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Now that was a year.
The last 12 months were some of the most eventful that San Diego has ever experienced, not to mention dramatic, bizarre and disturbing, mostly thanks to a renegade mayor.
For VOSD staffers and contributors, though, 2013 was about more than one man. Our team produced hundreds of stories, engaged in countless debates on social media and sought to leave readers more informed than ever.
Other local journalists are just as dedicated to telling stories, and we’ll honor their best work of 2013 later this month. We’ll also highlight the year’s most memorable photos.
But first, in what’s becoming an annual tradition, we asked our own writers to name their own favorite stories of the year and bring us up to date about what’s happened since the articles were published.
Among other things, our writers investigated the city’s failure to protect the safety of its citizens, exposed a national commentator’s big whopper and chronicled a local newspaper’s descent into tawdry sexism. Here are a few of our faves:
The Heavy Price of Zero Tolerance
Megan Burks, Speak City Heights staff reporter
What is it about? A San Diego woman and her children became homeless because of a zero-tolerance rule for Section 8 tenants that evicts the whole family from their subsidized home when one tenant or guest commits a crime there.
Why the writer liked it: When you cover a low-income community, you quickly realize that all the issues you write about intersect and work together to shape this thing we know as poverty. Typically, you report them out in chunks. So when three of the big ones — mental health, incarceration and housing — converge in one story, and you pull it off, it’s like climbing your Everest as a community reporter.
Also, the Sunday I spent with Cheryl listening to gospel music in a tiny Encanto church was one of the best Sundays I had all year.
What’s happening now: After the story ran, the Housing Commission asked Cheryl to reapply for Section 8. She and her two youngest children are now living in a North Park house.
Cheryl was also able to reconnect with her sister through the story. They had lost track of one another while in the foster care system. My story was the first lead Cheryl’s sister had found on her in several years.
Exposing an Influential Columnist’s Big Fail
Lisa Halverstadt, staff reporter and Fact Check czar
The story: Fact Check: The Phantom Triple Fence
What is it about? Many national commentators and reporters looked to San Diego earlier this year when immigration reform talks started to crescendo.
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer was among them. He pointed to the San Diego Border Patrol sector’s apparent success with triple fencing as he argued for increased border security along with an immigration overhaul.
But I’d never noticed three fences along the border and no one I knew had either. I decided to investigate his claims that such fencing had significantly decreased illegal crossings and learned a lot about how San Diego’s border with Mexico has changed in the process.
Why the writer liked it: We’ve all read about border security and fencing, but it can be difficult to wrap your mind around how that looks and feels.
In May, I was lucky enough to go on a ride-along with some Border Patrol agents and photographer Sam Hodgson, who captured some great images along the way.
The finished product helps bring to life a concept that’s often quickly explained in other coverage. It also calls out a national commentator for making claims that don’t check out.
What’s happening now: Immigration reform appears mostly on hold but it’s not off the table. I haven’t heard or read any commentaries that refer to San Diego’s triple-fencing since this spring.
Arbitrators Find a Home Above the Law
Will Carless, former head of investigations and independent contributing writer
The story: Justice for Sale, Part Two: Ignoring the Law
What is it about? This is the second part of a three-part series on how private arbitration is taking over in consumer disputes.
The story examines how arbitration firms in California are simply ignoring a legal mandate to provide data about how many cases they find in favor of consumers and how many they find in favor of businesses.
Why the writer liked it: The story was timely; as it was published, a legislator was trying to pass a bill to compel arbitrators to follow the law. It failed after the arbitration industry lobby kicked into action.
This is just exactly the sort of thing that frustrates me about today’s America: Large, powerful companies just ignore a legal mandate while the Legislature seems powerless to compel them and public prosecutors look the other way.
What’s happening now: As far as I know, companies are still ignoring the law. Consumers are still left in the dark, and companies continue to move toward this alternative, secretive private system of justice.
Troubles Haunt Vet Group in Filner Scandal
Joel Hoffmann, staff reporter
What is it about? Tara Jones, the head of a fledgling charity for female veterans, seized on disgraced Mayor Bob Filner’s falling star to try to raise money. It was clear pretty quickly that she was pushing the political activity limits outlined for nonprofits in the federal tax code by selling “Please Resign” T-shirts.
After digging in some more, we learned that half of the nonprofit’s founding board members had quit in short order — a sign of serious instability. Two of those board members alleged that Jones wouldn’t let them see the organization’s financial statements, which they had a right to see under California law. And in a follow-up story, we learned that a grant writer had filed complaints about Jones to the attorney general’s office after reading our story because she thought Jones had violated the rules.
Why the writer liked it: This story was a good entry point into the Filner saga for me. I had watched it all unravel from the outside before joining VOSD, and I wanted to help my colleagues fill in the gaps by tapping into what I knew about nonprofit political activity rules and sexual assault.
We were able to hold Jones accountable for exploiting both the Filner tragedy and veterans who had been sexually assaulted in the military.
