'Storm Beat'

‘Storm Beat’ by Lori Tobias.

As essential as newspapers are to thriving communities, the overall newspaper industry is facing significant challenges of its own.

Lori Tobias has seen this up close. When her husband, a power lineman, got a job on the Oregon Coast in 2000, she followed him to Newport. She left behind her job as a features writer at the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado and entertained a dream of settling in alongside the ocean, writing a novel.

When inspiration was slow, she turned to freelance writing. She became a stringer for The Oregonian and was eventually hired as a full-time reporter. Her beat was the entire 300-mile coastline of Oregon, from Astoria to Brookings.

“Storm Beat” is about those years of sniffing out stories, tracking down sources and covering everything from public hearings to capsizings, labor strikes and murders.

“Despite my early misgivings, I came quickly to believe that I had been blessed with the best writing gig on Earth — albeit a dark one,” Tobias writes.

Indeed, this could be a soul-sucking business. Tobias’ work regularly exposed her to tragedy and malfeasance. She also had to weather the suspicions and wrath of folks whom she was interviewing, often in their darkest hours, to divulge what they knew.

Reporting also took a physical toll. When The Oregonian assigned Tobias to do a story on the Columbia River Bar Pilots, she needed to follow them in their work. That entailed riding along with them in a helicopter to meet a ship coming in off the Pacific. But in order to do that, she had to perform a test that involved rappelling out of the helicopter.

Despite her fear of heights, she gamely complied: jumping out of a hovering helicopter, descending on a line, landing on the ground, then ascending back up into the helicopter’s belly. But that’s when Tobias’ line started spinning.

The experience led to an excruciating case of vertigo. It was a condition that, doctors told her, was likely to recur without warning, for the rest of her life.

Tobias also writes about the challenges of balancing her work as a reporter with the rest of her life. Although she was far from her aging parents on the East Coast, for example, she needed to get back to help them when they had health issues of their own.

There was, increasingly, the question of whether she would have a job to come back to, as The Oregonian, like many other newspapers, struggled to adapt to new economic realities.

That notwithstanding, Tobias’ “Storm Beat” powerfully demonstrates that — contrary to those who glibly label longstanding news organizations as “fake news” — the practice of journalism today continues to involve dedication, perseverance, guts and skill.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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