Jeopardy, guns and chaos


Behind the scenes of Siuslaw News’ biggest series of 2018

Jan. 5, 2019 — When Siuslaw News was putting together its list of the top stories of the year, we grappled with how to incorporate the number of special series included in our coverage in 2018.

Most of them, sans “Chaos in the Community,” weren’t “breaking news” stories and didn’t really fit within the “top stories” format of a traditional Year in Review. But a good deal of those stories were among the most read stories of the year.

We decided to take a different approach and, rather than an overview or wrap-up of those special series stories, we thought it would be interesting to provide a behind-the-scenes look at three of our top series this year, explaining why we covered them as part of a series, how they were written, their effect on us as journalists as well as some of our readers and, most importantly, what we learned from them. We’ll also talk about special series work in general, the series that didn’t get published, and the future of special series coverage at the Siuslaw News.

So, sit back, relax and join us for an inside look at some of the special series coverage of 2018, why and how we wrote them — and the possible impact they each had on our small corner of the Oregon coast.

 

“Is Coastal Living in Jeopardy?” (Nov. 14, 2017 through Jan. 17, 2018)

When 2018 began, we were in the middle of the biggest series we had ever started, “Is Coastal Living in Jeopardy?”

Like most of our series, “Jeopardy” wasn’t meant to be a multi-part article at first. We were speaking to a shop owner who had a customer that worked full time but was forced to sleep in her car due to troubles affording rent.

We knew there were housing problems, having reported on it from time to time through our coverage of the City of Florence, but the full extent of the issue was unclear to us. Our plan was to do a small story on a few folks having troubles.

So, on Halloween afternoon, just as the kids were setting out to trick-or-treat, we spoke with Bob Teter and Dianne Huenergardt of Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS) about what they were seeing — and what they told us was devastating. They painted a portrait of a community within our larger community that included people working 60 hours a week and yet were forced to live in their cars. Some residents hawked donations just to pay off rent, while others panhandled just to pay utility bills. They didn’t say this for shock value; the conversation was measured. Matter-of-fact. And a reality they had become accustomed to.

We went to the city and spoke with Florence Planning Director Wendy FarleyCampbell about what we were hearing. Some of her stories were even more disconcerting.

The city viewed the housing crisis as intrinsically linked to employment and education in the region, and there were no easy fixes. It should also be noted that neither the city nor SOS referred to it as a “crisis,” but an rather an “issue” or sometimes a “crunch.”

It became clear to us that just a few articles wouldn’t be able to cover the scope of the problem, so we got out a whiteboard to plan out the series, assigning sections to different reporters. At first, we were thinking about a six-part series. By the time we published our first article, that jumped to eight. The series finally ended with nine parts and more than 70 pages of text.

Despite our planning, the series was ever-evolving. We made an open call at first, hoping for stories from people who were directly affected. People didn’t want to talk. Many considered their circumstances too shameful to admit.

The style of the series was also of point of debate in our newsroom. If we had started with SOS’s description of the issue, we were concerned it would appear like an intentional horror show aimed at polarizing people and even creating panic — the complete opposite of what we or the organizations we were talking with wanted.

On the other hand, if we didn’t come out strong, we feared the issue could be ignored or not taken seriously. So, we opted to just lay out the truth right from the beginning so readers knew the honest scope of what we were hearing and the community was facing. At the same time, our intention was to always include potential solutions. Our thought was that if the public was aware of the issues, they could become involved in the solutions as well.

“Jeopardy” was controversial from the start. While many people appreciated bringing these issues to light, others blamed those in trouble and, in some cases, suggested that if they couldn’t cut it, they should just move away. Others believed “affordable housing” was just a scam to get more taxes.

Still others chastised the paper for putting the region in a bad light, a particularly strong criticism from realtors fearful that prospective buyers would decide not to move to the region. The concern was valid. We periodically saw Facebook posts from potential buyers who would write, “Are things really that bad? We were thinking of moving there but ...”

The Florence Area Chamber of Commerce was bombarded with concerned calls about the series, and we were accused of endangering the future of the region, just as it was recovering from the Great Recession. Some area officials were livid, calling the reporting editorialized lies. What we didn’t know at the time was Florence was in the running for the television show “Small Business Revolution,” and there was real fear that the series would scare them off.

In actuality, it was the opposite. Television shows like “Revolution” look for towns so down-on-their luck that they need to be saved. In fact, when the show’s producers came to town, we were asked to print out sections of the series for them in an attempt to demonstrate what problems were really occurring.

