Experiential learning project #1 (Supervisor: Andrea Otanez)
Summary & expectations: I will engage deeply with the legislature in an effort to teach myself how to develop a writing beat in an entirely new environment. I've realized my focus will be on homelessness issues and bills in the legislature, while I also have other reporting assignments from The Seattle Times. I will keep my advisor, Andrea Otanez, informed with my progress weekly. I will hone my writing skills and gather a list of resources (people and informational) in an effort to better the beat I pursue. I'll produce at least one enterprise article on homelessness, or a five-page paper about the experience and what I learned from it by the end of the internship. I'll also receive relevant readings from professor Otanez.
Honors values: This is research project falls under the category of my major (journalism), and will be overseen by an advisor in (a faculty member of) that department. The way with which I approach my research and work however is my own undertaking. This is a part of an "independent research study" that I am enrolled in this quarter (COM 499). I've decided to take a social sciences approach through journalism for this research study. I will use my journalism skills and tools (interviewing, writing, researching, records-pulling) to truly understand how and why these homelessness bills are getting attention during a supplemental session and why they either fail or succeed. I will explain this through my published articles.
Hope & explanation: The first day on the job, I noticed a handful of legislatures dropping comments about homelessness (monetarily, in numbers, by beds, specifically with homeless youth/students). Everybody else was talking and asking about McCleary, while I ended up asking one question about homelessness and what exactly the plan was. That question made House Speaker Frank Chopp, who doesn't talk to the media apparently, pull me aside afterward and say we needed to schedule a meeting. Homelessness is a problem around Washington state, not just Seattle. I want to understand how things higher up affect that. And I want to understand why a lot of those attempts end up being just that, attempts. Things that never get through. Skills to gain: research/data gathering, interviews, source-finding.
Coursework connection: This job is essentially an extension of so many things I have learned, from my minor in Law, Societies & Justice to my major in journalism. I have to not only learn the way of the ropes for weird rules and rituals within the legislature, committees, public hearings and press briefs, but I have to apply everything I've been learning to real life situations (not that the journalism program doesn't do that, but this is much more intense, and unfamiliar). In a broader sense, this will really speak to either affirming or dispelling my notion that I want to become a political beat reporter. Since I've been doing that at the UW for a year now and really enjoying it, I've been thinking it's where my post-grad career is headed. But we'll see.
Contribution to organization's goals: I know that The Seattle Times is a pretty ethically-centered newsroom — sitting in on their news meetings still fascinates me with all of the back-and-forth debating and questioning. I know shining a light on homelessness in the legislature, specifically, is something that hasn't been done. The idea, when I posed it to my editor, was accepted excitedly. For the organization, it means more awareness, more impact, and more information. It's a tribute to the ways in which inanimate policy and government touches the lives of real people. And who knows, it might put more pressure or impact on the legislatures to pass one of these bills during a supplemental budget session, of all sessions.
Working at The Seattle Times as a legislative reporter was both nothing like what I expected and also more than I could've imagined. I had expected to be running around like a chicken with my head cut off, turning around stories on a daily basis. I expected constant requests and communication. I expected to cover homelessness much more than I did. None of these expectations were fulfilled. Instead, I was turning in stories typically every three days, lacking a lot of communications, and ending up with only two homelessness pieces.
None of these differences were a fault to anyone or anything. The Seattle Times demands depth in all of their stories, and they demand accuracy along with more statistical information and context. Each of those aspects require more intense reporting and researching, which is why most of the stories I ended up writing weren't single day turn-arounds.
The lack of communication was in part due to two things: being stationed in a completely separate place than my editor, and the way The Seattle Times editors and employees, like most newsrooms, are stretched thin. There would be times when I hadn't talked to my editor for a whole week, and had only gotten a few responses to emails. It wasn't exactly her choice for it to be that way, just that she was working on so many things and being pulled in so many directions that, essentially, all the reporters are fighting against each others' stories to make it in.
I only ended up with two-in part, three-stories on homelessness because, by chance, homelessness matters became a daily breaking news piece back in Seattle. There was The Jungle shooting, the encampment sweeps, Ed Murray's constant updates on his declared homelessness crisis. By chance, the same exact time I chose a specific topic to report on, homelessness, was the same exact period of time that it became constant news picked up by and redirected to other reporters.
