Saydee Phothivongsa: From journalism skeptic to lover

Evergreen news editor resisted news writing, found calling for it at WSU



Saydee will intern with the Spokesman-Review.

SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports co-editor

When Saydee Phothivongsa joined the Daily Evergreen as a sophomore, she hated writing news.

After a semester as the news editor, Saydee has found a home in journalism.

Saydee grew up in Nine Mile Falls near Spokane and is the youngest of three siblings, with her older sisters being 15 and 12 years older than her.

In true little sister fashion, Saydee tried everything as a child, from competitive sports like softball to dance lessons, said Melissa Phothivongsa, Saydee’s mom.

In school, Saydee was a perfectionist, usually getting straight A’s, Melissa said.

Saydee’s teachers told her throughout her schooling that she was either going to be a writer or a teacher, and she agreed, Melissa said.

Saydee said her mom encouraged her to attend WSU because of the incredible reputation of the Murrow College of Communication.

But Saydee did not want to go to WSU, because everyone from Spokane goes to WSU, she said.

Saydee got to choose between Western Washington University and WSU and chose Wazzu because of the more traditional college experience with sports and Greek life that WSU offered.

She joined the Pi Beta Phi Sorority in fall 2019 and majored in public relations.

It was at a sorority event several months into the semester where she met Caroline Ruoff, her best friend and fellow communications major.

The two had a natural chemistry and could not stop cracking jokes with each other, Ruoff said.

“She is really good at finding friends and keeping like really good, strong relationships with those people. And that’s an accomplishment that I don’t necessarily think that she realizes that she does,” Ruoff said.

Although classes were entirely on Zoom during the pandemic, Saydee moved back to Pullman for the spring 2021. Saydee said the time spent living in Pullman were some of the best times in college because of the people around her.

“It was honestly probably one of the most fun years I’ve had in school because like, it wasn’t really about school. Like I got to focus on all the other things that are fun about college, the social stuff and having friends,” Saydee said.

Ruoff and Saydee were just as happy sitting in the same room quietly working on their own things as when they were cracking jokes and laughing with each other, which they spend a significant amount of time doing.

“If I had to spend every single day with Saydee, we would get nothing done except for making a joke and calling it a good day,” Ruoff said.

Melissa said Saydee has had a knack for making friends since she was a child.

This quality makes Saydee someone people want to work with, something that is quite valuable to a newsroom working environment, said Ben Shors, the Murrow College’s chair of the journalism and media production program and WSU clinical associate professor.

“Sometimes newsrooms can be difficult places to work and she’s got the type of personality that people just will want to work with her,” Shors said. “You know, she’s got great energy and also to watch out for people, considerate of others. And so you’d be surprised how far that takes you.”

However, Saydee did not always want to go into journalism and it was not until halfway through college that she even picked up her multimedia journalism major in the first place.

“Journalism isn’t my primary major, but over the course of my time here, it’s become like the biggest thing in my college career. And I really think that has to do with my professors, especially Ben Shors,” Saydee said. 

Shors said he tries to encourage and guide students as their instructor and that Saydee was receptive of his advice, while also being independent and hardworking.

“I knew pretty early on that Saydee got it. Hard-working, smart, curious. Great interpersonal skills, people liked her, and she was also just good at what she did,” Shors said.

In her last semester of college, Saydee continued to show up to Shors’ class even though she had already taken the class the prior semester because she wanted to help other students, Shors said.

Saydee started working for the Evergreen in April 2021. Her first story was about WSU offering a drive-thru commencement for spring 2021 graduates because of the pandemic. 

It was a strange first story for Saydee though because she never got to meet any of her sources, fellow reporters or even her editors in person, instead interacting with them via Zoom.

Saydee’s first stint at the Evergreen lasted just three months, as she wrote over the summer but left in July 2021.

She said she felt like the entirely virtual element of reporting during the pandemic made it difficult for her to meet the standards of the Evergreen because she did not have the mentorship she needed.

It was during this time that she began to struggle with anxiety and depression and doubted that journalism was for her.

“Why like, I kind of clung to PR so hard is because I didn’t think I could do journalism because of where I was mentally,” Saydee said.

She left the Evergreen but returned in fall 2022 with a renewed perspective on journalism thanks to her classes, particularly classes taught by Shors. Shors helped Saydee pitch stories to professional news organizations like Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Spokesman-Review.

Even at the start of her second stint at the Evergreen, Saydee wanted nothing to do with news, writing instead for the life section and primarily writing community features.

“I love writing features and I love telling other people’s stories. I think there’s something so like, special about like sitting down with someone and like having that communication where like you really get to see who they are,” Saydee said.

However, it was Tim Fairbanks-Clouser, her former Evergreen news editor, who encouraged her to apply to be news editor for the Spring 2023 semester.

“At first I was like, ‘Hell no, like, I hate news. Why would I want to do that?’ But then I thought about it, and I was like, I don’t know, something about it just like made me want to do it, even though I can’t really put my finger on what it was,” Saydee said.

Sure enough, she applied and got the position.

Saydee worked with deputy news editor Puneet Bsanti to lead the Evergreen’s news section in spring 2023.

Saydee was nervous at first but found that the position exceeded her expectations.

“Not once did I regret taking this position,” she said.

It is not lost on Saydee how she went from someone who wanted nothing to do with news writing to covering some of the most significant events the Palouse has seen in recent years.

Saydee and Bsanti pioneered the Daily Evergreen’s coverage of the fallout of the murder of four University of Idaho students and subsequent arrest of a WSU student as the major suspect.

The experience of covering a national story as a local student media source taught her quickly the importance of accuracy and timeliness. She also gained a renewed appreciation for how to properly communicate with sources and use a local standing to gain and keep the trust of her sources.

“I was taking a look back the other day, like all the stories we’ve had this semester, and I was just so proud like to see how diverse they were,” Saydee said.

In addition to Saydee and Bsanti, the spring 2023 news section was sustained by four consistent staff reporters and other writers who would contribute stories on occasion.

“Meeting everyone that I did in the Evergreen this semester made me love journalism even more because they understood what I was going through and they support me,” Saydee said. 

Saydee is thankful for Murrow College and all of the guidance and support the faculty and staff have provided her.

After she walks across the Beasley Coliseum stage Saturday, Saydee will intern at the Spokesman-Review, taking general news assignments and telling important stories.

Those closest to Saydee’s journalism career have seen the hours she spends in her room to focus on a story and the care and level of detail she brings to mentoring a reporter.

“I expect to see her follow through with journalism and drop the PR act,” Ruoff said. “I expect to see her be a journalist that does journalism really, really well and makes really strong connections and leaves people’s lives better than when she found them.”

Whatever Saydee chooses to do, she has built a solid foundation at WSU and left the Evergreen better than she found it.

“The person that she was when I met her was fantastic and so welcoming. And she made it so easy to just like make a friend in a new place and then, like, continue to have a friend and the person that she is now is like, astounding,” Ruoff said.

“Saydee’s a rockstar, that’s my tagline for Saydee,” Shors said.