Despite many of the dire stories contained in the series, there was always a current of optimism. With almost every problem presented, we had some official presenting a solution that was either in process or further down the road. To quote Dan Lofy from the series, “I think the City of Florence really has its s--t together.” In the end, we didn’t need a television show to swoop in and save us — we had this covered.

That was at the beginning of the 2018. As we enter 2019, have things gotten better?

Housing is certainly at the forefront of city officials’ minds when they’re asked about issues facing the region. The City of Florence has made big strides in encouraging affordable homes to be built, including a partnership with NEDCO to build housing along Airport Road. Local churches have worked on creating temporary housing spaces, and the State of Oregon now allows property owners to build and rent out accessory dwelling units next to their homes. Cannery Station, a multi-unit apartment complex expected to be built across from Fred Meyer, is looking to bring affordable housing and jobs to the community within the next 10 years. And many residents have stepped up to bring their own creative solutions to the issue, giving their time and money to charities that they may not otherwise have.

But as far as concrete results, they’re still on the horizon.

Ultimately, it takes time for all of these projects to come to fruition. We still hear stories about difficulties finding well-paying jobs or landing an affordable place to rent. And we probably will hear more of those stories throughout 2019 as well. The city is most definitely in motion — but it takes time to reach momentum. Hundreds are pushing towards that goal. It’s just a matter of sticking together to reach it.

 

“The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms” (March 30 to April 21)

The problems started when students decided to walk out.

It was March when Siuslaw High School students joined a nationwide protest initiated by student activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., which was the scene of a mass shooting the month prior. The walkout at SHS was to protest mass shootings and support gun reform.

Social media reactions to our coverage became heated. Some comments began spreading unfounded accusations, including rumors that the teachers and parents instructed students to walk out and that students were paid to do it. Neither accusation proved true.

There was also a lot of vitriol directed toward the students themselves, with people calling them un-American for protesting, saying they were “too young and stupid to have a political opinion” and “brainwashed by their liberal parents.”

Meanwhile, gun reformers began to throw around some of their own questionable accusations. Just days after the student protest, a group of adult gun reform activists took the streets in support of the March for Our Lives campaign.

Since we had already covered the student protest, we weren’t really looking to write a story on the march. Instead, we had planned to run a photo or two from the event with a small caption. Nothing in depth. But one of our reporters showed up and, while waiting for the march to begin, was approached by a protestor who began sharing his talking points. Soon, more than a dozen people were giving their views.

“Can you find compromise?” the reporter asked. Yes, but only if they ban certain types of guns, was a common response.

“What type of guns?” “Assault weapons?” “What defines an assault weapon exactly?”

Those questions turned a simple photo and caption into a full-fledged article — and the back and forth that followed between the two camps became brutal.

The Siuslaw News was also embroiled in the debate after editor Ned Hickson wrote a few editorials calling for more research into the issue. Some threatened to pull advertising from the paper because we were viewed as “anti-gun,” though many of us didn’t know enough on the subject to truly form a strong opinion. We realized that was a problem.

We had used the term “assault rifle” in the past, but did we really know what one was? What was the real definition of “mass shooting?” Three people? 10 people? The truth is, we didn’t really know. And as we discovered, neither did most journalists — and the reasons for this were extraordinarily complex and fascinating. This led us to once again pull out our whiteboard and list every question and misconception we had about the issue.

It was a long list.

We figured that our readers, whose discussions were devolving into physical and emotional threats, could benefit from what we were seeing and learning, so we used that brainstorming session as a blueprint for what we referred to as the “gun series.”

The five-part series that resulted, “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms,” was new territory for us. Generally, we write about local experiences with local voices, but this project was more analytical in nature — perhaps more fitting for Newsweek than the Siuslaw News.

We only conducted one interview — with Florence Police Commander John Pitcher. The bulk of the writing was culled from a wide variety of national studies that were often contradictory and filled with partisanship. We found very little “facts,” forced instead to put partisan studies side by side in an attempt to come to some sort of universal truth.

It was a fascinating and informative series to write, as our own prejudices about guns, definitions of mass shootings and media coverage were constantly being challenged. We came away with an entirely different viewpoint.

More surprising was the tenor of online comments during the series rollout: Civil. While there was still a fair share of attacks, there was also a little more understanding of the issues from both sides. There was posturing, but also give and take.

