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Moving fast. It’s what we do

July 2, 2013

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Photo: Bill Alldredge

This was last week:

  • Five daily posts for my Seattle Times blog;
  • one Sunday column (800 words), including gathering data for a graphic and chart;
  • one 1,300-word post for my blog Rogue Columnist,
  • plus a post for the Reynolds Center.
  • I did my regular Wednesday gig on KUOW, the Seattle public radio station.
  • On Thursday, I moderated a panel of chief executives for a luncheon co-sponsored by the Times (with the publisher in attendance).
  • Managing Rogue includes monitoring comments, adding aggregate content and promoting it on Twitter and Facebook (I do the latter with my newspaper stuff, too).
  • Did about a hundred Tweets.
  • Answered several dozen reader emails: Even if you send me a note saying “Talton your an idiot” and only write long messages in caps in the subject box, as has happened, you get a personal response.
  • Met with a reporter to brainstorm the economy beat.
  • Gave a couple of writers some advice after they asked.

It was an average week. I’m not working on a book at the moment. No corrections.

When people hear these stories, they say, “I don’t know how you do it.” I’m slower than I used to be. But this is my life. Whether such speedy multi-tasking in journalism can be taught is an open question. I think of the lines from John Updike’s poem:

football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not..

There’s no hiding from the demands of daily journalism in the Internet age.

“I can write a publishable
first draft quickly
and I never freeze. Those are
skills of which I’m proud… “

I had some advantages. Before journalism, I worked in theater, including repertory where we would mount four productions at once during the summer. I also was an ambulance paramedic trained by former combat medics who had served in the Vietnam War. Among their lessons: You can never freeze. Even if gunshots are nearby or an angry crowd is hovering over you and a critically injured patient is running out of time — you think about doing the job. You do the job. You never freeze. Before I became a business journalist, I spent two years as features editor for the Lawton Morning Press and Lawton Constitution in Oklahoma. My job then required me to select, edit, lay out and write headlines for the Lifestyle and Entertainment sections for both newspapers. I also supervised four reporters and wrote reviews and a column. Before and after that I worked at fast-moving PM newspapers, including the now-defunct Blade-Tribune, which covered northern San Diego County and was known for its fearless journalism but also very high productivity.

All this came before the Internet.

To the extent that this can be taught, here’s a sense of how I structure my time. As for tools, I have an iPhone and an iPad so I can work anywhere, in a restaurant, in bed.

Every night before midnight, I use the iPad to take a spin through the Seattle Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times to get a sense of what’s breaking and developing. I also read the local blog Crosscut, plus the Puget Sound Business Journal and Tacoma News Tribune. I’m on Twitter regularly; it’s a great tripwire and guidepost if you follow wisely. I call this “blog prep,” as in show prep, and it helps me prepare for the morning’s blog post. The machine must be fed. In the morning, I check a few more sites along with the market. If an important economic report is being released, I might start tweeting about it at 6 a.m. Pacific time.

rubber ducks all in a row
A key to speed is keeping your ducks in a row. Photo: John Morgan

I check a number of government and academic Web sites daily or at least weekly. (I’ve discussed some of must-sees here). Sometimes these provide B-matter; sometimes scoops. Reports from economists, the government, think tanks and other places must be read. I make phone calls, using the mantra of my friend Doug Smith, retired real-estate columnist of the Charlotte Observer, “Tell me something I can put in the paper.” Readers send tips. In coordination with my editor, I try to keep a list of column ideas stocked, including evergreens for slow weeks. When you get lucky, a compelling idea drives up.

I’m signed up for push emails from a variety of agencies and organizations. Again, these can be useful either as alerts or inspiration. I try to know what’s being reported about trending stories and see if I can add something new, take it in a different direction or be the contrarian. I do my share on the rubber-chicken circuit, work sources, add new ones. And I get outside with a curious mind. I am also fortunate to have a very smart reader who began following me in the Arizona Republic. He emails me important stories. Another Rogue reader sends me stuff on Arizona and urban issues. Both are a great help.

None of this is held out as greatness. I can write a publishable first draft quickly and I never freeze. Those are skills of which I’m proud, but alone they don’t make for excellence. A good news organization needs all types of people, including the thoughtful digger who publishes a few investigative blockbusters a year. Still, there’s no denying the demand for speed and multi-tasking today — and even that and the most sophisticated, beautifully written, exclusive and important journalism can pay the bills. Something important is lost when we don’t take time to think, to daydream, to notice.

Now I need to double-check the Sunday column and make sure a chart is included in the online version.


  • Jon Talton

    For more than 25 years Jon has covered business and finance, specializing in urban economies, energy, real estate and economics and public policy. Jon has been a columnist for the Arizona Republic, Charlotte Observer and Rocky Mountain News, and his...

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