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Storm Beat: An Interview with Lori Tobias

October 1, 2020

Anyone who has spent time at the Oregon Coast knows there’s nothing like it. The Pacific Ocean can fill you with a sense of wonder and awe on the sunniest or the stormiest days, but life on the coast can be rough, tough, and risky. Author and journalist Lori Tobias knows that all too well. She spent the past decade covering the stories of those who call the coast home.

Tobias’s latest book, Storm Beat (OSU Press, 2020), explores the tragedies, accidents, and heartbreak that occurred during Tobias’ time covering the coast for the Oregonian. This interview sheds light on Tobias’ life as a journalist, the relationships she built, and the uniqueness of life on the coast.

Lori Tobias

OSU Press: What drew you to write Storm Beat?

Lori Tobias: I am a career journalist and I had been in Denver at the Rocky Mountain News, but I always wanted to live on the Oregon Coast. My husband got a job offer and we moved here. I was a little bummed because I didn’t have a news room. Eventually, I got on as a stringer with the Oregonian and then I became a staff writer. In the very beginning, there was a weird situation in a town on the north coast—there was a lot of political infighting and it ended up in a suicide. The fire crew had walked off their jobs in support of their chief who was the public works director. So, I said to my editor, “Hey, the whole fire crew walked off the job—is that a story?” and he said, “Lori, if someone dies, that’s a story.” A few months later, I saw this mournful op-ed piece in the local paper up north—the town manager had killed himself over this whole thing.

I just knew that there was going to be a story in this beat because there were so many things I covered and the Oregon Coast is so loved. It is Storm Beatalso quite dangerous. If you’re not watching yourself and do stupid things, you can pay very dearly. So, when I got laid off, Storm Beat was my therapy. I went through all of my journals and my notebooks and decided that I would only include the stories that had not been in the paper. It had to be something more than that and go deeper than what people already knew.

OSU Press: Throughout your book, Storm Beat, you meet many different people up and down the coast and you become a part of the coastal community. How did you build relationships and trust with the communities you were reporting on throughout your journalism career?

Lori Tobias: It happens gradually. You do a story, you get to know someone, and they feel that they can trust you. Those relationships often start with bad news. They start with the police and the sheriff’s department because you count on them to let you know. I had a close relationship with the Tillamook sheriff, Todd Anderson, so close I’d say, “Hey Todd, it’s me,” and he would know who me is. I met people by covering something that happened to them and as I’m chasing down another story, I might run into them. There was a woman who owned a seashell shop and a truck took her whole shop out and when I met her, she was just yelling and I thought I had done something. I had to know what happened so I said, “I’m sorry, but did I do something?” and she said, “No, no, it’s not you at all” and then she started crying. Her one cat had been injured and her whole shop was devastated. It got to where I would be driving and I needed a break and I would stop and visit her.

One of the first stories I did, a man was going to Afghanistan. He came home and brought me a shawl and now we’re family friends. It builds gradually, you try to be a good person, you try to do a good job, you try to abide by your work. If you tell them you’re not going to write something, you don’t. If you say it’s off the record, it’s off the record. If you push them a little too far, then you back off. It isn’t easy because these are small towns and it’s not that people are distrustful but I represented the big city, Portland. Most people didn’t realize that I’d been living in Newport for the past twenty years. They assumed I was coming in from the big city.

OSU Press: Your editor would often tell you, “Sorry…you gotta make the call” (24) when you would have to interview someone who just lost their loved one or someone who was in a tragic accident. How would you interview folks while they were grieving? How do you report with compassion?

