Knute Berger: Why I'm a writer and a part of Crosscut

There's unusual freedom here to explore the Northwest's life, and there's a community of readers engaged in uncommonly civil discussions.

Crosscut archive image.

Knute Berger, Seattle's Mossback.

There's unusual freedom here to explore the Northwest's life, and there's a community of readers engaged in uncommonly civil discussions.

I knew I wanted to make my living with words in the 6th grade. I grew up in Mount Baker in a house full of books and curios. But I was slow to read. I struggled with Dick & Jane in grade school, bored out of my mind with whether Puff could run faster than Spot. Something finally clicked. In 6th grade, I had read the most biographies of anyone in John Muir Elementary, and secretly, I had decided to write poems like Edgar Allan Poe.

It was my mother, a poet, who suggested journalism as being more of a living than poetry, though even as I have followed that path she has occasionally reminded me that I should have learned a real trade, like plumbing, one that would be a handy fallback in tough times. Some days, I wish I'd listened. But the telltale heart of writing drove me elsewhere. Bathroom owners everywhere are grateful.

After years as a magazine and newspaper editor, a plumber of words I suppose, writing began to take over and is now in full control. Writing for Crosscut has been an incredible gig. When David Brewster and I began talking about it in 2006, I had just left my third stint as Seattle Weekly editor (a job I had taken over after David "retired") and wanted to focus on writing. David was interested in having me bring my Mossback column to his new online venture. I joined his brain trust and was eager to contribute on a broader range of topics more frequently than my once-a-week column had allowed.

Like any start-up, Crosscut has had its ups and down and lean times (and it certainly needs the help of new and renewing members during the fall membership drive it's conducting now). I have worked for struggling new ventures much of my career. My first job was with a magazine in the Silicon Valley where one of my early tasks as an intern was to bail my editor out of jail.

My publisher survived on happy hour cocktail weenies at his favorite bar on El Camino Real. When a (rare) paycheck was proffered, we staffers would race to the bank in a game of financial musical chairs. If six checks were written, we knew there was only enough money in the magazine's account to cover four or five. Before I was out of college, I had learned the fine art of kiting checks.

Start-ups like Crosscut, which is still only three years old, have an appetite for sacrifices on the part of staff and contributors, and a hope for patience on the part of readers as we learn by doing. They are by nature experimental. Unlike high-tech, there is no plan for a pay-off with stock options here. Many of us have grasped with some excitement the chance to create something new as the old media, and economy, are dismantled. The payoff is that Crosscut, while it's about new media and the future, is also about keeping something important alive: a tradition of good writing, essential to the life of a city. Crosscut is building a community of those writers, one that is enriching the local media landscape.

To me, a benefit of being part of the Crosscut writers stable is our twice-monthly lunches with Seattle newsmakers and politicos. While we eat pizza, our guests are peppered and grilled by writers from all across the political and experience spectrum, from right and left, young and old, expert and amateur, bike riders and SUV drivers. I've sat through countless ed-boards and interviews, and Crosscut discussions with people like Mike McGinn, Bill Gates, Sr., Tina Podlodowski, Sally Bagshaw, Charley Royer, Tim Ceis, Dow Constantine, Susan Hutchison, and Norm Rice are lively, revealing, substantive and unpredictable, more so because the perspectives of the writers are so different. You never know what's going to be asked. As Crosscut grows, it will continue to counter the kind of ideological monocultures that often crop up around blogs and "niche" media outlets.

David Brewster once told me that he wanted to create a kind of club-house for Seattle writers, and every other Tuesday, it comes close to that, yet it's not a place to talk about writing, but to wrestle with the issues and ideas shaping Seattle and the region.

My Crosscut mandate has been to write about the city and region I love (and sometimes hate), to follow my curiosity. I have never been given more freedom as a writer to simply pursue stories that I find compelling. I joked when I left the Weekly that I had become a "free-range mossback," and that's exactly what Crosscut's editors, and contributors, have allowed me to be.

People sometimes ask me what my beat is. The website says I am the chief Northwest "native" on staff. My business cards say I am the "Mossback columnist," and no one really knows what that means. I have sometimes described my beat as the "heritage beat" because what intensely interests me is history, place and identity, and how they influence our politics and culture. Almost everything I do comes back to that.

One area I've carved out is historic preservation, to which I would add archaeology and cultural resources. The physical and embodied heritage of the region is an incredibly interesting and an under-covered element of public policy. Millions, even billions, of our tax dollars are spent on heritage-related issues, from expanding a freeway through an Indian burial ground to arguing over whether to save a nuclear reactor building in the heart of Seattle. I've covered the controversies over naming the Salish Sea, the strategies for how to revive Pioneer Square, and a small blog item I was researching about an about-to-be-demolished Ballard diner turned into a national story about whether a 1960s era Denny's could possibly be a historic landmark. It's hard to imagine that any other media outlet would have supported this work because the beats would have been divided into "history," "business," and "real estate."

While my job is to express opinions, I find that being curious and looking for answers is more important than trying to have the last word. Northwest identity is still forming, still struggling between history and the future, between what we've really accomplished and our utopian ideals. There's a lot of ferment on this self-appointed beat, from historic preservation debates to trying to figure out how Seattle politics (and traffic) became so dysfunctional. There's a rub here between past and present, between tradition and reinvention, that makes it exciting, that challenges us writers. The more I write for Crosscut, the more I realize my own views are also a work in progress. Like a great school, Crosscut is a place to try them out and have them challenged.

In new media terms, Crosscut has been living in dog years. We're only three years old, but have already been through one for-profit incarnation before transforming into a community non-profit. In new media terms, we're oldsters. To be successful, we have to create something people need and want. It takes time. We're now at a critical point: We've built up a core of supporters and readers, and now grant support to help us expand the circle.

I'm happy to contribute to Crosscut and ask you to do the same. Seattle needs more media, not less. It needs more curious minds probing, exploring, debating. It needs more points of engaging citizens. A frequent thing readers always mention about Crosscut is how intelligent and civil the comments are compared with other online outlets. I think that alone says a lot about what we've been able to contribute to the city's new media ecosystem. We've recently received word of some important grants that give Crosscut some assurance that we can grow what we're doing, and key to that will be maintaining an active list of individual members and engaged supporters who donate and participate.

I know I'm deeply appreciative of our readers and supporters. I think we're all part of building an important and sustainable media and civic institution here in Seattle and the Northwest, one built on a belief in words, writers, and ideas.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.