Kym Kemp is a blogger, journalist, and a local to Southern Humboldt. Her website, kymkemp.com, covers regional news, especially the cannabis industry. We sat down with her to ask about her website, her vision for the community, and the challenges of reporting on your friends and neighbors. This is part one of a two part interview. To read part two, click here.
Q: How did you get started reporting news online, and how did Redheaded Blackbelt (RHBB) begin?
KK: I started the RHBB because I wanted to write fiction. I thought I would just write little funny stories, and it would get me writing, and maybe I would build a little audience. I remember the first day, I was so excited that 40 people read my stuff! It was my son’s birthday party and they were all laughing at me. That was December of 2007.
I was involved in what is now called Grown in the Sun, where the idea was to move away from indoor diesel growing. So we were discussing how to deal with it, and then there was a huge diesel spill in Hacker Creek, which is right in my neighborhood! I started following the story, just because I was there and I cared. All of a sudden, people started asking me questions, and Hank Sims at the North Coast Journal (now at lostcoastoutpost.com) asked me to write a piece about it. That sort of launched my news career.
“The green rush brought a lot of people into the county who don’t have connections here. It takes a village, and the tight-knit community where everybody kind of looked out for each other has splintered.”
After that, the FBI went to Buddhaville with the largest amount of agents anyone had ever seen in the area. Then there were some big huge fires, so by the end of that year I was starting to cover news a little bit. By 2011, I’m getting paid to write, which is pretty cool. And then I eventually moved out on my own in 2015.
Q: What do you think is so valuable about real-time local news reporting for a community like ours? What makes you so popular and differentiates you from other online voices in this region?
KK: There’s a lot of really great news sources around here. For how remote we are, we have a lot of independent and mainstream sources. It’s pretty impressive actually. Every news source has a personality, and people tend to gravitate to one that fits theirs and works best with them. I use them all, but I’m a news fan. I really care about that stuff, and it’s my job. But some people only like to listen to the news in their car on the way home. Other people like to watch the news and see the pictures, some want really in-depth, serious reporting. Each person has their own way.
I would say that my readership are interested in things that are happening right now. Where is the car accident? Is it going to affect my commute? How will the weather affect my grow? I’m constantly monitoring things that are happening currently.
But I also do stories that are more in-depth looks at things. Just yesterday I published a look at all the homicides in Humboldt County. This year we had between 20 and 21, and the previous record highest year was 16. It’s been a huge jump, and the last two years were huge jumps from the previous years. Normally we had about 8.
The green rush brought a lot of people into the county who don’t have connections here. It takes a village, and the tight-knit community where everybody kind of looked out for each other has splintered. Even people who are connected in the area feel less so.
We have an incredibly high number of suicides in this community, and we have some of the highest numbers of missing persons in the United States. Our homicide rate is higher than Oakland’s. We have some serious serious issues here that we have not yet figured out how to deal with.
I don’t know if we can harness the economic power of marijuana in such a way to make up for the Wild West. I always thought it was a good connotation, to say that it was like the Wild West. We have this incredible wilderness, and people get to live a little bit more freely. But I’m troubled. I never thought I would be the way that I have become. After the last couple of years, I’m troubled by the level of violence and despair in our community.
Q: So you don’t see Prop 64 and compliance measures as likely to succeed and bring economic renewal to our community?
KK: I hope they do, and I voted for them on the idea that they would. I felt like we were definitely going the wrong way. I’m just not sure we caught it fast enough.
“I know that a reporter somewhere else might feel like it’s more important to tell the story and get the truth out, but I am never interested in seeing someone arrested because of something they told me.”
I’m really in a dark spot right now because I love Humboldt. I’ve always adored it, I’ve always thought it was a great place to live. I’ve lived here my whole life; I’ve traveled and I’ve seen lovely places, but nothing I’ve ever thought was like Humboldt. I have still not seen anything that compares to our wilderness. But I have seen my particular community, which is still one of the better communities in Humboldt, become fractured over environmental damage. I’ve watched a very close neighborhood drawn apart. More recently, I would say things are slightly better, but I’m not sure.
Maybe other people can see it, but I’m too close to everything to be able to step back. Part of that is where my darkness might come from. When you cover 21 homicides a year, you cover that darkness, and it does affect you. There have been so many bad, huge wildfires lately. I can remember, just this fall, sitting and sobbing. I could not cover the story any more, I had to go and hold onto my husband. There was a young boy who was trapped in a swimming pool, and the fire was around him, and he was crying for help, and I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Those kind of stories can really wear you. How can we do something to bring out the best and push back against the dark? I feel like I’m in a JRR Tolkien novel or something. Maybe I need to go to more potlucks.
Q: How do you describe your role as a reporter? Do you ever feel a responsibility to represent Humboldt in a certain light?
KK: I just want to represent what I see, which sometimes means that it’s fairly dark. One of my biggest frustrations is that the very best things are harder to cover as stories. When somebody gets arrested or killed, or there’s a shootout, or an environmental crisis happens, there’s law enforcement in there reporting on it. They send you pictures, and it’s very easy to show people.
But there’s other stuff; the beautiful harvest parties, with the local guy playing fiddle, and the little kids dancing barefoot in the hay, and somebody in the corner rolling up buds and giving them to everybody for free because they just love everybody. Those people don’t want their pictures taken, or their stories told with their name on them.
Q: How do you balance your duty to report the facts and represent your reality with your need to protect the secrets of your sources and neighbors?
KK: That’s a really hard one. In a small town, it’s very very awkward. I don’t think that I make the same choices that say, a New York Times journalist would make. Not because I don’t think I’m as ethical as they are. Being ethical is more important to me than anything else, and that’s what I guide my life by. But my idea of ethics might be to say, “You know, you really shouldn’t tell me that story. I can’t tell that story, it will get you arrested.” I’ve done it 3 or 4 times, to say to somebody, “I want you to think about this, I want you to talk to your attorney, before you tell me that story.” I know that a reporter somewhere else might feel like it’s more important to tell the story and get the truth out, but I am never interested in seeing someone arrested because of something they told me.
Kym Kemp runs her website, Redheaded Blackbelt, at all hours of the day and night. She lives in Southern Humboldt. To read part two of this interview, check back next week.