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N3 journalist Austin Jenkins
Credit: Courtesy of KNKX and N3

The end of a Northwest news era. Our ‘guy in Olympia’ is moving on

It would be nearly impossible to count the number of times KUOW and Northwest News Network listeners have heard this sign-off:

“I’m Austin Jenkins, in Olympia.”

Sadly, we can’t expect to hear those words again in the near future. Journalist Austin Jenkins has left the public radio fold. He accepted a staff writer position with a Washington, D.C.-based start-up, Pluribus News.

Since 2003, Austin has covered Washington state government, public policy, and politics like no one else. KUOW’s Kim Malcolm took on the bittersweet task of sitting him down for his exit interview.

'I have loved this job'

I have felt that covering the Washington state Legislature and state government and politics has been both a calling and a privilege. I feel a tremendous amount of ownership of this beat. And as the ranks of the Capitol press corps have thinned, I have felt even more responsibility to shine a light on what happens down here. Plus, a lot of my identity is wrapped up in having been for so many years “public radio's guy in Olympia.”

State Capitol reporting he’s proud of

I've reflected a lot about this in recent weeks, and it really runs the gamut in terms of the stories, starting with the historic contested gubernatorial contests back in 2004 between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi, when the vote was too close to call and it ended up in a courtroom in Wenatchee. I covered the yearslong legislative and legal path to marriage equality in Washington state. Then there was the Great Recession and its devastating impact on the state budget and services. There was the drawn-out saga of indicted State Auditor Troy Kelley, the #MeToo movement and the subsequent reckoning here in the state Capitol, and the once-in-a-century pandemic, followed by the racial reckoning of 2020.

Memorable stories not tied to the Capitol beat

There was the murder of the four Lakewood Police officers in a coffee shop on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend in 2009. That was my last day of paternity leave for our firstborn. I went up to Lakewood to cover the manhunt for Maurice Clemmons, the gunman. I had covered terrible tragedies before that, but doing so as a new parent brought a whole new perspective to my reporting on that tragedy and in general.

I'm proud of the reporting I did on "The War at Home" project, Washington state-based soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan and dealing with the fallout of having been to war. I did a number of stories and profiles, including one about a young soldier who survived the war only to come home and die in a car wreck on an icy road as he went to work at JBLM one morning. I remember going with his family to collect his belongings from his wrecked car at the tow lot. That was bleak.

But of all those stories, the one that still literally brings me to tears. I interviewed Sgt. Nicholas Saucier about his time serving in Afghanistan. He told me about a day in October of 2009 in the Arghandab River Valley. It was the deadliest day for his Stryker Brigade deployment. That morning his best friend, Sgt. Dale Griffin, passed by him in a Stryker vehicle. Then Saucier felt an explosion:

Austin: At one point, Saucier broke away to check on the victims of the blast. That's when he spotted Dale.

Sgt. Saucier: I thought he was just knocked unconscious, and I turned him over, shook him a little bit, you know, tried yelling to him.

Austin: But Dale Griffin was dead. Saucier describes how he said goodbye to his friend.

Sgt. Saucier: I kneeled next to him and put my hand on his head and just gave him a kiss on the forehead and told him I was sorry.

Why he chose to be a journalist

The story I like to tell is that when I was in first grade, I was on an end-of-the-year school camping trip at Camp Cispus, not far as the crow flies from the base of Mount St. Helens. We were there on Sunday, May 18, 1980, when the mountain erupted. We had to evacuate. We spent the entire day slowly making our way back to Seattle, and when we got home, the TV cameras greeted us. I remember thinking, even then as a first grader, that as we had escaped the mountain, journalists were heading towards it to report on what happened. I think that stuck with me. I wanted to go to where the action was. As a kid, I would line up three black and white TVs on election night, tuned to each network. I got my start in local TV news. That was my first love, and then I made the transition to public radio, and really never looked back.

‘And then the disruption hit’

I think of 2007 as the year that everything started to change, with the arrival of iPhones and social media, and then the disruption in the newspaper industry, and suddenly, the world was changing quickly, and our industry was being upended. KUOW and the other NPR stations of the Northwest News Network never wavered in their commitment to having a bureau at the statehouse in Olympia, and I'm forever appreciative of that.

But then the weight of that, and the responsibilities of the job really grew. I think out of that I really embraced the idea of being a watchdog, and of doing accountability reporting, shining a light on state agencies and programs that weren't living up to expectations. I'm most proud of my reporting on failures to adequately serve vulnerable populations, people with mental health diagnoses, those with developmental disabilities, and vulnerable children.

And that work in this modern information age is so, so important. We're in an environment now where there are news deserts. And stepping into the place of traditional and reliable news organizations in some of those places are websites that are designed to look like news, but actually are not. We're combating disinformation and misinformation. And as I often say, the world is getting more complex. Our state, in particular, is growing by leaps and bounds, the budgets getting bigger, and we have fewer people to cover that increasing complexity.

The role of listeners in his work

This is so important, and part of what makes leaving public radio so hard. I always say the listeners are everything. The public radio model of listener support is unique. It's unrivaled. It makes us accountable to our audience, and it connects us to each other. The trust that we've built and the support we get in return is remarkable. And I've never taken it for granted. I know many listeners have contributed over the years to KUOW specifically because they said they wanted to support our Olympia coverage. I cannot say thank you enough for that.

Advice for budding journalists

I would say be curious, be open-minded, practice listening well, and embrace the challenge of helping your audience navigate an increasingly complex world.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.