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‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’

Post by Joe Turner on Oct. 1, 2009 at 7:23 am with 19 Comments »
October 1, 2009 7:23 am

I borrowed the title of August Wilson’s play for my blog post headline because it says it all.

After 32 years as a reporter, nearly all of them for my hometown newspaper, I will be retiring Nov. 1.

I gave serious thought to taking a buy-out that was offered by McClatchy at the beginning of this year. But some of my colleagues in the Olympia Press Corps prevailed on me to stay for at least one more legislative session. I’m glad I did. It was an interesting and hectic session as the Legislature dealt with a $9 billion budget shortfall.

But now it’s time for me to leave. It’s pretty simple: The aggravations of the job outweigh the rewards. And those rewards were substantial. I have been the statehouse reporter for The Tacoma News Tribune — It will always be the TNT for me — for most of the past 20 years, a goal that I set for myself in college in the early 1970s.

I regret my departure will further erode the statehouse press corps. Part of me wants to stay and be one of the “300 Spartans” who still are watchdogs on state government. But not at half rations, figuratively speaking.

I leave you in good hands – sorta.

Don’t get me wrong. The remaining members of the Olympia press corps are top notch: Rachel La Corte and Curt Woodward of The Associated Press, Austin Jenkins of Northwest Public Radio, Brad Shannon of The Olympian, Andrew Garber of the Seattle Times and Jerry Cornfield of the (Everett) Herald are very, very good reporters. I admire each of them tremendously.

But there are too few of them. And newspapers are not going to replace all of the reporters who have left, even after the economy improves.

The erosion of the statehouse press corps puts an additional burden on another group of people to keep the public adequately informed. They are the nonpartisan staff on whom I have relied so heavily for the past 20 years.

Most readers know nothing of these people. They are lawyers, mostly. They are smart, all of them. They are the committee staffers, the ones who actually research and write the bills and laws that are sponsored by elected representatives and senators. And because they work for two sets of masters (Democrats and Republicans), they must walk the straight and narrow. I trust them.

I learned their value early on, in 1990 when I began covering transportation issues (a 5-cent gas tax increase) at the state level. The late-Rep. Ruth Fisher of Tacoma was chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee and she instructed her committee staff to give me whatever I needed.

“If he’s going to be writing about transportation, make sure he understands what he’s writing about,” Fisher said, in that gruff, abrupt manner that was her trademark.

It is in the hands of those kinds of people that I leave you. Without the combination of reporters and non-partisan staff, our citizens would be in real trouble. You see, we reporters know so little of what actually is going on in government. It’s true.

A former newspaper colleague, after he had worked in state government for several years, once told me, “You don’t know even 10 percent of what goes on behind the scenes.”

I believe him.

And that’s what distresses me.

Government is sneaky. It just is. It doesn’t matter who is governor, which party controls the Legislature or who is at the helm of a specific agency. From time to time, government leaders are just plain sneaky. They have their reasons. Most of the time they are benign. Often, they just want to advance their particular agenda or program under the radar so they can build momentum before the opposition is alerted and can mobilize to stop them.

It’s that simple. That’s why the state budget is always passed in a hurry and why it is kept under wraps as long as possible. And why so few legislators actually read it before the vote to pass it into law.

These are not evil people. They’re just public servants who sometimes can be self-serving.

That’s why the press is supposed to be a watchdog. We’re supposed to find out what they’re doing and alert everyone.

I hope the 10 percent that we reporters do find out about is the most important 10 percent of what government is doing to and for us. But I’m also sure we miss a lot. I fear that those state workers in whom I have so much faith won’t be able to find a reporter when they need to alert someone to what is going on. And if they need find a reporter, he or she won’t have the time to closely examine what needs scrutiny. Reporters will continue to be stretched too thin.

Blogs won’t replace newspapers. They are like newspapers before the Civil War, where each of them espoused a particular viewpoint and finding neutral reporting was difficult if not impossible.

And yet, I am leaving.

One of my former bosses said to me, “Joe, you’re the most cheerful malcontent I’ve ever met.”

I loved that description. But that was 20 years ago, and I have since lost much of my cheer. I’m going to look for it.

I will be The News Tribune’s “reader representative” for the week of Oct. 12-16, and I’ve always enjoyed taking my turn taking calls from subscribers. It puts me in touch with our “regular” (aka non-political, non-governmental) readers. Give me a holler if you get a chance.

After Nov. 1, I can be reached at joeturner@harbornet.com.

Joseph Turner: 360-786-1826

Leave a comment Comments → 19
  1. GeoffSimpson47 says:

    I will miss you Joe. You always had a nose for the “stench of corruption”

  2. This is a cliched phrase, but thank you for decades of service to the community. No one does newspapering to get rich, and in fact they rule it out by that profession.

    Your cautionary comments are well stated. Investigative reporting takes a lot of things: skills, knowledge, practice, lawyers, sometimes a full team. As an ex-editor and now politico, I don’t know how many story ideas about government I’ve thought of where I think “Oh, I could tell an investigative reporter that … oh … if there were any.” Truly, the prospects for informed democracy are scary when you think of it. It’s so ironic that knowledge has never been easier to share thanks to all this technology – and the breadth of knowledge is going to be phenomenal – but depth of knowledge is threatened.

  3. ldozy1234 says:

    “And if they need find a reporter, he or she won’t have the time to closely examine what needs scrutiny. Reporters will continue to be stretched too thin.”

