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June 16, 2021

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Q&A: UNLV grad talks winning Pulitzer, what journalists need to learn in school

On a quiet Saturday morning in March of last year, a landslide an hour north of Seattle buried a neighborhood under mud and debris, killing 43 people.

Hannah Birch, a 2012 graduate of UNLV’s journalism program working at the time as a web producer at the Times, was one of the first people at the newspaper to hear about the disaster. In the early hours of the story, she helped gather information, organize reporters and make crucial decisions that had sweeping consequences.

For her efforts and for the continued and extensive coverage by the newspaper’s reporters in the months that followed, the Seattle Times won a Pulitzer Prize.

Now a web producer at ProPublica, Birch told the Sun about her experience covering the landslide and what she learned along the way.

Describe what happened that day.

It was a slow Saturday morning shift, which are typically extremely uneventful. I was just keeping an eye on Twitter, making sure nothing was happening, freshening things up on the homepage. I noticed on Twitter that a state trooper was tweeting about a mudslide, which wasn’t that unusual for that time of year. We didn’t take it super seriously at first, but as that same trooper got closer to the slide, [he posted] a photo on Twitter of a house in the middle of the highway. I was like, “Wow that’s a house in the middle of the road. That doesn’t usually happen.”

The metro editor, me and another reporter talked about it and decided that it looked like a big enough deal that we should send someone out. It’s about 45 minutes away from Seattle, so there was this tense hourlong stretch where nobody expected this to be a big deal. There was this weird vacuum of information.

It really took a couple of days to clarify exactly how big this event had been. Getting back to work on Tuesday, I realized what a sustained effort this was going to take to cover because it was so enormous.

How did what you do affect the coverage?

That first day I was the only producer in the build at the time. It was a lot of talking to the metro editor and deciding whether to send a reporter in the first place. I made a slightly panicked phone call to the photo editor to make sure I could actually save [the Twitter photo of the house in the landslide] and put it on the homepage. I was watching Twitter the whole time working with the metro editor to update a blog post we had about what was going on. There were a lot of conversations with the editor in the newsroom but at one point I got a call from the executive editor of the Seattle Times, Kathy Best. She was trying to get a handle on how we were doing in the newsroom. It was really frustrating early on because we knew that people had died and homes had been destroyed, but we didn’t have that confirmed to the point where we felt comfortable putting it in a headline or sending it out in a breaking news alert to a whole bunch of people.

I just remember this moment of Kathy Best wanting me to play this as big as we could but also noting that we don’t actually know yet. Having to just sit tight even for another 10 minutes made the difference, but it was really hard.

After that it was a monthlong effort, honestly. The adrenaline wears off a little bit and every day there’s worse news about more people who are dead or missing. We put together a page memorializing the victims of the slide. Photographers say that the camera can be distancing. Sitting in front of a computer in a newsroom has the same effect. There’s just an overwhelming feeling of empathy for everyone. It was impossible to work on that story and not let it get to you.

It’s sobering. You want to do well by these people who, by a really unfortunate set of circumstances, lost their homes or their families or their livelihoods. Seeing those personal stories juxtaposed against some of the watchdog stories we had been doing really early on — about how there had been signs for decades about how that hillside wasn’t stable, about how maybe we shouldn’t have been building a development underneath this big, unstable hillside — there was this feeling of outrage, incredible sadness and exhaustion.

What was your reaction when you found out the newspaper had won?

I was in the ProPublica newsroom. I was at work and everyone was livestreaming it because ProPublica had a couple of stories that were up [for an award]. I initially hadn’t even thought about it. I knew that the Seattle Times had been putting together an application for breaking news, but I was just thinking about ProPublica at the time. Then they were like, “Seattle Times!” and I was like, “Oh my God!” And then my Twitter stream full of my Seattle Times colleagues blew up, which was a lot of fun.

What did you learn?

A few things. I remember thinking sitting in classes in school that while all of this info is good to know, that other people would be making those decisions. Then the slide happens and I have the executive editor saying, “You need to put this on the homepage,” and I’m just thinking that I don’t know if we can actually legally do that. And realizing I’m the person making that big decision.

There was this duality of breaking news coverage at the time that was just amazing. I remember being struck even a couple days after the slide, when we really didn’t know how big it was. The Times had invested a lot of resources in the investigative angle already. I remember reading a watchdog story early on, thinking that it seemed like something that would be produced a month after and it was still only a few days. It was remarkable.

In this instance, we had a few days and it still came together in a way that was really meaningful.

Is there anything you wish you had learned in school?

I do wish journalism programs focused more on practical skills. I think the Greenspun School does a pretty good job of giving student hands-on experience of the work they’d eventually be doing. I just think that of some of the theory classes that I took — it’s not that those weren't helpful or inspiring — it’s just the practical skills are what matters. This whole industry is like a contact sport. At the end of the day, it’s about the work that you produce.

What would your advice be to students?

I think one of the most important things is to pick something that you are passionate about that is specialized enough that you can hone your skills while in school and be good enough so that when you graduate, someone will hire you to do that thing.

I think it’s toned down since I left, but there was a big emphasis when I was in school that you need to be the fat-cat, hyper-versatile journalist. I’m not going to tell somebody they shouldn’t be versatile, but I think what ends up happening is that students focus so much on being able to do everything that they graduate and they don’t have any one skill that really sets them apart. They’re not to a point where someone feels like they can actually hire them to do a job, which I think is a disservice.

You need to be able to do one job really well to the point where you can get in the door somewhere. At that point, if you’re lucky like I was, they’ll let you try other things.

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