Crime in the Emerald City may not pay, but it is forging a career for local reporter/blogger Jonah Spangenthal-Lee. The lifelong Seattle resident found his niche in journalism almost by accident, while writing for the alt-weekly paper The Stranger as an intern from North Seattle Community College.
“I still don’t really know how I ended up on the crime beat,” Spangenthal-Lee said in an e-mail interview. “The first few stories I wrote at The Stranger all happened to be cop or crime-related, and I started making contacts and figuring out the cops/court system through trial and error.”
The 4-month internship led to a job covering the city’s crime beat, and for years he gained valuable experience and established many solid contacts reporting at crime scenes. After parting ways with The Stranger, he wanted to continue crime reporting, but knew it would be difficult landing a position in a newsroom.
Soon after, with “a ton of help” from Justin Carder, publisher of CapitolHillSeattle.com and Central District News founder Scott Durham, Spangenthal-Lee’s site Seattlecrime.com was born. “A few other blogger/reporter friends also pitched in from time to time with posts on my site,” Spangenthal-Lee said.
Creating his own news site did have advantages.
“The editorial freedom that comes from running a mostly one-man show was fantastic, and operating without any sort of financial safety net, attorneys–or even petty cash to pay for things like court documents–really forced me to be resourceful about how I obtained and used information.”
Spangenthal-Lee offered stories other media outlets didn’t have, by spending more time reading through police reports and by breaking stories sooner than the competition.
“Being a small ‘independent’ operation also meant I could be a lot more agile with how and when I published (breaking news on Twitter from a crime scene hours before I’d ever get back to a computer to churn out a traditional inverted-pyramid story, for instance) but working 18 hour days and always having one ear tuned to the police scanner can take its toll.”
“I worked hard to make sure I had stories or details no one else had and tried to inject a bit of personality into my posts as well,” he said.
“It helped being able to break some good scoops, and that very few other reporters were combing through police records with the regularity I was, but I think just being present on the site–both in the comments section and over emails with readers–and putting out regular updates around the clock helped give readers a reason to keep coming back.”
Seattlecrime.com developed a small but dedicated fan base as the “go-to-place” for local crime news. Connecting with neighborhood blogs that linked to his coverage and a Seattlecrime.com iPhone app all helped his site garner more local and national media attention.
“Crime, however, does not pay,” he concluded. “Especially if you’re blogging about it.”
He explained, “I tried to keep myself out of the advertising side of things because I didn’t want to risk compromising any editorial content. But from what I heard from the folks who tried oh so hard to sell ads for me, nobody wants to sell their product right alongside a story about a murder, car thefts, or other generally grim news.”
And after dedicating his life to Seattlecrime.com for more than a year, the opportunity arose to work alongside the very folks he covered, the Seattle Police Department.
For the past year he has worked as a contractor blogging for the SPD Blotter page, a site started in 2008, which informs local residents of the crime news and information happening in the city with updated blogs and twitter feeds, also written by the detectives and officers themselves.
Spangenthal-Lee seems like a natural fit for the blog, and he’s enjoyed the chance he’s been given.
“It’s been a great experience working at the SPD so far. I’ve received a tremendous amount of support and freedom from the chiefs, my boss, my unit, and tons of other officers, detectives, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains throughout the department. I’ve been encouraged to keep doing things the way I’ve always done them.”
Although, he’ll be the first to admit that in the beginning his transition wasn’t exactly smooth sailing among his new colleagues.
“I’d be lying if I said everyone here was initially excited to have me on board, but I get that I come with some baggage and that cops have a lot of preconceived notions about reporters, much as reporters have a lot of preconceived notions about cops,” he said.
“I’ve really had a good time here, though it was a risk for them and a risk for me, but I think it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
Being the one contributing blogger on the Blotter site who isn’t a cop, Spangenthal-Lee provides readers with an alternative point of view on crime news. He hopes that will further build an audience and make the site the best source for crime and police news.
“I think my background, having not been a cop, I can come at things from a different perspective than some of my co-workers, who’ve been in law enforcement for some time. I get excited to write about incidents, crimes, or police processes that might seem routine or boring to them.”
His efforts have been written about in The Seattle Times. And he was given an award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which praised his philosophy that “If there’s information we can give to anyone, we should give it to everyone.”
He got a lot of attention for a blog post entitled “Marijwhatnow? A Guide to Legal Marijuana in Seattle.”
If Jonah Spangenthal-Lee’s story shows other aspiring reporters anything, it’s that finding the right niche for yourself in journalism is possible by not only working hard, but also taking chances.
“Get well acquainted with Twitter, learn to write quickly, function on 6 hours of sleep, and be equipped to shoot your own photos and video, even if it’s just on your iPhone. Find something you’re interested in writing about and write about it (assuming it’s something anyone else on the planet is interested in).
“There are tons of free publishing platforms out there right now, so if you’ve got something to say about a topic write it up, post it, and Facebook and tweet the hell out of it. The more you do it, the more feedback you’ll get, and the better you’ll get. Probably.”
In essence, Spangenthal-Lee is reporting about the Seattle Police Department from within the institution. Asked what he would say to people who are skeptical that any public agency can report honestly about itself, he answered philosophically:
“I guess I’d just say that I hope people remain skeptical. We need to continually work to earn and maintain public trust and a healthy dose of skepticism is just more incentive to be as open and accurate with our information as possible. That said, some acknowledgement — when we do the right thing the right way — wouldn’t kill anybody, either.”
(Patrick Fancher is a freelance writer in Corvallis, Oregon.)