Before I began working at the Capitol, I had said that I wanted to understand how people so far up the chain can affect homelessness, why it was getting so much attention during a supplemental budget session, and why bills that try to address the issue end up dying.
Sometimes, it's hard to see the connection between a seemingly abstract, large entity and the way things are on the ground. Sometimes it feels like whatever is said and done by officials doesn't make a difference when push comes to shove. But, in reality, there are direct connections and direct impacts resulting from decisions made at the legislative level. It's just harder to see because the results manifest over time, often slowly. The numbers are there, and entire programs have been and are being created at the hands of legislators. Sometimes, too, those programs are cut, to make way for other ones. The sad reality of it is everything needs money. One program can take thousands, even millions of dollars.
Being in a supplemental session means that it's the part of the biennium that makes up for unexpected expenses. It's often addressed as the budget for emergencies. Usually, 'emergencies' don't exactly include social welfare but rather things like natural disasters (in this year's case, wildfires), and addressing things that are required, usually do to underfunding (like the McCleary decision, and the Department of Social and Health Services underfunding for mental health).
So, for all intensive purposes, homelessness getting so much attention and being a frequently visited legislative topic seemed a bit odd. But-similar to how things happened by chance to make me not report on homelessness as much as I wanted-those same exact events brought the issue to light for legislatures just because it was happening during a time of bill-passing. Homelessness was even declared a "state of emergency" by Seattle, King County, and Bellingham.
As far as the bills that tried to address the issue-because none of them could possibly resolve it completely — most of them died. The Legislature is slowly drifting to give advantage to Republicans, which means the Democratic majority lead is slowly losing its numbers in the House. The Senate is already GOP-controlled. Republicans are the ones known to spend the least money possible and be far less willing to spend money on social issues than the Democrats. Usually if and when homelessness bills die, it happens on the Senate side where Republicans have control-regardless of if it was a senate-originated bill or not. In part, this session, the fates of what died and what didn't were directed by the fact that it's an election year.
During a supplemental session, things are also more restricted monetarily. So if any bill, not just homeless ones, had too large of a price tag on it, it would likely die. The bill would have a better chance during a longer session.
All of these (the ways to navigate the Legislature, legislators, and figuring out which place to go for statistical information) are things I will continue using throughout my journalism career. There's no doubt in my mind about that. But that being said, I realized this very narrow path isn't the route I would like to take with my career. I definitely still want whatever route I take for reporting to involve law and the places where law touches society, but I don't want it to be restricted by the cycle bills have to go through before they even become official. I don't want it to be restricted by a bubble where the people talking into your ear have an agenda nine times out of 10 because they're lobbyists, legislators, or advocates. Hardly any of these people are normal citizens seeing the aftermath of decisions made behind the Capitol's doors. The only place where I could find that as a reporter were with testimony at public hearings, but even then it's frequently not filled with your average person. I much prefer my pieces to involve people who are more like those in my readership.
Every reporter has a unique perspective, however, and in that sense no one reporter is completely objective. Knowing what I hold dear and consider to be important, the topics I chose to chase while at the Legislature were ones that aligned with those notions. Some of the more important topics, in my head, that I ended up covering and publishing articles on were homelessness, and sexual assault. I hadn't quite deliberately reflected on this until my coworker Joe O'Sullivan had said to me during my last week of work, "If someone else was sitting there [at my desk], we probably wouldn't have covered those topics." He was specifically talking about homelessness and the sexual assault protection orders, especially the latter because my coverage notified someone to tip us off that the NRA was likely trying to block that piece of legislation. The tip resulted in Joe, Jim Brunner, and I working together to create a second piece.
It should also be noted that The Seattle Times was the first news organization where I experienced first-hand the development of a story through teamwork. At first teamwork felt bothersome to me because I was handing my work over to other reporters only to not get credit at all or to get contributing credit at the bottom of the online page. But then, after the second time, I realized that what was produced was a product I couldn't have remotely put together on my own (and no single writer who contributed could have either). I realized it's more important to have a well-put together story for readers than it is to have a byline.