Lori Tobias: You go to the family to give them the opportunity to tell the world who that person was and why they loved them. I absolutely hate making those calls, but you have to. I remember one of the first times I understood this. There was a horrific crash on I5 and three symphony members died. So, I made the call and one of the husbands called me back immediately because he wanted to talk about who his wife was and why he loved her so much and what a loss it was to the community. He really wanted that out there and it was an eye-opener for me. I just assumed I was intruding but that wasn’t always the case, I found out. One of the horrific cases that I didn’t cover was when London McCabe’s mother threw him off the bridge. At that time I wasn’t with the Oregonian, but they had texted me in the middle of the night asking me to report on this and I said, “No I won’t do it.” I just could not go out and knock on the doors and ask the questions that needed to be asked. I did later reach out to London’s father who did want to tell the world why his boy mattered and why people with developmental disabilities still get to live satisfying lives. He really wanted to get that word out there and I was really happy to do that for him.

OSU Press: Did your viewpoint about the Oregon Coast change with each story you wrote?

Lori Tobias: I don’t know if it changed so much as evolved. There is a lot of commonality and authenticity on the coast. These are real people who are doing real jobs. Generally, not keeping up with the Joneses. What I did learn, and I find this sad, is that there is a huge population of well-off people and an even bigger population of those who struggle to make ends meet. People work hard here and they struggle. People look at the Oregon Coast and they think this is a vacationland with the mansions and the resorts, but what they may not see is the family living in a tent on the hill whose only meal is what the school feeds them.

OSU Press: In Chapter Six: Cold Cases, there is a lot of tragedy and hurt that has left communities depleted and desperate for answers. What did it mean to you to be keeping people’s stories alive?

Lori Tobias: I couldn’t always do that and sometimes I didn’t do it as quickly as I would have liked to. With the Kara and Jenny case, it was an anniversary date and Jenny’s half-brother worked for my husband, so I was keenly aware of everything. As I say in my book, if I move to the other end of this room right now, I could point to where they were last seen. There are a few stories that I couldn’t shake and that was one of them. There were days if not weeks where I couldn’t stand to be in the house and I had to make sure the doors were locked. I didn’t want to go into the garage and I didn’t like the lights being off. I went through a strange feeling of vulnerability and there were times I would find myself staring out the window, tearful. You know details that you don’t ever forget. So, I was happy when I could keep it alive and hopeful that it would do some good. I can’t let go of the idea that we will never know what happened. Someone somewhere knows something. You just hope and wait that their conscience or DNA technology come through.

OSU Press: Some of the tragedies that you covered involved violence against women. Many of these incidents in your book turn fatal with little to no justice ever brought forward. With the Leah Freeman, Jennifer Esson and Kara Leas, and Melissa Sanders and Sheila Swanson murders, how did you manage to continue searching for justice even when there were no leads?

Lori Tobias: It isn’t my job to search for justice. It’s my job to shine a light on it and say let’s not forget about these cases and let’s find these people. With the Leah Freeman case, I felt strongly that Nick McGuffin was innocent. They didn’t have anything to support what they were saying and I just couldn’t get my hands around it. He also suffered an injustice. The Oregonian team of reporters and Lincoln country detectives think that they figured out who killed Melissa and Sheila, but that leaves Jenny and Kara and that one is still a cold case.

OSU Press: What did the Oregon Coast teach you throughout your reporting days?

Lori Tobias: To trust your instincts. That’s a big one. It taught me that we’re really all the same. Everybody hurts and everybody has had pain. You look at someone and you think that they’ve lived this wonderful and magical life then you find out they’re battling a chronic illness, or they just lost someone, or maybe they’re battling depression. I think I’ve learned to be kinder, which comes with living in a small community, because if you’re not kind you’re going to be knowing about it for the next six years. If you snap at the grocery store clerk, she’s going to remember it so you have to be nice. I wish I could say it taught me to slow down, because I need to, but it hasn’t. Trust your gut, be kind, and don’t assume anything about anyone. We all struggle.

OSU Press: Anything else you want to share about your book?

Lori Tobias: Storm Beat was hard to write. It was cathartic and I consider myself to be incredibly blessed to have had this beat, to have made the friends I’ve made, and I am so thankful the book landed with the OSU Press because I think that’s exactly where it belongs.

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