What’s happening now: No surprise here, but Jones and her nonprofit recently sued Filner for losing them money at a gala that was originally supposed to celebrate his lifetime achievement in the field of helping military sexual assault survivors.
It’s just another publicity stunt, and the case will most likely be dismissed in court.
The Sad, Sexist and Tawdry Tale of U-T TV
Sara Libby, managing editor
The Story: I Watched U-T-TV So You Don’t Have To
What is it about? I wrote this piece following a big U-T San Diego piece about its own TV station. I thought I’d buckle down and watch it, since they were trying something unusual.
What I found, though, was far from the innovative model they’d been touting in those meant-to-look-objective write-ups. There were endless stereotypes of women, a parade of male experts and just a lot of fallback reliance on the worst old-school media habits.
Why the writer liked it: The station had gotten some surface-level callouts, but I don’t think anyone writing those pieces watched more than a few minutes at a time. I watched a lot of UT-TV to put this together, and that’s why I had so much material to draw from. Anytime a media entity is painting an absurdly negative picture of women, it deserves to get called out.
What’s happening now: I recently watched an episode of “The Roger Hedgecock Show” guest-hosted by Chris Reed. He invited on more than zero women guests, which is already an improvement from when I watched back in March.
City Fails to Get to Emergencies on Time
Liam Dillon, senior reporter/assistant editor
The story: Close Calls: When Emergency Help Comes Late
What is it about? The greatest risk for delays in emergency medical response comes in some of the poorest and brownest communities in San Diego.
Why the writer liked it: Government studies can tend to sit on shelves unless someone keeps bringing them up. We found a 2011 study that identified serious problems no one was doing anything about. We made people care about it.
What’s happening now: All the major mayoral candidates pledged to address response times in these neighborhoods during their first term, and the city has begun dedicating money to the problem.
In Closed Confab, U-T Publisher Makes Error for the Ages
Scott Lewis, CEO
What is it about? I heard about a large gathering of Republican leaders at developer Tom Sudberry’s house. Not only were political and business groups there, but also three potential candidates for mayor. The current mayor was going down in a scandal.
As reports about the meeting came in, they got more and more interesting: A former mayor swearing at the bizarre owner of the region’s major newspaper.
They ultimately settled on Kevin Faulconer as their preferred candidate. Everyone ended up agreeing, including Faulconer’s Republican rivals.
Why the writer liked it: It offered a rare and enlightening window into decision-making and conflict behind closed doors. I don’t think it reflected badly on the group. In fact, I think Republicans entered the mayor’s race in a stronger position because of it. But it was nice to confirm details of such a fascinating scene.
What’s happening now: The meeting came up often in the mayoral primary, in mailers and at debates. It was often meant to put Faulconer on his heels as though it showed weakness for him to defer to the group’s decision.
But I don’t think that showed weakness. I think it was a pragmatic way to conserve resources and unite a party. We’ll see if it worked.
Inside the Battle Over Barrio Logan
Andrew Keatts, staff reporter
What is it about? The fundamental issue the shipbuilding industry has with Barrio Logan’s new community plan: a nine-block area near the shipyard that city planners are trying to turn into a buffer between the industrial activity at the port and the main residential community.
Why the writer liked it: Barrio Logan’s new plan was complicated, and understanding it meant wading through intentionally convoluted jargon. The story broke the issue into a simple concept that effectively summarized what was actually happening.
What’s happening now: The shipbuilders collected enough signatures to try to overturn the new plan. The City Council voted this week to stand by the plan and let voters make the final call in 2014.
An Uplifting Story With a Dose of Reality
Mario Koran, staff reporter
What is it about? An after-school tutoring program in City Heights turns the worst-performing students into success stories.
Why the writer liked it: The story has the bones of what we all look for in a good narrative: There are underdogs, there are failures and there’s redemption.
I chose to open and close the story with the image of writing and rewriting. Maybe I was trying to remind readers that we’ve all got the ability to recreate ourselves any time we choose. Maybe I was just reminding myself.
What’s happening now: The tutoring program, which we profiled earlier this month, continues.
Health Care Reform Can’t Come Fast Enough
Randy Dotinga, Morning Report scribe and independent contributing writer
What is it about? In a story published in conjunction with Kaiser Health News, I explained how self-employment and a troubled ticker have doomed me to endless insurance headaches and sky-high bills. Now, health care reform looks likely to give me relief.
Why the writer liked it: Most journalists who write about Obamacare won’t see much change to their own insurance coverage. I’m a rare exception.
I’m also an exception to the general perception that health care reform will hurt people. For me, it’s looking to be a godsend.
What’s happening now: My story sparked a heated debate in our comment section and prompted a realization on my part: As an independent writer, I actually run a small business — the kind of business that just about every politician pledges to encourage and protect. Those who oppose the current reform must explain how they’ll support small, one-person businesses.
Meanwhile, I just signed up for high-quality coverage in 2014 via the California “marketplace.” It will cost me $430 a month, which is more than I’ve been paying this year but a far cry from the $700-plus monthly premium I used to pay for terrible coverage for one person. Progress!