Bringing Together a Passion for Writing, Public Policy, and Government | Hall of Fame 2019 Inductee: David L. Ammons
Even as a high school student, David L. Ammons (B.A., 1970) knew he wanted to “go to the University of Washington and pursue an education in journalism.” A journalism program for high school seniors gave him the opportunity to spend a week at the UW, and visit newspapers in the region. “I remember visiting the Everett Herald. We were allowed to select the stories, and write the headlines for the first page,” Ammons recalls with enthusiasm. That experience sparked a career in political journalism and communications fueled by his love for writing, government, and public policy.
Ammons’ interest in government and public policy began as a child in North Carolina. “I grew up in a poor family,” he says. “I was the first person in my family to go to university, and my father was very proud of that.” Ammons’ father modeled for him an interest in what was going on in the country. Ammons reminisces, “We read the news together, and talked a lot about what was going on. As a young lad, I remember staying up all night to watch the election results when John F. Kennedy was running for the first time. I found it so interesting to listen to the conventions, and then watching the election returns.”
While Ammons’ father gave him a foundation in understanding politics, the UW honed his skills as a writer. “I worked at The Daily all four years; that’s where I really learned how to write,“ he says with gratitude. “I covered just about every beat, was also on the desk as news editor, and enjoyed writing about campus activities. My mind was trained to be an observer, an unbiased writer; I didn’t personally participate in the ferment on campus during the Vietnam War era.”
Ammons fondly remembers the guidance he received from faculty members Dr. Alex Edelstein, William Asbury, Dr. Don Pember, and editors of The Daily. “Dr. Edelstein was my favorite professor! He had a lot of spunk, and asked us to ‘engage our inner spunk’ as well. He taught us to really discover our voice, write with authority and passion, and develop our own inquisitiveness. Learning to find my voice was a pivotal moment for me,” he recalls.
These formative years helped Ammons develop his ethos for political journalism. “Back in the day, we were very much into being non-partisan, listening to all sides, and not having our own point of view in the article,” he reports. “I learned from Dr. Edelstein to write about the provable facts, and not tip my hand to my own politics. I’ve used these teachings to [develop] a balanced approach to practicing journalism.”
Ammons went to work for the Associated Press (AP) in Seattle right out of college. After a year in Seattle, he transferred to Olympia in July of 1971. Thus began his 37-year tenure as the longest-serving capitol reporter in state history, much of it as president of the press corps.
“It was wonderful to have a front row seat to the action. I looked at my role as teaching, and informing people across the state about what was going on in Olympia, and why it was important,” explains Ammons. “I spent a lot of time in my career trying to reconnect people with their government. Even then, as now, people were cynical and down on government. Particularly when I became a columnist, I found it interesting to be able to write big picture stories about developments in the news.”
As soon as he got to Olympia, Ammons learned that to educate and inform people, he would have to translate the “government rhetoric” into something relatable. “I learned quickly that I couldn’t be seduced by the government lingo,” he says. “One of the crusty old members of the press corps—Adele Ferguson from the Bremerton Sun—sat me down one day and said, ‘I write for the shipping folk in Bremerton. When they open the paper, I want them to be interested and engaged. I want it to be in plain English, spritely written, and not sound like a government bureaucrat.’ I took that to heart very early on. [She advised me] to think of it like talking to your neighbor across the fence.”
The other important challenge for Ammons was learning how to navigate the divisive partisanship of Olympia. “I had to figure out how to stay in a place where I could listen to both sides, and could personally see that nobody had the corner on the truth,” he explains. “I learned to listen to everyone, including the back-bench freshmen of the minority party. That helped me build relationships that enabled me [in the future] as those people became speakers, or majority leaders, or committee chairs. They knew me, I knew them. The most important facet for a good political reporter is being a good listener.”
In addition to politics, the Olympia bureau covers everything that happens in the region. Ammons was excited, therefore, by the opportunity to cover the eruption of Mount St. Helens. “We knew the mountain was starting to be active in 1980. I remember flying around the mountain with Governor Ray,” recalls Ammons. “When it erupted, I was designated as the lead AP reporter, and my stories went all over the world.”
The experience sharpened Ammons’ ability to describe visuals, as he reported the incredible sights he encountered every day to another writer in Seattle who would then put the story together. Ammons remembers a close call: “The landscape had changed overnight. It was astonishing visually, and in every other way. Places I camped at on Spirit Lake were no longer there. One time, we were on a helicopter, and had to hightail it out of there because a blast of steam eruption was about to hit us. It was both exhausting and exhilarating.”
Humility as a communicator is quintessential to Ammons’ work ethic. “I always gave myself permission to keep asking questions until I got answers that made sense to me. I tell this to young reporters too: keep asking questions until you’re absolutely certain you understand what the source is telling you. I’m not embarrassed, even if it is the governor. This approach gives me greater confidence in what I’m writing,” Ammons confesses.
In addition to asking questions, Ammons is “always open to being surprised” with the angle of a story. “Sometimes, I would get a story idea, start interviewing, and realize the story was something entirely different. To be open to not just proving your own thesis is another strategy I have used for my professional development,” he humbly admits.
Ammons believes political journalists need to get their information from the broadest set of sources available. “I came in with the bias that people in power had the best information. That was only part of the truth. I eventually learned there were a lot of sources in town to either double check, or add nuance, or add a different perspective,” he says. “I learned that I needed to be talking to legislative and executive staff, many of whom couldn’t be quoted by name, but who could fill me in.” Particularly as the AP developed into a “storytelling” business from being “just a facts service,” Ammons found he had to bring diverse voices to the table to tell a compelling story.
In 2008, Ammons got a call from the Secretary of State of Washington, Sam Reed. He thought Reed wanted to talk to him about a story. When Ammons arrived at his office, Reed said, “you’ve been reporting history. Now come and help make history.” He offered Ammons the communications director role for his office. Ammons was intrigued, but he “wanted to be a cowboy, an outside observer, and not a participant.” He mulled over the decision for a week, and then finally agreed.
“I’m glad I reinvented myself,” says Ammons. “And I didn’t leave the writing behind. I helped message both the legislative and external communications of what we were doing in the office.” He already knew the town and the people, and the relationships he had cultivated over time helped him be an effective leader. He also engaged the public by adopting new methods of communication, like social media.
Currently, Ammons serves as the Chair of the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC). “It was an honor when Governor Inslee offered me the position… about 10 minutes after I retired!” quips Ammons. As the only non-lawyer on the commission, Ammons brings what he calls, the “every person’s perspective.”
At the PDC, Ammons remains committed to his mission of bringing people closer to their government. “I look at it as bringing a sensitivity to the seven million people of Washington; that what we’re doing is more than a repository of public records on campaign and other political finances. We’re promoting the usage of good information, and are about to launch a new generation of searchable databases for the records we get on a regular basis,” explains Ammons. In an effort to boost transparency, Ammons is working with the PDC Communications Director, Kim Bradford, to digitize data and “drive out as much information as possible in a usable form.”
Ammons is still an active community member in Olympia and continues to serve its people in many ways. He is on the board of SideWalk, an organization on a mission to end homelessness in Thurston County. He volunteers every week at SideWalk’s Community Care Center in downtown Olympia, and helps people find safe and secure shelter. Ammons also helps the homeless through his church, and is currently “excited about building a tiny house village on our campus.”
At present, Ammons is part of a team organizing the 50-year reunion for the class of 1970. As he prepares to celebrate this milestone, he is “awash in a sense of gratitude for my college years. That was a part of my foundation, and has served me well. I’ve loved both of my careers, and they were natural consequences of my education at the UW.”