I think that's why his ratings are so low. His spin machine is maybe not as skilled as we've seen in the past.
Is the press covering inadequately? Going back to the weapons of mass destruction story, no, I mean the press got that really wrong. I think the Iraqi coverage has been okay. I think that people covered Halliburton pretty well. But what do I know? I'm a local news guy.
What about the merger? That's gonna give possession of 17 metropolitan alt weeklies, including Seattle Weekly, to one company. & r & I'm lucky to work for a paper where the editor and the publisher are in the news room. And what they're really interested is in news. They have a good culture section, also. But they really are not in the business to make money. In fact, I think they've made money despite themselves. But not because they're bad businessman. Because their real focus is news and public service journalism.
I think I'm skeptical of the value of that merger, because I don't know how the reader gets served by that merger. It looks to me that that merger has been driven by investors who want to get their money out. It's not being driven by a desire to produce a better newspaper, or because there's some economies of scale in the alt weekly business. Because I don't think there really are. So, I don't know what value it provides.
I think the good thing about it is that, unlike a daily newspaper, which is an extraordinarily expensive and dying business, the barriers to entry in the alt weekly business are relatively low. It's still an affordable proposition. If you've got some good journalists and a money guy, you can start an alt weekly. No offense to alt weeklies. It's not like you have to have a massive printing plant and hundreds of employees.
I think if this merger is wrong, if this merger is bad, it will fail of its own. And in the cities that the combined chain serves, you'll see other alt weeklies crop up. Look at Seattle or Portland. Seattle's got two pretty successful alt weeklies. Portland's got one successful and one semi-successful. There's room for competition. I can't say I'm a big fan of it. I don't like chains. I like the ownership to be really focused on making their city better. If you own 17, or however many papers are in your chain, how can you really have that connection to the city that is crucial?
I haven't figured out yet what the oversight model for that is going to be, how much control the owners will exert in the different newsrooms. & r & I think what's going to happen there is, there are several investment banks, investment funds, that have money in that deal, and they want their money [to grow]. What they understand is cutting costs and economies of scale, so they're going to roll 'em up and assume you can share administrative costs and maybe be a more competitive buyer of newsprint, pool insurance costs or whatever.
I don't know. I don't think there's that much money in the business. If I wanted to make money, I wouldn't be in the newspaper business. Newspapers are profitable. It's a great way to make a ton of money - look around the country.
I guess I think that newspapers are not like bar manufacturers, or coffee sellers, or cigarette makers. They've got a higher purpose.
In a recent interview with the Austin Chronicle you hinted that perhaps only an alt weekly could have gotten the Goldschmidt story. What do you think the real strength of the alt weekly is? What can it do that daily papers can't? & 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. You get the cover, you got a big piece of real estate on the cover to give a pictorial entry to the story. Then, in many cases, you've got several thousand words to tell a story. Now you better have a story that merits several thousand words. More real estate, that's one thing.
You have more time, sometimes. Ideally, you have more time to really work on a story. For me, on most cover stories I'll do five, six, seven, sometimes ten drafts of a story. That's a lot. You know, 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 story-telling.
Now, we don't always succeed at that. I think there's that. In the case of the Goldschmidt story ... We're a paper that's owned by people who are really committed to the city of Portland. The Oregonian is owned by people who live in New Jersey, who come to Oregon once a month to count the money. They don't have the same level of commitment to the city. I think you can't overstate enough the importance of local ownership and people who understand that journalism is different than other commercial endeavors.
To answer your question as to what an alt weekly can do ... It's harder and harder; there are fewer and fewer free-standing dailies all the time. I think dailies are locked into a model that may not serve the reader. Because dailies are often the paper of record, and they cover everything, instead of covering selectively, they're covering a lot of things very superficially. With a weekly, you get the luxury of saying "Well, what's important to the city and what's important to the paper" and covering it in greater detail.
