Given his devotion to Altadena, you might think that Timothy Rutt, writer/editor/chief bottlewasher at Altadenablog.com, was a native. In fact, he hails from Fort Collins, Colorado, and he found his way to California the way so many do — seeking success in the entertainment industry. After earning a journalism degree from the University of Colorado, he became part of a comedy troupe in Boulder. He and a troupe partner headed for Hollywood (by way of a Pasadena apartment), where, as he says, “We both failed to break into television together.”
Although the TV career didn’t happen, he liked living in the San Gabriel Valley, so he set off on the journey of building a life: working as a speechwriter, copywriter and public information officer, marrying, having a daughter, divorcing, leaving his job to earn a masters of divinity at the Claremont School of Theology, deciding he really didn’t want to be a Unitarian minister after all, remarrying (Mary, a physician at Kaiser), moving to a 1938 Shingle-Style revivial house in Altadena, and having two more children. Their youngest, Rosie, was born with Down’s Syndrome and Hirschsprung’s disease; about two months after her birth, older brother Jake was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The kids needed a lot of care, so Tim became a full-time dad.
But with each passing day, more and more Altadenans and Pasadenans know him as the proprietor of Altadenablog.com, a hyperlocal blog run with the professionalism of a seasoned journalist. And just when his life got even more complicated, because his wife was going in for surgery, the Station Fire swept the San Gabriels, and Altadenablog became one of the most important sites in the region.
Now that the ash has settled, I stole some of Tim’s precious time for a chat.
What inspired you to start the blog two years ago?
A lot of things just fell into place at once. For one, the kids were getting older and going to school, and I really felt the need to re-enter the grownup world on some level to maintain my sanity.
Meanwhile, my college roommate and his wife started West Seattle Blog, a hyperlocal website for their area of Seattle, which is geographically isolated from the rest of the city. She was working as a television news producer, and he was a stay-at-home dad. It started off as her hobby — anonymous notes on the neighborhood. Then West Seattle suffered a big windstorm, with power going out, streets flooding, bus routes getting jumbled — and they turned it into a local news blog, since no one else was covering what was going on in a useful way. Since they’re both journalists, they knew exactly what to do, readership skyrocketed, and after the crisis had passed, they just kept reporting news. Finally, she quit her job, and he started selling ads. It’s easily the best of its kind, and now they’re to the point where they can hire people to run it so they can go on vacation occasionally. They continue to inspire me.
The third part of the equation was that I discovered there was no central place to find out what was going on in Altadena. You could check the Star-News, get the handouts at the library and senior center, read the marquee at Bryant’s Cleaners, look at the flyers in the Coffee Gallery… and who’s going to do all that? Altadena had a lot of blogs, and some of them touched on newsy events, but nobody was doing what I thought needed to be done systematically. Altadena needed a “bucket” where you can find everything, and that’s what I’ve been striving to be for two years.
During the Station Fire, your site became one of the most valuable — if not the most valuable — for locals, and I know your traffic went through the roof. And at the time you had a wife recovering from surgery and two small kids. How did you do it all?
It was all very sudden. My wife checked herself into the ER with an elevated heart rate, and they found a problem that required open-heart surgery. I knew I had to take care of the kids, but I also wanted to spend time at the hospital with her, so I arranged between my friends and people at our church (St. Mark’s Episcopal in Altadena) to cover me with the kids for four hours a day so I could visit the hospital. Our church family is also really good at casseroles, so I knew we’d be well fed! I figured I’d just do my usual posts at either end of the day, and not go into the field to cover stuff until things calmed down at home.
Then the Station Fire flared up. The reporter side of me knew that this is the kind of event the blog was meant for. My Germanic sense of duty said, “You must do this, you must be here!” The businessman in me said, “This could be your tipping point, your West Seattle windstorm that will bring readers and advertisers — you gotta step up!” And the family man part of me said “You owe your kids and your wife, too.” So it became a matter of figuring out how to balance all those.
I knew I couldn’t go out in the field to do interviews and take pictures, which is what I love to do. So I decided that I would just collect information wherever I could find it, boil it down and present it in posts when I could, usually at the beginning and end of the day when the kids were asleep, or sometimes when they were occupied with TV, since we couldn’t go outside. So that’s what I did. What impressed me was type of comments I was getting from readers — people were reporting what was going on in their neighborhoods, volunteering to help pets or whatever. I suddenly had a staff of reporters!
