A Journalist’s aside

I include my column for the Vallejo Times-Herald newspaper in this post, but I ask that you support community newspapers by viewing the story itself on our website www.timesheraldonline.com and visit our facebook page and be a fan.

By Jose San Mateo

Slain Vallejo police officer Jim Capoot was a breath of fresh air in a city that has been asked to weather the storm of tragedy once too often.

There’s an air of cynicism that comes up when the topic comes to violence in Vallejo. Scour web postings on Facebook and elsewhere, and you will see the occasional mourner who believes that the city’s reputation for violence is far too entrenched to ever change.

That was not Jim Capoot.

The best way to describe him is to look at the night his girls basketball team at Vallejo High School reached the pinnacle in winning the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship in March 2010. Times-Herald sports editor Matt O’Donnell wrote from Arco Arena in Sacramento:


As Vallejo High players celebrated on the court on Saturday, head coach Jim Capoot found Rechel Carter and embraced her in a hug that seemed to go on forever.


Capoot embraced his duties as an officer, family man and coach as much as he did Carter; a player who missed eight of nine free throws in the section title game only to make the final two that clinched the Apaches’ first section title since 2006.

“I told the girls this morning that there’s only three times I’ve been more proud as a man and that was when my three daughters were born,” said a choked-up Capoot at the press conference after the game.

Capoot knew of the harsh realities of his job as as an officer and of Vallejo before responding to the call that would soon lead to his death last Thursday. Yet, he never let any of that turn into a harsh word toward those around him.

“He handled us really well,” said former Vallejo High basketball player Ashley Moore. “He was the nicest coach I ever had.”

Moore came to Vallejo High along with Carter in 2009 after two seasons with St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School. Both players came in with a state championship under their belt after the Bruins went all the way in 2008. Her 116 points in the 2010 Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs are third-most all time for a season.

Moore said she cried after her mom sent her a text message about Capoot’s death. She is currently a sophomore on the Washington Huskies women’s basketball team.

“Honestly, he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had the honor to play for,” Moore said. “He made my senior seasons one of the most memorable.”

Capoot was an all-inclusive coach who treated his players like family. Before the season began he took his team on retreats to allow them to bond, and during the season his daughter Jamie often sat and coached right alongside him.

“Jim was like a Godsend. He took a group of girls that were good athletes and made them a family,” said Vallejo High Athletic Director Mike Wilson. “That was a real key to his success. He was one of those guys that would do something extra.”

His demeanor and approach to the game made him an appropriate fit at Vallejo High. Tami Madson was Vallejo’s athletic director when girls basketball coach Shamone Warren stepped down paving the way for Capoot. Madson described him as a father figure and a role model.

“He loved the community, he had a passion for basketball,” Madson said. “Both myself and (ex-Vallejo High principal) Lloyd Cartwright saw that and felt that. He was the right match for Vallejo High.”

It did not take Capoot long to endear himself to the Apaches basketball community. He became fast friends with boys head coach Duke Brown, and also garnered the respect of his players. Brown said current players Tajai Johnson, John Woods, Santana Esver and Demauriee Nickerson felt the loss.

Shortly after the Vallejo High School boys basketball team was eliminated from the playoffs Brown got a text message from Capoot. Brown thought it would be words of encouragement after the loss, but it was something else entirely. Capoot asked him to join his staff for the section playoffs.

Brown was right there by Capoot and his daughter Jamie at Arco Arena. He even went so far as to include the boys basketball team, asking the players to scrimmage the girls in preparation for the game.

“It takes a lot of character to step back and ask for help,” Brown said.

Capoot’s coaching stint with Vallejo High was short. He was on the bench just three years after the death of personal friends Joe and Tami Battle left Capoot and his family caring for their two kids Jasmine and Joey. But he left a legacy. Brown said that Capoot was a “mastermind” at raising money, noting that the television that sits in the Bottari Gym foyer was his doing. He also organized the first fall and summer basketball leagues at Vallejo High and a charity fundraiser game that pitted members of the Vallejo girls basketball team against members of the Vallejo police department.

Before his death, Wilson said there were preliminary talks to bring Capoot back to coaching, and now the Apaches are looking to fill the void. Charles Harrington, a bench coach with Capoot last season, takes over this season as girls basketball coach.