So rather than a typical daily story, which, because of time constraints, may be "He said, she said, and we don't know," I think the weekly paper gets the luxury of doing enough reporting to say, "We know. We've gone out and done the reporting, and here's what we know." It's not a "He said, she said, we don't know" model. I think there's a big difference. Because readers are busy, and if they pick up the paper, they want to put the paper down smarter than when they picked it up. And if you don't tell them something and do the reporting to back it up, that's crucial. It can't be your opinion. It has to be what you know, based on solid reporting and documents and facts and off-the-record interviews with knowledgeable sources. That's a service to the reader.
What of the argument many make that the American press should adopt the style of the European press, where they take firm positions in their news coverage? & r & I agree with the premise that objectivity is a myth. Because human beings are not computers. They have points of view, and they approach stories with experience and perhaps, frequently, emotions. If [they're] saying you have a point of view and do the reporting to support it, I really disagree with that. I think you do the reporting and that will generate a point of view. You might start with a tip or start with a theory. You go out and do the reporting, and I think the story should reflect the reporting.
But I think the point that [they're] making about dailies being bland in their pursuit of objectivity is a fair argument. I think objectivity too often is a cover for "We didn't do enough reporting to know what's really going on," or, "We didn't have enough time." So I think the model of the European newspaper - like the Financial Times, or the Economist, which isn't a newspaper - where they do a lot of reporting and they take a very strong position based on reporting, I think that's a good model.
I think that too often you read - I don't wanna pick on dailies - but dailies do this every day, and too often their ledes ... I want to know what the reporter found out and what to make of it. And then I want him to, like when you're in third grade, show me your work. How do you know this? What facts are you basing your story on? What are your sources? I want to see a lot of attribution in the story, and I'll decide if the attribution represents fairness and accuracy.
I think [they're] onto something. 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, or they should be given equal weight. Too many times in daily journalism, probably due to lack of time or due to convention, they give equal time to two sides that don't have equal weight, that don't have equal validity. But you can only figure out whose point is [valid] by actually doing the reporting.
I think that bad alternative weekly journalism is just as bad or even worse than daily journalism, and too often it's based on opinion and not facts. You know, there's no magic to this business. You gotta go out and, like a third grader, show the work, do the nuts-and-bolts reporting. Then you can have a position. Which shouldn't be your opinion. It should be, "These facts show that this development is a bad idea because..." or, "The facts show that this public official has been derelict in his duties because he hasn't been at work for the last 27 days, and I know that because I've checked the records."
Neil Goldschmidt was an Oregon hero. Did you ever feel conflicted bringing down a figure like that? & r & When I was doing the reporting, I was putting together the documents. I was putting together the chronology and life story of the victim. And maybe as a father of young children, or even if I hadn't been the father of young children, just seeing how this woman's life was negatively effected - ruined - by this experience, I guess I wasn't ever really conflicted. There was never a moment, when I said, "Gee, the good outweighs the bad and let's bury the bad." I think you, as a newspaper and a journalist, you owe the public the whole story, not just the part of the story that the source or the public might want to hear. The bad things he did, in my mind, are part of the story - as are the good things he did. But just to give him credit for the good things he did, it would not be honest, it would not be accurate, it would not serve the public interest.
I don't mean to be disrespectful to the guy, but it was not a difficult decision for me. And it wasn't my decision ultimately - it was the editors and the owners of the newspaper. And at the end of the day, the weight of the reporting made it an easy decision for them. They had to report it. They had to do it.
Again, people lump newspapers like Inside Edition and People magazine and US and all the other variations of People magazine, as journalism. I think that is unfair, but understandable. You know, I think ... How many pictures of Brad Pitt does the world really need to see? How many pictures of Angela [sic] Jolie does the world really need to see? That sells, and that makes a ton of money but it also breeds cynicism. That's not journalism.
Real journalism, in my mind, tells people things they didn't know and helps them understand the world better. All that stuff is just crap, and it doesn't help you understand the world better. But it does breed cynicism about what we try to do. I sound like Pollyana here, but what we really try to do is serve the public interest. And all that other nonsense just sort of corrupts people's view of journalism.
Are you sick of telling the Goldschmidt story? & r & Um, you know I'm, uh, yeah, I'm a little bit tired of telling the story. But then I realize maybe it's the only story ... I don't know.
