Episode Preview with the Houston Chronicle's Dug Begley (audio, 22s):
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March 14, 2023Episode 53. Turning the Tables: When a transportation journalist is the one answering, not asking, the questions.
FEATURING: Dug Begley
It’s been said that journalists are responsible for writing the first draft of history. As the transportation writer for the Houston Chronicle, Dug Begley has been crafting that city’s mobility story for more than a decade.
About Our Guest
Transportation Reporter, Houston Chronicle
Dug Begley is the transportation reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Previously, he has covered various beats at five newspapers or weeklies, and freelanced for more than a dozen regional, national and international publications. For 15 years he has covered transportation, reporting on everything from Texas and Southern California’s freeway expansion to off-road desert racing, high-speed rail in two states, an ongoing public health crisis related to roadway fatalities, and the lack of carmakers including full-size spare tires.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello again. This is Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. In the newspaper business, there aren’t as many transportation writers as there once were. In fact, across the country, their numbers have been shrinking for many years. But not in Houston. 10 years ago, Dug Begley went to work as the transportation reporter for the Houston Chronicle, and since that time he’s been telling stories about the agencies who provide transportation systems and the travelers who use them in one of America’s biggest and fastest growing cities. He joins us for this episode of Thinking Transportation, to share some observations that only a person with his unique vantage point might be able to offer. Thank you for doing this, Dug. I know it might feel just a bit foreign to be the person fielding the questions instead of the person that’s asking them. How long have you been the Chronicle’s transportation writer, and for the benefit of those who haven’t read your resume or perhaps don’t follow you on Twitter, excuse me, for the benefit of those who don’t yet follow you on Twitter, because surely after this podcast, they will. Maybe tell us a little about the job path that got you to this point.
Dug Begley (guest) (01:45):
Um, I’ve been here in Houston about 10 years. I came here as the transportation reporter. For five years prior to that, I was the transportation reporter at the Riverside Press Enterprise, which coincidentally is owned by Belo that owns the Dallas Morning News. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> And a good friend of mine that sadly recently passed away, Michael Lindenberger was the transportation reporter in Dallas and had for the Morning Morning news. Yeah. For the Morning News for a few years. And then he went on to be the D.C. business reporter for the DMN. He went to their editorial board. He came to our editorial board as the deputy opinion editor, and then went on to the Kansas City Star as the vice president of opinion. But when Michael was the transportation reporter in Dallas, Riverside, which was their smaller paper but owned by the same company, had an opening and somehow some way, Michael had struck up a conversation with the managing editor there at the time and told him like, Hey, I got a friend that’s in Arkansas. He’s done, not necessarily transportation, but he’s been covering cities and regions with a bent on some growth and development and things like that. Yeah. And so, so I went out to Riverside after two, three years in Arkansas, both in Fayetteville and Fort Smith, but I covered city government and then sort of a wider region of Oklahoma for the Fort Smith Times-Record. So it’s just been transportation I’ve been doing about 15 years. But if you go back, a lot of governmental reporting, a lot of growth and development reporting is inherently transportation reporting.
Bernie Fette (03:31):
Right. Well, it’s a good thing that Michael turned you on to that opportunity, and I can also recall having a number of conversations with him over the years. His passing was certainly a loss for the profession of journalism.
Dug Begley (03:43):
Absolutely. I mean, and he had just been a fantastic reporter. I’ve known Michael for 25 years. He and I went to college together at the University of Louisville. And Michael, I don’t know if I’ve had five full-time jobs in my career, Michael is probably somewhat responsible for at least three of them.
Bernie Fette (04:02):
Okay. Apart from simply building your skill set as a writer and a reporter at those various places, what do you think it is about those earlier years that positioned you well for the gig you’re in now?
Dug Begley (04:13):
There are reporters that can sort of carve out a niche or an expertise or just sort of a broad topic, and I don’t mean necessarily transportation, the environment, immigration, whatever. It’s just the reporters can inherently be writers. Some of them have a lean towards politics. Some of them have a lean towards business, sports, whatever. And I think that where I’ve been fortunate is that I have an interest in math that isn’t enough to actually be good at math, but understanding how it’s applied. And so if you’re a reporter who doesn’t really like dealing with spreadsheets, if you don’t like dealing with charts, if you don’t like dealing with money and numbers, you know you’re probably gonna drift into another type of reporting. Right. There may be a few of us that sort of bridge all of those gaps. And where I’m lucky is that really, I don’t know enough about anything to be an expert, but I know enough about money and politics and engineering and how to tell a story and how to talk to regular people and how to distill complex information down for some simple tasks. And the beauty of that is that transportation is a nice space for that.
