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Reader: ‘The Watchdog is the best thing about the Union-Tribune’

Saturday, January 21, 2012
posted by Tony Manolatos
Ricky Young, U-T's Watchdog Editor

Politics & Media Mashup: your weekend news aggregator leads off with a Q & A with Ricky Young, the editor of U-T San Diego’s Watchdog Team. Also included: Gobs of links to some of the week’s best stories about local, state and national politics as well as social and traditional media.

“Journalism that upholds the public trust, regularly.”  That’s how the U-T San Diego defines its Watchdog Team. Rostra’s Richard Rider, a constant critic of politicians and the reporters who cover them, had this to say recently about the team: “Reporters are now practicing REAL journalism with their generally excellent ‘Watchdog’ work.”

The team has produced some exemplary work, especially lately. It’s coverage of two South Bay schools led to numerous public corruption charges and gave readers a front row seat to one of the best reality shows in town. Ricky Young is the guy behind all the notable work. As the newspaper’s Watchdog editor, Young spends his days toiling with executive editor Jeff Light — who pushes the Watchdog Team to be fair, accurate and great — editing copy and directing a pool of reporters with different experience levels and skill sets. Not an easy job, but a fun one. Here is our Q & A with Young:

  • Please give a brief history of the Watchdog Team. When did it start? Who started it? Why was it started? Have you been the editor the entire time?

When Jeff Light took over as editor in 2010, the newsroom went through a sort of group exercise to decide, what are the jobs we want to be doing, and who should be doing them? Jeff was not going to hand down a reorganization, not knowing the players, so he set this process in motion and let it take shape. Out of that came a strong commitment to watchdog journalism. I was leading a strike team at the time doing investigative work out of the John Gardner case, and that team morphed into the more permanent watchdog team. We launched in summer of 2010, shortly after Gardner pleaded guilty.

  • Who is on the team? Please explain a little bit about each team member.

Jeff McDonald is the senior investigative reporter, not just for the team but for the newsroom. He focuses on the county, city and federal government and nonprofits. Aaron Burgin is a recent addition, from our North County operation, and he is tasked with news out of suburban cities and special districts. Matt Clark is our data specialist, a recent hire from Florida, and we’re hoping he’ll become an expert in pensions and public compensation. Ashly McGlone is our associate reporter covering schools and state government. Jen Lebron Kuhney is our utility player, covering other people’s beats so reporters on those topics can come on the team and do investigations. Right now, she’s on San Diego City Hall. We pick up a lot of stories from across the operation, too, from Wendy Fry in Chula Vista, Jonathan Horn in Del Mar, Chris Cadelago on the county beat and Mike Gardner in Sacramento. We’re trying to have a Watchdog story in the paper every day, so we need all the help we can get.

  • Does everyone sit in the same area? When I worked at the paper you sat at the Metro Desk, but I believe you have one of those fancy glass offices now. True? What’s that like?

The team sits in and around the cubicle you might remember as Dave Hasemyer’s desk. And, yes, I sit in the glass office nearby. A strange tradition, the glass office. Hard to hang things on the walls.

  • Who do you see as your stiffest competition other than Rostra? I’m joking, although Rostra’s Barry Jantz did write a heckuva post a while ago about the Sweetwater controversy. Speaking of Barry…did he break the first bit of news on this case, or was it the Watchdog Team? And don’t forget to answer the competition question!

I hesitate to get into, “Who broke the first story?” The first time The Watchdog started looking into this district was when Maureen Magee was a visiting reporter on the team, and did a story on concerns some activists were raising at the school board about test scores and whether they were manipulated by reassignment of some special needs students. That story came out eight day’s before Barry’s! (OK, I didn’t hesitate that long…) The series built from there, largely thanks to instincts of Ashly McGlone, then the Sweetwater beat reporter, and Tanya Sierra, who sadly has left the paper. The key story that got the DA’s attention, as I understand it, was the one by Ashly and Chula Vista beat reporter Wendy Fry about curious PR billings to the district. There has been some unfortunate hand-wringing over credit on this story lately because others had pieces of it before we tuned in. Our attention clearly gave this thing momentum, though, and I know our staff worked very hard nailing things down that were rumored or insinuated elsewhere.

As to who our competition is, the Sweetwater example shows how things have become so diffused. Depends on the day, depends on the story. It might be the Reader or the Southwestern Sun one day, or The Washington Post or The New York Times another. (I’m not making these up out of delusions of grandeur. The Post had a story this month about Sempra that we could have had first but instead we had to follow. Long story.) To some extent, I’ve come to see them all as partners helping keep an eye on things. We tweet a lot of other people’s content, and through an RSS feed, we post it as headlines on our own Watchdog page.

  • What do you like most about the Watchdog Team?

I like hearing from people like Jean Johnson, who wrote me this week, saying: “Without question, without a doubt, The Watchdog is the best thing about the Union-Tribune. To me, this is what a newspaper is supposed to be about. To investigate, to find corruption and abuses, and to report on them is such an important part of our democracy. No one else is really looking out for the public. This is supposed to be done by those we elect to office but, unfortunately, all too often, they become the big abusers.”

  • What’s your biggest challenge as the team’s editor? What’s the team’s biggest challenge?

I think the challenge of any investigative reporter is not to waste too much time going down blind alleys. Because we’re trying to publish seven days a week, instead of every three months, this pressure is greatly heightened.

