Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: A year in stories, impactful and important

Tacoma pages for Karen Peterson column for Sunday Dec. 27, 2015.
Tacoma pages for Karen Peterson column for Sunday Dec. 27, 2015.

As we wind down another year of news, here are some of our biggest and most important stories of 2015.

Fun stuff

Farewell to the Kalakala: To many, this 80-year-old ferry was just a rusted boat. To others, she was a relic of years gone by still worth saving. But after decades of attempts to bring the Kalakala back to life, her owner scrapped her in January. We posted photographers at five locations around Commencement Bay in the predawn hours to capture a time-lapse video of her last sailing. That video, combined with a series of stories retelling her history and last days, allowed us to put the Kalakala to rest and give a nod to Tacoma’s rich maritime past.

Super Bowl 49: Our preview coverage was more practiced as we headed into the Seattle Seahawks’ third Super Bowl, but our followup coverage took a somber turn after they lost in the final seconds. We published six dozen pages of related coverage in the paper, flooded the interwebs with stories and sent eight staffers to Phoenix. Covering these games lifts the spirits of our entire community. With any luck (we may need it), we’ll get to dust off the Super Bowl plan again in another month.

U.S. Open: For seven years, Pierce County planned to host our country’s golf championship, and we planned to cover it. When the curtain finally rose, the event did not disappoint. With 15 reporters and five photographers working from the course at Chambers Bay, we produced nine special sections packed with sports, fan and community angles. Our Chambers Bay web page drew huge traffic. This was some of the deepest and best sports coverage our team has produced, and it was a labor of love. Yes, we followed the news angles of security, traffic and cost, but it’s also OK for a newspaper to celebrate the successes. We’re now forever etched in the minds of golf fans as that place with the beautiful (albeit brown) golf course by the sea.

Heart-breaking news

Bonney Lake overpass collapse: In the blink of an eye on a Monday morning in April, a mother, father and their infant son died when a concrete wall fell from a state Route 410 overpass under renovation in Bonney Lake and crushed the cab of their truck. We soon would learn how great was the loss — youth pastors Josh and Vanessa Ellis and their 8-month-old son, Hudson. We shared the news quickly, then turned to write about these pillars of EastPointe Foursquare Church. The story continued with investigations by officials and by us that would hold those responsible to count, and more importantly, provide lessons that could prevent future tragedies.

Losing Izabel: After 16-year-old Izabel Laxamana jumped off an interstate overpass in May, social media ran with a story about how her father had posted a video showing her shame after he had cut her long hair as a form of discipline. The problem was, her father didn't post the video. Normally, we allow families to grieve suicides privately, but this story consumed and misinformed our community. Criticized for being slow to write, we waited to dispense information until we could confirm it. In the end, we counteracted runaway falsehoods of this tragic death with difficult, but necessary facts. It was our most-read story of the year.

Tacoma’s week of gun deaths: Elijah Crawford, 19, was killed Nov. 2. Steven Speakman, 26, was killed Nov. 3. Philip Ryan Jr., 19, was killed Nov. 7. These three young men, each with a family and the promise of many years, were killed on Tacoma’s Hilltop and East Side in one violent week. Their stories began with crime and courts coverage. Residents feared a return to Tacoma’s darker past. But we also tried to tell readers about the young victims, who included a hard-working student and an intellectually disabled man known for spreading cheer through his neighborhood. Their stories illustrate the real reason we all must work together to end the violence. The loss is far too great.

Stories years in the making

Hardest Hit: We have been to war too many times in recent years to cover our soldiers fighting to defend our country. Most service members have returned to the home front, but their stories — sometimes tragic — don’t end there. In July, we wrote about the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Six years ago, the unit went to Afghanistan and lost 22 soldiers. Since then, another eight soldiers have died. Our first story told about one of them, tormented by his experiences, who finally killed himself on his sixth attempt. Our second story was about survivors overcoming their losses to build new lives. Both were important reminders for a community continuing to cope with the aftermath of war.

Marina deaths: The most important work of a news organization is to shine light on problems so a community can fix them. Unfortunately, it took another death at the Narrows Marina before its dangerous boat ramp was fixed. In April, a retired Tacoma attorney was the seventh person to die after driving mistakenly down the ramp and into the waters of Puget Sound. We knew he was the seventh because we published an investigative story last year documenting the previous six. Finally in May, the marina installed a bigger barrier and closed the ramp to the public.

More work to be done

Mental Health: Our community falls far short of providing adequate care for people with mental illness. We have focused our journalism on this issue for years and were the first news organization to document the “parking” of mental health patients in hospital emergency rooms where they languished waiting for care. We also shone a light on how and why our county jail has become home for too many inmates who belong in a mental health facility. Some additional money has been applied and court fights are underway, but we will stay on this story, which now includes the promise of a new mental health hospital here in Tacoma.

Mark Lindquist: We’ve spent more pages covering the troubles of our county prosecutor than his supporters think is warranted. But here’s how we see it: The elected official we depend on to run this most important judicial office without fear or favor was found by a court to have behaved in a vindictive manner. Two whistle-blowers from his office confirmed our stories about how the prosecutor commandeered the wheels of justice in a child porn case. A state bar complaint and recall petition were filed against him. He faces an ethics complaint for receiving free legal representation from a lawyer who then got more than $587,263 of county work. County taxpayers have spent more than $1 million defending him in court. It doesn’t matter what his name is; that is news. Expect it to continue.

Community conversation: In May, the TNT editorial board was asked to host a conversation that included members of Tacoma’s Black Collective and city officials. It was an honor to participate in this important meeting, and the city manager and police chief held subsequent listening sessions with the community. We need to return our attention to see if members of this group believe we have made sufficient progress on the issues of police accountability and race relations.