Pursuing great journalism in the hedge fund era
By Thomas Peele
I was back to work that second Monday in April after a week off, aware of the day and tense about it, almost queasy.
After we’d won first the Scripps Howard and then the American Society of Newspaper Editors breaking news awards for coverage of a fire in Oakland in which 36 people died last year, what would happen on this day became unmentionable. It was like in baseball when your pitcher had a perfect game going through six innings. Just shut up about it. While the chances of it really happening were still almost nil, you don’t want to jinx it.
I asked a colleague if any editors had been around. No, she said.
“That’s that,” I thought. If any of them believed we had a shot at this thing, they’d be up from San Jose.
I settled down at my desk and tried to find the rhythm of work after the time off. There were emails to answer, documents to sort through, calls to make. But I sat there as the minutes ticked toward noon, California time, unable to shake from my mind a singular thought.
Did we really have a legitimate shot at a Pulitzer Prize?
Around 7:30 on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, I’d just awakened with plans to jump-start a stalled book proposal, when my phone buzzed. Karl Mondon, a photographer I’ve worked with for years and who is a close friend, sent a one-word text: “FUCK.” “?,” I replied. His answer: “9 dead in Oakland warehouse fire. 25 missing.”
I jumped online. The first headline I found called the site of the fire an “illegal nightclub” where a rave had occurred. The questions came all at once. Illegal how? Who owned the building? What was it zoned and permitted for? I got dressed, kissing my sleeping daughters on their cheeks and told my wife I didn’t know when I’d be back.
At a red light on the way to the newsroom, I looked at my phone. There was a story that identified the fire location.
It was an artists’ collective called the “Ghost Ship.”
Soon I was on Nexis and government websites, pulling together basic facts about the building. It was zoned for a warehouse. A woman named Chor Ng had owned it for more than 20 years. City of Oakland code enforcement inspectors had been there recently. There was an open investigation of what they described as “an illegal internal structure” at the property. This was enough, barely, to post a story showing something was obviously wrong.
My editor arrived from San Jose. We got a story up quickly, the first to report that inspectors saw something recently at the fire site that raised concerns. Unable to get inside the property, inspectors had left and not returned. Now dozens were dead.
Of course this was just one part of the overall story. The all-hands-on-deck call rolled across the Bay Area News Group, or BANG, as we call it. Already, Harry Harris, a reporter who has covered Oakland crime and death for more than 50 years, had been at the scene since the middle of the night. He broke the news of the fire.
A staff decimated by years of layoffs, buyouts, attrition, plunging morale and stagnant pay didn’t hesitate. Dozens of journalists fanned out across Oakland or raced into newsrooms, talking to survivors, grieving friends and family members enduring the interminable wait for news about their loved ones. Editors tore up plans for the Sunday paper, kept websites updated while photographers filed hundreds of pictures and videos.
My story on the building, its owner and what had gone on there lurched forward through the afternoon. The early finds had kept it ahead. One reporter working with me raced around the city, looking for Ng. Another, who was trying to have a weekend away in the Napa wine country, sent me feeds from phone interviews with city officials as we tried to find out what they knew about the art collective and when they knew it.
Artists both lived and worked in the building illegally. To help pay the rent, they, in turn, rented out its mezzanine-like second floor as an event space. (Eventually, we’d find that it had hosted everything from a New Year’s Eve orgy to symphony rehearsals). The place had “an opium den bordello vibe” to it, one person told us. The stairs to reach the second floor had been made from wooden pallets, “a pirate ship claptrap” that was “a really scary way to get up and down. It was like climbing a fort,” a survivor said.
Add to this reports on the fire itself, the agony of people waiting for confirmation of deaths as recovery efforts were delayed to shore up the gutted structure, and as the day became night and print deadlines were met with seconds to spare, we had, in newspaper terms, kicked some serious ass.
The next morning, a Sunday, we got up and did it again. And then the next day. And the day after that. And…
Journalists — those who get the chance — will always flood the zone when the community needs answers and a uniting voice. It has nothing to do with winning prizes or bonuses.
A week later, the journalistic yield seemed incredible. Our reporting team had revealed that police, fire, code enforcement and child protective services had been to the Ghost Ship dozens of times in the years leading up to the fire, yet no one had flagged the building as an illegal residence and stunningly obvious firetrap. Despite a fire station just around the corner, the building was not even in the city’s database of properties requiring fire inspections. Oakland, by local ordinance, required the inspection of all commercial properties.
Another team of reporters had profiled each of the 36 victims. Reporters Julia Prodis Sulek and Matthias Gafni produced a nearly 200-inch gut-wrenching narrative about the hours just before and after the fire and the intersecting lives of victims, first responders, survivors and grieving families. And Harris and others had dominated the minute-by-minute coverage of recovery efforts.