Bernie Fette (05:32):
Dug Begley (05:33):
That maybe not everybody else would gravitate towards. There are probably a lot of my coworkers that having my beat may be considered punishment to them. Okay. Whereas I getting drifted into one thing like elections or okay. Things like that may be less blissful for me because I can pick and choose. The beauty of transportation reporting, to me, at least, what I’m blessed to be able to do here in Houston is that I can generally do all sorts of things as I choose to do them within the necessity of what the topics are. So earlier today, I was talking to the Houston Public Works and a city official about plans to redo a roundabout. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, Well, that’s a simple thing. It’s gonna take them a few hundred thousand dollars, they’re gonna redo the roundabout, but it’s a big deal to the people who drive through it. Right. It’s also a big deal that some of the project has to do with pedestrian safety. It has to do with cyclists and connectivity to one of the major parks.
Bernie Fette (06:40):
Lots of moving parts. Yeah.
Dug Begley (06:42):
Well, and also lots of disparate points of view that are coming together.
Bernie Fette (06:45):
Dug Begley (06:45):
That to me is the appealing thing about doing these types of stories.
Bernie Fette (06:50):
You mentioned Houston, of course, where you are. I’m wondering, is there anything about Houston that makes your beat particularly unique or interesting or maddening?
Dug Begley (07:02):
I think that any major metro area has its own quirks. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but there are also a lot of similarities. Like that’s not to dismiss Houston, but you could drop me in Dallas, in Austin, in L.A., In Phoenix and Denver. And generally that job can be similar if people choose to do it in the way they want it done, and the where the interest lies, Chicago, D.C., New York, you’re gonna have a different type of job because of the use of transit and because the density may be different. But Houston, I think, is in an interesting place now because of where the conversations are starting to go. It’s a city that was built after the second World War. It’s a very auto-centric city. That’s not gonna change overnight, but a lot of those conversations, even in the decade I’ve been here, have changed in terms of tone, in terms of where investment is being made in terms of rethinking streets within the urban core versus streets in the suburban areas, and who uses them, how they’re used, how we’re all gonna get about and how you move from these nodes, which Houston is probably, I would say, one of the more interesting places to have the conversation of where you’re talking about nodes and major centers that you have downtown, uptown, Texas Medical Center, Pearland, Sugarland, Woodlands, and Conroe. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> That all have this gravitational pull. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, like some number of moons circling Jupiter. They’re all pulling on each other, but they’re all pulling from each other as well. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>,
Bernie Fette (08:51):
You mentioned several cities. You mentioned Phoenix, New York, Atlanta, several other major cities. There was a time, not really all that long ago, it seems when all of the major papers in the United States had a person assigned to the transportation beat, maybe even more than one. Mm-hmm.
Bernie Fette (09:13):
But that’s no longer the case. Why do you think that’s happening?
Dug Begley (09:19):
I think that there is some of a pullback into understanding where newspapers, especially if we’re talking about just the major metro dailies. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, some of them have restructured. Some of them are smaller than they used to be in terms of the number of staff. And a lot of places have chosen to eliminate that as a job. I don’t know that they’ve eliminated it as a beat, but it may be a situation where somebody has that beat and another beat.
Bernie Fette (09:49):
Right. So the emphasis may not be what it once was.
Dug Begley (09:53):
Well, the emphasis may be the same, but it may be spread across multiple people too. Having a overwhelming, all-encompassing single transportation person and having seven reporters that are thinking about it. There are pluses and minuses to both of those.
Bernie Fette (10:10):
And it may be an impression that I was under the, just wasn’t perhaps accurate because I’ve been observing from a particular vantage point talking to you and other transportation writers from time to time without having any data to back this up or any hard data to back this up. It just seems like there are fewer of them than there used to be. At the same time that newsrooms around the country, whether it’s newspapers or broadcast, seem to be shrinking in numbers of journalists that they employ.