We decided to press our luck and hold a town hall discussion on guns. Dunes City Mayor Robert Forsythe, himself a gun rights advocate, made frequent constructive comments on our Facebook page, so we asked him to take part. That was followed by Florence City Councilor Joshua Greene and Lane County Commissioner Jay Bozievich.

The audience that showed up was evenly split and there was a palatable tension at first; people were clearly dug in and on guard for an attack.

While there were some tense moments, we found that there were a host of issues both sides actually agreed on — even controversial ones. Neither side wanted to take people's Second Amendment rights away, nor did either side want to live in a world where everyone was carrying a loaded pistol. People shared ideas, based on political leanings, to a problem that was just too massive to think about. During the town hall, we discovered people were just really concerned, in some cases confused, by assumptions about each other — and all hoping for people to stop killing one another.

At the end of the night, people in the audience from both sides shook hands and calmly talked with one another. One group even decided to hang out and have coffee.

Of course, bipartisanship on the issue didn’t last. Just a few weeks later we noticed people online throwing the same partisan arguments again. But it wasn’t as bad. And then a miracle:

A few months later, a reporter was talking with one of the organizers of the March for our Lives campaign. “We need to find common ground,” they told our reporter.

For a brief moment, we saw an America that could actually talk about complex issues without reverting to name calling. Of course, any glance at a cable news channel will show that most of that’s gone by the wayside as of late. But for a brief moment in Florence in 2018, even the partisans agreed it was time to bury the hatchet.

Because of that, we view the “gun series” as one of our most important moments.

We’re particularly nostalgic for it when we look at the next series on this list, which laid bare some of the worst tendencies of American partisanship.

Chaos in the Community (Oct. 24 and Oct. 27)

We didn’t start out writing a series on the total breakdown of the Florence City Council elections. The goal was to write an article on millennial voting habits in the Siuslaw region, investigating if they would vote, and what issues were important to them.

The “youth vote” was already at the forefront of the local election, and councilor-elect Geraldine Lucio was the first millennial to run for city council after past councilors had been encouraging younger citizens to run for the seat for several years. It seemed like a nice story, and we had Lucio lined up to help tell it.

But there were problems developing within the election that, as we discovered, we were completely unaware of.  Just as we were drawing up plans for the millennial article, we received a few accusations against Lucio’s campaign: claims that she was asked to run for city council with the express purpose of beating council candidate Maureen Miltenberger; that Mayor Joe Henry, along with others, were integral in getting her to run; and that Lucio was too nervous to speak in public debates, hobbling the traditional candidate selection process.

We did some off-the-record interviews on the subject and found nothing concrete, though it appeared there was some truth to the accusations.

Meanwhile and unbeknownst to us, city councilors Joshua Greene and Susy Lacer were also asking the same questions, specifically about whether or not Lucio was truly ready to serve; opinions differ on what should be and is required to sit on the council.

Just two days after we had begun looking into the accusations, Greene and Lacer bridged their concerns with Lucio — with Greene visiting Lucio in person and Lacer writing her an email. What happened next became one of the biggest controversies to hit the current city government.

Our writing of the “Chaos” series didn’t really begin in earnest until after the Lacer email was sent — something that was brought to us by Councilor Woody Woodbury, appointed to the council earlier in 2018 and running for election to keep his seat.

Henry was willing to speak to us about his thoughts on Lacer and Greene, accusing them of attempting to throw the election in favor of Miltenberger. On the other side of the coin, Henry was also a big supporter of Lucio, and accused by some of attempting to throw the election in favor of her by fueling a manufactured controversy.

And Henry didn’t just speak with us on the issue. He had also gone to KCST Coast Radio with the story.

Our concern was that if we were to simply go with the story as presented to us, we might be missing the broader context of what was happening. So, we worked with KCST, comparing notes and agreeing together to hold reporting for a few days so both news organizations could look into the controversy and get a better handle on it. It was an example of two local news sources working in tandem out of concern for getting at the truth together for the community they serve. We swapped sources in order to determine which seemed the most trustworthy (and which ones weren’t), as well as figuring out angles we may have missed.

We provided KCST news director George Henry with our Part I before we released it, and we read his story before it aired. Research on the story was a group effort, with every person contributing input to the story.

As word got out that we were interviewing people, accusations came out of the woodwork. In the space of one week, dozens of tips came in about problems with both campaigns. People who were for Miltenberger agreed to talk to us, but with grave reservations because we “weren’t a ‘liberal’ newspaper.”