I had been moderating the blog’s comments, but the Station Fire was different. The quality of information was so high, and its relevance so timely, I decided that I wasn’t serving the readers by posting comments only when I could get to the computer — it all had to get out immediately. So I lifted moderation, and that changed the game entirely — the open comments were spreading quality information in real time even when I had to be absent. The blog was essentially running itself! But I was still putting in 18-hour days, because I considered this damned important, and I wanted to know everything that was going on.
And I think one of the factors that helped boost Altadenablog, frankly, was that the broadcast media failed utterly. The Saturday night at the height of the fire, as neighborhoods in Altadena were being evacuated, we were all breathing smoke, as I could see visible flames from my home — KFWB and KNX were running ball games. TV wasn’t doing a thing. Altadenablog became the only place you could find real-time information. I’m proud of that, but as a community journalist, I was disgusted that nobody in the broadcast media had deployed reporters. Those airwaves are supposed to serve the public interest, not just act as a license to print money. I’m still really upset by it.
Altadenablog is a prime example of hyperlocal journalism, which some say is our future. Do you think printed newspapers will fail and small community blogs like yours will fill the void?
No medium has ever replaced another medium — maybe the only exception is when the codex (book) replaced the scroll! The new medium comes in, and the old media have to change to accommodate it. Film didn’t replace print, radio didn’t replace film, TV didn’t replace radio, the Internet didn’t replace TV. The new medium may take on some functions of the old media, and old media may be used in different ways, but they’ll never go away. We’ll always have newspapers — we just don’t know what they’ll look like in a few years.
That said, this is a very difficult time for newspapers. A lot of their expense is not about producing content — they also have to run a printing plant and a distribution system. I don’t have those expenses. At the same time, I depend on print newspapers, particularly the Star-News, to plug some gaps. I’m just one guy operating out of my house and not really making money at it right now. I drop in links from the Star-News and Pasadena Weekly when they cover things I can’t. There are a couple of stories here in Altadena that just BEG for major investigative reporting — but I can’t do it. Newspapers are better at it.
But small community news sites are filling a void. Maybe the Star-News has laid off its Altadena beat reporter, but stuff still goes on here that people need to know about. A church school with 200 students opens up without warning in a residential neighborhood… the retirement community that flattened several acres of ground for their buildings suddenly pulls out… the North Lake merchants and local artists throw a community party… a town councilman is subject to an ethics investigation — that all still goes on. I broke all of those stories, and some of them were never picked up by other media. Print is doing so much less, leaving so many gaps, and the smart local news sites will step in to fill them.
What do you like to do when you can pry yourself off the computer?
My church calls me their “preacher and teacher.” I’ve been teaching a six-week crash course in the New Testament for almost ten years now, both at All Saints in Pasadena and at St. Mark’s. This summer, I taught a course on the book of Acts. I’ve taught a confirmation class. I also fill in at our pulpit on Sunday as needed.
My great love is music — I play guitar and piano. My wife and I like to go to what are called song circles, or hootenannys — just people sitting around, singing and playing acoustic instruments. Yeah, we’re hopelessly unhip. We also like Rogers & Hammerstein musicals.
If I ever get free time, I read books about Biblical scholarship or murder mysteries. Robert Parker is a big favorite.
Who is your favorite Altadena resident, past or present?
Oh, Professor TSC Lowe, of course! Aeronaut, inventor, entrepreneur, dreamer: “A resort on top of a mountain, accessible only by rail car? Impossible, Professor!” The man is the definition of steampunk! Technically, he was a resident of Pasadena, but he left a big mark here, maybe the biggest! My second favorite would have to be Zane Grey, as he was my grandfather’s favorite writer.
The flip answer would be, “Because South Pasadena is too expensive!” When our son Jake was born, we were living in a small house in Pasadena and looking very hard at moving to South Pas, but only found expensive dumps. We weren’t actually planning to buy our home in Altadena. But we fell in love with it, and it’s where we need to be.
I’m a student of Benedictine spirituality, and Benedictine religious people pledge a loyalty to the place where they live. So I’ve spent the past few years as a student of Altadena, learning everything there is to know about my place. I love its closeness to wilderness, its rough edges and undefined character, and the interesting people in the past and the present who make it home.