Dug Begley (10:41):
I think that’s true, but also with transportation and a few other topics. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, do you count in, or how do you account for the rise of some of the web-based institutions that may be looking at it nationally? Right. CityLab, which was its own thing for a while, but it’s now part of Bloomberg. Right. Is a vast resource of qualified transportation reporters. Mm-hmm. Yeah. That are doing things. I think there are people dedicated to CityLab. I think CityLab takes a lot of freelancing in as well. I have no earthly idea. I just get that from what I read, it seems that sometimes there’s freelancers and sometimes they’re staff reporters and they’re also leveraging the fact that Bloomberg has tens and hundreds of reporters in various places. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, mm-hmm. <affirmative> talking about interesting things. Streets blog.
Bernie Fette (11:30):
Dug Begley (11:31):
Is fantastic for that. Right. There are a number of blogs or journalism online that deal with transportation and the topic of transportation. The Verge has great. The Verge transportation reporting, depending on what you choose to use for the job. Transportation has moved to other sectors. Like I believe the Los Angeles Times has a transportation reporter that is fantastic. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. They also have, I believe, an automotive reporter, but it is attached to their business desk.
Bernie Fette (12:05):
Dug Begley (12:06):
Washington Post has a number of transportation reporters doing a number of transportation things like Ian Duncan covers federal policy. Yeah, yeah. Because DOT is all there. Yeah. Justin George does a fantastic job covering Wilma.
Bernie Fette (12:20):
Yeah. And you’ve got Katie Shaver.
Dug Begley (12:22):
And, and you’ve got Katie Shaver, you’ve got Lori Aratani, I mean like they’ve got a deep bench of reporters that do both the local stuff for the DMV area. Also the federal policy and also wma cuz they have one of the great public transportation systems that has both challenges and opportunities.
Bernie Fette (12:40):
Yeah. So part of this is the increasingly overlapping nature of transportation and how some of those beats are correspondingly overlapping as well.
Dug Begley (12:50):
Sure. Transportation reporters, I think bring a lot of their own method. It’s part of the beauty of it to me that yeah, they bring a lot of their own methodology. They bring a lot of their own preferences because we have the luxury of being able to choose sometimes where our focal points are and those change.
Bernie Fette (13:08):
Yeah. And you’re talking about a lot of changes in the news industry. There have also been some pretty significant changes in the transportation world. How have those changes on both of those fronts affected how you do your job, how you report on transportation?
Dug Begley (13:27):
I’ve done a lot more reporting on bicycling as bicycling has become much more interesting in a topic of discussion here in Houston, for example. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I did a lot more of questions of the environment and the applicability of NEPA and CEQA, the Cal, sorry, the National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act that affected transportation projects in Southern California. Because there was a lot more of a discussion of the environmental toll of a freeway project in the Inland Empire of California than there is talking here about I-69 through Sugarland. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So the topics always are gonna go with wherever I think, and wherever the public is having that discourse. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what the difference is, is that two things that sort of come to mind. Number one, a lot of the agencies that are responsible for transportation, responsible for improving transportation for upkeep and maintenance of transportation have vastly more ability because of technology. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, specifically social media, to inform people without needing me, frankly. And the user, the commuter, the traveler has much more information at their fingertips, real time. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> than I ever can be responsible for providing in an up-to-date way. I don’t have to write 170 words because they’re gonna shut down a freeway or a tollway and then tell you on Friday morning so that you know not to go there on the weekend because you are going to get in your car, you’re gonna plug your phone into your car and then all of a sudden Google Maps is gonna do the same thing for you when you need to know that. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So it changes what we produce and it changes where I need to focus my resources.
Bernie Fette (15:36):
Yeah. You’ve mentioned just in the last couple of minutes, the transportation agencies, those people who build and maintain our transportation systems, and you’ve also mentioned the travelers, the commuters, people who use those systems. I’m wondering what you think really stands out about those two perspectives, the providers of the service and the users of the service, and how those perspectives might align, how they might differ that you’ve noticed.
Dug Begley (16:06):
I’m understanding the question properly. I think that there are outcomes that providers are responsible for and methods that providers commonly utilize. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that the general public and the traveling public often don’t know. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And there are just simple things that the general public notices that the providers struggle sometimes to hear because of the methods for that. And that’s on a non transportation topic, but is a good example of that. If you ask people in line to vote whether or not it’s hard for them to vote, you are only getting a sample size of people who actually successfully got to a polling place. Right. How do you get people who didn’t vote or don’t want to vote or don’t care to vote because it’s inconvenient or because for whatever reason, how do you capture those people? That conversation sometimes I think can be illustrative of some of the choices that we make. But at the same time, the people who are not engaged in the topic come at it sometimes with less of an understanding of the full round of how this is done.
