The death of a reporter’s reporter

Trace Christenson wouldn’t like that I’m writing this.

Trace was a reporter, and reporters should never be part of the story.

But Trace is a big part of my story, so he’ll just have to suck it up.

First, the facts, because those mattered more to Trace than anything else: Trace fell down his stairs last week and suffered severe head trauma. He was pronounced dead on Sunday. He was 72 years old.

Trace was the cops and courts reporter at the Battle Creek Enquirer. He published a story two days before he died.

Trace was a classic, embedded reporter, with such good relationships with his sources that he used the employee entrance at the courthouse and regularly sat in on the daily staff meetings at the police station. Because of him, the Enquirer has — or, at last, had when I worked there eight years ago — standing access to each night’s police reports for reporters to peruse to build the daily police blotter for the paper. That kind of access usually requires a formal request through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

Trace slept with a police scanner and responded to every shooting, stabbing, and house fire and most major car crashes, regardless of whether he was scheduled to work or not. When I worked as a cub reporter at the Enquirer, covering nighttime breaking news, I always challenged myself to beat Trace Christenson to the scenes of major emergencies and crimes. I did so only once.

Trace could be gruff, just like a classic metro reporter should, but he had a lot of patience for newbies and mentored every young reporter he ever worked with.

Reporters usually have to stay behind the police tape at the scene of a crime, but, if the right sergeant had control of the scene, Trace got behind the tape and took his young coworkers with him so we could get closer photos and videos.

Trace taught me that a cop is always right on the street. If you believe a police officer gave you an improper command, wrongly blocking you from a breaking news scene — which rarely happened in Battle Creek, thanks to the relationships Trace built — you obey and take it up with the officer’s superiors later.

Trace taught me to never ask if you can have someone’s name. You just ask them, “What’s your name?” Nine times out of 10, they’ll give it to you.

Trace taught me all the right questions to ask at a breaking news scene: First and most important: Was anybody hurt? Then: What time did the call come out? What was the cause of the fire or the crash? What hospital did people get taken to? Has anyone been arrested?

Trace taught me to end every interview with: What else can you tell me? People — especially police — tend to answer the questions they’re asked and won’t necessarily volunteer information unless you give them a reason to.

Trace taught me that cops, firefighters, judges, and lawyers are all just people you can walk up to and ask questions of. Most reporters are afraid to do those sorts of things when they first start out, intimidated by the uniforms and the formalities. Trace wasn’t intimidated by anything, though he was quick to tell young reporters he was intimidated, too, when he first started out.

Trace also had a lot of tight sources with the hot air balloon crews who came for the annual Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival every summer in Battle Creek. Trace even worked a balloon crew. It’s because of Trace that most Enquirer reporters get to ride in a balloon and or even a helicopter or airplane during the festival, getting amazing pictures and video and a great story.

Trace taught me how to write a lede, straight and to the point, just the facts. Hit all of the five W’s — who, what, when, where, and why — within the first three paragraphs, if you can. Keep the rest of the story as tight as possible, only what readers need to know.

In fact, this column is already too long for Trace Christenson’s liking, so I’ll sign off by saying I’m the journalist I am today in part because of Trace Christenson, and I’ve passed many of his lessons on to other reporters I’ve mentored and trained over the years.

Just ask Julie Riddle, The News’ cops and courts reporter.

The Battle Creek Enquirer lost the best reporter it ever had when Trace died, and Battle Creek lost a lion for truth.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.


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