  • What percentage of the Watchdog stories are assigned by you? Senior editors? Reporters?

Interesting you assume only the staff comes up with the stories! We take a lot of our assignments from readers. That is, we get tips. Our phone number is 619-293-BARK. Keep ‘em coming.

  • You and your team have done some excellent work. What stands out? Why?

First, thank you. I think McDonald’s partnership early on with 10News on Sempra’s dealings in Mexico was pretty good stuff, although the feds have decided not to pursue anything there. His story on a whistleblower inside Darrell Issa’s old company, who quit because of how they handled underpaid tariffs, was pretty courageous. And, of course, before there was Sweetwater, there was Dan Dalager in Encinitas. During Mike Lee’s visit to the team, he did some great stuff on water rates and spending by water agencies. Aaron Burgin’s way of looking at the Kathleen Sterling dispute with Tri-City Health has been intriguing, and Matt Clark’s consumery look at speed zones was great. I hope we can do more like that. Finally, I have a soft spot for any story involving travel to Hawaii.

  • Your South Bay school coverage has revealed so much and sparked an investigation that recently led to 26 felony charges. It’s a safe bet, I think, to assume other charges/indictments are coming, right?

As you know, homes of Sweetwater and Southwestern officials were searched in December. Sweetwater officials were charged this month. I can tell you, the search warrant documentation about the Southwestern officials was as dramatic as the Sweetwater material. So it’s fair to surmise there may be Southwestern charges coming.

  • What nugget of news from this case was the strangest?

There was reference in the DA’s documents to a contractor renting an unspecified Halloween costume for former Sweetwater Superintendent Jesus Gandara. I asked the team what the costume was. They did me one better, and got their hands on a photo of Gandara in the costume – as Albus Dumbledore.

  • How hard did you have to fight to get the first stories in the paper?

Jeff Light sees himself as our adversary. In a way that’s very important. When you’re doing our job, you don’t want a boss that’s cheering you on. You want one who’s making sure you’re being fair and accurate, who can help anticipate pitfalls and keep you out of them. Given that as a backstop, we’ve had to work pretty hard to get some of these stories in the paper – something I’m very thankful for. We have much more impact when we’ve gone through a rigorous process to make sure we’re on firm ground.

  • You have been a journalist for a while and have seen numerous changes at the U-T and elsewhere. How do you feel about the paper? Where do you think it’s headed? Where do you think the industry is headed?

I am guardedly optimistic that things have stabilized a bit, and we can find our way into the future from here. You can see that our new owners care about San Diego and the paper, and they are moving aggressively toward some partnerships and innovations that seem promising to me.

  • Bob Kittle, the U-T’s former editorial page editor, was in this space last week  and he had some unflattering things to say about the paper and its new owners. Care to respond to anything he said?

I saw the Q  & A with Bob, talking about how we shouldn’t have cast aside the “Union” in our name so lightly. First of all, longtime Union and Tribune readers still call the paper by whichever name they prefer – 20 years after the merger. So that history is not really being cast aside. I have to tell you, the unified branding of our paper and website was really smart, and a long time coming. The division, if not divisiveness, held us back as a company for a long time. And, on a shallower note, I like the sound of it when they cite us now on TV and radio. U-T San Diego is catchier than The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Papa Doug Profiled

Speaking of the U-T…You’re not going to want to miss the profile of Papa Doug Manchester, the newspaper’s eccentric new owner, that posted Friday at voiceofsandiego.org. Sometimes, everything about a story works — the reporting, the writing, the tone, the cadence — making it a pleasure to read. This is one of those stories. Kudos to Rob Davis, who wrote the piece and gives us the best look yet of Manchester and his plans for San Diego’s Gray Lady.

Here are links to some of the best stories of the week:


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Tony Manolatos is a communications strategist. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedInYou can hear Tony talk politics and media with KOGO’s LaDona Harvey every Friday at 3:35 p.m. on AM 600 and FM 95.7.
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3 Responses to “Reader: ‘The Watchdog is the best thing about the Union-Tribune’”

  1. Jim Sills says:

    If creating jobs, taking principled political stands, and trying to rescue San Diego’s longtime daily newspaper makes Douglas F. Manchester “eccentric”… then we need a lot more just like him in this Town.

  2. Barry Jantz Barry Jantz says:

    Excellent work, Tony. Great interview. I very much appreciate your mention and Ricky’s recognition of my piece on Sweetwater.

    To be fair to everyone, I’d like to point out that if Sweetwater were using public funds to promote a school board member during reelection (my story), even if likely to be the case, it may be very difficult to prove.

    On the other hand, pay-to-play corruption scenarios, including the potential of officials purposely not reporting gifts from contractors so as to hide favors, possible violations of public contracting laws, and the like, are at a far greater level. The work of Ricky Young’s team, most notably McGlone, Fry and McDonald, produced what I would call a consistent drumbeat of stories that clearly caught the attention of the D.A.’s office, thus resulting in a criminal investigation. Superb journalism, especially if you measure journalism by whether it results in action and change.

    Of course I’d like to think my single piece appearing on Rostra and FlashReport played a small part in all of this, and I am humbled to even be mentioned alongside these excellent pro journalists, but there is no doubt in my mind the far bulk of any credit goes to the Watchdog.

    Thanks again!

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