Bernie Fette (17:26):
What you’re pointing out there actually feeds into something else I was hoping to ask you about, which is about a month ago there was a poll done by the Texas Lyceum that you may have seen the results of. Among other things, the results of that poll showed a sharp drop in the percentage of Texans who think that democracy is the best form of government. A number of national polls are showing similar results in the last few years. For the most part, it’s our governments that provide transportation systems. And just to complicate matters a little bit more, more polls that I’ve read are showing a decline in the share of people who have faith in mainstream news reporting. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, Where do you think that those two things together leave us?
Dug Begley (18:13):
I have no earthly idea where a lack of faith leaves us in the level of trust that we have for one another or for institutions. I think that there is the, the reality of it is, is that we live in a society from an information standpoint where you can choose your information. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that inherently comes with silos and differences that are not traversible. There are people that argue that we don’t necessarily choose our own perspectives anymore. We choose our own facts.
Bernie Fette (18:57):
Yeah. Yeah. There’s confirmation bias in many cases.
Dug Begley (19:01):
Right. But also there’s where you choose to look and where you choose to blind yourself. Yes. In a lot of perspectives. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And I think for that reason you are going to have some difficulty in maintaining a universally agreed to point of view or goal even. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> That like it, whether it’s a, esprit de corps or whatever, you are gonna have a challenge in saying that we all want to go here. Right. And we’re gonna do it this way.
Bernie Fette (19:31):
It’s been said that journalists are responsible for writing the first draft of history. So Dug, no pressure. Right?
Dug Begley (19:42):
First draft’s gonna be really misspelled, man, I can tell you. Yeah. <laugh>.
Bernie Fette (19:45):
Okay. That’s a pretty lofty aspiration. But as a friend of mine might say, it has the added benefit of being true.
Dug Begley (19:51):
Bernie Fette (19:51):
Uh, yeah. Any thoughts about how the final draft of transportation history might line up with your first draft? Other than the misspellings?
Dug Begley (20:05):
<laugh>? Other than the misspellings? I think that there are a lot of choices inherent in transportation. And what I would like is for that first draft to give people an understanding of where their officials and bureaucrats and neighborhoods and even each other were coming from when they made the choices they made. And historically, none of those outcomes often come to pass exactly as they were predicted. But those choices are the mile posts for what happens next. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so if you look at, case in point here in the Houston area, there was a choice made to widen Interstate 10 outside Loop 610 all the way to virtually Katy. And then eventually past Katy to Brookshire. And now they’re working on Brookshire to the Brazos River. And I’m sure that after that it’s Brazos River to Sealy is already completed. Sealy to Columbus, Columbus to whatever is past Columbus.
Dug Begley (21:11):
All of a sudden you have three lanes in each direction to San Antonio. And those are the choices that are being made to continually move that on and on and on. But here in Houston, in order to do some of that widening, a rail line was removed. And now 15 years later, there are people who question, well man, I really wish we’d had that rail line. Now others will say, look, we were confronted with crippling problems when it came to congestion. We knew that much of our growth was going westward. We did the thing that people and travelers and everyone wanted us to do. You can see where those choices were made and you can see the outcomes of those choices. More people use that freeway now than ever before. It is much more effective than it would be if it wasn’t as wide as it is now.
Dug Begley (22:05):
But it’s as wide as it is now and it’s still feeding a beast. And it’s getting more and more congested and more and more travel is going on along it. And if you had made a different choice 15 years ago, we don’t know what it would look like, but we know that whatever it looked like would be where we are now. Those choices are weekly, daily in some cases. Some of ’em obviously are more important than others. The I-45 through Houston, for example, will be the next great choice. Those choices are what, 30 years from now future Dug Begley, who will hopefully is much healthier and thinner, will look back and write how that choice was a good thing. That choice was a bad thing. That choice was the greatest choice that Houston made when it came to mobility or that choice is what destroyed downtown and all sorts of things.
