Seven years. It’s difficult to say just how much my life has changed in that period of time. A cursory search tells me that the body replaces most of its cells every seven to 10 years, while long-dead Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner posited that a person changes in spiritual relation to the universe in seven-year intervals. Science and the stars have never been my strongest subjects, so I’ll instead focus on the things I know.
I know I owe a great debt to Metro, the South Bay’s alternative weekly newspaper and parent company of San Jose Inside. The tab grows more unwieldy when I think of the support I’ve received from family, friends and colleagues, as well as sources who have entrusted me with information, sometimes at great personal risk. And then there’s you, the reader.
As a rule, second-person voice is generally verboten on these pages and those of Metro’s recycled stock, but I feel compelled to extend my gratitude to the people who supported our mission: to tell the unvarnished stories of Silicon Valley, as best we could, and bring comfort to the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That’s a heady task for, essentially, a newsroom of two.
When I started working for Metro in the first week of 2011, I was sleeping in a converted garage that didn’t have a window to hint the hour of the day. I drove an old purple Cadillac DeVille and wrote stories with my only other possession of disputable value, a laptop computer dense enough to sink a writer in the Dead Sea. I had less than a year experience covering hard news and had never heard of most of the region’s political players, let alone read a council agenda. All I had was an opportunity, a few people who believed in me and the freedom to choose almost any story that sparked an interest.
Today—seven years to the day San Jose Inside published my first story on a rogue anti-cannabis prosecutor; times have certainly changed—I’m here to file my final report, as I will be joining the San Francisco Chronicle.
My life has transformed for the better in so many ways over the last seven years, even if I had to get rid of the Cadillac. I can now make rent on a real apartment in one of the most absurd housing markets in the world, and I even cover the interest on my debts. Around the same time I was promoted from staff writer to news editor, before becoming managing editor, Metro’s last full-time photographer introduced me to a woman who laughed at my jokes but took me seriously enough to become my wife. I developed my voice as a writer, painfully at times, while telling the real stories of real people in Silicon Valley, a place I’ve called home for the better part of 35 years but never really knew until Metro gave me a byline.
I’ve been blessed to form friendships with many of the people who create, and are featured in, the pages of Metro, an alternative voice in a valley too often lacking in humor and empathy—two things that will be required to truly save the world. The last seven years have also forced me to check my own preconceptions and privileges in ways that will continue.
In my time with the paper, the news department has tried to give a voice to underdogs over sacrosanct disrupters while pulling back the curtain on the work of local government, from policymakers and political hucksters to local media and law enforcement. This has led to more than a few awkward encounters.
Elected officials have ignored my presence while I asked questions a few feet from their face. Several press flacks have called me … difficult. I’ve been thrown out of election night parties and a clench-fisted bureaucrat once seemed poised to punch me at a City Hall retirement party; instead he looked me up and down, finished his drink and advised me to watch my waistline. One of my favorite stories comes from my first year with Metro, when a San Jose police union spokesman mistakenly took me for a plain-clothes officer. He started our meeting by telling me to try on his blazer. Before I could tell him I was a journalist he launched into the talking points that cops were feeding to reporters during the city’s pension battle. The spokesman would later go on to run a labor-directed attack blog that photoshopped my face onto silly cartoons.
I could be wrong—and I’m sure the benevolent commenters who frequent this site will find no fault in this assessment—but I honestly believe Metro and San Jose Inside’s journalism these last seven years has had a greater impact than any of our South Bay media peers, including the daily paper of record, which, like too many outlets across the country, is suffering an unfortunate loss of institutional knowledge in a time when we need more talented journalists, not less.
A running newsroom joke at Metro was to create a Wall of Fame for the people who have been investigated, fired or banished—by bureaucracy, the ballot box, resignation or the criminal justice system—as a result of our work. It would have been tacky, not just in the way that some people’s hallways have too many photos and no matching frames. But an abbreviated list of those brought to account includes: the president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors; an eight-term congressman; the CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Water District; the schools chief for Santa Clara County and his dodgy spokesman; most of the folks in charge of the city of Santa Clara; the Milpitas city manager; the head of interpreters for the county’s Superior Court; and a scandal-plagued state Assembly member and her 5th Amendment-invoking councilman brother.
Metro and San Jose Inside can also be credited with changing more public policies than I can count, in part because a snooping reporter can occasionally scuttle the worst-laid plans with a phone call and a few probing questions. I’m especially proud of the policies we’ve had a hand in reversing or improving in regards to transparency and the expenditure of taxpayer money. Awards are nice, and we’ve won a few, but there’s nothing better in this line of work than finding a scoop after digging through a mountain of data, using a person’s own words to show the cravenness of their agenda, or simply receiving a kind letter from a reader.
Never underestimate how much the occasional kind word can sustain journalists, who by and large are overworked, underpaid and ever increasingly attacked for nothing more than presenting inconvenient truths. Growing claims of fake news, a two-word propaganda tool that equates isolated errors with ulterior motive, have put hard-working reporters in the uncomfortable position of not only gathering the news, but also having to defend information as if facts can alternate like tag-team grapplers.
We have certainly made errors along the way, but in the pursuit of truth, or the thing that most closely resembles it, which has never been a tidy undertaking. As reporters know, the finished product of a story rarely resembles the initial outline of an assignment, and accepting that result separates activism from a journalistic account.
I have to thank Dan Pulcrano, Metro’s executive editor, who gave me a chance to write and then let me run (mostly) wild. I’ll miss working with Jennifer Wadsworth, an exceptionally talented journalist who has quickly become Silicon Valley’s best storyteller and will continue to rattle cages; A&E editor Nick Veronin, an excellent music writer with an unparalleled mane of hair; and the many brilliant people who have contributed stories and worked behind the scenes to build the paper (Sean George, Kathy Manlapaz), take the photographs (Greg Ramar), create the art (Kara Brown) and sell the ads (John Haugh and his team) that have sustained our editorial mission.
Seven years is a fair amount of time, longer than I’ve spent in any one place in my life, and it’s a cycle that can stand on its own. The next chapter awaits.
Thanks for reading.