THE KEY TO A HEALTHY, TIGHTKNIT COMMUNITY?
LOCAL JOURNALISTS COVERING LOCAL NEWS
By Amy Senk | Contributor
SUMMER 2023 ISSUE
Debt ceilings and Harry and Meghan’s latest antics may dominate headlines and airwaves. But what about that crime scene van parked at the neighbor’s house or the black smoke filling the sky with ash?
Enter local journalists, who cover local news one story at a time and provide the information that often is what matters to us most. We talked to some of our favorite Orange County reporters and editors, finding out what drew them to the field and compels them to continue hunting down and reporting the news.
News Reporter, KCAL News
It’s about the biggest no-no in Southern California, but back in her college days, Michele Gile broke the cardinal rule and transferred from UCLA to crosstown rival USC to obtain her journalism degree.
That degree launched her career as a cub reporter in Palm Springs, where she shot all her own video wearing garden gloves so she wouldn’t burn her hands on the equipment in the 117-degree Palm Springs summers. She covered a few car crashes and fires, but most of her time was spent on features, not breaking news — think snowbirds who played cards and did arts and crafts at the senior center.
Then, a news director vacationing in the desert caught her on TV and offered her a job in Santa Barbara. Leaving the heat thrilled her — but taking on the job of bureau chief seemed overwhelming and nearly impossible.
"It sounded like a job for a seasoned journalist in Moscow or Tel Aviv,” she says. “And I was still in my 20s.”
When the deadly Painted Cave Fire erupted in 1990, burning 5,000 acres and destroying hundreds of buildings, Michele’s coverage became part of the reel that she sent to other stations throughout the country who were looking to hire reporters.
“That story is what got me hired at CNN,” she says. “I was at the L.A. bureau on the weekends as a freelancer, filling in, and at the same time, I took the job as a freelancer at KCAL News. Some weeks, I worked seven days.”
KCAL didn’t have an Orange County reporter, and Michele lived at the time in Costa Mesa, so she agreed to take that job.
“And 33 years later here in Orange County, I absolutely love my job,” she says.
Sometimes, she says, her work is heartbreaking, like her coverage of the kidnapping and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, who was snatched from her Stanton front yard.
“I am a mom of two daughters, and my eldest daughter was the same age as Samantha when she was taken,” Michele says. “That story crushed me. I would go home and sob. It was so disturbing. I’ve covered many other terrible crimes, but that one stands out.”
As a general assignment reporter, Michele has covered everything from court cases and the Angels to city halls and the board of supervisors.
“And weather,” she says. “Weather always makes amazing news, and we have so much weird weather here in Orange County.”
Making sure she always has her go-bag with her is crucial so she can quickly change out of a dress and heels — typical work attire — and put on rubber boots and weather gear, or fire gear and masks, all issued by the station.
Last year’s Coastal Fire, which destroyed 20 homes in Laguna Niguel, is one of Michele’s biggest stories and could soon be nominated for a local Emmy.
“I was actually close by, covering another story, and I looked in my rearview mirror and saw this smoke and thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ We raced over there and spent hours, on live TV, covering that.”
Michele says that being a part of the community that she covers has been critical to her success. When not at work, she’s been an active PTA volunteer at her daughters’ school. She’s moderated political forums and the Newport Beach Mayor’s Dinner and was the grand marshal of last year’s Newport Beach Boat Parade. People frequently stop her at the grocery store because they recognize her voice, and she gets daily texts and calls from her audience, asking questions or providing tips.
“People used to say to me, ‘When are you going to become an anchor? When are you going to New York?’” she says. “I don’t want any of those things. I’m so happy where I am. I like covering my community. We need boots on the ground, locally. We’ve got so much happening here.”
Photo credit courtesy of Michele Gile
Publisher, Stu News Newport and Stu News Laguna
Growing up, Tom Johnson always dreamed of becoming a superstar sports broadcaster.
“When I was young, I was a huge sports fanatic — the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Raiders,” he says. “I was sports editor of the high school newspaper, and I went off to college with a focus on radio and TV news because I wanted to be the next Howard Cosell.”
He took first job at a little Indio radio station where, among other tasks, he had a nightly, 10-minute sports show.
“That’s when I realized I had a terrible voice on the air and decided to go into the business side,” Tom says.
He moved to advertising and sales at a bigger station, then jumped to print and was a manager at the San Francisco Business Journal. He once tried to quit, but a Scripps-Howard president in Houston promoted him to publisher so he’d stay. Eventually, after a merger, he moved to Southern California to breathe life into the Daily Pilot as an associate publisher.
“That was in 1991,” he says. Within a few years, he became publisher, then general manager of all the community newspapers.
Tom’s tenure at the Pilot included the birth of the Pilot Cup, an annual soccer tournament that has since rebranded. The idea came from Costa Mesa attorney Kirk McIntosh, who approached Tom and the Pilot’s then-editor, William Lobdell, to suggest a community tournament.
“We sat down and put this thing together,” Tom says. “We got all the schools involved in Newport-Mesa. By year two, we had every kid in town for two weeks of the year wearing a Pilot Cup T-shirt, advertising us. It was huge. And we wrote up all the stories. It was the time of the year just before graduation time. High school sports had stopped. It was in one of those lulls. We could take our sports people and focus them on the Pilot Cup, and the kids got publicity.”
During Tom’s tenure, they also organized a women’s golf championship tournament called the Jones Cup, and his team created The Daily Pilot 103, which was a listing of the top 103 influential community members. The community loved it, lining up for extra copies that required higher press runs.
Tom’s Daily Pilot era ended when a higher-up at the Los Angeles Times told him to lay off two people.
“I went home, and it just haunted me because I thought it was the wrong thing to do,” Tom says. He asked if they would save the two jobs if he agreed to a buyout, and he walked away.
Tom, who was named Newport Beach Citizen of the Year in 2011, eventually launched Stu News because he was growing increasingly concerned about dwindling state of local news. He writes columns twice a week, which had never before been a big part of his job, and he tries to put a bit of his personality in each one. He doesn’t shy away from unpleasant topics or political hot potatoes, always striving to be fair.
“I always want to make sure we follow the four principles of community journalism: community watchdog, reservoir of information, community forum, and the last one — that so many people used to give me a hard time about — is community cheerleader,” he says. “Anything I do, I try to follow those principles.”
Photo credit courtesy of Tom Johnson
Business Editor, Southern California News Group
Samantha Gowen graduated with a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and immediately took a job — as a Domino’s delivery driver while she worked up the nerve “to interview important people and do it well.”
“Journalism is very, very heavy in its responsibility to truth and facts,” she says. “I was not ready, at 22, to be that person.”
A year later, she was off and running, first as a copy editor at a small North Carolina coastal paper where she would grab a notebook and dash out to cover a story when the bareboned staff required it. She moved around the Mid-Atlantic, working at different papers in various jobs, including tech advisor when a delivery of Apple computers was left in the rain on a loading dock (she figured out how to get them installed and working in the newsroom).
Ultimately, Samantha ended up at the Orange County Register at a time when the newsroom was the size of a football field, with as many as 500 reporters.
“I could not see from one end of the newsroom to the other,” she says. “We all look back on it now with a bit of wonderment and sadness. We grew and then we shrunk and now we’ve shrunk some more.”
She had worked a few months as a copy editor when her bosses began to lend her to other departments to help with page design, editing and technical issues.
“I’ve probably had 14 jobs at the Register,” she says. “Copy editor to page designer to iPad producer to pets and welfare editor to pets and welfare reporter to car culture reporter, and then I went back to copy desk [and] page design, then I did sports page design. I can’t remember all the jobs now.”
As business editor for the Southern California News Group, which acquired the Register in 2016, Samantha manages a team of four, coordinating and editing assignments and editing wire stories.
Currently, her team focuses on real estate and jobs stories, mostly because data shows that readers care the most about those topics.
“I end up filling in and writing occasionally on certain things because I refuse to let things fall in the cracks, and I know what readers want to read about,” she says. “I need to get the news out there. It kills us to think we miss something simply because we don’t have anyone to write it.”
From covering stories about California’s stimulus checks during Covid to writing about the launch of the first Dutch Bros. coffee shop in Orange County this May, Samantha has a sense of what stories readers will click on and share — and the analytics that followed built on her already solid track record.
Her recent stories about the state’s Middle-Class Tax Refund, which is an inflation relief payment, were especially well received.
“Readers appreciated and thanked me for repeatedly for these stories,” she says. “They wanted to know where their money was, and every week I let them know how they could track the payment or use the debit card that eventually came in the mail.”
Knowing what local readers need from their local paper is a daily priority, she says.
“We’re trying very hard to find those stories that matter to people locally,” she says. “It’s critical for journalists to understand their communities and to have clarity in their storytelling.”
Photo credit courtesy of Samantha Gowen
Photo credit courtesy of Christopher Trela
Editor, Newport Beach Independent and Orange County Business Journal dining columnist
Christopher Trela grew up in a writing family with a mother in the public relations business. He entered college as a film major but ultimately fell into a journalism-public relations hybrid career while his love of writing grew.
