Seattle journalist launches Olympia Newswire to cover legislature

by Rosette Royale, Real Change News

Maybe if he hadn’t witnessed the impact of the ever-increasing cost of secondary education with his own eyes, Trevor Griffey might not have set his sights on Olympia.

As a doctoral candidate in the history program at the University of Washington, Griffey, 34, had watched as tuition jumped 30 percent in just two years. In classes where he served as either an instructor or teacher’s assistant, he interacted with increasing numbers of undergraduates who lived at home to save money, or others who worked full-time while carrying a full course load.

All of which led him to wonder: Did people know state residents were struggling economically in — or even being shut out of — a university system set up to serve them?

Which isn’t to say, as a teacher, Griffey remained immune to the financial verity of the academy. While working on his doctoral thesis, Griffey had been searching for positions at institutions nationwide. But casting out a line for a job proved depressing. With some postings garnering more than 300 applicants, his resume received nary a bite.

Again, his mind centered on the intersection of higher education and the economy. From his position, he possessed a view others didn’t. But what if that could change? What if people were to become more educated about education and how decisions are made that impact a state university system? What if people could see the connection between what happens in the state Capitol and in Hansee Hall or on Red Square? Maybe, he thought, a non-profit news collective, with reporters steeped in legislative politics, might fill that role. “But as I looked more into it and thought about it,” says Griffey, “I wasn’t sure.”

In need of advice, he sought out friend and former colleague Margie Slovan, erstwhile editor of the Seattle Star, a free weekly that last rolled off the presses in the summer of 2005.

“So I called her up and said, ‘Margie, I have a crazy idea I need you to talk me out of.’” But instead of talking him out of it, she talked him deeper into it, much deeper.

Slovan remembers that late November phone message. Having written about transportation issues for the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce for a time after the Seattle Star folded, she’d seen the number of journalists covering the state capitol head into steep decline. When she heard Griffey’s idea about sending more reporters to Olympia, she got on the phone. “I called him back and said, ‘I’m not going to talk you out of it,’” Slovan recalls.

And as Griffey floated the idea to more people, the response that came back was undeniable: People thought it was a good idea, one worthy of pursuit.

On Mon., Jan. 11, that idea becomes reality, when members of Olympia Newswire head to the Capitol to cover the first day of the State’s legislative session. Posting on the site, Newswire will serve as an independent, non-profit news collective relying on the reporting of three journalists, to, as Griffey says, “do more niche reporting” on state government. Slovan will handle the education beat; former Seattle Weekly editor and current part-time Seattle Channel communication director George Howland will cover the economy and taxation; a third reporter, to tackle human services, still remains to be finalized. (Both Griffey and Slovan have reported for Real Change; at press time, Real Change agreed to fulfill the role of Olympia Newswire’s human-service correspondent.)

And while sending three more reporters to cover state politics may not appear substantial, it signifies an attempt to solve a larger problem: the steady erosion of the Olympia press corps.

In an email proposal Griffey sent out to gauge interest in the project, he notes that in 1993, 34 professional (paid) journalists covered the state’s legislative session. By 2007, the number had been halved, to 17. This year, no more than eight paid journalists are slated to report on this session, and only half of those, says Griffey, have more than a year’s experience in the capitol. Olympia Newswire’s reporters would bring the total to 11.

By contrast, 145 legislators currently serve the state. But even that number pales to the number of lobbyists registered in Washington this year: 804, according to a representative at the state Public Disclosure Commission.

All of this complicates another reality: The State finds itself confronting a $2.6 billion budget deficit. Where will the money come from? Cuts to higher education? Human services? And when those cuts are proposed, how will people find out?

The lack of reporters concerns Slovan. “Who’s going to let us know what the government decides?” she says.

One of the reporters who left was David Ammons. After covering Olympia for the Associated Press for 25 years, Ammons took a job as communications director for the Secretary of State in 2008. And even though he accepted the new position because it represented a life change, he says witnessing the dwindling size of the Olympia press corps has been demoralizing. And troubling. “The fewer people there are,” he says, “the fewer eyes and ears there are.”

What a larger press corps provided, Ammons suggests, was “brain power,” the ability to specialize and reporters who were skilled in certain arenas. Fewer people means less original reporting, he says, adding, “You basically have to write the story of the day.”

Changing that, he says, and providing accurate information to readers in this economic climate may depend upon finding a different type of journalism. “They haven’t quite figured out quite what the new model is,” says Ammons.

Griffey feels the same. He hopes the non-profit, independent model embodied by Olympia Newsire can provide a template others might follow.

But hoping and achieving are two different things. With the start of the legislative session days away, Griffey still needs to raise money. He set a minimum goal of $10,000, to get the site up and running and to have funds to pay three reporters. As of Jan. 5, he had $9,500 in pledges. But, he says, “the more we get, the better able we are to cover [Olympia] exhaustively,” and to seed the project’s future. As the publishing force behind the collective, he won’t pay himself.

Covering the issues the legislature will take up this year is important, he says, because he senses people want to make the connection between the statehouse and their everyday lives, whether they’re UW students or not. “I feel there’s so much interest in following these issues: basic health care, senior services, economy and taxes, education,” he says.

As the stakes are the greatest for those whose voices aren’t generally heard in Olympia, he wants Olympia Newswire to provide a crucial resource: more opportunities for journalists to keep tabs on legislators. “Even if you’re cynical,” he says, “you want people to be held accountable.”

article originally published at Real Change News.


The cost of a higher education is getting ridiculous. My sons will be paying for school loans for most of their lives. That's night right. I do hope this journalist can pull off his plan. Something has to be done or this will become a venture only for the online

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey