Julie Titone was the environmental reporter with The Spokesman-Review during the late 1980s and 1990s. These were years of historic and tumultuous transition in the Inland Northwest notable for the end of the timber frontier and coming to grips with massive mining and smelting wastes polluting the region’s waters. For her reporting, Julie Titone was honored on March 2, 2018, by Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group with the Watershed Hero Award. In preparation for that honoring event, the following interview was conducted on February 18, 2018. For images from the honoring event: slide show | photos
John Osborn (JO): Describe what about your childhood influenced you as you approached your writing as a reporter.
Julie Titone: I’m the fourth of nine kids. Maybe being a middle child in a large pack of children gave me free range to absorb and observe things without getting an overdose of attention. I do think I got an extra curiosity gene.
I always loved to write. An aunt told me I would leave little notes around her house when I was little. And there was a pivotal event in seventh grade. I had written an essay about how people loved their hair, oddly enough. My teacher, Mrs. Laurik, gave me an A-plus and just praised this essay. She stroked my ego, and I decided if there was a way to make a living by writing, I would do it. I didn’t have to look far. My father was a newspaper production manager. I grew up going to the newspaper building and we had papers around the house all the time.
My dad worked for the Illinois State Journal-Register. When I was in high school, I wrote for the paper’s youth edition, called Verve. I remember writing some articles on teenage fashion, and Copley News Service picked these up. Someone sent me copies of stories that got published in the San Diego newspaper. Again, it was a total ego stroke that 16-year-old Julie got her stories published in a big city paper.
I went straight for a college journalism degree at Southern Illinois University. In addition to taking classes in the subject and having some good instructors, I worked as a reporter and editor for the student newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
From Illinois to Idaho
JO: Describe your life’s journey before signing up to becoming a reporter in Spokane.
Julie Titone: My first job out of college in 1974 was with The Idaho Statesman in Boise, which hired me sight-unseen after I interviewed on campus with a Gannett corporate recruiter. They told me my salary was going to be $155 week and when I got there it was $150, and I was a little chagrined by that. But the work was so much fun, part of me couldn’t believe they were paying me to do it. I started out writing features stories for the Family Living pages, which had only recently been the Women’s pages.
Even though I got into journalism so I could write, I had a habit of asking how things went together, and within three years I was an editor. They made me assistant features editor, then features editor, then city editor … I had four editing jobs during my nearly 10 years at the Statesman. I was learning management skills, the ropes of journalism.
I didn’t especially report on environmental issues, but there were some major ones happening. When I served on the editorial board, the question of whether Congress should create the of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness came up. The editorial page editor of the time was Ken Robinson, and he knew perfectly well we were going to endorse this. But bless his heart, he told the publisher we need to go see this place. He actually got approval to hire a back-country pilot to take us into the Salmon River canyon. It was one of the most memorable days of my young life. It was one of the things that got me thinking hard about wilderness in Idaho, and what an ecosystem was, and how the rivers connected things.
Some of my memories of journalism in Boise had to do with the women’s movement, as the fight for women’s rights was called. One of my assignments was to get credit in my own name. I went to the department stores in downtown Boise – there still were some in those pre-mall days – and filled out credit applications. In one case, I wrote my husband’s name in the line that said “spouse.” And the female clerk corrected me, saying “oh, no, you’re the spouse.” For another story, I was assigned to profile the first licensed female electrician in Idaho. I rolled my naïve little eyes and said, “Isn’t this the 1970s? Are we still writing stories about this?” Now here we are, decades later, writing stories about why there aren’t more women working in tech. It’s crazy.
After awhile, I was looking to move out of the features department. One of the newsroom jobs openings at the time was covering cops. I went to talk with the managing editor, who chuckled and said “I’m not ready to put a woman on the police beat.” Fortunately, that soon started to change. Some of the great police reporters are women. If I’d had that beat experience it would have helped me immensely when I did become a city editor. On the flip side, my early editing experience really helped when I eventually returned to reporting.
