Linda Byron wanted to get out of the Midwest. She and a friend went down to the local library to look at college brochures. The Nebraska teens had recently seen a film that portrayed Seattle in a positive light—literally. “There was this blue sky and we were like, ‘Wow, that looks interesting,’ ” said Byron. The pair applied and were accepted to Seattle Pacific University (SPU). “It rained all that first summer and it was so cold,” said Byron. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it.”
Byron’s inauspicious start in the Emerald City is interesting when you consider she made a name for herself as one of the preeminent investigative journalists in the Pacific Northwest. Byron has worked in journalism for more than three decades including 29 years at KING 5. She left the station in the spring of 2016 to pursue other opportunities and now serves as an instructor at UW Tacoma.
This quarter, Byron is teaching a course on investigative journalism as a part-time lecturer. “I think the highest calling in journalism is investigative reporting,” she said. “It’s reporting that matters to people because it affects their safety, it affects their community, it affects their sense of justice, it affects their finances and it’s reporting that can make a difference.”
Byron didn’t set out to be a journalist. She planned on going into medicine. Her career path took an unexpected turn when her father got transfer orders to Germany. “I spent two summers in Germany and did some very basic PR writing for the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Byron. “I loved the writing and was fascinated with the idea of becoming a journalist.” There was only one problem—her school didn’t have a journalism program.
Byron found another way in. She became the business manager for the school newspaper, an opportunity that allowed her to write. Not long after, Byron switched her major to English. After graduating, she got a job working in the advertising department at Seattle Weekly. She may not have worked in the news division but that didn't stop Byron from getting freelance articles published. She left the Weekly for a PR job. “I was basically a meeting and convention planner for the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association,” she said.
Law had been an interest of Byron's. She once interned at the King County Courthouse. “I thought about becoming an attorney but there was something about journalism that spoke to me,” said Byron. “Every topic has potential to be a story and I loved that. The people, the different cultures, it was just—it seemed like a canvas.”
Byron followed her instincts. She applied to graduate school at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism. The "Missouri Method" taught Bryon the skills she needed to pursue a career in broadcast news. Degree in hand she took a job at a TV station in Idaho. A year later she moved to KUTV in Salt Lake City. Byron ended up back in Seattle three years later as a reporter for KING.
Byron's circuitous path from small town pre-med hopeful to big city investigative journalist is inspiring. Many college students wonder what happens next. For Byron, this lesson is one of many she hopes to teach her students. ‘Well, I hope to give the next generation the basic skills and knowledge of how to get information, how to process information but I'm also looking to them to figure out the next definition of good journalism because it's not going to work the old way,” she said.
Brisa Mendez hopes one day to be a television news anchor. The UW Tacoma junior is taking Byron's class. “I grew up watching news and have always wanted to do something in TV,” said Mendez. The 21-year-old is currently double majoring in communication and Spanish language and cultures. Mendez has a passion for writing and is learning how to hone her craft. “This course has been a perfect fit for me,” she said. “I get a chance to learn and grow from a professional.”
Mendez, like the other students in Byron's class, has spent the quarter learning the interlocking aspects of investigative reporting. Among other things students learn how to access public records, develop leads and verify information from reliable sources. “I know I'm learning skills that will help me later on down the road,” said Mendez.
The midterm project was a collaborative effort. The class voted on what topic they'd like to investigate and they chose parking on campus. “My angle was parking enforcement,” said Mendez. “I researched the subject and spoke to different stakeholders.” The final is a solo project where each student conducts an investigation into an issue of interest to them.
Byron will evaluate the final project both as an instructor and a professional journalist. “In many ways I'm acting as their editor,” she said. “This is like a real life laboratory but I'm throwing in some of the ethical and theoretical questions that I think should be addressed in an academic setting.”
The nature of news has changed since Byron first got started. Thirty years ago the process was slower. Technology was limited and the world had yet to fully embrace the twenty-four news cycle. Today's media landscape is very different. However, there is very much a need for quality journalists who understand their responsibility. “One of the concerns I have about journalism today is that the editorial process has been weakened and there needs to be, I think, good solid training to understand what's reportable and what isn't,” said Byron.
Byron's initial rationale for moving to Washington may have been clouded in half truths. However, she sees clearly now and is helping students at UW Tacoma do the same.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or email@example.com