‘We have got to be the people’s eyes, ears, and the squeaky wheel with our voices’
September 10, 2013
Small but mighty: California weekly wins NNA’s top FOI Awards
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Early on a foggy, coastal California morning in February 2012, Lompoc federal prison guard Ryan Vargas reported for work at his job as a correctional officer. He had been back on the job less than a month after taking an extended leave for depression and stress.
Less than two hours after he pulled into the facility, his body was found inside his patrol vehicle with a single gunshot wound to his head. Authorities called it suicide.
By September, a Victorville prison guard was dead, and his friend, a Lompoc guard, had confessed to killing him. And another Lompoc guard was in trouble after police found a rifle and ammunition in the trunk of his car and two air powered rifles in his home, along with more than 200 mostly empty prescription drug bottles. He had been experiencing panic attacks and mental problems and had been seeing a psychologist.
“Amy and I both commented it was strange that one Lompoc guard was a suspected suicide victim in the prison parking lot, and then weeks later another Lompoc guard shot a guard from Victorville and admitted to the shooting,” says writer Jeremy Thomas, a former reporter for the Santa Maria Sun of San Luis Obispo, CA.
Amy Asman is managing editor of the Santa Maria Sun. Thomas is now a reporter at the Contra Costa Times in California’s Bay area.
For months, starting in August 2012, Thomas dug a rabbit hole that grew deeper and deeper, and he filed FOIA requests—one after another—until he uncovered a twisted tale where prison supervisors harassed guards, drove them into depression, and assigned them to armed posts even when they were under doctors’ orders not to be around firearms.
Thomas wrapped up this thriller with questions left unanswered. Two prison guards were dead. A third sat in jail on murder charges and a fourth is on administrative leave, waiting for his court date on charges of fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs.
Although there is more of this story left to be told, Thomas reported enough to win first place in NNA’s Better Newspaper Contest Freedom of Information category—recognizing extraordinary effort by a small, weekly newspaper that has just three full-time writers.
Asman, the Sun’s managing editor, won the second place award in Freedom of Information reporting for telling the tale of the “Life and death of Jerry Berns,” a local man who had a penchant for trouble and ended up shot to death in an alley. He had been in court in the days preceding his death, fighting charges stemming from a police raid on his auto repair shop. His murder, which took place in 2011, is still unsolved.
Asman hails from north San Diego County in southern California. She graduated from Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo where she worked for the student newspaper. She worked as an intern at the Santa Maria Sun her senior year, and went on fulltime after graduating. She worked her way up from news editor to managing editor, the position she holds now.
Thomas lives in California because he loves being near the ocean. He grew up in Arizona wanting to be a journalist, earned his degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, and wound up at the Santa Maria Sun. It was a bittersweet departure last November when he moved on to the Contra Costa Times.
“I miss my Sun family,” he says. “I am proud of what we, as a group did. We were a small staff, but we had lots of freedom to report.
The Sun’s executive editor, Ryan Miller, has spent his entire 13-year career at the Sun, starting with an internship after he graduated from Cal Poly with a journalism degree. He has been in the newspaper business as long as the Sun has.
The 19,000-circulation Sun is an award-winning weekly newspaper in Northern Santa Barbara County. The newspaper started in 2000, and is locally owned, along with its sister paper, the New Times of San Luis Obispo by Bob Rucker and Alex Zuniga, who roll up their sleeves along with the rest of their staff. Zuniga is art director and Rucker handles the advertising sales and business side of the operation.
From the Sun’s tiny staff springs award-winning, in-depth stories, reported alongside the weekly fare of local government news, sports, features, and general assignment stories.
The enterprise reporting is grueling and gut wrenching, and the reporters and editors keep at it for months, sometimes, squeezing out stolen moments to fire off FOIA requests, or dig records out of rabbit holes, or evaluate stories told by disgruntled family members who are certain the system has done a loved one wrong.
“It is so hard to get information,” Asman says. “The Public Records Act is constantly under fire. We get passed back and forth between agencies. The D.A. says ‘I can’t help; you have to talk to the police department;’ then the police department says ‘I can’t help; you have to talk to the D.A.’”
