On retiring after a long journalism career

President’s Column

By Betsy Russell

(Note: This column first appeared in the Idaho Press)

BOISE — It’s been quite a career.

I first decided I wanted to be a newspaper reporter when I was in the eighth grade, inspired by a fabulous junior high school journalism teacher. I edited both my junior high and high school newspapers, stirred up some controversy in the process, and started writing for my local newspaper, the Woodland Daily Democrat, at age 15 while still a sophomore in high school (most notable story: Covering my own high school graduation, which earned me a front-page byline).

While in college, I did internships at the L.A. Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Vacaville Reporter. I met movie stars and circus folks, learned the details of copy editing from the best in the business, and covered everything from small-town local government to features and fairs.

I wrote my honors thesis in political theory at the University of California-Berkeley on the essential role of a free press in a representative democracy, something I still strongly believe is crucial today in our country.

My first full-time job out of college was as a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune in South Lake Tahoe, California. I covered a horrific murder trial, reported on finances at the local school district, and wrote about an array of entertaining and eccentric local officials. I also logged my all-time record of 60 ski days in a season while there, and I got to write a first-person story about the then-growing sport of amateur speed skiing (I was clocked at 69 mph).

After two years there, I was off to Columbia University to earn my master’s degree in journalism, because despite what the city editor of the Daily Democrat had told me back when I was a teen, I discovered I couldn’t actually learn everything I needed to know right there in that small-town newsroom.

I’d never been east of Utah. In New York City, my fellow students and I fanned out all over the city, covering everything from mercury-poisoned thermometer factory workers to pickle vendors to neighborhood controversies. My colleagues included people who’d worked in journalism for years, and others switching careers from things like law and investment banking. My instructors were top practicing reporters and editors as well as distinguished professors who’d made careers of teaching after years of their own outstanding journalistic achievements.

I emerged a much better reporter and writer, and immediately put my newly improved skills to work as a general assignment reporter for the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, California. A highlight: Beating the San Francisco Examiner on a hot story, and getting a call from their reporter wondering how I’d found it.

Then one of the largest newspaper companies in the country – Gannett – called and asked me to come to Idaho for an interview at the Idaho Statesman. The company had interviewed me during a recruiting fair at Columbia, and to Idaho I came.

I started as a city hall reporter for the Statesman in 1986, covering then-Mayor Dirk Kempthorne and the downtown redevelopment fight, along with the Ada County commissioners and other local government issues. (I also wrote a skiing column, trading off alternate weeks with fellow reporter Steve Stuebner.) After several years, I shifted over to cover the state Legislature full-time during the legislative session, an eye-opener as I worked under the guidance of then-veteran political editor Randy Stapilus.

My final year at the Statesman, I was an assistant city editor, editing our legislative coverage among other news. And then The Spokesman-Review called, asking me to come north to interview for a position as the Spokane newspaper’s Idaho editor in Coeur d’Alene.

I had a blast for nearly five years there, supervising an incredible staff of reporters and competing head-to-head with the Coeur d’Alene Press. I got to be part of the team that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the deadly Ruby Ridge standoff in North Idaho.

I then headed back to Boise to be the S-R’s Boise bureau chief and Statehouse reporter, something I found incredibly exciting and entertaining (as I’ve always been a fan of political theater). It also seemed really important to cover (it still does). I launched the Eye on Boise blog at the newspaper’s request in 2004, and supervised a parade of talented interns each year for many years.

After I’d been with the S-R for 27 years, the Idaho Press called, and asked me to interview for a position as its Boise bureau chief as the paper expanded from its Canyon County base into Ada County, competing head-to-head against the Statesman. I joined the Press, and again, I had a blast. Once again, I got to supervise and work with talented reporters, while also digging into and reporting on the Legislature and state government and politics.

Here are some of my favorite stories that I’ve written over the years:

• My first investigative story for Statesman in the ‘80s, uncovering bidding law violations at the Western Idaho Fair.

• Lots of stories that I broke when I covered then-Congressman Helen Chenoweth, including her statement, in response to a question from me, that the reason Idaho is so white is because “The warm-climate community just hasn’t found the colder climate that attractive.”

• My award-winning 1997 prison series, which documented how four crimes that weren’t even felonies in most states accounted for nearly a quarter of Idaho’s prison population. The reporting led to major reforms, and then-Gov. Phil Batt appointed himself a “committee of one” to investigate. (The four crimes: Simple drug possession, drunken driving, driving without a license and writing bad checks.)

• My 2002 AdWatch story about a false claim about retirement benefits for former congressmen from a Democratic candidate who was challenging then-Sen. Larry Craig; my story caused the candidate to pull the ad and apologize.

• My 2009 story about a legislator’s claim on the floor of the Idaho House that the United States is really a confederacy.

• My investigation into then-state Rep. Phil Hart, a tax protester who illegally logged state school endowment land to build his log home in North Idaho, then later lost the home to the IRS for unpaid back taxes, and who attempted to assert legislative privilege four times in the six years he served as a legislator to delay his prosecution on state and federal tax charges. Back then, he faced an ethics hearing and lost reelection in 2012. Now, this year, he’s a newly elected Idaho state senator.

• Covering major court cases in state and federal court, including the Sami Al-Hussayen terrorism trial, during which the Eye on Boise blog was getting 10,000 page views a day and drawing readers from as far away as Saudi Arabia; and significant Idaho Supreme Court cases on everything from school funding to voter initiative rights.

• A ton of stories for the Idaho Press in the past five years, including stories setting the record straight about the real impact of complex proposed legislation and ballot proposals on Idaho taxes and the state budget; my story on how Sen. Jim Risch was approaching his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which resulted from my first reporting trip to Washington, D.C., since graduate school; my Sunday column in July about why Wayne Hoffman is wrong and real journalism is essential; my June story on how four Idaho governors helped marginalize neo-Nazis in our state and the challenge facing current Idaho state leaders; and my 2018 story about how Bogus Basin finally managed to install snowmaking after years of struggles over water rights, and why that was a huge game-changer.

The only reason that all these stories mattered, of course, was because of you – the readers. It’s been a fascinating ride. Thanks for reading!

Betsy Russell retired Jan. 1 as the Boise Bureau Chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing, and is the president of the Idaho Press Club. She will continue to do some part-time work in retirement, but is taking the winter off. She will serve out her current term as president of the Idaho Press Club, which ends in April.