Ultimately, my advocacy led me to speak to student activist groups across the state; correspond with policymakers from the state legislature to the governor's mansion; and give interviews for outlets ranging from my local TV station to The New York Times.
Media appearances were by far my least favorite part of the whole experience. As a 17-year-old, I was extremely self-conscious about my age, appearance, and voice. I was unhappy with nearly all of the coverage I received, which I felt twisted my words and misrepresented the issue. I blamed this misrepresentation for the vitriolic comments I found directed toward me, both in-person and in online comment sections.
However, I had figured out by then that the best way to get over something that scares you is to get to know it better. The media environment scared me, journalists scared me. If I wanted to stop being afraid, I needed to take a look behind the curtain. I applied to write for my hometown newspaper in early 2020.
My interview for the local paper, The Press Banner, took place after school on March 13, 2020. I figured then that I would struggle to find newsworthy happenings in my sleepy community. Little did I know that March 13 marked the eve of one of the most eventful 12-month periods in the history of Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley
During my tenure as an intern for the Press Banner, I saw local schools shut down in response to the nascent COVID-19 pandemic, and for my first article I interviewed graduating high school athletes whose college plans were scrambled by cancelled senior seasons.
When George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, the summer of national outrage reached Scotts Valley. Young residents organized a 200-person march and rally down the town’s main drive; local officials called it the first organized protest in the area’s 60-year history. My reporting formed the basis of a two-page spread in the Press Banner, though I was disappointed by editorial and photographic decisions that I was not consulted on and which I felt undermined the story.
I included dozens of photos like these, of protestors lining the streets of Scotts Valley, with my submission. They were sourced from multiple photographers (Left: Jenny Johnston; Right: Trinity Maxon), with permission. No images of the protest itself made it into the final paper.
In August, the CZU lightning complex fire struck the central coast. We didn’t know whether Press Banner headquarters would still exist at the end of the first week, much less whether we’d publish an edition. In its place, I pitched and sold a story to the neighboring Santa Cruz Sentinel on graduating high school seniors who were supposed to be starting college that week, but whose homes had been lost or were then threatened by the fire. The article was later republished in the Press Banner.
These were just a few of my stories; I tried to publish an article every week, but was often distracted by school, or otherwise immersed to some extent in the same disasters that impacted my community (my front-page article on the wildfire, for example, might not have gotten top-billing if several of the paper’s full-time journalists hadn’t lost their homes).
I’m proud of some of my local interest pieces, such as The Ninjas of Scotts Valley, which examined how our town of ten thousand had produced multiple successful contestants on the popular obstacle athletics course show American Ninja Warrior.
And I’m disappointed that some of my planned pieces never came together: my interview with Marc Randolph, who co-founded Netflix in a Scotts Valley motel, was derailed by a combination of wildfire chaos and a PR representative. My planned interview with Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, too, was nipped in the bud by an agent. And from time to time I still revisit my pitch titled The Last Pilots of Skypark, on the hobbyists who fly conspicuous RC planes out of the decommissioned local airport (where, on an unrelated note, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak famously crashed his airplane. Something about Scotts Valley must attract Silicon Valley co-founders).
Altogether I found journalism much more emotionally taxing than I had expected. Reaching out to contacts and interviewees, from classmates to local business owners, was particularly stressful for me— mostly because I could tell it was stressful for the people I reached out to.
People are often (and justifiably) nervous or apprehensive about talking to reporters; we take possession of people’s words and use them to build narratives. Ideally these narratives reflect reality. But it is far too easy for a journalist to begin writing a story with a narrative already in mind, and proceed to cherry-pick supportive quotes and data during the “research” process. This can make for a great story, but it’s also irresponsible. Normal people don’t have PR professionals to safeguard their schedules and mind their reputations.
During my stint at the local paper and continuing after, I took the coursework required of a minor in journalism at UC Berkeley. I became a better writer, a more confident interviewer, and something like a competent reporter. But I also learned that I wasn’t crazy for harboring the reservations I did: unsuspecting interviewees and subjects, I learned, often feel they are “victims of journalism”, their stories reduced and repurposed to fit an unfamiliar storyline.
I have great respect for good journalism and journalists, and can even appreciate the importance of narrative-minded work like Nicholas Kristof’s. But it's not a field I want to go into myself.
This is fine, because I never really planned on going into journalism. Instead, I accomplished what I set out to do: transformed my fear into informed skepticism.