Lucio supporters talked to us on a whole host of issues, but often refused to be on record, stating that we were “too liberal,” or out to destroy the conservative candidacy. There were also veiled threats to sue us from both sides if we got information incorrect — something made difficult because, in many cases, we couldn’t use their comments on record.

Lawsuits were not the only threats we received on “Chaos.” Before anything was published, Hickson received a phone call stating we better be careful with our reporting, “or else.” Hickson said it was one of the few times in his career when he actually felt concerned for himself or his reporters’ safety.

News was evolving rapidly, even up to deadlines. As one reporter was writing Part I the night before deadline, another reporter was at a public city council meeting, where Lucio supporters called for Lacer and Greene’s resignation.

Just over half of Part II was written in a three-hour period before deadline because campaign volunteer Terry Tomeny, who had initially asked Lucio to run, talked to us that morning, shedding light on issues we had been previously unable to verify.

He said he talked to us because he was afraid for Lucio’s safety.

This one was a hard piece for the news staff, who live, work and play in the Florence area like many of you. We like everyone who was involved. We’ve dined at their houses, hung out with them at social events and, for those of us with hair at least, have gone to their barber shop. These were not only our neighbors and leaders, but in some cases our friends. In all honesty, when the facts first started coming out, some of the reporters refused to believe it.

We had long discussions about every time we dined with them, gave them a friendly hug. Was that the right thing to do? If all this “chaos” was going on, why didn’t we see it?

Much like in the film The Post, we asked ourselves “Are we too close?”

Today, locked away in the office is information we didn’t include and a list of questions that went unanswered regarding the events surrounding our “Chaos” series. Some of the questions we openly asked in the series, others are based on “off the record” comments we couldn’t divulge. There’s only one copy of the document. All the reporters covering city events have read it so that they can keep those questions in mind moving forward.

In the end, one question we should keep in mind as a community is this: To what degree — if any — should partisanship play a role in our local elections? Is what happened merely a symptom of the current national political climate, or something else entirely?

We learned an important lesson with the “Chaos” series about political writing. People will be okay with getting hit, as long as you hit the other side as well.

We want the community to know our Chaos series was never about “going after” someone or some group: it was simply to say, “This is what we currently know about the election, and it is a mess.”

In the two months since the November elections, we have heard from councilors that they will work to put partisanship and the election behind them. The city can’t afford it. And at the December city council meeting, it was as if the chaos surrounding the election was nothing more than an interesting — though disappointing — historical footnote. The councilors got along, they worked together, they joked around.

Perhaps the ugliness of the election was just about that: The election, and nothing more.

We can only hope.

Future series

While the above articles received the most pageviews online, there were a number of 2018 series that we were proud of. “In their own words: Latinos in the Siuslaw” was a unique and intimate look at a minority that is often politicized, but seldom understood.

“Plight of the Pollinators” was a fun and popular two-part series on how honey is made and the ramifications of a world without bees and other pollinators, and “The business of Marilyn” showed a side of the art exhibition world that never gets talked about, even in the national press.

“Intolerance” was an opportunity to explore an ex-white supremacist and how racism can be instilled into youth through punk rock music. We had actually planned to turn that into a longer series covering multiple aspects of intolerance, but two of the subjects we had planned to cover dropped due to possible controversies. Just as we were about to regroup, “Chaos” hit.

There were also series that never materialized, such as an ambitious, five-part series on mental health in the Siuslaw. We had a frank and eye-opening discussion with Peace Harbor staff about difficulties in getting treatment and had begun work on studying the reasons for — and effects of — suicide in the region.

As we head into 2019, we’ve begun to reevaluate the place of special series writing. While they have certainly made for some interesting conversations, some readers have voiced that they are too long and unwieldy to digest.

Why the series are so lengthy can be best described by a conversation we had with a reader once, who said, “God, they can be hard to get through. But, by the end, I feel I really understand the subject.”

A series is our chance to truly examine all of what we know about a broader issue and try to suss out what it all means. And when we’re dealing with complex issues that can sometimes span years of information and multiple points of view, a 500-word article isn’t going to cut it.

In fact, not including information can sometimes make things worse.

We continue to value your feedback as we begin our 129th year of the Siuslaw News, and are grateful for the readers who stuck around for the series, as well as the readers who let us know they didn’t. Whether long or short, multi-part or 300-word report, we consider it an honor to write for this community.

 

These series, among others, can be viewed here in the Special Series Archive.