Capitol Hill, Seattle — the neighborhood I cover as a hyperlocal reporter — is one of the most dense areas on the West Coast and many stretches of parking are at more than 100% of capacity thanks to creative drivers that turn corners, sidewalks and the like into spaces. Too many times I’ve sped to a breaking news scene only to spend another 20 minutes looking for a place to ditch the car.
After dozens of city tickets and fines from private parking companies over the years, I resolved this summer to employ a news bike. It has more than lived up to my hopes to be a faster responder and eliminated the hassles of driving a car into the city’s densest streets.
Here’s what I’ve learned from the first few months on the beat via bike — and I’ve also found that I’m not alone. Thanks to smaller geographic footprints, people in the hyperlocal news business are well positioned to make a bike part of their news coverage strategy.
“I cover town on a lime-green commuter bike,” David Boraks of Davidsonnews.net said. “It’s especially handy for chasing fire engines, which I find myself doing even 35 years after my days as a cub reporter. Just this morning, a call came in about an accident on the main road out of town. Rather than fight a traffic jam, I rode the mile or so up the street with my camera, and got the story. It was the most read item on the site today.”
Mary Morgan and Dave Askins who publish the Ann Arbor Chronicle in Michigan also make a bike part of their operation. “We don’t own a car – my husband/editor uses only his bike, and I use my moped or walk,” Morgan said. “But I must say I’m glad we have the Zipcar option too, especially when schedules are tight and locations are far-flung.”
My experience over the past four months has been the same — but I’ve rarely had a moment where I calculated that a car would be my faster way to get to the next story. Now that I’ve worked out routes, I can get to anywhere on the Hill — no matter where I start from — within seven minutes. When I arrive, the biggest challenge is only finding a place to lock the bike. And the two-wheel advantages are many. Once, while heading up the busy Madison arterial to the scene of an accident, I was able to wind my way through traffic to the scene ahead of everything but the big media helicopter crews. And, sorry helicopters, the accident happened inside a hospital parking garage — advantage, me. Being on bike has also helped when police are blocking off streets around an incident. I’m usually waved through even as cars are being turned around. Go ahead, scoop, the cops might as well say.
It hasn’t all been automatic, however. There are lessons to learn. My first experience as a biking neighborhood reporter was a disaster. Hustling up a hill toward a house fire, I ended up carrying the Craigslist bike I had been riding to the scene. It basically fell apart on the way up the hill.
Never again, I said, disgusted with my untrustworthy ride. I make one significant capital expenditure each year in my tiny bootstrap business. In 2011, that investment turned into my Kona commuter. It’s a sweet ride that looks a little too much like a cop bike — but sometimes I need a little boost in authority when I pedal up beside the TV news vans.
There are other lessons, too. Rain gear for a reporter and rain gear for a biking reporter are different things. I’m noticing a significant downtick in overall usage as the rainy days increase and the temperatures drop.
There’s also the camera problem. I can handle two things in my hands just fine. Fancy SLR camera in one hand (2010’s capital expenditure), iPhone in the other. Add a bike, and something has to give. There’s nothing more sickening than the sound of an expensive lens hitting the sidewalk. If I have time, I always lock my bike up first, now. But sometimes, like when you’re following a protest march, you have to keep moving. When that happens, either the camera or the iPhone has to go.
A final lesson for any prospective “biker-local” reporter comes on the maintenance front. Reporters tend toward the knowing a little about a lot end of the spectrum. So, when it came to taking my bike apart and working on it, I didn’t really dig into the details. I just got it done. In October, I made an adjustment to my brake pads without any knowledge about what I was doing. As I sped down a hill to cover the scene of a construction site accident later that day, I had my only blowout yet in the four months I’ve been riding. I was lucky. My half-assed maintenance resulted only in burning a hole in my tube. It was a good reminder and I was also punished with having to carry the bike the rest of the way to the scene. When you’re talking about the nuts and bolts that keep you alive, being sloppy is a good way to end up in the news, not reporting it. It was a little like my first attempt at bicycle-based news coverage. Only this time, I had already seen the benefits and wasn’t going to let a flat tire stop me.
Editor’s note: Justin Carder is the editor of Capitol Hill Seattle (CHS) and one of the founders of Seattle Indie Ads. He’s also part-owner of Central District News, of which I am the editor as well as a fellow “biker-local” reporter.