Neo-Nazis and Caribou
JO: Who recruited you to the Spokesman-Review? How did you get that job? What beats did you cover while at the newspaper?
Julie Titone: I was not recruited, I applied. I was ready to move on from Boise, wanted to be at a bigger newspaper with more resources. Grady Myers and I were married at that point. Grady was the newspaper staff artist in Boise, which was a good job. Paying art jobs aren’t that easy to come by, but he was open to moving for me to work in Spokane. I started work in January 1984 at the Spokesman-Review. I was hired as a deputy city editor, and we bought a nice house on the South Hill and were very happy to be in Spokane. Soon after we moved in, Chris Peck, the managing editor, asked me to be regional editor. That meant working in Coeur d’Alene.
It was a large bureau at the time, and we were competing with the Coeur d’Alene Press. We were scrappy. I used to think of that North Idaho bureau as a M*A*S*H unit – we reported to downtown, but our bosses were 35 miles away and we had our own vibe. Great camaraderie, some amazing reporters and photographers on the staff.
It was a significant time in the history of the Inland Northwest. There was great tumult caused by the presence of neo-Nazis in the region. And, of course, there was the transition of Coeur d’Alene from a timber town to a tourism mecca. Sawmills were closing. Cleanup of the rivers – the environmental issues were just huge.
During that period, I was increasingly jealous of what I was sending my reporters out to do. And I’d never really scratch the itch to write because I’d gotten into editing so quickly. So I assigned myself a couple of stories. I went off to report on the capture of caribou in British Columbia to be brought back to the Idaho Panhandle as a means of trying to return a healthy caribou population to the region. I was just fascinated with endangered species and the attendant forest management issues. But it didn’t seem fair or wise to try to keep report and edit. I went to the managing editor and said Chris, I want to go back to reporting. He said yes – he even let me pick my editor. I suggested he offer the job to reporter David Newman. And so we did a switcheroo, and Dave became my supervisor. That was in the late ‘80s.
It was a wild time to be reporting on the environment. And for someone like me who enjoys complexity, it was a perfect job. You had economic issues, cultural issues, Native American issues, land management … all converging. When I hear people talk about land management, I tell them “You know, it’s not the land that needs to be managed. It’s the people, you’re really talking about people management, and how people are going to use the land.” There was a lot of psychology involved in covering that beat.
For the love of rivers
JO: You love rivers, you like to canoe and kayak. How would you describe your relationship to rivers and, more broadly, to water?
Julie Titone: I can tell you when I fell in love with western rivers. It was on my first vacation after having worked in Idaho for a year, driving north from Boise. You know how you go from the high rolling hills along Highway 55, then hit U.S. 95? It parallels the Payette River. I saw the Payette and I was fascinated. There are many pull-offs are on that road, and I wanted to stop at every one of them and watch that sparkling water dance over granite, over the rocks. I grew up in the Midwest where the water was brown and languid. And that Idaho water was so clear! Pretty soon we were driving along the big lakes in the Panhandle, and there were so many pines… We went up as far as Sandpoint. I remember standing there in June, looking at Lake Pend Oreille.
Really, I can’t think of anything more universal than the love of water. One of my favorite quotes is from Loren Eiseley, who said “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”
When I moved to North Idaho, I got involved with the Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club. Pretty much ever since, I’ve had a solo canoe, a big tandem canoe and a sea kayak. Now I live in Western Washington, and this Puget Sound saltwater is great. But my first love is freshwater.
JO: How did your experiences with water inform your reporting, if at all?
Julie Titone: When I was a reporter and my sources urged me to share my opinions, what I believed in, the first thing I’d say was that I believe in the first Amendment and everyone’s right to be heard. That was my prime directive. If they pushed me further, I’d say,” If you want to know what’s important to me, look at what I’m writing about.” I often chose water issues.
Being out in paddle boats just increased my fascination. It really helps a reporter to have a water-level view. For example, if you’re writing about the health of rivers you might not know that old cars used to be stacked along river banks as a form of erosion control, unless you canoed the Palouse River and saw those rusting hulks emerging from the mud.
