The “frequent fliers” who endlessly visit local emergency rooms, straining the health care system, including one man who made 12 trips to the ER in a month. The deadly activity of the Mexican Mafia in our midst. And what really happened during that infamous damp night at the Balboa Park lily pond.

These are just a few of the topics of San Diego’s best journalism in 2012.

Here’s a sampling of the most memorable coverage by our colleagues at other media outlets.

The journalism:Health Care 911,” a five-part series in U-T San Diego, by John Gonzales and James Gregg.

What is it about? A teeny tiny percentage of San Diego’s population — 1,136 people — accounts for a stunning 17 percent of all transports by the city’s emergency services. These “frequent fliers” burden both emergency rooms and taxpayers, and it’s often difficult to get them to take care of themselves in a way that lessens their need for medical attention.

Now, the city is trying to specifically target them through a program called Project 25.

Excerpt: “In order for taxpayers to cash in on their investment in Project 25, enrollees must stay housed, and use coordinated medical care instead of 911. In short, they must reform their dysfunctional lives, as a dysfunctional health system tries to reform how it responds to them.”

Why this work stands out: The stark black-and-white photographs (there are videos too) make this journalism pop. Check the one at the top here, which shows a chain of returning patients on gurneys clogging up the entrance to the ER at UCSD Medical Center.


The journalism:Port Authority,” a series of stories and graphics by KPBS and I-Newsource Investigations’ Amita Sharma, Brooke Williams, Joanne Faryon, Brad Racino, Joel Geluz and Kevin Crowe.

What is it about? The coverage explores “the long financial and political relationship between elected officials and newspaper owner Doug Manchester and his CEO John Lynch.” Manchester and his paper, U-T San Diego, have turned a proposed waterfront stadium into a top priority.

The coverage exposed Lynch’s attempt to bully Scott Peters, a port commissioner who’s now a congressman-elect, over a leasing deal, spawning accusations that an email had been doctored.

Excerpt: “Lynch insisted all he said in the email to Peters was, ‘Do you intend to vote for the Dole lease?’ He continued: ‘If someone is changing emails that is serious. Someone could go to jail for this.’ Lynch said he’s consulting lawyers about the email.”

Why this work stands out: KPBS’s coverage spawned a brouhaha in the mayor’s race over whether the paper’s leadership had made headway with candidate Carl DeMaio. And it provided yet another example of the brash style of the U-T’s brass.


The journalism:The Missionary,” a story in the New Yorker magazine by Dana Goodyear.

What is it about? The magazine profiles Tijuana’s Javier Plascencia, “the leading chef in a movement seeking to rehabilitate the city’s reputation through its food.”

Excerpt: “Tijuana, situated in northern Baja and separated from San Diego by the world’s busiest border crossing, has long been seen as a curious outpost, a city too far from mainland Mexico to be truly Mexican and too culturally distinct from San Diego to be American – a no man’s land, with the infrastructure of a failed amusement park. ‘In Tijuana, you don’t have that much to offer, in terms of monuments or museums,’ Plascencia told me. ‘People don’t feel very proud of Tijuana, because it’s always been a town of alcohol, sex, and drugs, made up of everyone who wants to cross the border but can’t.’”

Why this work stands out: Goodyear is perceptive and engaging, offering readers a portrait of Tijuana’s challenges and the personality of a chef who uses ingredients like a “a spherification agent” and isn’t afraid to call his town “TJ,” “the vaguely demeaning nickname favored by San Diego frat boys.”


The journalism:Balboa Park water fight was a tragedy of the commons,” a story in CityBeat, by Justin Hudnall.

What is it about? No news event of the year was more misreported and sensationalized than the late-night water-gun fight at Balboa Park that damaged the lily pond.

Hudnall, who was there, describes a chaotic scene that was hardly mean-spirited or vicious. He followed up with a spoken-word performance (watch it here) that indicts much of the local media for its overheated and careless coverage.

Excerpt: “By midnight, the crowd had grown by hundreds, and it would continue to grow over the next hour toward 1,000. At a quarter past, without fanfare or warning, an air horn was blown and the scene erupted into the stuff of adolescent fantasy. Everyone began dashing nowhere in particular, screaming, laughing, blurs of white teeth grinning in the darkness. I have never seen so many people smiling for such a sustained amount of time without the aid of alcohol, the mar of violence or the motives of corporate sponsorship.”

Why this work stands out: Through pictures, video and words, we finally got to see the scene that night, one of young people having an almost-innocent blast instead of thugs purposefully destroying our city’s crown jewel.


The journalism:People Will Tell You That You’re Late and You’ll Hate Them for It,” a cover story in the San Diego Reader, by Ryan Bradford.

What is it about? Bradford, who worked as a “transitional employee” for the U.S. Post Office until he got sacked in a fuss over a blog about dangerous dogs on his route, writes about his experiences on the job: the intense pressure, the fingers torn to shreds, the unpleasant surprise lurking in a blue box on El Cajon Boulevard, the huge number of sick calls from his co-workers when it rains.

Excerpt: “The day is too hot. It takes me forever to find anything. The junk-mail keeps falling apart on people’s lawns. At 3:30 p.m., I call the station and tell Greg I have quite a bit of mail left. I expect him to say, Well, you tried your best … What he says is: ‘WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS, BRADFORD, SOME KIND OF GAME? This is people’s livelihood you’re dealing with!’ … Before clocking out, as if nothing has happened, he asks how I liked it. I’m on the verge of tears, but I tell him I could get used to it. He says, ‘Yeah, you’ll probably dream about it tonight.’ And I do; yes, I do. Nightmares about letter-carrying.”

Why this work stands out: It’ll make you start being really nice to your mail carrier.


The journalism:Gang bust gives rare glimpse of Mexican Mafia’s grip on North County,” a story in the North County Times by Brandon Lowrey.

What is it about? The story describes the uncovering of a “a sprawling, well-organized criminal network that ran drug dealing on the streets of North County and even extended inside the Vista jail.”

One leader allegedly extorted payments (“taxes” or “rent”) from drug dealers and gang members for the “Mexican Mafia,” aka “La Eme” (“the M”). Even robbers had to pay up.

Excerpt: “The document hints at one of the most troubling aspects of the Mexican Mafia, described in North County Times interviews with gang experts and current and former gang members: Juvenile hall, jails and prisons don’t hinder its criminal operations.”

Why this work stands out: The story uncovers a hidden world and hints at trouble ahead in the form of a power vacuum. A later story reported that the local leader allegedly “ordered Escondido’s rival Latino street gangs to stop fighting among themselves and target black people instead.”

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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