Author, journalist and PubliCola editor Erica C. Barnett is Real Change’s 2023 Editorial Excellence Award winner. The recognition is meant to honor journalists who have transformed Seattle’s media landscape and advanced social justice by uplifting people whose voices aren’t often platformed.
For more than 20 years, Barnett has broken countless stories and covered issues that mainstream publications often neglect. Her dedicated, detailed-oriented storytelling has earned her a loyal audience of progressively minded readers. Much of Barnett’s coverage is focused on holding local governments and institutions accountable. She prides herself on elevating the voices of people who don’t usually get interviewed.
“The mission of PubliCola is to be, first and foremost, a factual news source but with a bias towards empathy and compassion,” Barnett said.
That empathy-first type of journalism is what drew Barnett to the field; she knew she wanted to be a journalist since she was five years old.
“I was motivated by a sense of justice and wanting the world to be fair,” she said. “I was always very interested in telling people’s stories and finding out more about the world outside of myself.”
Barnett began her career working for an alternative weekly paper in Texas in the ’90s before moving to Seattle in 2001 to work at Seattle Weekly and then The Stranger.
In 2009, Barnett and Josh Feit, her colleague at The Stranger, decided to take a leap and launch PubliCola. This was a big risk, since the Great Recession had caused many papers to lay off staff or totally shut down. Social media was still embryonic; many industry leaders prioritized print journalism over the web. But pivoting to go fully online was also a big opportunity — a Pew Research Center survey found that in December 2008 internet news consumption overtook print journalism for the first time — largely driven by young readers.
The two wanted to maintain an alt-weekly style while being able to spend more time on some of the issues that matter to them and their readers. Being their own bosses meant that Barnett and Feit could focus on the issues they cared about.
“We wanted to take a more in-depth approach and also cover specific areas, like homelessness, like transit decisions, like housing policy — and really in-depth coverage of City Hall,” Barnett said.
Unfortunately, journalism is a difficult industry to make a living in. In those days, the news site ran on a shoestring budget, relying on selling ads. In 2012, Barnett and Feit sold PubliCola to Seattle Metropolitan Magazine. In 2014, Barnett left the publication to take a break from journalism.
At the time, Barnett was struggling with addiction, which she chronicled in her 2020 book, “Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery.”
“It was a really dark time,” she said.
But that lived experience with hardship has helped Barnett report on issues like drugs, mental health and homelessness in a way many other journalists can’t.
“When I talk about empathy, part of that is I literally have empathy with people who are struggling with addiction or drug use or alcohol use, because I have been through it,” she said. “I’ve had a really tough road of it and a lot of privilege that empowered me in ways that people without as much privilege … are not able to do. I had access to more resources.”
“So when I cover people who are living on the street, who have mental health struggles or addiction struggles, I bring that lived experience to my coverage in a very real and transparent way.”
Barnett became sober and started working in journalism again, starting the blog The C is for Crank in 2015. With more people than ever getting their news online, the site started racking up more views and contributors.
In 2020, Barnett and Feit were able to reacquire the PubliCola name. Today the news site is doing better than ever. In September, Barnett’s coverage of the police killing of Jaahnavi Kandalu was cited by media outlets around the world. PubliCola is even looking to expand by hiring a new criminal justice reporter.
As local news outlets continue to dwindle, Barnett says PubliCola is more vital than ever.
“I don’t think people are aware of who their city council member is, what kind of decisions are being made on the local level,” she said. “It’s incredibly important, and it’s the one thing that people really can influence — both journalists and members of the public at large.”
Crucially, being independent also gives PubliCola complete editorial freedom. “We don’t have ads; we don’t have corporate sponsors,” Barnett said. “And that gives us a lot of freedom to cover what we want.”
Barnett also offered up-and-coming journalists some tips on the trade.
“The biggest advice I would give is talk to people who are down the chain: make friends with the aides, make friends with the person in the coffee shop at City Hall. Don’t just look for official statements from the people who are in power,” she said.
“Don’t talk over people when you’re interviewing them. Be willing to sit in the silence when you’re interviewing somebody because sometimes the best answers come after that silence,” Barnett said. She added, “File lots of records requests … If you’re starting out in journalism, file a records request a week.”
Outside of work, Barnett loves to travel to places off the beaten path: She recently returned from a trip to North Macedonia. Barnett also loves to garden.
“I’m really into the city’s P-Patch program, which I recommend to anybody who doesn’t have a yard or a house that they live in,” she said. “It’s really my favorite city program.”
Barnett hopes media outlets like PubliCola and Real Change can continue to cultivate institutional credibility while also offering a platform for people who are at the margins and don’t have power.
“Receiving Real Change’s 2023 Editorial Excellence Award is such a huge honor,” Barnett said. “I think it solidifies that PubliCola is at the same level as Real Change in terms of both editorial excellence and stability — institutional importance in Seattle as a non-mainstream outlet that is telling stories of people whose stories would not otherwise be told.”
Read more of the Oct. 4-10, 2023 issue.