JO: Your writing has been described as “healing journalism” – and I keep going back to you as a middle child — giving voice in a way that allows readers to respectfully understand what people are saying, and the larger context for their words and actions. In the setting of tumultuous historic change during the late 1980s and 1990s in the Inland Northwest, with closing of timber mills and conflicts over massive mining/smelting waste cleanups, your writing helped to make possible a regional dialogue about the region’s past and future. Do you have any reflections on these years?
Julie Titone: I always thought of myself as an explanatory reporter, not a bulldog investigative reporter – although my colleagues who fit that description were also doing healing journalism by exposing problems. Unless a problem is identified, it can’t be healed.
I saw my role as putting things in broader context. What should my readers know about this? How did we get where we are? How are different people affected by it? How you can’t pull one string here without affecting something there.
I sometimes reflect on that series the 1993 series of stories called “Our Failing Forests” written by Jim Lynch, J. Todd Foster and myself. Jim and Todd definitely fit into the bulldog category. They did a fantastic job of explaining the impact of industrial forestry on publicly owned lands and the impact of politics on the environment. I did the final piece in which I stood back and took a more global view, asked “Where do we go from here?” My thesis was: We as Westerners all love the land. We’re here in large part because of it. But we have different perspectives within that love. I was really trying to look at the commonalities, and how can we use those commonalities to heal the forests.
I recently looked at the clippings of those Failing Forests stories, and read the reaction to them. The timber industry took out critical ads, there were letters to the editor, the Forest Service brass was not pleased. But there was a national columnist who praised the series, and we won some journalism awards. It was a good team effort, and there was logic to the team. I regularly covered public land issues. Because Todd and Jim did not, they could bring a different perspective. Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees – and I’d gotten close to the trees. But knowing the trees and the people tasked with managing them gave me the ability to write my part.
Environmental reporting from the Upper Columbia River to Ghana’s Black Volta River
(JO) Which of your stories had the greatest impact, in your estimation?
Julie Titone: To my knowledge, I wrote the first major stories about pollution of the Columbia River by British Columbia’s Cominco smelter and Celgar pulp mill. Those got a lot of attention in state of Washington circles. Before that, people in Washington mostly knew about the Upper Columbia reservoir, aka Lake Roosevelt, as a place to boat and fish. I remember Publisher Bill Cowles asking me in a hallway conversation what I was working on. When I told him, he replied “I thought the Columbia was too big to pollute.” A lot of smart people didn’t know about the heavy metals and slag — the sandy black smelter byproduct — spewing down from Canada.
I wrote some significant stories about mining- and logging-related damage to the Coeur d’Alene River system, about salmon recovery efforts and tribal sovereignty. Also, I believe my stories contributed to the protection of an ancient cedar grove above Idaho’s Upper Priest Lake; even the New York Times paid me to write about that.
The biggest impact on my personal life came from reporting about plans to build a hydropower dam on Ghana’s Black Volta River. I went to Africa in 2001 to write and teach, thanks to a three-month International Center for Journalists Environmental Reporting Fellowship. While I was gone, The Spokesman-Review decided to lay off reporters for the first time in its history. I was one of the first two. I guess they figured they were doing without me . . . . That was the start of an avalanche of newspaper downsizing. And it was my kick in the pants to go to graduate school. I earned a masters in communications from The Ohio State University, thanks to a Kiplinger Fellowship in Public Affairs reporting.
Since 2003 I’ve done communications work at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, at Washington State University’s College of Education, and now Sno-Isle Libraries. So, post-journalism, I’ve been paid to promote peace, education and literacy. Which beats being paid to market widgets.
Community and culture: writing the stories
JO: Of all the stories you covered, is there one you remember the most – stays with you?
Julie Titone: My favorite description of a journalist is the tribe scribe. The person who writes down stories of communities and culture. With that in mind I would say that, collectively, the stories that stuck with me the most are the ones in which I was quoting our elders.