Bernie Fette (23:03):
Yeah. Was there any experience that you had as a journalist that made you think, maybe I should have gone into –blank– instead of this newspaper thing? This is your opening to tell a favorite war story. No need to name names other than yours.
Dug Begley (23:19):
Right, right. I don’t know that there’s a time where I’ve thought like, oh wow, I should have gone into something else that isn’t related to frankly being pissed off about some idiot decision. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, that put me in a frustrating point of view about my job or my company or whatever story I was working on at the time. I will say that like there is more of a beauty to journalism that I think — I had a boss, Tom Linley, I worked for in Jeffersonville, Indiana. I worked actually for Michael Lindenberger as well there. But Tom Linley, who was the editor and publisher of this little paper in Jeffersonville, Indiana once sort of, I think distilled it the best way I’ve ever heard, is that the beauty of journalism is that if you have a really bad day and we put out a terrible paper, that’s an embarrassment to all of us. We get to wipe the slate clean cuz there’s another paper coming out in 24 hours. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But if you have a really good day, the challenge of it is, yeah, that’s great and all, but you get to wipe the slate clean cuz there’s another paper coming out in 24 hours. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Now when that paper comes out is immaterial <laugh> because we’ve, so much of it is online, so much of it is information that is in a immediacy. Yeah. But the premise still applies. The fact that the story is an interesting story. You do the best you can and then you move on. Right. And that’s not to be cavalier or crass about it. There are stories that will constantly come up and topics that will constantly come up. But we’re just trying to do this, man. I mean like it’s sort of a keep going and keep going and keep going and there will always be good stories and there will be stories that you just have to sort of shove in your outbox. Yeah. Cuz they’re necessary to do.
Bernie Fette (25:06):
Yeah. On the subject of what you just said, keep going and keep going. What, what is it that keeps you showing up to work every day?
Dug Begley (25:14):
Paycheck mainly. No, I’m joking.
Bernie Fette (25:15):
I know, but I get that answer to a lot of the times that I ask this question. So you get paycheck and …
Dug Begley (25:22):
The fact that I can go out and like do something that is interesting and get paid for it. I mean that’s the wonderment of this is I get to go ask people questions. I get to ask people about their lives. I get to ask people about the choices they’re making and why they’re making those choices and what prompted them to make those choices and try to tell an interesting yarn. Mm-hmm. In some cases. And then magically I’m given materials to go do that and time to go do that, that a lot of people don’t have the luxury of. And some of it is just sort of mundane. It can be very mundane. And then sometimes it can be incredibly interesting. I mean, the easy one to pander to the good people of TTI is, there is a lot of science behind, you know, barriers and how to properly protect people from very large, fast-moving vehicles, both from a state department and diplomacy and security and all sorts of things.
Dug Begley (26:19):
Right. But really, it’s just real cool sometimes to watch people crash an ice cream truck <laugh>. Right. Okay. Yeah. There’s an element of that. Yeah. And people do have, sometimes, sometimes there are a myriad of ways to make a living in journalism. Can’t remember if it was when I took the job in Riverside or when I took the job here that my mother once asked if I was the one in the, the helicopter <laugh>. And it, it took me a while to like understand that. Like, no, I’m not the guy that’s on the radio that gives the traffic report in the morning. It’s 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 AM. Like, that’s not, it’s different.
Bernie Fette (26:55):
Right. We’ve been visiting with Dug Begley, veteran transportation writer at the Houston Chronicle. I expected that you’d be sharing insights that we couldn’t get anywhere else, Dug. And I’m happy to say that I think I’ve been right about that. So thank you very much for having this conversation. We really appreciate it.
Dug Begley (27:16):
Not a problem. I’m happy to do it.
Bernie Fette (27:20):
It’s been said that journalists are responsible for writing the first draft of history. To do a good job of that, first and foremost, they need to be good storytellers. They need to understand money and politics and engineering. It also helps to know a lot about human behavior. But that’s not all. Speed limits, impaired driving, self-driving cars, traffic congestion, buses and trains, bicycles and pedestrians, and so much more. In one way or another, transportation touches the life of every person, every day. And so for a transportation reporter, there will always be something to write about, especially at a time when both transportation and the newspaper industry are navigating historic changes.
Bernie Fette (28:12):
Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode, and we hope you’ll be back next time for our conversation with Laura Ryan, who will join us to reflect upon her recently completed six-year term as a member of the Texas Transportation Commission. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.