adopt-a-journalist: paul feist

Paul Feist has been around journalism for a long time. Over thirty years and counting, with no sign of slowing down any time soon.

The Bay Area native enjoyed a quarter-century long career as a reporter and editor, beginning with his first writing gig for local weekly publications around Northern California. He landed his first job at a daily paper in 1986 when he joined the Lodi News Sentinel. Shortly thereafter, he moved on to The Record in Stockton, Cal.

By the end of 1989, Feist worked his way to political editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, basing out of nearby Sacramento, Cal.

He remembered one of his last assignments writing for The Record – covering the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I went over the night of the earthquake and all the lights were out on the highway so it was kind of tricky getting over there,” Feist said in a telephone interview.

He made it as far as Oakland, Cal. where he spent the night at his mother’s home, before he moved on across the bay to The City. And right into the thick of it.

“I went to the marina district which was the most damaged at the time, and the fires had been out by then,” Feist said.

While in the marina district, Feist reported on the Bay Bridge, which had partially collapsed, and the Embarcadero freeway, which experienced extensive damage in its own right.

A radio station in Oakland announced their efforts to bring food over the bridge to San Francisco, and Feist found his next story. The good intentions of the station notwithstanding, he didn’t want to leave me with the wrong impression.

“They weren’t starving. They were in San Francisco,” Feist said with a laugh, “But they were just doing this anyway.”

Overlooked in the radio broadcast was the fact that the bridge wasn’t suitable to transport the food items. When officials at the station decided to bring the donations across the bay on a boat, Feist went along for the ride.

“It started getting really, really stormy, and it was actually quite scary,” Feist said, recalling the journey.

Alas, the boat made it to Pier 39 in one piece and the food was disseminated to local grocery stores which lost power from the quake.

Although Feist didn’t encounter any ethical issues of note covering the earthquake, his career wasn’t always absent of challenges.

A story Feist wrote for The Record broke news about a Stockton City Councilmember and his penchant for shaking down developers. Included in the story was how the Councilmember solicited campaign donations from developers in return for project approvals. The money went to a phony charity in which the Councilmember headed, and essentially drawing a salary, according to Feist.

“So I exposed that and the guy ended up getting charged and actually left the council,” Feist said.

The story didn’t quite end there. He was eventually contacted by the Councilmember following his release from jail. According to Feist, the Councilmember wanted him to conduct the same tenacious investigative reporting on the next councilmember to go against the law.

The councilmember story wasn’t Feist’s first run in with the law, if you will. Several times he has been approached by law enforcement to disclose an anonymous source. Each time, he had the same answer.

“I said, 'No, I’m not going to give you the names of the person I quoted because we have an agreement,’” Feist said. “I’ve actually been in the courtroom where we have these conversations and have a judge decide whether I had to provide the name in my notes to either an attorney who was representing somebody, or the district attorney.”

Did he feel any intimidation in those situations?

“Yeah, I mean it kind of becomes a story of its own, in some respects,” Feist said, before continuing, “and fortunately I’ve worked for publishers who’ve understood you have to protect this right.”

That “right” being the ability to grant anonymity to a source and deliver on such a promise. Judges always ruled in Feist’s favor.

There are other instances where a source isn’t afforded anonymity. In one such occasion, a Stockton City Councilmember came to Feist to bash the city manager hoping that he would publish a story about the claims, Feist said. However, he makes certain considerations when the issue of anonymity comes up.

“People have different agendas when they go and talk to reporters,” Feist said, before elaborating. “When you’re dealing with unnamed sources, you always have to be very, very careful because you can’t just give them license to say whatever the hell they want. They have to have evidence, they have to be in a position to know.”

Feist said he felt that the Councilman should make the statements publicly because of his public office, and that he couldn’t just write what would amount to a smear story simply “because somebody says this,” an allusion to the Councilmember’s claims.

One occasion where Feist and Stockton Police worked together came when he received an anonymous letter in the mail. The author wanted to be a confidential source and threatened to do a Cleveland School-style mass shooting if nobody listened to him. Feist never responded, and instead took what he called the “disturbing” letter to police.

In an example of successful policing, the Police Department tracked the man down and arrested him. The man was mentally unstable but, fortunately, was able to receive the treatment he needed following the arrest.

The man’s attorney even called Feist after the entire episode, saying it was the exact thing he needed to get his life straight, according to Feist.

While he has been out of journalism for a decade now, his current position as Vice-Chancellor for Communications for the California community college system – which he has held since 2011 – requires he works and maintains relationships with members of the media. Instead of being in the information-seeking business, Feist has crossed the line to be an information provider.

Prior to joining the Chancellor’s office, he served as chief deputy cabinet secretary in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, also serving as a policy advisor to the California Energy Commission.

From local weekly’s to potentially saving a man’s life – and a few court appearances in between – Feist made a name for himself covering California for years.