This Monday we want to share the story of Kelton Sears, currently the Culture and Comix editor at Seattle Weekly. He is a distinct voice in the Seattle and PNW community and has been honored by the Northwest’s Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) with multiple awards for his writing.
Grab your coffee and dive in below.
How did you find yourself as the Culture and Comix editor at Seattle Weekly?
It’s kind of a long story! I studied journalism at Seattle University and worked at the school newspaper, The Spectator, all four years of college. I slowly worked my way up from a blogger, to a part time staff writer, to a full time staff writer, A&E editor, and then finally, editor-in-chief. During that period I also interned a lot—twice doing news for Capitol Hill Seattle blog (where I learned tons of skills I still use today), once at The Stranger for the visual arts section, and once doing social media for an environmental group.
At the same time, I was also playing a lot of shows in a band called Kithkin, and got to know the local music community just by being around it a lot and touring the region. Right before I graduated, I was super nervous I wasn’t going to be able to find a job, and almost took a position at a running shoe store (I also ran track and cross country in college), but at the final hour, saw that Seattle Weekly was hiring a “nightlife reporter.” I applied and also pitched them an article about a giant abandoned factory on Harbor Island my band had shot a music video in that had become a haven for West Coast graffiti artists. Through some weird cosmic magic, I managed to find graffiti artists who were lurking around there one day, got them to agree to let me follow them around, and got a story out of it. The Weekly liked my story, invited me to an interview, and based on the strength of my writing from The Spectator, the factory story, and my knowledge of the local music community, landed a job there the day I graduated, which I still feel so lucky about and thankful for.
I’ve been there three years now, and actually ended up writing about far more than nightlife—everything from visual art, local politics, civics and social justice, environmental issues, architecture, etc. I think maybe a year into being there, I went to this annual festival called the Short Run that’s all about small press, comix, and animation, and my mind got totally blown. I had no idea there was such a huge Northwestern community of scrappy weirdos making these amazing underground comics. I was and still am so inspired by that community, and started looking for ways to sneak them into the paper. Inadvertently I fell into comics journalism that way.
I wrote a comics cover story with a local artist named Tom Van Deusen about me trying to find out what Seattle would look like in the year 2100 based on projected climate models, technology trends, etc, with the subhead being “Apocalypse or Utopia?” The pickup on newsstands for that story was really good, so my boss was game to let me do some more, and slowly I started working more and more comics journalism into the paper, hiring local cartoonists I met through the community from Short Run to work with us. When I became the music editor, I would have local artists do music journalism through comics almost every week, which did well online. When I became the editor of the Arts & Culture section, my boss saw how hard I’d been pushing to get comics in the paper, and asked if I just wanted to have a full on weekly comics section. I said “uh, absolutely,” and have been doing that since the beginning of the year. The comics are all by local cartoonists and range from comics journalism, illustrated interviews and goofy gag strips set in Seattle and the Northwest.
Which of your stories are you most proud of?
The story that stands the most out to me happened pretty soon after I went to that first Short Run. Given that it is a comix and animation festival, I started thinking about how cool it would be to combine comics, animation, and journalism, and started experimenting with what I call GIF journalism. I’ve tried it out with varying levels of success and some definite failures, but my favorite piece I did in that style was on this legendary, reclusive, wizardly claymation animator from Sea-Tac named Bruce Bickford. I was assigned to write an article about an upcoming art show he had at a local gallery, which I did, but while I was at his house, he offered to give me a tour of his animation studio. It was this mind blowing maze of bizarre psychedelic clay figurines, and the way he moved around was so fascinating to me, just his physical presence, so I started filming him as he gave me the tour. After the regular text article came out, I spent about a day and a half turning the footage into GIFs, hand animating little speech bubbles of things he said to me during the tour, and arranged it into a sequential panel-based narrative, like a comic. Given how visual the tour was and how (figuratively) animated Bickford was just as a human being, I think it was the most successful story I’ve done in that style, and the reception to it made me really happy. Some comics websites wrote about it, some French websites mentioned it for some reason, and Bruce Bickford asked if I wanted to work on some comics with him (which I was very flattered about, but had to turn down due to time). Now that I’m an editor, I haven’t had as much time to play around with that style of reporting, but one of my future goals is to do a long-form story in that style and really take the time to consider the impact of the layout and refine the animation.
I’m also really proud of a cover story I did about the Comet Tavern, this storied bar on Capitol Hill that, at the time I was writing it, had become this symbol for the gentrification of the neighborhood. It was this historically scummy, dive-y place, but had just been bought by two big local business mavens and was being renovated into this nice bar that wouldn’t have live music anymore. Everyone said that the bar was ruined. I did a super deep dive into the bar’s history, talking to all these previous owners and looking into archives, and wrote the story using the bar’s old mascot, Ed Comet, as a device to move the story forward and show that, in fact, people had said the Comet Tavern was dead many, many times. The story won me first place for Arts & Lifestyle reporting for the Northwest SPJ awards, which I was really stoked on. (We took a look and found that humble Kelton received another SPJ Honor this year for his article: How Odesza Became the Biggest Seattle Band You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.)
