Excellence in Action
Robert Salonga ’04
Interviewed by Monique Beals • May 13, 2019
Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.
At UCLA, I was a writer, reporter and editor at the Daily Bruin for my four years there. That was the heart and soul of my experience. I spent so much time there. I graduated with a degree in history, but my formative experiences were writing, reporting and editing for the Daily Bruin. That was my life for four years. I lived in the middle of Kerckhoff Hall from 2000-2004.
I was curious about journalism going into UCLA, and I will admit when I wrote my admissions essay for UCLA, I was very frank that I was applying to UCLA, because I wanted to work for the Daily Bruin. I had been at my high school newspaper where I grew up in San Jose, California, and I wanted to work for a great college paper as well. From the very first story I wrote at the Daily Bruin, that was it. I was hooked, and that was all that I wanted to do. I spent every school break and summer I was reporting or editing at the Daily Bruin while fitting in some classes in between. That really nurtured the fire I had for reporting. At UCLA, you are exposed to so many different issues and topics just by virtue of it being in Los Angeles, being in California, being a part of a public university system, etc. I would write about everything from USAC to the UC Regents. That was the footprint for UCLA and the UC System. UCLA is connected to so many different issues that you can write about so many important things at the college level. I got a really good foundation there to feel confident that this was something I really wanted to pursue.
After I graduated, I went to graduate school at the University of Maryland in the Washington, D.C. area to get a Master’s degree in Journalism. I earned a fellowship from The Washington Post, and while I was in graduate school, I was a news wire reporter covering Capitol Hill working at a building right across from the White House. The foundation I got at the Daily Bruin and being at UCLA exposed me to the high level of thought and ideas flowing around gave me the confidence to take on issues in D.C.
After that, I came back to California and started at a small paper in Salinas, the Salinas Californian, and I did more ground level reporting about education, city politics, and other issues. A couple of years later, I came back to the Bay Area and took a job at the Contra Costa Times which is now the East Bay Times. I started my criminal justice reporting career covering street crime and police issues for five years. Then, I moved to my current position at The Mercury News as a criminal justice reporter, where I cover crime from the street to the court. I’ve been covering criminal justice for 12 years now. I can say with full confidence that the fact that I’m in this business and even moderately successful is because of the foundation I got going to UCLA and working at the Daily Bruin.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I knew that I was interested in journalism coming out of high school and going into college, but I really joined the Daily Bruin to see if it was for me. The irony of it is that, despite all of my enthusiasm, I actually didn’t get in my first quarter. I applied and didn’t get in, and then I applied again for winter quarter, got in, and ended up graduating as the news editor of the place. Something I told every applicant from then on after my experience was if you don’t get in the first time, you’ve got to try again. It is just a basic level of perseverance that anybody needs. Particularly in a career like journalism, half of the job is getting turned down whether that is when you’re asking for an interview or when asking for public records or trying to get an answer from anyone from a prosecutor to a police chief. When it comes to journalism, “no” is often the start of the conversation. That is how I got started. I didn’t know that I wanted to do it with the enthusiasm that I have now, but it was really from day one writing my first story and seeing my name in the paper, I knew this was for me. UCLA is unique because it has its hands in a lot of cookie jars whether that is science, economics, politics, or so many other fields. Being at the Daily Bruin meant that you had your choice of really interesting things to write about. We had all this expertise at your fingertips, and it was such a learning opportunity to educate yourself about these topics. My four years went by so quickly trying to learn about everything that I could and write about all the interesting things of which UCLA was part. I knew that if I could get that experience and learn so much at the college level, this was the right career path for me. I was further galvanized by my experience in Washington, D.C. Even though I’m not a political reporter now, it really gave me the confidence and exposure to take on tough issues and ask hard questions. All of those experiences were a great training ground for how to take those experiences on and write about them in a meaningful way.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
Until last fall, we had this unofficial network of UCLA Daily Bruin alumni who were in contact and would help each other. We started a scholarship in the memory of a former Daily Bruin colleague of ours. Unofficially, it was a tight-knit group of current and former Daily Bruin folks. Last fall, we were able to enshrine our group as a chapter of the UCLA Alumni Association, so it is good to have that more formal backing, because more than ever I think those connections and that support is really important. No matter what point in the university’s 100 years people were at UCLA, there are relatable things and common experiences for every Bruin across the board. Unofficially, it was really important, and now that it is formal, I hope it can be a strong resource for alumni whether they are just about to graduate or people who were part of the paperback in the ‘50s. It is a good connective tissue for everyone so that no one feels alone out there whether they are doing journalism or anything else.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
I think my greatest challenge was getting established in the business. It was tough when I did it in the early to mid-2000s, and it is still tough now. I think I overcame that with perseverance. Coming out of graduate school, I couldn’t get a job. It is more pronounced now than it was before, and there are always going to be multiple journalists applying for each position. It was tough to get settled and broken in when I moved back to California. Sometimes you have to go to a smaller paper that is more willing to take a risk on a young reporter. I know my experience in Salinas was really valuable for me, and I was able to use that experience to get a job with the company I’m at now.
