We’ve been putting together a list of our most impactful investigations we’ve had in 10 years here. But I realized some of the funniest, most emotional or most intriguing stories we have posted over the years didn’t make the cut.
It at least didn’t include the ones with the most profanity, which is important.
Here are 10 stories or quests that Voice of San Diego went on in the last 10 years that have shaped our ethos and helped to institutionalize a kind of feisty, conversational approach that I hope stays with us the next 10 years.
These are in no particular order and they don’t represent all of the best work we’ve done. Just the best of my memory, with the assistance of a few others.
All the Jim That’s Fit to Print
We wrote a lot about then-City Councilman Jim Madaffer in those first few years of VOSD’s existence.
There was Evan McLaughlin’s classic profile of a community newspaper that was very sympathetic to Madaffer.
Madaffer, it just so happened, owned the paper. McLaughlin drove home the surreal situation with this line about a very positive editorial that ran in the paper about Madaffer.
“The article’s author: R. Maude Madsen. She knew her subject well – Madaffer is her son.”
Then there was one of our very first major revelations: Andrew Donohue’s probe into Madaffer’s effort to retroactively grant one of his pals, former Councilman Mike Gotch, a pension benefit.
“For several months, according to e-mails and records obtained by Voice of San Diego, Madaffer diligently pursued Gotch’s case. Despite objections from staff and city attorneys, Madaffer pushed ahead and eventually secured a generous enhancement to the pensions of the ex-councilman and 17 other former city leaders.”
McLaughlin, who had to cover City Hall, was pretty upset, however, to discover that because of that investigation and other points, we had decided to ask Madaffer to resign. It made our interactions with the councilman a bit awkward for a while.
The Bill Horn Fact Check
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading something as much as I did this Keegan Kyle Fact Check of County Supervisor Bill Horn’s claim about his participation in civil rights protests decades ago.
Kyle had a masterful deadpan style. And he used it on each turn of the piece as it got crazier and crazier. A Fact Check actually turned into a fact-checking odyssey, and he told it perfectly.
What made it even better was a good portion of our staff was leaving the day after this story ran to attend Rob Davis’ wedding in Portland. It turned out, Horn was also going to Portland that evening. He sat down next to me at the airport and we had a good chat.
My son was enthralled with him.
The Doug Manchester Profile
I’d be hard pressed to identify a more talented writer who came through this shop than Rob Davis. His profile of hotel developer Doug Manchester, on the heels of Manchester’s purchase of the U-T, was just superb.
A Silent Journey
For months, writer Adrian Florido got to know Har Sin, a then-24-year-old refugee from Burma, who was deaf. Har Sin had not learned any type of sign language. In America, he had come up with a lot of ways to express himself.
But I don’t think we’ve ever communicated anything as emotionally moving as Florido did when he described what it was like for Har Sin to discover sign language.
Florido later went back to check in with Har Sin.
County Pensions in 350 Words
For the life of me, I don’t understand how the county of San Diego has been able to escape the scrutiny the city of San Diego faced for its employee pension benefits. The county offers a better benefit package. It has been more reckless with its investments and the bill it has to pay every year to make good on its pension promises is gigantic and directly takes away from what it can do for the county’s citizens.
I’ve done a lot of work on this over the years but I always refer to my 350-word explainer as a primer.
From Homeless to Harvard
Sometimes a story makes you want to be a better person – to work harder, to stop making excuses.
I don’t know that anything we’ve done has had that effect on me as much as Emily Alpert’s 2011 profile of Alicia Zamora, a Madison High School graduate who went to Harvard.
Thing is, Zamora was homeless.
Here was Alpert’s description:
It has the ring of a Cinderella story: The girl who was homeless and ended up in the Ivy League. Alicia Zamora chalks it up to luck. She had many fairy godmothers: teachers who listened to her, a counselor who hooked her up with colleges, a nonprofit that held her hand through college applications, and a caring brother who paved the way before her, going to the University of California, San Diego.
The Sanders F-Bomb
When former Mayor Jerry Sanders was running for re-election in 2008, he had a debate with Steve Francis and other candidates. Blogger Pat Flannery heard from Francis that Sanders had scoffed at Francis’ offer of a handshake and told him, “Fuck you.”
This got Donohue’s attention. It soon became the most entertaining few hours I’ve ever experienced in a newsroom. Sanders’ team passionately denied the report to Donohue.
“It is patently false. I was there. It’s laughable. It’s absolutely laughable,” said Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz.
But Francis’ team stuck by it.
Sainz called Donohue back. They were going to have to correct the record. He said the mayor wanted to talk to Donohue.
“You’re calling me to ask me if I said, ‘Fuck you, Francis,’” he said. “I did not say that.”
“I said, ‘Fuck you, Steve,’” Sanders told Donohue.
Man, that was funny.
Inside La Jolla Confab
Sanders got similarly fired up many years later in 2013 when, at a private meeting at a developer’s house, he gathered with dozens of other local Republican leaders to decide who should run for mayor from their team.
Then-Mayor Bob Filner was falling apart and would resign in disgrace after several women accused him of sexual harassment.
In the room were the three potential candidates, Carl DeMaio, County Supervisor Ron Roberts and Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
When Manchester, who was also in the room, made the case for DeMaio based on how little had been accomplished, Sanders roared at him.
I captured the scene as best I could without having been there. The deal attendees reached there had impacts for many months and proved to be beginning of the end of DeMaio’s relationship with longtime advisers.
Lease Revenue Bonds Really!
Particularly over the last five years, we’ve tried to emphasize explainers. We think it’s important not only to break news but to make sure people understand it.
It’s at the heart of our partnership with NBC 7 San Diego. Each week, for the past several years, we’ve been doing San Diego Explained on Wednesday evenings.
To make something digestible, you often have to make it funny.
Liam Dillon did that here when he explained how the city can borrow money without a vote of the people. After all, it’s required to get a vote of the people to go into debt and yet it has been able to do just that.
The tool is called the lease revenue bond. And a court just signed off on its legality … again.
Here’s how it works – a terrific, visual and funny explainer.
Dick Murphy Resigns
Donohue helped us establish a kind of authoritative style even amid our passion. When big news hit, you could turn to VOSD to get a rundown of why it happened as soon as we could finish typing.
He pioneered that in April 2005, with this piece on Mayor Dick Murphy’s decision to resign.
Hard to believe that was nearly 10 years ago.