Editors didn’t skimp on overtime. Reporters and photographers didn’t whine about the penny-pinching antics of Digital First Media and Alden Global Capital. Staff from BANG’s three main offices had worked seamlessly.
A half hour before the noon announcement on the morning the Pulitzers were to be announced, I thought I might throw up. We were finalists for a Pulitzer. I tried to keep this in perspective. The Pulitzer is journalism’s highest honor, but I kept thinking about the 36 people who had died in the fire, some huddled together as toxic smoke cut off their breathing. One young woman texted her mother that she loved her, adding, “I am going to die.” There was, and still is, something unseemly about having glory heaped on anyone for merely documenting such calamity.
But the category we were entered in — breaking news — has been historically dominated by reporting on tragedies: school shootings, floods, plane crashes. We had honored the dead, informed the living, and pursued the accountable to the highest levels of the profession.
By noon, with still no editors in the office, a bunch of reporters had gathered around Gafni’s desk where he was streaming the Pulitzer announcements. It was the centennial year for the prizes, and outgoing administrator Mike Pride added to the tension by commenting on the milestone for several minutes.
Be happy with being a named finalist, I told myself.
But then, after announcing the gold medal for public service, Pride said rather flatly, “For coverage of the fatal Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news goes to the staff of the East Bay Times.”
In the hours of raucous celebration that followed, the Champagne, the cigars, the congratulatory calls and emails, the television and radio interviews, the friends, family members and hangers-on who poured into the office, the baleful realities of working for an an Alden-owned newspaper slipped away, at least for a while. The executive editor threw open a tab at a bar. We partied into the night.
But things did seem off. The publisher sent a bland congratulatory email to all employees. It was rumored that she was headed to Oakland for the party, but regrets were later extended. We heard nothing from any higher-ups in Digital First, like then-CEO Steve Rossi, and certainly no missives of joy from the overlords at Alden, where the Pulitzer probably produced a ho-hum, or someone saying “how do we capitalize that?” if they knew about it at all.
One could almost imagine Randall Smith and his minions opining that there must be nothing truly wrong with their gutting of American journalism if their papers still win Pulitzers.
Between the Pulitzer and the Scripps Howard award, $25,000 in prize money had been scooped up. Management quickly announced publicly that it would be donated to survivors of the fire, a nice gesture. It’s not clear if there was any serious talk about dividing it among the staff as bonuses.
Many of us were going on a decade with one small raise as we struggled to live in the most expensive region of the country. Maybe there was even a tax write-off for Alden if they gave out bonuses like this.
Our editors did find a way to send seven of us to New York for the Pulitzer awards ceremony six weeks later. There, once again, the realities of working for this company briefly slipped away.
But by then, more layoffs.
Then the job cuts came like sniper fire picking off stragglers on an endless, drudging march.
Our copy desk was decimated as copy editing and page layout were shifted hundreds of miles away to Los Angeles County. Even The New York Times picked up on the irony. On its home page, the Times story about the layoffs ran under the headline: “Your local newspaper is dying.”
The end of the fiscal year came in June, an annual time of great stress and worry as the Wall Street jackboots counted their loot. More layoffs had been rumored, but there was no confirmation from management.
Then the job cuts came like sniper fire picking off stragglers on an endless, drudging march. An editorial clerk here. An education reporter there. A sportswriter covering an MLB team (hey, use stringers).Veteran photographers. A night city editor, who, you know, got a lot of news into the paper and onto the websites when everyone else had gone home.
Management’s silence continued. There was no acknowledgement of the bloodletting. Just nothing as the calendar turned to July.
We did get a picnic on a hot Saturday afternoon that month. People gathered in a remote park near towering redwoods. A nice spread was laid out. Remarks were made.
But there was an underlying hollowness to it, the dread of the future unspoken but omnipresent. Alden’s model of bleeding profits, of putting nothing back to grow or at least buttress the business, as we all know, cannot sustain journalism, let alone journalism acknowledged at the profession’s highest level.
And yet we all get up and go to work each day.
Journalists — those who get the chance — will always flood the zone when the community needs answers and a uniting voice. It has nothing to do with winning prizes or bonuses. We continue to report on the Ghost Ship fire. Our best work, in fact, may have occurred long after the Pulitzer for breaking news was judged.
We’ve dug deeply into the dysfunction of the Oakland fire department that allowed the Ghost Ship to fester in its midst. Our reporting showed what the landlord knew about the building’s failing electrical system. A story that took months to report showed firefighters even attended a pig roast in the cluttered, rattrap building, ignoring fire-safety conditions that should have been immediately reported to higher-ups.
Our focus on the interests of the community and the victims of this disaster has not lessened. There are still years of stories ahead about the fire.
If there is anyone left to report them.
In late October, Alden struck again, picking off three more journalists.
The snipers don’t stop, Pulitzer or not.
Tom Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and teaches journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.