March 4 2015 11:02 AM

She's been my journalism partner for more than a dozen years

Kelly Davis
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

In the summer of 2001, I'd been the editor of the Ventura County Reporter for two years, and Kelly Davis came to me, looking for a job—any kind of job. It didn't matter to her what she did; she just wanted to work for a publication. I didn't have a job for her, so I urged her to do some freelance reporting for us. Few writers who've sought staff jobs with me have followed through with freelancing. Kelly did.

Among the first assignments I suggested was a story about the shooting death, by a police officer, of a young man named Robert Jones. Kelly attacked the story with passion for the truth and compassion for Jones' family, setting a clear tone for her career. As soon as a job came available later that year, I hired her—first part-time, then full-time. It didn't take her long to distinguish herself. Within months, she was a national award winner—beating me to that achievement by a decade—on the strength of a feature story about a man named Atze Akkerman, who lost his memory after doctors gave him electroshock therapy to treat his depression. I knew then that I had a special young journalist under my wing.

In the spring of 2002, my publisher offered me the chance to move to San Diego to become the founding editor of a new weekly that our company, Southland Publishing, was going to launch later that year. I said yes immediately, and my next thought was that I wanted to bring Kelly—and her husband Brian— with me. I'm not sure my publisher knew at that time what a talent we had in Kelly, but I'm forever grateful that he let me bring her to San Diego.

As I announced two weeks ago, Kelly and I are both leaving CityBeat; Kelly's last day was Tuesday. This is my tribute to her—my longtime partner in journalism, my closest friend and the little sister I never had.

In San Diego, I grew increasingly reliant on Kelly to help me make decisions both big and small at our fledgling, spunky little paper, and so I eventually gave her the fitting title of associate editor. (I had no idea that title would become such a source of frustration for her: People then and now mistakenly refer to her as a less-lofty "assistant editor." We joke that she's the "assistant to the regional editor," a reference to the character Gareth Keenan in the British version of the TV show The Office—because we'll always be loyal to the British version.)

I haven't always agreed with Kelly's counsel, but I often have, and even when I didn't, she was gradually moving the needle. When Dave Maass was our investigative reporter from late 2009 to early 2013, the three of us would sometimes get into journalism-ethics debates, with Maass representing the principles of transparent journalism, Kelly representing the human subjects involved and me in the middle. She argued forcefully to reduce the potential negative impacts on vulnerable people. Again, I didn't always side with her, but I've become far less of a journalism purist because of her.

This might not be the best word for it, but Kelly was somewhat timid in certain situations at the start of her career—but never with the protagonists in her stories, who were often underdogs. They weren't just subjects; she genuinely cared for and empathized deeply with them. Kelly has brains to spare, but she's always led with her heart.

Early in our time at CityBeat, Kelly dabbled in topics such as education (y'all remember San Diego schools Supt. Alan Bersin and his "Blueprint for Student Success"?), and she eventually settled on issues like mental health and affordable housing as minor passions. But two topics—homelessness and criminal justice—have become borderline obsessions for her as a journalist. And I mean that in the best way possible.

In my admittedly biased opinion, Kelly became San Diego's best and most prolific journalistic authority on homelessness, bringing her trademark compassion to the topic and, I believe, helping persuade politicians and influential business and philanthropic groups to move homelessness from an unpleasant political problem that got swept under the rug to almost a chic issue that became an important plank in political platforms (see Kevin Faulconer's own trajectory on the issue).

Nowadays, Kelly is focused largely on criminal justice and incarceration, particularly as it dovetails with mental illness and poverty. The apex of that focus, obviously to loyal readers, is her groundbreaking, award-winning collaborative, investigative series with Maass on the alarmingly high number of deaths that occur in San Diego County jails.

It was inevitable that Kelly would outgrow CityBeat. I think that happened awhile back, but she cares so deeply about the paper and wants so badly for it to flourish that, until now, she'd been unable to walk away. For some time, I've been gently trying to nudge her out of the nest, at the same time fearing the day when she'd finally fly. I worried because it's been 13 years and five months since I've had to put out a weekly paper without her. I'm not sure I'd remember how to do it. For that reason, I've had this crazy idea that we'd go out together. Wouldn't you know it, that's what's happening. Soon after Kelly gave me her notice, I landed a new job, in a new career, in Sacramento.

For her part, Kelly will remain in San Diego as a freelance writer, likely diving deeper into criminal justice, but she'll also keep writing for CityBeat; her great "Cocktail Tales" column will continue, for example, and probably her news writing, too. She can't quit it that easily.

The pride I feel in Kelly's accomplishments is boundless. I can't wait to see where her career goes from here. I'm not sure I'll miss parts of our sibling-like bickering, but I'll certainly miss the totality of our professional partnership, and though our working relationship is done, if I have anything to say about it, she'll always be my best pal.

Kelly Davis has launched an IndieGoGo campaign to fund her ongoing coverage of criminal justice. Please consider donating.

What do you think? Write to Link up with editor David Rolland on Twitter.



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