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‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’

Post by Joe Turner on Oct. 1, 2009 at 7:23 am |
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

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