One lingering question: No matter where you go, everyone's problems are similar

Posted: Friday, May 29, 2009

On a cool lush green May morning about a year ago, I slid into my car packed full of junk, twisted the keys forward in the ignition and let it roll down my parents' driveway, my destination, over 5,000 road miles away, in Sterling.

I'm having trouble believing that was just a year ago, and even more that I've been in this place for nearly that long.

I know, the old-timers, they'll roll their eyes as they read this. That reaction, it's common around here.

My colleagues and I have discussed it often.

How many times do I start a conversation with a cantankerous interviewee by being asked, "So, how long ya been here?" It's rarely asked out of genuine curiosity.

I seem to hear it more as one of those questions that might be phrased more honestly as, "Ask me how long I've been here so I can give myself a pat on the back, and maybe throw a jab in about how you know nothing."

It's disheartening, and often I'm tempted to just to hang up the phone or switch off my recorder when I hear that.

Oddly, I was once asked that question, misheard it, and told an old fellow I was local.

Truth be told, it was 100 percent innocent on my part, but I had no different an interview with the guy than I would have, had I said otherwise, he just happened to have a higher opinion of me.

What a joke.

In this profession, we're paid to ask questions.

We seek out those who have something to say, and hopefully know something about what they're saying. It helps to have a couple years of background experience, to know the history of a particular topic.

At the same time, I can vouch that in the long dark cold months, it's rare that I get to have a quick interview with any of my sources. In every one of my beats, if I need the back story on an issue related to schools, fishing or the Legislature, I'll get it, sometimes whether I want it or not.

But that's what I'm paid to do, to ask a question, shut my mouth and record what I hear.

Let's be honest, you don't need to have lived here since the last ice age to do that.

I know this is going to ruffle some feathers, but as exciting as some of the controversies and issues in this area are, at heart, they're not much different than those facing "Anywhereville USA."

Yes, we're Alaska, we're more extreme, there's some things here that cannot be paralleled Outside, that's for sure, but our politics and resource debates sound about the same as those I've covered in other places.

Funding for public schools comes to mind.

The recent tiff about whether to provide the district with the full amount of local funds set off a small wave of panic and left borough assembly meetings packed. What the KPBSD went through, however, pales in comparison to what's happening in California right now.

Does that mean that only reporters in California know how to cover education funding stories?

Another crowd I often get "the question" from is the entrenched anglers.

Much the same, however, the debates over fishing, whether it's allocation or user group conflicts, are no different than most resource issues and stakeholder quarrels.

The obvious example here is water scarcity in the southwest. You can spend all day picking apart the context and local relevance, yep. But the core issues and the emotions those involved often feel, the things I'm paid to dig for and report on, those are ubiquitous.

So I guess next time you feel compelled to find out how "new" the latest Clarion reporter is, maybe consider instead just answering their questions, and when the end of the interview rolls around and they ask the final, "Is there anything I've overlooked or didn't ask?" question, capitalize on the opportunity to fill us in.

I'm on the clock and my ears are open.

Dante Petri is a reporter for the Clarion. He can be reached at

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