“I accidentally hooked up with somebody who had a weekly magazine newspaper, and I was writing stuff for him for free,” he says. “I really liked it and won a couple of awards and realized, ‘Oh wow, I’m good at writing.’”
Eventually, he wrote for the Daily Pilot and OC Metro and Coast magazines.
“I was actually making a living as a writer but still was doing PR,” he says. “I was director of public relations and communications for the Pacific Symphony, where I was doing a lot of writing. I had these simultaneous careers.”
Then a journalist friend said he was starting a new weekly newspaper— the Newport Beach Independent— and asked Christopher to contribute.
“I’d been writing about the arts for years, but I’d also become interested in food and wine,” he says. With that, a food column was launched at the paper known locally as the Indy.
A few years later, the Indy editor departed, and Christopher took the reins. But during the pandemic lockdown, everyone was furloughed and the paper stopped its print runs.
“I volunteered to keep the website going,” he says. “It was going to be important more than ever. The community needed to know what was going on.”
When restaurants’ dining rooms closed and they turned to take-out only, Christopher updated the newspaper’s website almost daily to include openings and deals.
“They appreciated that because they were trying to stay afloat,” he says. “It was the early days of Covid when I realized how important we were. We were offering information, and our website traffic doubled and tripled.”
Today, Christopher’s simultaneous careers also include writing the dining column for the Orange County Business Journal, which he’s done for about five years, along with teaching public relations and media relations as a full-time Chapman University professor.
“I love everything I do,” he says. But his passion is writing stories that have deep connections to the community. One of his favorite stories was in his early days as the Indy editor, when the widow of an organ donor had the chance to travel to Hoag Hospital to hear her husband’s heartbeat in the organ recipient’s chest.
As a weekly paper, the Indy isn’t as much of a breaking-news publication as one lets the community know about events and opportunities, particularly involving charitable organizations.
“I like covering charities,” Christopher says. “It’s important for people to know not just the charities but all the people behind them, and not just to give but to get involved.”
Christopher says that he and a few freelancers handle all the news, a lingering result of the staff furloughs. But as long as the community needs local news and information, he’s committed to providing it.
“I feel it’s important,” he says. “And until I don’t feel it’s important, I will keep doing it.”
Staff Reporter, Daily Pilot
Matt Szabo is a SoCal native who was always good at writing and always was into sports, the Dodgers and Lakers included.
“I thought it was a natural fit to be a sportswriter,” he says. “I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo because I had family in the area, and I like the Central Coast. I picked journalism and I kind of went with it.”
After graduation, he lived in Modesto and covered sports for a small local paper, then was hired at the Daily Pilot in 2006, when he was part of a sports staff of about six people.
“Over the past few years, the staff has shrunk,” he says. “When Covid hit, it was crazy. There were no sports going on, so we had to cover news. Covering sports remains a passion, but covering hard news was a reality that has probably made me a better reporter.”
The five reporters on staff were each assigned a city, and Matt volunteered to cover Huntington Beach, where he lived at the time.
“Huntington Beach is a challenge for a couple different reasons,” he says. “There’s always stuff going on. And the city council is always in the news. I have to stay on my toes.”
One of the most important community stories Matt has covered in his career, he says, was the 2021 oil spill, when nearly 25,000 gallons gushed from an underwater pipeline.
“That was a crazy time,” he says. “That was community journalism. I’m hanging out on the ground, at the beach, waiting for press conferences to pop up and for the governor. We were collaborating as a team to get a mix of politicians’ reactions and business owners’ and regular people. That was the most breaking-news moments that I’ve had, and a lot of my focus was how to localize it more.”
These days, Matt covers city politics, which he says has helped him develop a thicker skin. He covers a few high school games each week and also writes features that gain traction in the community, like his story earlier this year about Corona del Mar High School graduate Brooke Kenerson, who goes by the sobriquet “The Platelet Princess.” Matt decided to write this feature after hearing about Brooke’s cancer from her sister on social media. Of course, he remembered Brooke and her family from her Corona del Mar High School tennis days.
The Daily Pilot’s sport coverage has always been something special, something that really set them apart, Matt says. It also provided some of his favorite career memories, like covering Madeline Musselman, a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
“I met her when she was 12 and she was a sixth grader at Andersen Elementary in the Pilot Cup,” he says. “She was a goalie. I remember the game I covered; she had to leave right after to go to her swim practice. And that turned into, ‘I’m a swimmer now,’ and then, ‘I play water polo.’ I’ve known her at this point for half her life, and she’s already been in two Olympics and is gearing up for her next. She’s literally one of the best water polo players in the world. And I have that personal connection with her.”
Photo credit courtesy of Matt Szabo