Also, when I think about the most difficult thing to overcome as a crime reporter is trying to maintain sensitivity and empathy while also not internalizing the job. I’ve covered crime for 12 years now, and you face a lot of bad stories. I’ve written about a lot of killings and tragic crimes. It is really tough on people. I’ll cover something really bad and for the family that I’m writing about, it is the worst day of their lives and for me, it’s Tuesday. You have to remember that you walk a fine line in terms of not internalizing it, because a lot of reporters burn out by taking this home with them, but you also cannot become callused to it where you lose all compassion when talking to people at the lowest point in their lives. I think I have gotten better at walking that tightrope, but I’ve never gotten used to it. I’m glad though because I’ve preserved some of my humanity by virtue of not getting used to it. When a crime happens, a lot of people are impacted on all sides. You have to be involved in telling the story. So many of the things that we write about are sad and remind people of that sadness in the world, but they also remind people that the reason we do this job is so that people, leaders, decision makers and elected officials have good information on which they can make decisions. If I am writing about gang crime in a neighborhood where city government is trying to enact policies for improvement, we have to remind people that they are making decisions that are more than just moving numbers around and go beyond statistics and crime rates. These are people with human lives and families that will be affected. It is our job to humanize the story.
I was fortunate to be part of a reporting team in 2016 covering the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland where 36 people died. Eventually, we won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in 2017 for that coverage. It was bittersweet because we all worked together on that story, and it was such an accomplishment to be recognized, but it was predicated on the souls of 36 people. We want to do a good job, but we also have to remind ourselves why we do it. Part of the reason that I think that coverage was recognized was that we really got into why it happened. It turns out that a big culprit, in this case, was that fire inspections were not happening and this warehouse was an improvised living space that was never supposed to be a place for people to live. It was a warehouse. Nobody was supposed to be living there. We were able to report that pretty quickly after the fire happened and as a result, there were a lot of changes in how fire inspections occur in the Bay Area and throughout the state. That is how we remind ourselves why we keep doing this in the face of tragedy. We keep writing these stories because the people who are victims here cannot die in vain and their families deserve answers.
I was covering a lot of the wildfires that happened last fall. We aren’t firefighters or first responders, but like them we literally run toward fires because these stories need to be told. People need to know what happened, so when elected officials are coming up with fire-related policies, they know what is at stake. The entire town of Paradise burned down. By writing about that, anyone making decisions for how to deal with this in the future knows the magnitude of the issue and what is at stake. That is one of the primary reasons that we do what we do.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in this field?
I think my advice would be, first, never give up your sense of curiosity. That is a driving force behind any successful journalist is someone who is always curious. Never stop asking questions, and don’t be afraid to ask questions that are uncomfortable. Most of the questions that we need to ask are uncomfortable. That is part of our job.
Functionally and practically, it is really about getting experience. I have a Master’s degree in journalism, but I can tell you that you really don’t need that. It is really about getting experience. There are lots of different avenues for that now, because of the way that the internet has developed. It has created opportunities that weren’t available when I was getting started and newspapers were the primary avenue to make your way into the business. If you can convince someone to pay you to report and write, that is half the battle. As important as this is, there is a lot of pressure to work for free or for very little, but you really have to get paid for what you do in order to reverse the perception of people thinking reporting is free.
Whoever is entering journalism right now is about it enter it at a course correction and aspiring journalists need to value what you do and what you bring to the table not only in a philosophical, freedom of the press way but in a literal sense in that people again need to get used to the monetary value of journalism. We used to never give it a second thought that if I wanted to read a news story I had to pay for a newspaper. That was assumed a generation ago, but it is not assumed now. People think they have an inherent right to it. There is someone working really hard to get that information and present it in a way that people can understand, and people need to recognize that. News needs to be valued in the era we are in right now. Especially with so many challenges to the credibility of news, the last thing that you need to do is allow yourself to be devalued. With social media and online news sources, we are figuring out the format and best way to distribute news, but the need for quality journalists has not changed.
For anyone aspiring to become a journalist: we need all hands on deck. We need diverse voices of women, people of color, and people who can speak multiple languages. We need everybody. This industry is so vital to communities to understand what is going on and we need people reporting on these places to be reflective of the communities they are serving. If you’re remotely interested in this industry, I’d encourage you to give it a try, because it is a really important job.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
At the most basic level, I still root for UCLA teams, and especially with this newly established Daily Bruin network I’m participating in the efforts to support and help sustain the Daily Bruin in this new era. It costs money to sustain a news organization, and the Daily Bruin is such a vital and centric part of UCLA’s identity.
Some colleagues previously started a scholarship in the past to allow Daily Bruin staffers to conduct overseas reporting, and hopefully, we can get something like that going again.
The Daily Bruin and UCLA were so important to me and so formative in me becoming the person I am both personally and professionally. Some of my best friends are the people I met and worked with at UCLA. That bond doesn’t go away. UCLA really changed my life and gave me a sense of purpose and what I wanted to do in the world. In all the ways that I can, I try to support the university and the efforts of Bruins that will come after me. UCLA is a part of my identity and I think anyone that attended there probably feels the same way.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
I think that UCLA and so many of its foundational pillars are at the forefront of so many things. It has a really great reputation and being associated with it is a common experience shared among Bruins everywhere. The university is such a place of innovation and hard work. I’m proud that UCLA is a place that is reflective of L.A and California. You see all kinds of people there. I hope it has only gotten more diverse since I was there. You really feel like you are in the middle of something special. You know great ideas are happening there, and it is great to be associated with that even long after we walk across the stage with a diploma and go out into the rest of the world.
And finally, what’s next?
I had very modest goals. Being a news reporter covering an important issue in the area where I’m from has been a dream for me. What’s next for me is hopefully getting more experienced and better at this job. I think communities are best suited when their news coverage is performed by people who really know the place. I don’t have any grand plans at this point. It took me a while to get to where I am and I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. I’m very grateful for that. It isn’t something that everyone can say, and I feel really lucky and I’ll say with no hesitation that my time at UCLA and in the Daily Bruin were very crucial to that.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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