His father had been a newspaperman in Salt Lake City, and when Carter was 19, he took a job as a copy boy at The Salt Lake Tribune and later as a crime reporter, interviewing some of the scariest sons of bitches in the west. After a 10-year stint as an Associated Press correspondent, he joined The Seattle Times in 1999. “Mike’s the consummate pro,” a fellow reporter recently explained. “He’s got that AP motor.” In other words, Carter doesn’t quit.
Another knock. No answer. By the time Carter walked back to his truck, the cops who’d rolled up at about the same time he had were swarming the premises. A SWAT team sheathed in body armor had rifles drawn. One officer climbed up a nearby tree for a better line of fire. Others closed off the streets. Carter was in the middle of what looked like a standoff.
The officers searched the house. Not a soul inside. The reporter expected the team to force him out of the area. The order never came. So he knocked on a few doors for quotes from neighbors, then retired to his truck and waited for more to happen.
Finally an officer approached him. The cop was holding something. He handed it to Carter. Half a sandwich from Subway. The SWAT team had gone for a lunch run.
Pick a name. Any name. First name, last name, date of birth—and as long as it’s a Washington state resident, chances are The Seattle Times can tell you more about that person than any agency in the world. Tax records, voter registration, marriage licenses, police reports—all information that’s available to the public but which the Times has culled into one giant database. Only two other newspapers in the country— The New York Times and Los Angeles Times —possess anything like it. Such resources had helped the Times win seven Pulitzers (though none since 1997) and attracted talent from afar. Investigative reporter Ken Armstrong, 47, was taken aback when he joined the paper eight years ago, after a long stint at the Chicago Tribune. “It was eye-opening how quickly one could get a hold of information.”
Shortly after the newsroom had confirmed the name of the Lakewood cop killer—and sleuthed out his addresses and clashes with Pierce County law enforcement—they began digging into his Arkansas files. Scrolling through parole records they found gold. The name at the bottom of Clemmons’s clemency certificate: Governor Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate and 2012 aspirant. They posted the story online at 5:41pm—before Troyer even admitted that Clemmons was a person of interest. Within hours websites around the country jumped on it, including politico.com and washingtonpost.com, waxing political on Huckabee’s new albatross.
The velocity with which the news hit the Times website was no accident. Shortly after the layoffs, editor David Boardman made the decision to seat web producers closer to reporters and editors at the metro desk to synchronize their efforts.
In recent years the paper had begun experimenting with social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, but it had yet to shake its reputation for dragging its feet through the digital age. Employees and freelancers privately speak of a newsroom long reluctant to embrace new media, one that misapprehended the nature of online content. Indeed, for years seattletimes.com was a mere duplicate of the print edition.
The old schoolers accepted the code jockeys in their midst, but when it came to social media they grumbled. Twitter’s distillation of info into 140-character blips offended their sensibilities. “All of the gadgets in the world can’t make up for a reporter on the streets,” says Mike Carter. “New media people are transforming our newsroom and I’m fine with that, but I’m a bit of a dinosaur.” “I’m a Twitter skeptic,” adds Armstrong. “So often it’s a vanity platform.”
But in late November 2009 it was different. Information was coming in too fast to be accommodated by standard online publishing, let alone the dead-tree variety. The Times needed something more nimble.