The 2014 Paul deArmond Citizen Journalism Award wasn’t a popularity contest. But if it had been, Riley Sweeney still would have won it.
The loosely knit community of citizen journalists in Whatcom County has a penchant for reporting on environmental threats and the misdeeds of local and state governments. Most of these people write sternly, often contemptuously, and I have found out firsthand they don’t have much of a sense of humor. Sweeney, while sharing his cohorts’ worldview to a large extent, is nonetheless the antidote to the prevailing humorlessness.
A recent piece of Sweeney gold, both insightful and funny:
“(County Council member) Barbara Brenner is the kiwi to our Whatcom County fruit salad — you’re not really sure how it got there, or why it keeps getting put in, yet it is popular with the oddest people.” That was from Sweeney’s 2015 election preview, which he posted on Jan. 9.
Sweeney, 28, showed his aptitude for blogging when he worked for U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks’ campaign in 2008. From the occasional explanation of the issues on Facebook at that time, Sweeney graduated to regular contributor to John Servais’ longstanding citizen journalist blog, Northwest Citizen.
Sweeney calls Servais a mentor.
“He took a chance on me,” Sweeney said on Wednesday, Jan. 21, in a phone interview. Ask of him 700 words a week, Sweeney said, recalling Servais’ words, and “he’ll deliver gold.”
“Maybe it was polished copper,” Sweeney said, mock-responding to Servais’ faith in him.
“He was always there for advice, and it really helped,” Sweeney said. “Even when we passionately disagreed about things, he was always cheering me on.”
For his part, Servais said he is flattered to be seen as a mentor.
“I saw a young fellow who was willing to speak out, who was willing to have a voice,” Servais said on Tuesday, Jan. 20. “So many people have good critical thinking skills, but when it comes to them writing and putting it out there, they don’t. ... Here is someone that would.”
The Paul deArmond Award selection committee includes Servais. He said Sweeney was chosen for being consistent, for keeping up with his blog, The Political Junkie, while maintaining a personal life and a day job.
Consistency has undoubtedly been a key to Sweeney’s success. One year ago, when Sweeney told his readers he had a goal of raising $500 for enhanced coverage of the state Legislature, he exceeded that mark in 24 hours, he said. He regularly asks for donations and raises about $50 to $100 a month, he said. The money goes toward expenses: the website, video productions and “lots of cups of coffee.”
Sweeney has about 500 subscribers and anywhere between 300 and 700 hits a day on his blog, he said. What advice does such a well-established blogger have for those who are up and coming? It appears Sweeney would agree with Servais that a lot of would-be citizen journalists are held back simply because they don’t make the leap and start writing.
“I would say, dive right in. It’s a trial-and-error sort of business. I only know that because I’ve made so many errors,” Sweeney said. “Write something, and submit it to Northwest Citizen or the Whatcom Watch or to me, and I’ll use it as a guest post.”
Paul deArmond died in 2013 at the age of 60. He was enormously respected in progressive circles for rooting out the burgeoning right-wing extremist movements in 1990s Whatcom County, according to various accounts of him, including an appreciation written on the occasion of his death by Tim Johnson (another award selection committee member) in Cascadia Weekly.
Johnson wrote of deArmond, “The public domain was Paul’s domain. He was ... a pioneering practitioner of what political analyst John Keane calls ‘monitory democracy,’ the power of citizens to hold their government accountable not just at the polls, but every day, through the assembly of data and documents and networks in all their forms.”
Sounds like Riley Sweeney to me.
“deArmond did some fantastic work in terms of muckraking and getting at the story beneath the story, so to receive an award in his name — I’m very honored and blessed,” Sweeney said.
The first recipient of the deArmond Award, for 2013, was local-government gadfly Wendy Harris. The brightest objects in her constellation of civic concerns are habitat connectivity and animal welfare. She expresses her views regularly on her own Facebook page, Whatcom Hawk.
Johnson wrote memorably about Harris in Cascadia Weekly a year ago:
“When government officials see Wendy coming to the microphone, they swallow hard and get their papers in order. Not much more than that needs to be said about the importance of her work.”