Robert Salonga, a crime news reporter, compares himself to the Grim Reaper.
“People literally will see me and get bummed out because I’m only around if something bad has happened,” he said.
Salonga, a UCLA alumnus and reporter for The Mercury News, was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning staff of the East Bay Times for coverage of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California. In December 2016, the fire burned down a warehouse that was illegally made into an art collective, killing 36 people.
The East Bay Times received a $15,000 prize for their coverage, which the newspaper plans to donate to a charity in honor of the Ghost Ship victims, Salonga said. The East Bay Times is part of the Bay Area News Group, which includes The Mercury News.
Salonga, who is from San Jose, said he was drawn to journalism after writing his first story for the Daily Bruin. He said he spent a majority of his time as an undergraduate in The Bruin’s newsroom, located in Kerckhoff Hall.
After being a reporter for two years, Salonga became an assistant News editor and served as the News editor his fourth year. Salonga went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park, and worked as a reporter covering Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In 2007, he moved back to the West Coast to report for the Bay Area News Group.
Salonga said this year’s Pulitzer announcement took him completely by surprise.
“I just bolted it into the newsroom and told everyone we won, and then I tweeted about it,” he said.
Despite the positive energy surrounding the Pulitzer win, Salonga said he finds it important to recall the prize was based on coverage of a local tragedy.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Matthias Gafni in an email, who was once Salonga’s editor and also reported on the Ghost Ship fire. “It’s the highest journalism honor, but we hate to win at the cost of 36 lives.”
Gafni said despite the chaos after the fire, the East Bay Times editors brought the staff together to tell the full story.
“What we did covering the Ghost Ship fire is a bigger version of what we do every day, bringing information to our community as soon as we can with as much context as we can,” Salonga said.
The East Bay Times immediately began covering the fire from an investigative angle, Salonga said. For example, some of his first published pieces after the fire included information about the lapses in the city’s oversight of the warehouse.
“I was at the scene a few times over a few days, talking to police officers and firefighters, and we were just attacking the story in multiple fronts,” Salonga said. “(We were) both trying to identify and memorialize those who died and recognize what happened.”
Gafni said he and another staff member spent almost a week in a conference room assembling stories from different witnesses and victims after the fire. Gafni was also one of the first reporters to reach the fire site.
“I’ll never forget standing in the Wendy’s parking lot across the street from the warehouse speaking to the fire chief about how the death toll was nine, ” Gafni said.
Salonga said his work as a crime reporter can be physically and mentally taxing, but he tries to humanize information and deliver news the community needs.
“We want to make sure that everyone in the community is not remembered for how they died, but who they were as they lived,” Salonga said.
Salonga said he believes there has been a push to support journalism, especially during a time when the presidential administration perpetuates distrust of the media. He added he thinks journalism is entering a new era, where people are willing to pay for news coverage from what he called “legacy” news outlets, such as The New York Times.
He said he thinks the Bay Area News Group’s local focus gives it an advantage in reporting local events, such as the East Bay Times’ in-depth coverage of the Ghost Ship fire.
“We know who to talk to and the history; we know the history of the buildings, we can report on so many dimensions of this since we have put in the work day to day to cover our community,” Salonga said. “The Pulitzer is almost a tribute to that day-to-day coverage that we do.”