I usually don't notice Journal bylines at first. Once I'm a sentence or two in, I can often tell who wrote it — especially if it was Heidi Walters. We encourage all our staff writers, and columnists and freelancers, to write with voice. For the last 10 years, no one has had a voice quite like Heidi's.
"A fancy, feisty lot of mules and horses tore up the loamy, dark track yesterday in Ferndale," she once wrote, and I was right there at the rail with a $2 bet on No. 5, not seated at my desk.
Heidi left the Journal and the news biz last month in order to devote all her writing time and energy to fiction. We're happy for her and sad for the rest of us.
Heidi joined the Journal in 2005. She started her career in the late 1980s in Bishop, California, "a place that uncorked my passion for water, land and biodiversity issues," she said. A cover letter and resumé like hers, plus a string of awards from the Nevada Press Association, won her the Journal job sight unseen.
I'm starting to work on a project celebrating the Journal's 25th anniversary later this year. The modern and sensible thing would be to research online. Instead, last week, I pulled out the fat bound-book edition of weekly Journals for 2005. There was the voice soon after she arrived mid-year:
"This is a story about a bunch of rocks. Now, some people would have you believe these particular rocks — sea stacks, islands and jabby pinnacles out there in the Pacific, mostly visible from shore — are meaningless, without life or value. They sit there all day, seemingly doing not a damned thing, while the ocean crashes, splashes and rolls all about them."
Sure, it was a story about rocks. It was also about history, Native American culture, myths and science, and the present-day concerns of protecting the sea stacks off our coast. That year she also wrote a cover story on the Williamson Act's 40th anniversary and she poked us by asking, "Why so glum, Humboldt?" when the rest of the state was downright celebrating the landmark legislation. She got to know her new home by covering crime and politics, bay dredging, dams on the Klamath, dwindling salmon runs, and a controversial plan to build a casino on Big Lagoon. She wrote about social issues by first being a good listener and an even better observer. To understand a new program called "homeless court," she spent hours on the street talking to clients in line for a noon meal provided by St. Vincent de Paul. These people told Heidi their stories and she told us.
And along the way, she began racking up her share of writing awards for the Journal, along with her colleagues. She will receive another pair in May from the California Newspaper Publishers Association's 2014 Better Newspapers Contest. She's being honored in the categories of agricultural reporting and feature writing for her stories, "Fear vs. Hope," (Oct. 2, 2014) pre-election coverage of the local GMO ballot measure, and "Jack Mays," (Feb. 20, 2014) about the Ferndale artist, respectively.
For a decade, Heidi was pretty much everything you want a reporter to be, including truthful, brave and compassionate. We will miss her voice. We wish her luck and hope to be at her book signing some day.
We were notified last week that we won a total of eight CNPA awards, including Heidi's. We have won numerous times over the last two decades in the categories of investigative, agricultural, and environmental reporting. That's true this year as well, plus another award for graphic design. But the Journal also won — for the first time ever — best columnist, best overall arts and entertainment coverage, and general excellence.
We won't know whether the CNPA awards are for first or second place until the "reveal" at the annual press summit in San Diego in May. But we're celebrating anyway — early and often.
Here are the categories and individual honorees:
• General excellence
• Overall A&E coverage (Jennifer Fukimo Cahill, arts and features editor)
• Investigative reporting ("Unsealed," April 10, 2014 by Thadeus Greenson, news editor)
• Agricultural reporting ("Fear vs. Hope," Oct. 2, 2014 by Heidi Walters, staff writer)
• Feature writing ("Jack Mays," Feb. 20, 2014 by Heidi Walters)
• Environmental reporting ("Point of No Return," July 10, 2014 by Thadeus Greenson)
• Graphic illustration ("How's the Water?" April 17, 2014 by Holly Harvey, art director, and Miles Eggleston, graphic artist)