What motivates Tribune journalists? It’s not glory or awards

The Tribune won first place for general excellence at the California Journalism Awards on Saturday night, one of 24 overall awards.
The Tribune won first place for general excellence at the California Journalism Awards on Saturday night, one of 24 overall awards.

This week, The Tribune was honored by the California News Publishers Association for a wide range of journalism produced in 2018.

I had the privilege of representing our newsroom at the awards gala in Long Beach. It was a chance to visit with colleagues, look out for new ideas and learn about the many triumphs California journalists achieved over the last year.

The highlight of the night was the announcement that The Tribune had won the top prize for general excellence, which is an overall assessment of the work we do on any given day, including front-page stories, editorials, photos and more.

It’s an award that goes to each and every person in this newsroom, to the people who put their hearts into telling the stories of San Luis Obispo County every day.

I can tell you without reservation that they pursue their work with the highest integrity, in search of facts that can be proven and validated from reliable sources who have the authority to speak on issues that are important to our community. They also dig for the stories from quiet corners where people have no voice, so that underserved populations aren’t forgotten. In between, they look for the tidbits of joy that make you smile.

They don’t do any of this for glory, but to ensure you are as informed as possible about the news and stories that are closest to your home, whether it’s how your city leaders spend taxpayer dollars or whether your favorite restaurant passed its health department inspection.

This is the vast majority of what we do as a local news organization, and it’s a long away from the poisonous characterizations heaped upon the American media as a whole.

The awards, both individual and general excellence, recognize the contributions of everyone in the newsroom, so it seems fitting that you hear from some of them in their own words, about how they covered one of these award-winning stories, what working in journalism means to them and why they disrupt vacations, wake up in the middle of the night and work on holidays to pursue stories that can demand attention at any moment, 365 days a year.

Visual journalist David Middlecamp

First place for artistic photo, feature photo and video journalism on Andrew Holland

Visual journalism can tell a story on an emotional level. From a jail cell, to a military obstacle course to a football game, every year we strive to record visual moments that connect with our common humanity.

Previously, The Tribune has covered stories about gaps in local mental health services, but the video of Andrew Holland’s final days in jail and his family’s public advocacy for change clearly told a complex story. The difference between talking about reform and acting for meaningful change can be attributed to the concern that the community mobilized after Andrew’s story was fully told.

Change of this magnitude is not an individual decision and requires commitment all the way from residents to department heads and elected officials.

But the news isn’t all serious. Our feature photos share the common thread of finding a simple, relatable slice of life.

Joe Johnston captured the anticipation of a cheerleader before the game starts. I recorded the effort of ROTC soldiers climbing an obstacle under blazing sun. At the Mid-State Fair I found a 5-year-old pee wee showman trying to move while his lamb had other ideas.

Our county is filled with a wide variety of stories every day, and it is humbling to have a window into other lives and share those personal stories.

Pee Wee Showman-Feature -DM.JPG
Denim Garcia was among the age 5 participants getting ready for Pee Wee Showmanship with lambs at the Mid State Fair Sunday morning. He and the lamb had different ideas about where to go. David Middlecamp 7-29-2018 David Middlecamp

Opinion editor Stephanie Finucane

First place and third place for editorials on Andrew Holland and Cal Poly frats

Opinion journalism provides an opportunity to step back and reflect on what a particular event or issue means to a community and sometimes, to suggest ways to make things better. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions.

There may not be easy answers — or any definitive answers at all.

The tragic passing of Andrew Holland, who died at County Jail after being held in a restraint chair for 46 hours, was one such event that raised far more questions than answers.

Matt Fountain’s excellent reporting and his ability to get ahold of the video of Holland’s last hours informed our editorial, in which we questioned the actions of the Sheriff’s Office and called for humane treatment of mentally ill individuals who wind up in the criminal justice system.

Andrew Holland died while at the San Luis Obispo County, California jail in 2017. This exclusive jail cell video shows his final days strapped to a restraint chair and left naked in a solitary confinement cell.