    You said it best.
    Sadly this seems to be the future of news. Too little investigation, limitations from the editors/ owners and too great a reliance on AP feeds ( often with bias) It’s now reporting towards the sheeple agenda……………

    The age of real reporting has come to an inglorious end.
    Funny though- it would seem that to make money in this industry, investigative hot stories kept to the hard copy format would sell more papers, instead, editors have chosen the ostrich position/ party line on real reporting and so we such a decline in revenue and its demise.
    Sad to see you leave but at least you’ll have your journalistic integrity intact.
    Good Luck

  4. Joe — Whether citizen or public servant, we are all so much better off because of the many years you put toward learning and writing about our state government. Thank you. And, thank you to your colleagues for doing the same. I hope your retirement affords you the time and perspective you need so that you can quickly regain the good cheer you’ve lost. All the best wishes. You will be greatly missed.

  5. derekyoung says:

    Thank you for all you’ve done, written, and even the stuff you’ve researched that didn’t turn into a story. It made a difference.

  6. Joe
    Your former boss was right, I’ve never seen a more cantankeous soul with such a joy for life and real compassion for others. It’s been a pleasure observing you ply your craft. While more “influential” (and I use the word incorrectly) steps have echoed throughout the marble halls, none have been more dogged, few have been as impartial or as mindful of their purpose. You’ve honored your profession and, despite your views of “government” — or maybe because of those views, honored the institutions and the process you’ve honestly attempted to report on and about — a true news hound in the best sense of the word. I’d say you’ll be missed but you’d be the first to know that the Olympia beat moves on, in whatever form. Know that some of us will remember a time where real giants sat in the chambers and one of those was behind the table in the corner. All the best.

    … and … unlike you, Joe, I’ll refrain from pointing out the irony contained in some comments.

  7. Joe, thank you for your service to our community and also as a leading reporter for the entire state. You have brought to light many things that government leaders wished to keep quite and brought the truth so many times. You have stood to bring greater accountability and openness to our State Legislature and with integrity toward yourself. With many of our states longtime reporters on state government issues retiring or moving on, we will miss your dedication to the people and our right to know. Hopefully, we will have others that will have gained from your leadership in reporting and step forward to accomplish a portion of what you have in your career.

    Have fun and everyone will miss you!

    Keven Rojecki

  8. iamchris says:

    Sad to see you leaving news, but thank you for all your years of devoted service and coverage. One always had the sense that you did your best to truly understand the people you were writing about and to describe them and their efforts honestly.
    I doubt the TNT will find anyone who can fill your shoes, but I sure hope they try!

  9. InchoateH2O says:

    Joe, I am really sorry to see you go. I have to admit, my reasons are largely selfish. Between the official websites, TVW, the TNT and your blog, I managed to keep my trips to Oly down to a minimum last session while trying to stay well enough informed to do my volunteer job for AAUW. I saw you in action down there long enough to know I could trust your assessment of the situation.

    I can’t really complain about your decision to retire, though. After all, I did just that a few years ago and found it good. I hope you can enjoy life a bit more. I suspect the newspaper business has been pretty depressing this last year.

    It seems like most of the reporters I knew when I was down there are now either gone or working for agencies. I agree that it looks like the ones that are left are spread mighty thin. That is a real loss.

  10. olympiareader says:


  11. jimkingjr says:

    The eyes are crying…

  12. hgeorge says:


    You were a pain in the butt to manage, and yet I would not have traded you for four reporters and a mule.

    Seriously, you are one of the best reporters I’ve ever known. You spot the nuances and you have an enviable way of cutting through the BS and finding what’s really going on. How many people besides you read the state budget from cover to cover?

    This East Coast transplant always appreciated your affection for your hometown and your determination to serve as the public’s watchdog in Olympia. Plus, you made me look good at news meetings. :-)

    As much as I hate to see you go, I wish you nothing but good cheer in your retirement. And I know where you’ll find that cheer. It’s in your garden. Next to the corn.


  13. Jericho says:

    Why would more and more people be unwilling to read news from the Capitol? Is it because they know what the news will be? Echo, echo, echo, chamber chamber chamber. The press corps in Olympia as most other state capitols and in D.C. is just a mouthpiece for more statism. Likewise those who cover local government. That media owners no longer fund reporters shouldn’t surprise anyone. Oh, and please someone point out to me the dozens of times over the years that Mr. Turner reported on corruption on both sides of the isle. Yawn. The drumbeat from Turner and all the rest has been that the people need and demand more government. I won’t shed a tear. Government in Washington State and the other 49 are finished. The Union is too corrupt for men to sustain it. Only God can help us now.

  14. jimkingjr says:

    Jericho doesn’t have a clue, and hasn’t read much of what Joe has written.

  15. Thanks for your good work and a great final post. Nice to see some sincerely nice comments here too — I’ll try not to get used to that!

  16. larryseaquist says:

    You are the very model of a great political reporter. Politics and the state are much the better for your work. We are going to miss you hugely.

  17. dennyknowles says:

    Sorry to see you go Joe, you were one of the best and legitimized the TNT especialy when it came to politics.

  18. jtwilcox says:

    Joe- Greetings from the chicken ranch! I’m sorry to see you go. I was looking forward to another year of creative titles.-JT

  19. Joe, I’m stunned, and saddened!! I recently told a Judge of the King County Drug Court I hoped he lived forever and never retired. Ditto. A law should be passed outlawing your retirement. You’ve been the best of the best – and one helluva curmudgeonly, wry, incisive, witty, snide, super intelligent, intuitive blue jeans wearing pleasure to know. The thought of you not being “there” to watch over the likes of your governor is scary, truly scary. Very best personal regards, Ari Kohn, Seattle, WA 98145-0038

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