We did a special section one time on the history of the Inland Northwest. I wrote about the 1930s, and found myself interviewing men who had helped build Grand Coulee Dam. It was so enlightening and touching. They had been boys in Appalachia, where there was no way to make a living. It was the Depression, they were the poorest of the poor. And the word went out that there were jobs in the West. So they went. And it wasn’t just the dams they built, they helped build the Interstate system, they built hospitals. The infrastructure we use every day. They were proud of what they did, really proud.
I interviewed elders in the Coeur d’Alene tribe who had gone to the Catholic school that was there on the reservation. It was a place where they were punished for speaking their language, where there was a concerted effort to turn them into White Christians, basically. But at the same time some elders had some good memories of loving nuns and of the joy of learning.
Then there were the people I interviewed on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Adolf Hitler. The reason I was doing the stories was because of the presence of Richard Butler and the neo-Nazis, the coming of the Order. I wanted to step back and look at out how the world got to this place, where there were Nazis. I interviewed Jewish survivors of the war with tattooed numbers on their arms, people whose families fled from Germany to Russia, then had to flee Russia. … One of the most emotional interviews I did was with a woman who had migrated from Germany and had grown up in a town outside one of the concentration camps. She was adamant that they had no idea there was an extermination camp in the neighborhood. Absolutely adamant. I thought, this lady protests too much. There was such emotion and complexity and history in her voice alone, let alone her words.
Once I interviewed a fellow who remembered the flu epidemic of 1918, how in Coeur d’Alene they turned fraternal halls and schools into infirmaries. How it was the young, strong people who died.
When I think back on myself as a girl who wanted stories to tell, these interviews were just the best.
JO: Which is the one that got away, that you never got to and most wish you did?
Julie Titone: There were quite a few. Some stories I didn’t get to write because my curiosity would take me beyond the tolerance and budget of my editors. I’d cover a local story and think: What’s the national angle here? What’s going on internationally? Once I wanted to cover an international caribou/reindeer conference in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Before I got permission to go to the conference, I optimistically went to the Eddie Bauer outlet in downtown Spokane and bought an enormous down parka that was almost too warm for anywhere but the arctic. Never got to wear that parka in northern Canada.
JO: The Columbia River region is a special place. Having reported on these landscapes and waters, and on the good and bad of those with power to make a difference, what advice do you have for the people of the region?
Julie Titone: Know what’s going on. And not just what’s happening right in your community, but upstream and downstream, literally and politically. There still are newspapers, and you should be reading them. And supporting them.
Take on something that’s important to you. Maybe it’s the need for city parks, so kids can get outside. Maybe it’s fighting for access to the river at a particular bridge, so people can get on the water and enjoy it. Pick something that you can reasonably help accomplish, so you know when you pass away that you did something.
JO: You come from a newspaper family, worked at newspapers and now for a public library district. You started with your fingers on a typewriter, now you spend part of your life in front of a computer screen. What to you is the importance of the written word in our ever more digital age?
Julie Titone: I’m bullish about the written word. At Sno-Isle Libraries where I work, the printed book is still the most popular format by far. Digital books are also popular. And behind nearly every other medium is the written word. The movies that we love – like the “Black Panther” out this weekend — wouldn’t exist without a script. And audiobooks, which I’m especially fond of these days, are always published in print form. You know, kids love poetry slams, reciting words they’ve written down first. Hip-hop lyrics are written down. So, yeah. The written word is not going away.
Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War
JO: Speaking of books, you co-authored one with your former husband, Grady Myers: Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War. Writing this book with Grady must have been profound. Can you describe that experience for us and how that touched your life?
Julie Titone: Thanks for asking. “Boocoo Dinky Dow” was an expression that American soldiers used, combining French and Vietnamese words that meant very crazy. The book journey has been crazy, in a good way.