On the other hand, I'm really proud of the story that the paper produced - it was more than just me; it took a lot of people to do that story. I think it's really important. I think it's the kind of story that I would offer as a counterpoint to people who are cynical about journalists, who don't think that journalism serves a purpose.
I'm taking time away from breaking the next story, but I think it's important for people to understand that the press can serve a really useful purpose and that it can bring justice to where there is no justice. And can report the truth without fear or favor, to use that terrible clich & eacute;. I think that's important.
So I think, like a lot of reporters, I'm not really an outgoing person. And I'm not really a self-promoter, but you know, I got really lucky knowledge at the right place at the right time, so I think it would be a mistake not to take advantage of it.
I've got a file full of stories I'd really like to write. What's the story you want most to write? & r & I guess I don't think about it that way. I think I'm looking for stories that will allow me to change things, that will allow me to make the city of Portland a better place. I'm looking for that story that is going to illuminate for the public an injustice, usually, and that will make things better. Or that story that will show them how things could be better.
Funny, after almost eight years of working at Willamette Week, I still am excited when I check my voice mail or my email, hoping that next big tip is going to come in. I know I won't recognize it when it comes in. But inevitably you won't see the big picture. The good thing about human nature is that people are motivated by greed, by desire for power and desire for sex. And those three incredibly important desires or drives or motivations cause a lot of good things to happen. But they also cause a lot of bad things to happen, a lot of mistakes and poor judgment.
They'll always be good stories, they'll always be news. You asked before about the future of our profession. You know, there'll always be news. There'll always be a lot of bad behavior. I'm worried right now when's the next big story coming in. I don't have anything I consider really good on my plate right now, but I know something will come. Not because I'm a good reporter - because human nature is immutable. People will do things that they shouldn't do and we in the press will find out about it.
It's like the end of The Grapes of Wrath. "Wherever there's injustice, I'll be there." & r & Hmm.
What's been your favorite story, other than the Goldschmidt one? & r & The story I'm most proud of, that I've ever written, is a story about Whitaker Middle School, which was a terribly underperforming inner city middle school in Portland. I heard that a lot of teachers were sick, and I heard that there was radon in the school, and there's hardly any radon in Portland. Radon, after cigarettes, is the second largest cause of lung cancer in the country. And it's a school that nobody cared about. It'd been failing for years. Every year it had the worst school scores in the state. It was the school that, you know, all the kids that got kicked out of every other bad middle school ended up there. Very poor, mostly minority kids, a lot of teachers who weren't wanted elsewhere. And I looked at the records. I just asked for all the records relating to environmental inspection and, sure enough, there was a ton or radon there, and the school district knew about it and did nothing to mitigate it, and there are all kinds of ways you can get radon out of a building, and they didn't choose to follow any of them. And there was a huge mold problem inside the walls. You go in the school - it had an atrium, and the roof on the atrium had been leaking for nearly 20 years and they'd never fixed it. So there was just mold everywhere. There were - whatever, 800 kids and 40 teachers, whatever the ratio was - but there were a lot of people in the building, and they were mostly people nobody cared out.
So I wrote a story that said, this building has had serious health hazards that have been proven for years, and nobody's done anything. And maybe it's a coincidence that it has an incredibly high level of absenteeism and incredibly low test scores, or maybe it's not. But what's undeniable is that these people are being asked to go to school and work in an environment that is absolutely hazardous. That school was closed that day and was never reopened.
A big impact on those kids' lives and those teachers' lives. That, in my mind, was a story that was probably more important than the Goldschmidt story in a lot of ways, because it affected more people, and it was a fundamental issue of justice. If this school had been on the affluent side of Portland, or in Spokane, in the affluent neighborhood, the problems would have been fixed or it would have been shut down 20 years ago. Because these were the kids and teachers nobody cared about, it was going to go on forever. That story came out of nowhere; the next big story's gonna come out of nowhere.
For the record, Nigel drank Anderson Valley IPA; Joel drank Spaten Oktoberfest.
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