Several people in a newsroom

UC Davis alumnus Matthias Gafni and fellow East Bay Times reporters Thomas Peele, Harry Harris, Erin Baldassari and David Debolt react as they learn of their Pulitzer Prize win for breaking news earlier this year

Photo: Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group

Inside the Newsroom

by | Dec 1, 2017 | Fall/Winter 2017-18, Young Achievers

Aggies are a force to be reckoned with in the news world.

In newspapers, radio, TV and on the web, UC Davis alumni are breaking news, winning major awards and making a difference. And at a time when the state of the news is a hot topic, these alumni have a front-row seat. We interviewed several who are taking on “fake news” and continue to play a critical role in delivering today’s headlines.

Some are even being awarded for it.

Investigative reporter Matthias Gafni ’98 and criminal justice reporter Angela Ruggiero ’10 are both on staff at Oakland’s East Bay Times and spent many months covering the disastrous Ghost Ship fire in 2016, when 36 people died during a concert held in a warehouse space that had been converted into a residential art collective. They exposed opportunities the city of Oakland failed to take to prevent the tragedy and won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Gafni said the award, which came as a shock, was also bittersweet.

“It’s a nice feeling to be appreciated, but obviously, it’s incredibly sad. We knew a lot of the victims at that point,” he said.

The recognition also reminded him of his mission: “We’re getting answers for the family members and the victims.”

Linnea Edmeier interviews Elmo

Linnea Edmeier on the job with Capital Public Radio.

Michael Bott ’07 is an investigative producer with NBC affiliate KNTV Bay Area and part of the team that won a 2016 Peabody Award for the “Arrested at School” series that examined local school districts’ reliance on police to handle student discipline — and the far-reaching negative ramifications that reliance has on students, especially from minority populations.

Like Gafni, Bott said the results of the work made it worthwhile.

“We’re serving the interests of the community and the audience — that’s the important thing,” he said. “We give a voice to the voiceless, and I appreciate it when I can make an impact or change a law.”

Several of the alumni we spoke with said they got much of their early journalism experience working for The California Aggie, UC Davis’ century-old student-run newspaper.

The Aggie definitely jumpstarted my professional career,” East Bay Times’ Ruggiero said. “Even those basic skills, like learning to take notes quickly enough and the rules of being a reporter, maybe other people would learn in a journalism class, but we were learning by experience.”

Others credited their college education.

Timothy Jue ’09, a producer and assignment editor at ABC7 News KGO-TV, said his undergraduate education enabled him to roll with the punches.

“Having an interdisciplinary education helped prepare me for a lot of the changes and innovation that comes with being in such a technologically advanced market as San Francisco, and in an industry that sees constant change,” he said.

Ignacio Torres ’10, a producer at ABC’s “Nightline” (where he won a 2016 Emmy for the “Brave Face” series that followed a face transplant recipient after his operation), said that his Latin American studies and Spanish classes shaped his professional life. “They taught me to be literate, and that’s crucial now more than ever,” he said.

The writing skills Linnea Edmeier ’08 learned at UC Davis influenced not only her own career — they’ve shaped her criteria for new hires in her position as managing editor of news and information for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento.

“I look for students who have an English background. They can think critically, and I know they understand the power of words,” she said. “My writing was what got me in the door [in radio, and] it’s really what I hang all my success on.”

Being adaptable has been critical, alumni said, in keeping pace with a frequently changing field. Journalistic outlets have been challenged by long-term declines in subscribers, the move to digital and continuing consolidation of local organizations. Alumni writers and editors have been through rounds of layoffs, which meant seeing friends and colleagues leave, and picking up the slack created by their absences.

The proliferation of social media has changed the news, too — not only does the need for content stretch 24/7, but the sheer number of sources can muddy the waters.

“I always worry about a lot of that traditional reporting knowledge that gets lost” in the new age, said Sasha Lekach ’10, a breaking news reporter at Mashable.com. What’s needed now more than ever, she added, are reporters who are “able to discern what’s overblown, what’s hyperbole.”

After certain situations involving reporters in her newsroom, Capital Public Radio’s Edmeier said she recently attended a critical incident stress management meeting to learn strategies to help support her team. “It was emergency medical service workers, the police and then me, a journalist,” she said.

But the UC Davis alumni interviewed said the fraught atmosphere has upped the stakes in a good way, too. They say journalism has a new energy — and is more necessary than ever.

“This is a very exciting time to work as a journalist,” Bott said. No matter how the field changes, “the job is still the same. We have that mandate to keep officials honest and hold their feet to the fire.”