Grady and I met at the Idaho Statesman, when I was a young editor and he was staff artist and Army vet who walked with a limp, due to his combat wounds. That’s when I heard him tell darkly humorous war stories and asked if I could write them down. He came to my house, I turned on the tape recorder. I listened, I wrote a manuscript. He drew some marvelous illustrations to go along with the chapters. But agents and publishers told us nobody wanted to read about the Vietnam War, so we packed the manuscript away.
After Grady died in 2011, I thought, you know, I’m just going to publish this thing. Besides honoring Grady memory and selling a few thousand copies, it’s had a profound influence on my life. I think of it not so much as a book, but as a project. I’ve given a lot of readings, veterans reach out to me. I still maintain “Boocoo Dinky Dow” Facebook and Twitter pages relevant to that generation of people. I have met the most amazing human beings I would never have otherwise met — vets and their families and war protestors and combat nurses. I’ve learned the history of the war from the people who were in Vietnam at different times. And I’ve realized it’s my history, too. This was happening when I was a young person, in my formative years. My first election decision was, do I vote for Richard Nixon. The war affects me to this day.
I think Grady’s storytelling ability helped him through tough times. It pleases me to know that by saving his stories I’ve helped other people to tell theirs.
Washington State University and limits of water
(JO) You have a special interest in protecting the Grande Ronde Aquifer. How did that come about?
Julie Titone: In 2006, I moved to Pullman to take a communications job at Washington State University. I was dismayed to discover that the region’s pristine groundwater supply is relentlessly dropping, and the best predictions are that this lifeblood of Moscow and Pullman could drain away within decades. This hadn’t been on my radar when I covered regional environmental issues. So, for the first time in my life I became an activist. I joined the Palouse Water Conservation Network and did my best to call attention to the problem.
I don’t live on the Palouse any longer, but still worry about this and hope the folks working toward a solution find the public support and political will they need. It would be a shame if these vibrant university communities one day become greatly diminished. I wish the university administrators took more leadership on this.
On preparing future journalists
JO: Would you encourage young people to get into journalism? Why – or why not? Do the current attacks on journalism from the White House inform your recommendation?
Julie Titone: I would encourage young people to, at a minimum, study journalism. Take some courses in news reporting. You’ll be a better citizen, and you’ll be better at almost any job you do even if you never get paid to create news stories. I’ve had to make a couple of career transitions because of the downsizing of the news business, and it’s been encouraging to find that my skills are in demand. Tech skills are great. But if you can walk in the door and write a clear sentence and edit copy so it reads well, you are valuable.
Students should work for their school newspapers. And if they catch the news bug, if like me they get entranced with telling their communities’ stories, they should give journalism a try. There are entry level jobs. You’re out there to get experience and find your love. So give it a try.
Do the attacks from the White House effect my recommendation? Yes. If this president or any other has the temerity to call journalists “enemy of the people,” that’s just so wrong. Those are fighting words. Fighting words. They should inspire people to want to do the job and do it well.
JO: Do you have plans to do more writing when you retire?
Julie Titone: I do squeeze out a little time to write now. I recently wrote an essay on canoeing for the Spokane River book that Paul Lindholdt edited. It was so fun to do that. But, yes, any major commitment of time to writing will have to wait for retirement. And I’m pretty intent on writing fiction. There are truths only fiction can tell. And I have in my head – in large part because of my journalism career – the voices and perspectives of many people.
In addition to writing, I plan to travel and sponge off my friends and family along the way. And spend more time on the water.
JO: Anything else you’d like to share? Any closing thoughts?
Julie Titone: Thank you for being a tribe scribe. And thanks to the Sierra Club and CELP for honoring me and Rich and Karen, because you’re actually honoring the value of journalism – its value particularly in exposing injustices, many of which are related to the environment.
You call this the Watershed Hero Award. I certainly am not a hero for having done my job during those years when I was privileged to report on the environment. But there are so many journalist heroes in this world. One of the causes I support is the Committee to Protect Journalists. It tears me up to think about people who lay their life on the line to do such an important job. How would we know, if there weren’t people like those there to tell us, what’s really happening?