So far, 2016 is turning out to be a year of significant change in East Bay journalism. On March 1, the Bay Area News Group announced that, effective April 5, the Oakland Tribune will become a weekly paper, and the daily newspapers, the Contra Costa Times and the Tribune, will be rebranded as the East Bay Times. In addition, on April 1, longtime San Francisco Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson will be leaving the paper; he said he plans to move back home to Ohio. And finally, I’m leaving the Express on March 24 after eleven and a half years as a staff writer and editor. This is my final column for the paper.
I’ve been a fan and reader of the Express since I moved to Berkeley in 1979. And I’ve had a great ride at the paper since I was hired as a reporter in August 2004. When I arrived, after having worked as a staff writer at the Oakland Tribune for six years, the Express was still owned by the alt-weekly newspaper chain, New Times, which later became known as Village Voice Media (VVM). It’s common in the newspaper business to demonize corporate media, but I liked working for New Times and VVM. Yes, the company was large and, at times, a bit impersonal, but it was dedicated to investigative journalism and invested heavily in it. Plus, it took a hands-off approach to the Express. Never once did corporate managers attempt to steer our news coverage or tell me or my fellow reporters to lay off controversial stories.
In fact, my first cover story at the Express was one that the Tribune declined to publish, apparently out of fear of angering the owner of an Oakland icon: Fentons Creamery on Piedmont Avenue. My piece, “Fire & Ice Cream” (9/22/04), revealed the dark and disturbing story behind the 2001 blaze that gutted Fentons. Then-Express editor Stephen Buel had recruited me to come work at the paper a few months earlier and was ecstatic that I arrived with a cover story in hand. I have never regretted my choice to join the Express.
I’m very proud of the paper’s staff today, but back in the early and mid Aughts, the Express was much larger and was stacked with outstanding journalists. My fellow reporters included Chris Thompson, the best long-form writer I’ve ever worked with; Will Harper, a viciously funny columnist and terrific workmate; Justin Berton, a master of the long-form narrative who taught me how to craft a cover story; and Kara Platoni, a great reporter and colleague who now teaches at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Our managing editor at the time was Michael Mechanic (now at Mother Jones magazine), and the editorial staff included food editor Jonathan Kauffman (now of the Chronicle); music editor Rob Harvilla; and staffers Kelly Vance (still the Express film critic), Eric K. Arnold, Stefanie Kalem, Nora Sohnen, Vicky Walker, Mark Gartland, and Justin Page.
One of the stories that I’m proudest of from this period was an in-depth piece on Chris Gafford, an innocent man who was wrongly accused of being the East Bay sniper (see “At Large,” 1/12/05). And, of course, I spent much of the Aughts investigating the shady deals of then-State Senator Don Perata, who lived in Oakland and was one of the most powerful politicians in California.
A two-part series of investigative features that I wrote on Perata in 2007 (see “Living Large” 5/23/07) were among the first cover stories printed by the Express after it went independent. In May 2007, a group of investors, including Buel, Hal Brody, and Jay Youngdahl (who is now the majority owner of the paper and its president), purchased the Express from VVM. (I should note that working for an independent Express was even more fun than under VVM.) Over the next few years, some of my favorite pieces included “The Buses from Hell” (01/23/08), an in-depth series on AC Transit, and the environmental stories “You’re Not an Environmentalist If You’re Also a NIMBY” (7/1/09) and “Sierra Water Grab” (4/29/09). And then, of course, when Perata ran for mayor of Oakland, I penned the polemic, “25 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Vote for Don Perata” (10/13/10). It worked.
In December 2010, I became co-editor of the Express with Kathleen Richards, the best all-around journalist I’ve ever worked with (she’s now an editor at the Stranger). Over the next few years, I got to work with and edit two of the finest writers I’ve ever known: Rachel Swan (who is now at the Chronicle) and Ellen Cushing (now at BuzzFeed). I also got to edit super reporter Sam Levin (now at the Guardian US).
During this period, I also was fortunate to become the voice of the Express through my weekly column Seven Days. And although it may be immodest, I think there’s an argument to be made that the Express became the voice of Oakland and other East Bay cities. In 2012, 76 percent of the candidates and measures that we endorsed won, and in 2014, that number rose to 83 percent. No other publication came anywhere close to our record.
After Jay Youngdahl promoted me to editor of the paper in June 2014, I was fortunate to hire, edit, and work with an extremely talented and hard-working staff, including Levin, arts and culture editor Sarah Burke (who is becoming managing editor of the Express on March 25), music editors Sam Lefebvre and Nastia Voynovskaya, food editor Luke Tsai, photo editor Bert Johnson, investigative reporter Darwin BondGraham, and managing editor April Kilcrease (who is also leaving the Express on March 24). Some of my favorite stories from the past two years included Levin’s “Racial Profiling Via Nextdoor.com” (10/7/15); Burke’s “Will Oakland Lose Its Artistic Soul?” (2/7/16); Tsai’s “Shell-Shocked” (1/14/15); and BondGraham’s “Oakland’s Toxic Failure” (11/11/15).
As co-editor and editor, I also got to work with some fantastic freelance journalists, including David Bacon, Alastair Bland, Momo Chang, David Downs, John Geluardi, Joaquin Palomino (now at the Chronicle), Will Parrish, Steven Tavares, Jean Tepperman, and Ali Winston (now at Reveal).
Other Express editorial staffers and freelancers that I was lucky to work with over the years include (in no particular order) Nate Seltenrich, John Birdsall, Lauren Gard, Anneli Rufus, Eliza Strickland, Stephen Loewinsohn, Azeen Ghorayshi, Lenika Cruz, Cassie McFadden, Will Butler, Madeleine Key, Linnea Due, John C. Osborn, Michelle Ellson, Erin Baldassari, Julian Mark, Kibby Kleiman, Zaineb Mohammed, Rin Kelly, and J. Douglas Allen-Taylor.
I also want to give a shout-out to some of the fabulous non-editorial staffers at the Express over the years, including Jody Colley, Ben Grambergu (who is leaving on March 25), Marie Ortega Haslam, Nick Wong, Justin Harris, Caitlin Albritton, Roxanne Pasibe, Bri Beaudoin, Israel Brown, and ex-staffers Brian Kelly, Annika Dukes, Jennifer Lindsay, Sonia Rude, Brent Ringwood, Terry Furry, and Kasper Koczab. (Apologies if I forgot anyone.)
If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for indulging my trip down memory lane. As I said, I’ve had a great ride at the Express. But it’s time for me to embark on a new adventure. I’m not leaving East Bay journalism; I love Oakland and the rest of the East Bay far too much for that. To find out where I land next, follow me on Twitter at @RobertGammon.
The Express will announce the appointment of the paper’s new editor in the weeks ahead.
Thanks, and thanks for reading.