Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Stories tell of hidden world within Tacoma’s midst

Create a whole series of front-page stories about a handful of holes in the ground?

Yep. That’s what we did.

But oh, what a set of geological wonders are the gulches of Tacoma’s North End. And what an interesting frame for a story that’s really about local citizen activism, about preserving the native environment vs. development, about public safety, the homeless and the magical hidden places in our midst.

Rosemary Ponnekanti wrote the series that begins on today’s front page. Her eyes light up when she talks about Tacoma’s gulches. And there’s a story behind how these stories came about.

Ponnekanti’s day job, since she joined The News Tribune eight years ago, has been writing about the local arts community. Her work normally appears in the Friday GO section. She’s a classical musician with degrees in music and fine arts.

Last year, as TNT photo editor Joe Barrentine was training reporters to shoot video for our website, Ponnekanti remembers him telling the group, “Rosemary’s beat is perfect for this. It lends itself to video.”

That both scared and inspired her.

So Ponnekanti enrolled in a University of Washington graduate program, seeking a master of communication in digital media. One of her elective classes was in digital storytelling. The class project was to create an “immersive multimedia story,” using video, animation and fancy scrolling that allows pictures and video to fade in and out.

After learning the required technology, Rosemary had to find a story to tell.

From the North End home she shares with her husband and children, she sometimes crossed the North Yakima Avenue Bridge over Buckley Gulch.

“I would lean over and look down and think, ‘What’s it like to be down there?’ ” she said. “I was intrigued. There’s nothing like that where I grew up.” Her hometown of Newcastle, Australia, is a wide-open beach town.

Ponnekanti asked her Tacoma neighbors about the gulches. Some warned that a little girl had been murdered in one. Others lived only two streets away and didn’t know the gulches existed. Either way, they couldn’t tell her much.

“I decided I should just go down there,” she said.

Ponnekanti started with Puget Gulch, then explored the others.

“These were incredibly cool places to explore in the middle of the city,” she said, “and no one knew about them.”

Admitting she became slightly obsessed, she began researching four of the major gulches. Each had a slightly different story to tell. Puget has been largely restored and made more safe. Garfield may be poised for restoration. Buckley, half privately owned, has landowners disagreeing about whether and how to develop it. Mason remains more pristine.

As she wrote the stories, Ponnekanti shot accompanying photos and video. Then she assembled the dozens of pieces into a single online presentation. It opens to a full-screen video of dark greenery, leaves blowing gently and birds singing. Readers press “Enter” to begin scrolling through. A clickable map lets them move from gulch to gulch, learning about the beauty and challenges of each.

“Down in Tacoma’s gulches, you’re in another world,” her online story begins, “a wild one.”

Go to thenewstribune.com to immerse yourself in Ponnekanti’s story. We disassembled it for the paper. We added new photographs and graphics. Today’s installment includes the story of Garfield Gulch. We’ll feature the other gulches over the next three Sundays.

Ponnekanti got an A on her project. But more important, she fulfilled the goal she set as a storyteller: “I wanted to make people feel like they were actually in the gulches. Lots of people can’t get to them or are afraid. I wanted to take them there.”


Beginning this week, you’ll notice some changes in our editorial pages. We’ll publish a single editorial page Monday through Saturday, with two pages on Sunday only. This single daily page is common for papers our size and for many larger papers, including The Seattle Times.

We also may target some days for content we want to highlight. Beginning Aug. 4, for instance, the Monday editorial page will be filled largely with letters and local columns. Letters are popular with readers, so we hope this makes Monday a destination for them.

Look for us to experiment with other days of the week as well. If you have ideas to share, email our editorial page editor at patrick.ocallahan@thenewstribune.com.

And look for even more editorial content posted online at thenewstribune.com/opinion.