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Betsy Z. Russell

Blogging before blogging was cool

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For news junkies, particularly those with an interest in state politics, there is only one Betsy Russell—the Spokesman Review Boise Bureau chief who is the voice of the blog Eye on Boise. The president of the Idaho Press Club, cofounder and current president of Idahoans for Openness in Government, Russell started blogging in 2004, long before many journalists had started working in the virtual world. Russell talked to BW about blogging, her advice for wannabe windsurfers and why—if she had her way—the Legislature wouldn't meet until after ski season was over.

How long have you been a journalist?

Oh my gosh. I actually got hooked on journalism by a junior high journalism teacher. In ninth grade, I was the editor of the junior high paper, and I started working for my local newspaper while I was still in high school and I graduated from high school in 1979 ...

And you went on to study journalism in college?

Actually, the city editor at the local paper told me, "don't major in journalism. Learn about something else so that you'll have something to write about." So I majored in political science and then I worked as a reporter for two years. Then I went back to graduate school and got a masters in journalism.

Do you think that was sound advice in retrospect?

I think it made sense at the time. I was really glad though that I went to Columbia and got the masters. I think I maybe went for the wrong reasons. I thought it would help me get a better job working for a better paper but instead it made me a lot better reporter.

Did you invent blogging for journalists? That was really forward thinking for '04.

Actually, I have a colleague who went ahead of me. Rich Roesler, who until this year was our Olympia reporter, started his blog first. It was called Eye on Olympia, one year before mine, and then they asked me to do the same thing and mine ended up really taking off more so than it did in Washington. I think just because of the relationship that people in Idaho have with their legislature that people feel like they can make an impact on their legislature, they're more interested in the intricacies and the ins and outs of what's going on down there than maybe they are in a bigger state.

As we start to move from blogging into microblogging and Twittering, do you have any reservations about moving in that direction? What are your opinions on the push toward social networking?

I don't have a problem with it. I've been doing Twitter and I don't know that I've been taking full advantage of it. I pretty much use it as a way to just notify people that I have a new item on my blog and it's a really quick and easy and cool way to do that. I haven't done much with Facebook. I tend to just read it and find out what all my friends are doing.

What about the changes in print itself, with newsrooms shrinking and fewer reporters? Obviously, you've dealt with that at the Spokesman Review.

It's just really awful. Our staff has shrunk so much and everybody is just scrambling. I've been through lots of ups and downs in the newspaper business over the years, but this is way worse than anything we've ever seen and I just never anticipated when I made this my life's work that it would come to this at the same time. There have been interesting and positive changes in recent years and the stuff we're doing online I think is part of that. There are new ways that we're reporting, things are very immediate and can be really fun, but we're also still doing what we've always done which is the in-depth reporting and the big stories that come out in the Sunday paper, and it gets harder and harder to build in the time to work on those.

Are there holes in Idaho in media, things not getting reported or beats not getting covered because of the changes?

I don't think I can throw stones at anyone. I mean, everybody is scrambling to cover everything these days. Of course, there are great stories that aren't being told but there will always be great stories that aren't being told, that's the beauty of being in the business is that we can go find them.

Having been through a couple of ups and downs in this business, is there an up coming or are we down for a while?

We're down for a while. We are so far down, I mean, I can't think of anything to compare to this as far as how much we've all pulled back and cut back on the core of what we've always done. It seems like I've been hearing for the last year that the newspaper industry or journalism will come out of this. It'll be a different shape, it'll still be important, it'll still be a part of our lives but it's gonna take a couple of years.

Is there one particular story you want to write before your career is over?

Yeah, well, not a particular story, but I would like to top a series I did in 1998 because I think that's the best thing I've done. It was a computer-assisted investigative project on why Idaho had so many inmates in its prisons. I think about how much time I put into that series and how much space it took up in the paper, and it's hard to imagine either of those being available today but I'd like to be able to do stuff like that again at some point.

What are you doing when you're not working on a story?

Well, I'm married. I have two kids, one of whom is a sophomore in college, the other is a junior in high school. I windsurf. I ski.

I hear you're a pretty fierce skier.

I've been skiing since I was 5 years old. I love to ski. The problem is, covering the state legislature, the ski season is at the same time as the legislative session, so I never get to take any big ski trips to other states. I am so grateful Bogus Basin is up there. I'm up there every weekend.

Is your Facebook photo of you windsurfing?

Yeah, it is. In fact I was up windsurfing this morning.

And you also teach Hebrew?

I do, although I don't speak Hebrew. I teach kids at the synagogue just the beginning, learning the Hebrew alphabet. It's a completely different alphabet with different letters and vowels and so it's kind of like a code and it's really fun to have the kids realize that they can crack this code.

How do you like being on the other end of an interview?

It's OK. I don't mind it. I've done it a lot in recent years, particularly when I was covering the Joseph Duncan trial in federal court, I found myself ... well, my newspaper had started a radio station around that time so I was constantly doing interviews where I was being interviewed by radio people and I got kind of used to it.

Any advice to young journalists?

When my daughter at one point said she was thinking about majoring in journalism, I said it's not a great time to go into journalism. I think that upcoming journalists need to have a really broad range of skills, and you can't just go into it to be a newspaper reporter anymore, that's clear. That's not a promising field right now, but if you can be a journalist on many different platforms and find lots of ways to tell stories, there's still a huge hunger out there for stories. We know that. Everybody likes to hear a story.

Any advice to upcoming windsurfers?

Take a lesson. The learning curve is killer.