The third annual Paul deArmond Citizen Journalism award dinner on Feb. 12 in Bellingham was bigger than ever -- a bigger venue, more guests, a higher bar tab and, most notably, not one Citizen Journalist of the Year but two.
I was the newcomer on the committee that selected the 2015 honorees, Sandy Robson and Neah Monteiro. (I think my biggest qualification was that I had quit the Herald.) After we had sipped down the first round of drinks and dispensed with the political gossip, it took all of three seconds to name Robson the consensus choice for “Citizen Journalist of the Year.”
Robson is one of several local citizen journalists who appear to have boundless time and energy for attending civic meetings, researching public documents and writing her revelations onto online platforms such as CoalStop.com and the social media outlet “Whatcom Hawk” on Facebook. Much of Robson’s writings can be found alongside those of other citizen journalists (including writers at NWCitizen) on Dena Jensen’s aggregator, NoisyWatersNW.com.
“If there were a Pulitzer Prize for citizen journalism, Sandra Robson would win it,” said Tim Johnson, editor of the Cascadia Weekly and another of the seven members of the deArmond committee.
As Johnson pointed out, Robson not only broke news, she was a crossover hit of sorts, hitting big-city and mainstream news outlets.
Robson’s investigation into the emails of the 2015 Charter Review Commission revealed what she took to be a smoking gun: The conservative majority on the 15-member body that was charged with recommending changes to the county charter -- essentially a constitution for Whatcom County government -- wanted to change county council elections in order to improve the chances that a coal terminal would get built at Cherry Point.
Robson’s story was picked up by Seattle-based Sightline Institute (“Why Big Coal Likes Gerrymandered Districts,” July 30). Her work prompted this reporter, then with The Bellingham Herald, to read all the Charter Review Commission emails for himself and write up his own investigation -- months after Robson. (She did the heavy lifting for me; when I called the county office to request the records, I said, “Give me what you gave Sandy Robson.”)
I take it as an indicator of the health of citizen journalism in Bellingham that the committee deemed two individuals worthy of honors for 2015. For the first time in its three years, the deArmond committee gave a special recognition -- to Monteiro, for combining citizen journalism with social action.
Monteiro is a founding member of the Bellingham Racial Justice Coalition, which seeks to dismantle systems that lift up white people and oppress people of color.
Nothing is more dangerous to the status quo than an activist with journalism training. Monteiro not only knows how to report what's going on; she knows how to do something about it.
While in graduate school for journalism at Temple University, Monteiro completed research on The Bellingham Herald’s coverage of Gateway Pacific Terminal’s proposed coal port, and the port’s conflicts with Lummi Nation. She concluded that systemic racism in the mainstream newspaper limited its ability to cover the coal terminal in particular and tribal concerns more generally.
She decided mainstream journalism wasn’t for her. She returned to her native city of Bellingham more than a year ago and began both reporting on and doing social actions. Her round-the-clock Instagram posts in May 2015 from the Bellingham waterfront, while Chiara D’Angelo and others protested oil drilling from the anchor chain of the Arctic Challenger, were better than any newspaper or TV account for their ability to make her audience feel like it was on the scene with her.
In August, Monteiro, Junga Subedar and Brooke Hagopian published a real throwback piece of journalism, a zine titled, “The Perilous History of White Supremacy in Bellingham/Whatcom County.” On a personal note, it was the single most influential piece of media I read in 2015. Hard copies are scarce, but it’s available in its entirety on pdf at perilouspress.tumblr.com.
Monteiro is a central figure in the new community radio station, KVWV 94.9 FM, where she organizes the Grassroots Youth Radio Camp. Monteiro wrote about KVWV this month for Whatcom Watch.
When I introduced Monteiro at the awards dinner, Feb. 12 at Soy House, I told her I would not say “Keep doing what you’re doing,” because my words along those lines apparently were the kiss of death to 2014 recipient Riley Sweeney’s citizen journalism career. (After I gave a speech about him at last year’s dinner, he was co-opted as a city of Ferndale employee.) But I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Robson and Monteiro do keep it up. They make Bellingham a better place.