The Master’s degree program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism requires students in their first semester to report for a hyperlocal news website, such as Richmond Confidential or Oakland North. When graduate student Harriet Blair Rowan knew she would cover the politics beat for Richmond Confidential, she started researching the city of Richmond for story ideas.
Within the first few weeks of reporting in her first semester, Rowan appeared in a televised interview with Bill Moyer and in the middle of media blitz that included her work being showcased in The Los Angeles Times, Fusion, Huffington Post, Salon and The Nation.
Last October, she published a series of stories in Richmond Confidential about Chevron funneling millions of dollars into three separate campaign committees to back an ad campaign — one that was responsible for targeted politicians critical of Chevron, such as the Green Party’s Gayle McLaughlin.
Chevron’s advertorial effort to influence last year’s city elections did not go unnoticed by Rowan. “It was one of the most rewarding experiences as a reporter,” said Rowan of her exposé. “Having a story, thinking it’s important and then having others think it’s important.”
Her reporting began after she read in Contra Costa Times that Chevron had spent a significant amount of money on Richmond’s election campaigns. She “followed the money” by researching campaign finance reports. She recalls sitting in the City Clerk’s Office every week, waiting for new campaign reports to come out.
She soon discovered that the Richmond-based firm had provided $3.1 million to three different campaign committees and had used separate campaigns to make the totals appear to be less. She also noticed that it was outspending its totals in previous elections.
Having formerly reported for the Center for Media and Democracy, a non-profit independent news organization, Rowan had a basic understanding of working with campaign reports. In her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, she covered “dark money” issues (tracking money spent in campaigns) and researched national campaigns finance reports.
Despite her experience, Rowan credits her public records class, a required course in the first-year curriculum, for informing her reporting. “The public records class gave me new skills to find more documents,” she said. She also commends her instructors, Professors Robert Rogers and David Thigpen for guiding her reporting. Rogers had a good understanding about Richmond, according to Rowan.
After journalism school, Rowan said she hopes to do international reporting or be a correspondent in Latin America. “Political reporting and accountability is what I care about and what I want to pursue,” she said, adding that the biggest lesson she learned during her first semester at the journalism school was that “you can stand up to big money.”