Could it have possibly been 40 years ago?
It was a wee bit more than that, actually, I learned when I Googled myself this week to find some stories I wrote, as a rookie newspaper reporter, in 1974. I was sent down Interstate 5 from Eugene, Ore., where I was a reporter for the daily Register-Guard, to cover a tragedy in a tiny community alongside the freeway: a landslide near Canyonville, Ore., that killed nine men who were, as one of my stories noted, “repairing a telephone cable damaged by an earlier slide in the same area.”
“Tragedy shocks Canyonville,” was the headline of the story I wrote that appeared on Jan. 18, 1974. Looking at my byline, it’s hard to believe so much time has passed — yet the experience remains vivid, and always will. There were aspects to the story — in all modesty, uncovered by me during my reporting — that suggested the men who were killed had been warned about the potential for more slides and probably shouldn’t have been in the area.
The big headline that day: “More gaps disclosed in Nixon recordings.”
The Canyonville slide came to mind this week as I was consumed by coverage of last weekend’s massive landslide near Oso, which as of this writing had claimed 14 lives while more than 100 others were unaccounted for.
Most of us who have traveled to “the coast” during summer months when Washington Pass is open have taken the Darrington-Arlington shortcut to I-5, along state Highway 530. We’ve driven many times past the very spot where the slide finally spent itself by slumping over the roadway. We probably didn’t know how many homes were nearby but not visible from the road. We probably only cast an occasional glance at the hillside, a mile to the north, whose increasing instability was a disaster waiting to happen.
As a journalist, I’ve been following the Oso slide with intense interest — in part because I know what it’s like to mobilize an entire news organization (as the Seattle Times, Everett Herald and other media outlets have done) to cover a horrific, multi-faceted story with completeness, accuracy, compassion and — more than ever these days — speed.
It’s an anomaly of the news business that you never wish for disasters to happen. No, we really don’t. But when they do, and they’re nearby, our instincts are to throw ourselves into the story to the point of exhaustion — because we owe that to our readers.
In 1974, there were no cell phones and only a few technologically primitive means by which to get a story back to your newspaper. I often had to write my stories longhand and dictate them to somebody back in the office from a pay phone or (if the expense budget allowed) from a motel room. Sending photos was even more complicated. Sometimes we put rolls of film (remember film?) on a Greyhound bus for delivery back to the main office.
These days, reporters take real-time notes on laptops and snap photos with their cell phones, then fire snippets of information and seconds-old images out to the world for instant consumption. The pictures, graphics, information and interactive online features being generated to cover the Oso slide are remarkable. We are learning things too fast to absorb them, and then a new burst of data comes along.
How we gather and access news has changed dramatically. But for me the human elements, the shock of sadness and recognition, are the same. The information deluge hasn’t numbed me to the impact of individual and collective trauma on people’s lives. Not 40 years ago, and not now.