LONG BEACH — In hindsight, journalism seems like an obvious career choice for the Chinook Observer’s newest journalist, Amy Nile.
“I’m the kid who forced my mom to tell me Santa wasn’t real at five, because that didn’t sound like an accurate story,” recalled Nile, 34. She joined the paper in mid-January.
Despite early signs that she wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions, the adventurous, award-winning journalist worked for an “all-golf, all the time” radio station, and spent five years as a continent-hopping flight attendant before deciding she wanted a career in journalism, and a home in Washington.
From ‘rebel’ to reporter
Nile grew up in Forsyth, Montana, a pioneer settlement along the Yellowstone River with a population of 1,777. Her civic education began while going to work with her mother, Geraldine Custer, a state representative and former Rosebud County elections official.
“Mom had a sign on her desk that said ‘Didn’t vote? Don’t bitch’,” Nile remembered.
She eventually came to share her mother’s interest in civics and public service, but on orientation day at the University of Montana in Missoula, 19-year-old Nile’s mind was elsewhere. While she explored the new wealth of social opportunities, Custer went to an orientation seminar, and heard a message that seemed tailor-made for her daughter.
“The dean of the School of Journalism said, ‘If your kid is a rebel, send them to me, and we’ll make a hell of a reporter out of them,’” Nile said. She had planned on studying communications, but she told Custer she would think about journalism.
“I was really good at questioning authority,” Nile said. “Particularly hers.” She made up her mind when she learned freshmen on the journalism track took drama — which sounded easier than the interpersonal communications class freshmen English students took.
A discouraging encounter with a print journalism professor led Nile to apply to the broadcast program instead. Gradually, she started to genuinely like “minding the people’s business.” She reported for the university radio station, becoming news director during her senior year. That year, a print-journalism professor who told her she was “talentless” and unfit for journalism had to present her with the “outstanding senior” award.
All golf, all the time
After graduating and studying abroad in Spain, she returned to Missoula in need of a job. A journalism professor told her two recent graduates were setting up a golf-themed satellite radio channel. They needed someone to start producing “Pure Golf Live, With Peter Kessler” right away.
Nile wasn’t into golf, and Kessler was trying to come back from making controversial remarks about female golfers. But she and Kessler worked well together, and she stayed at the station until she decided it was time to travel again.
“I really wanted to get out of Montana, and ideally to return to Europe,” Nile said.
So she moved to Denver.
Seeing the world
Nile wanted to travel for cheap, so she got a job as a Horizon Air flight attendant. She mostly flew around the U.S., Canada and Mexico, but she spent her spare time seeing more exotic destinations. She backpacked through Europe, and also went with her father to Nairobi, Kenya, where she worked on a story about a woman who ran a charity for women with AIDS.
“(Travel) can be a complete attitude adjustment,” Nile said. “I had never seen that level of poverty before.”
Eventually though, Nile started to miss journalism, especially as she watched major elections from the sidelines.
“It was hard to sit out,” Nile said. “I think that was really the thing that prompted me to start.”
She got her first newspaper job at The Chronicle, in Centralia, where she stayed for about two years, before moving on to a much larger paper, the Daily Herald in Everett.
Reporting on tragedies
Nile quickly found herself working on stories of national interest, when two major tragedies occurred in Snohomish County.
She had only been at the Herald about two months when the landslide in Oso killed 43 people.
The intense months spent covering the rescue effort and the aftermath were “dark, and depressing and horrible,” Nile said. “We went through that with the people.” The staff wanted to profile every single victim of the slide, so for the first few weeks, Nile’s job was to research victims, and contact their friends and family.
“I learned so much in that newsroom about how to confront tragedy with sensitivity,” Nile said. “My values, I guess, are different now. I don’t care about being first.”
The next fall, a freshman at Marysville-Pilchuck High School shot five students. In the aftermath, two parents whose children had died in the Sandy Hook school shooting visited the Herald newsroom. They spoke about their experiences with the media. Their visit cemented Nile’s conviction that empathy is a cornerstone of good journalism.
“Based on that, readers can expect me to be thoughtful and fair, and they can know that I care about the communities I cover,” Nile said.
Rolling back to Washington
After about three years in Everett, Nile worked for about a year in Las Vegas.
Reporting there proved challenging in unexpected ways. But it did teach Nile to trust her instincts. It also made her realize how much she missed Washington, and the feeling of being part of a community.
“Working at a big paper doesn’t make you better … what matters is that other people who are committed to doing excellent journalism are around you. That’s why I came here,” Nile said.
Facing a tough rental market, Nile decided to bring her house with her when she was hired at the Observer. She arrived in mid-January, after a nerve-wracking experience towing her new Airstream trailer over ice-slicked roads.
Being an Airstream nomad is a whole new kind of adventure, she said.
“This is me getting my karma for not listening to my dad,” Nile laughed. “He was Mr. Fix-it. He tried to reach me these kinds of things, I was like, ‘Dad why would I ever need to do that?’”
Her first few weeks have involved a few tough lessons about trailer setup and maintenance, but she’s enjoying her new lifestyle nonetheless.
“You learn how to adapt, and I feel like that’s been good for me to have that flexibility again,” Nile said.