What is your favorite thing about your job?
I really love living in the Northwest and feel so rooted here. Working for the paper, I feel like I have the privilege, but also the responsibility to try and showcase all the amazing art and ideas that come from here. Getting the opportunity to spotlight that is probably my favorite thing. One of my policies at the paper is “locals only.” Our comix all have to take place in the Northwest or be about things within the Northwest, and I only work with Northwest cartoonists. All of our Arts & Culture stories are about local bands, artists or culture. We aren’t going to write a big article on, say, Radiohead coming through town playing at Key Arena or something. We’re more interested in talking about what’s happening at the little DIY venue/gallery down the street.
What is your interview style?
If I’m not already familiar with the subject, I like to do a lot of research an hour or two before the interview and type up a bunch of questions that occur to me so that I have a solid background, but don’t give myself time to feel overwhelmed by the minute details. Once I get to the interview, I like to have the questions on a piece of paper, but challenge myself to see how long I can go without looking at them so that it feels more like a regular, human conversation instead of a checklist. The best interviews are really more just like conversations, and they end up going in directions you can’t really plan for. In fact, I feel like too much planning can kill a good interview. Also, since I was in a band, I experienced how boring lots of music interviews are and how the questions are all the same (“When did you meet?” “What’s your band name mean?” “What are your influences?”). I always wished people asked us more about why we were making what we were making, so when I interview people I try to get to the heart of whatever they’re doing, what it’s about, and what motivates them to do that.
What do you look for in a story?
An interesting narrative, or an unusual angle. Stories are everywhere if you look at things through the right lens. Also, is the story surprising? Have people heard it before?
What is your day like at your job?
Every morning I come into my office, get a cup of coffee, and then delete a hundred or so junk PR emails (which continues throughout the day as they pour in). Then I try to answer the mountainous backlog of emails from freelancers I’ve neglected, something I still need to get better at (all the junk PR emails make this a constant struggle). That takes a lot of time since many of the emails are helping folks shape up stories, figuring out angles with them, giving them edits on their work, fielding pitches, scheduling stories, etc. Once that’s done, I try to make a list of everything I need to do that day—slots I need to fill in my sections, people I need to interview that day, stories I need to upload to the website. Then I just try to cross the list items off as efficiently as I can. I work pretty closely with my boss, our editor-in-chief Mark Baumgarten. He’s an amazing journalist, manager, and human being, so I find myself popping in his office pretty often to hear out my ideas. I also try to scour through SoundCloud and Bandcamp regularly to listen to all the new music coming out of Seattle, Bellingham, Olympia, and Tacoma so that I’m keeping up with the sounds coming out of the region. I try to listen to at least one new local album every day.
Who do you most look up to in the journalism industry?
It’s pretty corny, but Ira Glass. I interviewed him on the phone once and was so nervous, it was terrible. This American Life is what got me interested in journalism in the first place, I grew up listening to it. He’s taught me a lot about the power of narrative and how to structure a story. I also really admire the work of Art Chantry, the graphic designer for The Rocket, a Seattle-based, music-focused alternative weekly that isn’t around any more. The spirit his design gave that paper (plus all the cartoonists that filled its pages) inspires me to think about the visual aspect of journalism a lot. Walt Crowley, who passed away in 2007, is also a big inspiration. He was the editor-in-chief of Seattle’s first alt-newspaper, The Helix, back in the late ’60s, and in addition to writing, he was also an amazing illustrator/cartoonist (he often drew the paper’s crazy, psyched out covers, and his work influenced the poster art for Woodstock). He went on to work for the Seattle Weekly and then founded HistoryLink.org, an indispensable resource on local history that I reference a lot. His dedication to this region and his weirdo spirit is something I really look up to. Lastly, I really admire the work Bruce Pavitt, one of the co-founders of Sub Pop, did in the ’80s. Before Sub Pop was a label, it was this scrappy zine he put together with the intention of toppling the “pop music suprastructure” by highlighting and writing about weirdo bands from these unheard of regional scenes. That dedication to local, grassroots arts reporting, done in that DIY style, is a huge huge influence on me. I reference the anthology I have of all those zines all the time, I keep the book on my desk.
What is your favorite news outlet?
I really like fvckthemedia.com—how tactile they manage to make online journalism feel and the high-quality, left-field content they get. My girlfriend, Allyce Andrew, who is an amazing photographer and journalist herself, also turned me onto Fader magazine. I really admire how artist-focused they are, the depth of their storytelling, and how they really invest in great photography and design. I also love factmag.com for music news and finding really interesting, genuinely original new music, and The Comics Journal for really thoughtful interviews, reviews and features on new alternative comic artists and books.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I’ve had the first four songs off Rihanna’s Anti stuck in my head for like two weeks now. I guess I don’t feel super guilty about that though. Rihanna rules. I also like secretly taking more samples than I’m supposed to from Trader Joes.