As a staff writer at The San Francisco Examiner 20 years ago, Venise Wagner was one of the only reporters assigned to cover the black community. That’s because the newspaper was the only one at the time with beat reporters for ethnic and gay and lesbian communities.
“It was a way to really make coverage more diverse,” said Wagner, who is black. “This was one of the things I really loved about The Examiner.”
Wagner joined the staff in 1994, before swapping her education beat for a chance to report on the underprivileged black population of The City until 2001, when she left the paper.
The Examiner sat down with Wagner in her office at San Francisco State University — where she is an associate professor of journalism and former chair of the department — for a conversation about a changing newspaper, city and black community. Her responses have been edited for length.
Q: How many people were on staff when you were here? A: At The Examiner, I think there were about 200 on the editorial side. Editors, reporters, all that. So 200 people was great — we were covering The City — and not only that, we had competition with the Chronicle.
There were a mix of people. It wasn’t just young people, it wasn’t just the old geezers, it was really a nice combination. You had fresh ideas but you also had institutional memory there. And an institutional memory is really important; I think that’s what a lot of the papers in San Francisco today have lost. For example, there was a guy named Larry Hatfield — oh god, Larry Hatfield — and Larry had been there for a hundred years. Larry carried with him knowledge of stories that had been done 20 years before, and so if I got a story idea I would talk to Larry or to others who had been there a long time, and they would say, “Oh yeah, you should check out the story that was done back [then] and see how they covered it.” So it gave you a sense of what had been done before but it also gave you a sense of how The City had changed, what kind of evolution had happened. That’s important for any newspaper to have, to understand the context of what’s happening today.
Q: And how has The City changed since your time at The Examiner? A: When I was here in ’94, it was an expensive city but it was not as expensive as it is now. Housing was tough, but it was not as impossible as it is now. And I worry that San Francisco is losing its middle class. There was never during my time period a super large black community — it might have been 8 percent — but I think that number has dropped to as low as 4 percent.
Q: Do you think that the news media today could do better to cover underprivileged communities? A: So this is what I think about the state of the news media today: There aren’t enough resources. There aren’t enough people that they can send out to cover stories like that. They’re not even covering stuff that needs to be covered, really, like government in a very significant way. Not just going into meetings but actually doing investigations and digging deep. I just don’t think there are enough questions being asked of the people who are governing us, and it’s problematic. I understand why it’s happening, but it’s a huge issue.
Q: Do you think the black community is being adequately covered here in The City? A: Absolutely not. There are a ton of stories that could be written about not just interactions with police — I know that’s a huge issue that’s happening nationally — but who’s looking at African Americans in the schools, who’s holding the school board accountable for how African Americans are doing here in The City? Who are those that are left and what allows them to stay here and why did they choose to stay here in San Francisco?