Reporter Monica Vaughan

First place for local government coverage of health threats from dust in Nipomo and second place for land-use reporting on Measure G

I talk to a lot of people: politicians, administrators, bureaucrats. The conversations I enjoy most are with the people willing to share with me their life experience, their views of the world, their joys and their hardships while living in San Luis Obispo County.

Those stories help our readers gain a better grasp of their community and the broader world, they can illuminate the ways that the decisions of people in power affect the public, and they elevate injustices that might otherwise go unresolved. I’m lucky to be a part of that.

Nipomo resident Stanley Fisher shared his life experience with me a year before his death, which he believes was hastened by poor air quality on the Mesa. He was concerned not only for himself, but for the health of his neighbors and his community. He was a pleasure to talk to, and I am honored to have shared his story.

Telling stories is more than repeating other people’s words. We look for evidence, we pore over public documents, we research and we talk to as many people as we can.

No issue is black and white and there is always more than two sides to a story. I’m resolved to continue to listen to and increase understanding between people with differing views and experiences, especially on the most divisive issues.

Our newsroom is filled with reporters who are passionate about telling your stories, too. Give us a call.

Living within sight of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area, California, Stanley Fisher battled a terminal lung disease until his death in 2019. He and his wife monitored the air on a constant basis in San Luis Obispo County.

Reporter Kaytlyn Leslie

Third place for youth and education coverage of Cal Poly’s blackface scandal

Journalism for me, and so many others here at The Tribune, is about community. It’s about being a part of San Luis Obispo County — and wanting what is best for it.

We work every single day to bring you the latest, most relevant news as part of a shared desire to try to make the Central Coast the best possible version of itself. We are your neighbors, your friends and your public voices.

Sometimes that relationship is rocky, of course — reporting on the blackface incident at Cal Poly last year, we got our share of pushback on our coverage, from both people who thought we needed to do more and people who thought we were making too much of it.

What I’m most proud about from that coverage, however, is that it got the community talking. We were finally facing headlong these issues that many Cal Poly students and community members said had been pushed aside for years. Only by bringing issues into the light can we hope to be the best versions of ourselves.

The CNPA awards this newsroom won are an awesome accolade — just like any other profession, it’s nice to be told when you are doing a good job — but it’s only part of the story. You, our readers, are the rest. We need to hear from you more on what you like (and what you dislike) about our coverage.

My email ( is always open, and I love to hear from community members: Drop a message about a story, a tip or even just to introduce yourself. Let’s work together to keep The Tribune as the most excellent small-town newspaper in California.

Reporter Lindsey Holden

Second place for writing for A fight for her death,” about a San Luis Obispo cancer victim’s battle for end-of-life medication

My two favorite parts of journalism are connecting with people and never knowing exactly what any given day will hold.

Both of these aspects of my job came into play when I was reporting “A fight for her death,” a two-part series about Christine Whaley, a San Luis Obispo woman with malignant melanoma who was struggling to obtain end-of-life medication.

I first connected with Christine after she wrote a viewpoint for us about her cancer battle and why she wanted these drugs. I found out she was planning to take the medication just a few days later, so photographer Joe Johnston and I got just a few hours with her.

I continued to report the story for about a month after Christine died, and her husband, Tom, was an invaluable resource during that time.

As a journalist, there’s always a tough line to walk between respecting sources’ privacy and telling their stories.

Sometimes, I’m amazed how much people will open up, even during their toughest times. Many people I’ve talked to have said it’s healing for them to talk about their loved ones or challenging situations — even though I’m not sure I could say the same thing if I were in their shoes.

“A fight for her death” taught me a lot about my job and had a really big impact on me, personally. I still think about Christine and Tom all the time, and I’m always grateful they let me into their lives.

I hope that’s how our readers think of us — as people trying to show them a little piece of life in just a few words.

As she faced her final days, Christine Whaley of San Luis Obispo, who suffered from terminal cancer, discusses her decision to get a prescription to end her life.

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Joe Tarica is the editor of The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. He’s worked in various newsroom roles since 1993, including as an award-winning copy editor, designer and writer of the Joetopia column. A California native, he has been a resident of San Luis Obispo County for more than three decades and is a Cal Poly graduate.