Longtime journalist Bill Richards wrote with human touch
Bill Richards, an old-school newspaper reporter who wrote features for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and locally covered the struggle for survival between the Seattle P-I and The Seattle Times, died Jan. 9.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Bill Richards was an old-school newspaper reporter who wrote features for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and locally covered the struggle for survival between the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times.
In recent years, friends and family said, Mr. Richards, 72, had fashioned an idyllic semiretirement from journalism, living on an organic farm in Indianola, a rural waterfront town on the Kitsap Peninsula, where he had devoted himself to farming and rowing, a lifelong passion.
He died Jan. 9 from a heart attack while working out on a rowing machine at the Kitsap Rowing Association in Poulsbo.
As a journalist, Mr. Richards was a storyteller. At The Wall Street Journal, he had a knack for writing the sorts of quirky, heavily reported but lightly written, human-interest stories that were a daily feature on the front page.
Jeff Bailey worked with Mr. Richards in the Journal’s Chicago bureau in the 1980s.
“That was a great period at the Journal, with freedom to go and do crazy stories,” said Bailey. He said Mr. Richards would “wander off into the countryside and find stories you wouldn’t expect.” He’d write with “a kind, understated touch” about some subculture, such as clubs of people obsessed with Jane Austen.
And when there was some big national story the paper wanted covered wall to wall, Mr. Richards could be relied on to find a human angle.
Bailey recalls the farm crisis of the 1990s, when Mr. Richards wrote a sympathetic profile of a small-town agricultural banker, forced to foreclose on his farming neighbors.
Mr. Richards wrote how the banker, who had always been the loudest fan of the local high-school basketball team, had to quit attending games and how that broke his heart.
“Bill would inevitably waltz in to something like that and get to the essence of the story by getting to know people in a tough situation,” said Bailey.
Later, Mr. Richards moved to the Journal’s San Francisco bureau, from where he wrote features spanning the West Coast from California to Alaska.
Quentin Hardy, now the tech editor at The New York Times, worked with Mr. Richards in San Francisco.
“Bill was one of the last of the old-school greats, with a solid eye, and a real good storyteller,” said Hardy. “He wasn’t satisfied until the sentence read right, the fact was clear and the story made sense and stirred the reader.”
Mr. Richards grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. After Fordham University, he started as a reporter with the Yonkers Herald Statesman.
He moved on to work for Newsday on Long Island, and had stints with The Associated Press and freelanced for The National Enquirer and National Geographic before he joined The Washington Post in the Watergate era.
He treated all of it, high and low journalism, as fun. In later years, he proudly boasted of having cornered the “haunted-house beat” for the Enquirer.
After he left The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Richards covered Boeing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1990-91.
In 2003, he took what would be a tough assignment for any journalist.
The Seattle Times hired him as an independent contractor to write about the newspaper’s struggle with the Seattle P-I to end the business arrangement between the two companies.
Both papers were in financial trouble, and ultimately only The Times survived with a print edition.
To ensure aggressive reporting in the pages of The Times, editors gave Mr. Richards a contract that allowed him autonomy, with an outside mediator to rule on any dispute between Mr. Richards and The Times.
Mr. Richards duly demonstrated his independence by delving deeply into Seattle Times Co. real-estate holdings and its acquisition of a newspaper chain in Maine.
Hardy said Mr. Richards “was honored to get that assignment.”
At the end of the initial three-year agreement, however, The Times chose not to renew the contract.
In recent years, Mr. Richards lived in rural Kitsap County and wrote less, although before he died he was researching a profile of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz for the in-flight magazine of Delta Air Lines.
He and his wife, Rebecca Slattery, ran Persphone Farm on Bainbridge Island, and later relocated to Indianola. The farm supplies organic produce to local residents, farmers markets and restaurants.
Their neighbors included Wise Acres, a small community of nine families who share land and group dinners every week.
Kirsten Jewell, who lives at Wise Acres, said Mr. Richards and his wife regularly attended the dinners, where “he loved to have in-depth intellectual conversations.”
Jewell co-founded the Kitsap Rowing Association with Mr. Richards, who had rowed at Fordham.
Hardy, his colleague in San Francisco, said that Mr. Richards’ life with his wife on the farm was relaxed and happy.
“Having been a chronicler, and at times an antagonist, of the wealthy and powerful down here in the Valley, he did a reset that was quite touching,” Hardy said.
“He really liked the people and the environment. He grew in his heart.”
An informal community celebration/wake on Saturday, Jan. 11, at the Wise Acres Common House and Persephone Farm drew about 120 people for a candlelight vigil, followed by a potluck dinner and lots of storytelling.
Besides his wife, Mr. Richards is survived by two previous wives, and his siblings Sarah Milton, of Ocala, Fla.; Virginia Stancs, of Goshen, Conn.; Rob Richards, of West Simsbury, Conn.; and Mary Clare Burtenshaw of Owings, Md.
A memorial celebration will be at 5 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Indianola Club House.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published Jan.19, 2019, was corrected later that day A previous version of this story gave an incorrect age for Richards.