Miller vents his frustration at the system, too.
“City managers leave and the reasons are not made public. We know they are being paid but not how much,” he says. “Did they do anything criminal? We try to ferret it out, and all we get is a ‘no-no-no,’ doors slamming in our faces, and on our written requests we get a big red stamp that says ‘denied.’”
The newspapers’ two award-winning stories took months to research, report, and write.
To maintain order and keep such long-term articles organized, the team goes low tech and pulls out a tried and true giant roll of white paper and multi-colored marking pens.
“We map out our stories, fill up the paper with notes, and keep it posted at our desks,” Asman says. “It helps us organize our thoughts and keep our goals in mind.”
“We’re pretty low-fi,” he says. “There’s probably an app for that, like a Google Doc, but it’s refreshingly primitive the way we do it.”
When they fill one sheet up, they simply start a new one.
Stories come from a variety of sources, but most often they come from tips. Both editors admit some of their tipsters are bona fide crackpots, and over the years, they have learned to tell truth from crazy.
“Some people say ‘here’s my story,’ and they have information in writing,” Miller says. “They have letters documenting their attempts to get public records.”
“When we deal with families and victims, we are respectful of their view, but we tell them we need documentation before we can start working on a story,” Asman says.
Miller admits he gives in to shameless idealism when he talks about the Sun’s role as a watchdog.
“This is why we exist,” he says. “We have got to be the people’s eyes, ears, and the squeaky wheel with our voices.”
Asman adds: “It is our duty. If we don’t do it; no one will. When tragedies happen, we feel obligated to seek out the truth.”
Miller compares their process to shoveling coal to keep the fire stoked.
“When we have a big project, it is daunting and overwhelming, but it is doable,” he says. “We keep it simmering and know that these kinds of stories don’t need to be written all at once.”
Sometimes the editors parse out their time moment by moment. When they have 20 extra minutes, they go hunting for public records, or send off an FOIA request or make a phone call to solicit information. They record their progress on their white paper, and make progress an inch at a time.
“We care deeply about our community,” Miller says. “When you care, you want to do more investigative stories to help make our community healthy and strong.”
Miller, Ryan and Thomas are proof that a newspaper can be small, but mighty, and they believe if they can do it, any newspaper can.
“We don’t have staff but we do it,” Miller says. “We tackle problems in our community. We talk with our publisher and come to an understanding of the project we have in mind. We plan it out, and develop steps along the way. We make mistakes and learn from them. We take notes and chip away. We’re shoveling coal.”
When the big story is done and it is time to take the white paper down, Asman feels good. She covered a tough rape case recently and went on vacation the week the story came out in the paper.
“I was with my mom in another town. I got a copy of the Sun and it was great to see my hard work come to fruition in a tangible way,” she says.
Then she worked three weeks straight on nothing but light-hearted fare—a dog show; a talent show, and an arts review.
Because they have worked together for so long and know each other so well, Miller can tell when Asman is ready to gear up again.
Then he gets a large, clean white sheet of paper off its roll and they start another story.
Newspaper name: Santa Maria Sun
What is your newspaper’s circulation/readership? 20,000 circulation; 50,000 readers.
Frequency of publication: Weekly (Thursdays).
Mission statement: To inform, educate, and entertain Northern Santa Barbara County readers.
What are your roles with the newspaper? Ryan Miller: executive editor; Amy Asman: managing editor.
How many people are on your staff? Editorial: 5 (plus or minus a few interns).
What are your top goals for 2013? We’d like to increase our Web presence and make better use of the Internet as an outlet for our content.
What is your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristic? It’s fiercely local.
What are your newspapers’ biggest challenges? We have several communities to cover, plus courts and other issues, and only a few people to cover everything.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? We’re the “town square you can hold in your hands,” to borrow a phrase from our founder, Steve Moss.
What you love to hear from readers: Responses. Any responses, whether they love or hate our coverage. We want the stories we publish to be the start of a dialog.
What you hate to hear from readers: Silence.
One thing you’d never change: The idea that you can have fun and enjoy what you do and still put out a great paper.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com