He’ll be coming into a season that Vallejo principal Clarence Isadore described as a “season of grieving.”

“It’ll be a different feel definitely. It’s actually sort of an X factor, an unknown. I’m not sure how the ladies are going to manage it,” Harrington said of the season. “I’ve seen situations where teams rally around tragedy and use it as a means of motivation and pride. That’s the hope, that’s not always guaranteed.”

So often the media is invoked in negative terms. It’s something that spreads rumors and sensationalizes. It becomes some kind of strange machination for spreading falsehoods and blowing things out of proportions. Perhaps there are people that do this and they should be derided, but my job is to be a journalist and I strive to do journalism. What those other people say or do is absolutely none of my concern and I do my best to ignore such garbage.

One component of doing Journalism is being a writer and in order to have a lasting impact in this business you have to do that well. The other is being a good reporter, which is a matter of doing your due diligence as far as calling the appropriate people and doing the research.

That being said, being a good reporter is critical to being a good writer, but being a good writer does not necessarily make a good reporter. A combination of the two makes a good Journalist.

I say that because Journalists work with something that no fiction writer ever has to work with and that is the burden of truth.We can’t pursue an angle without facts and we can’t write anything without the voices of others. To give up that power is humbling for any writer and the people described as the Media in a negative sense are the ones that are too arrogant or lazy to step outside of themselves and gain the proper perspective to write a good story.

Journalists use facts and quotes to sculpt such things into meaningful and poignant stories. A well written story backed by bad reporting or faulty facts is useless and will probably get you and your paper in trouble. If that is your problem as a journalist then perhaps you need a better foundation or really examine your core values when it comes to approaching your profession.

I was fortunate to have one of the best to break me into journalism. It was my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz when I started writing for a weekly newspaper up there called City On a Hill Press. It was the last year Conn Hallinan would be advising the class and really all he did was spend a few hours once a week going over the stories we wrote.

It was my first year on staff when he told me one thing about my story that I will never forget. He said to me, “If Jose were were doing a story about God he’d be one to phone up Michael at the pearly gates to at least give it a shot.” I might have garbled the quote, but the point was made and I approach journalism with this mentality when it comes to my beat.

My goal is to talk to anybody and everybody necessary to get the proper perspective on every story whether I quote them or not. The peace of mind that comes with doing all that reporting gives me the confidence and vision to write well.

To this day I still subscribe to the standards set for me at City on a Hill Press. For every 500 word story I talk to at least three people and for every 2000 words it should be at least eight. The constraints of daily journalism may not allow this, but I try my best to do this every single time.

I’m also proud to call myself a CHIPS Quinn scholar and all the people that I’ve met through that program are some of the best journalists out there. Being a Chipster, as we in the program so affectionately call each, gave me a platform to grow and get a byline at places that otherwise would never be available to me. My one regret as that I was so raw going into my into my internship with The Salinas Californian.

It’s been nearly five years since then and  the column above is the confluence of all the stories I have written up to this point. There will be many more stories for me to write and perhaps several more as big as this one, but this will be one I point to in the future and tell other people and myself “Yes, I really got this one right.”

This would not have been possible if I wasn’t a beat writer in Vallejo with a professional relationship with Jim Capoot established over nearly two years. This would not have been possible without the confidence born from all the good habits I’ve learned from so many different editors and mentors. it would not have been possible without the help of so many different community members in Vallejo that lent their voices to me to paint an accurate picture of this man’s impact on the community.

The other part is being able to write well and that, like any skill, depends on the talent of the writer and your willingness to improve what God gave you.

The one mistake I see reporters make  is thinking that emotion leads to bias and so neuter their writing to the point where it reads like garbage. This attitude pervades into their reporting where they are afraid to ask the tough question for fear of being perceived as biased. Never forgot that journalists are people and with that comes emotions, opinions and inevitably bias. To try and cut any of those out of our lives completely is to  be a slave to them.

I’m here to say there will be stories about people you hate and others about people you admire and respect. To ignore any of those things is to deny yourself the real fuel for writing anything. Emotion is the thing that drives us to tell a story in the first place and at it’s core, Journalism is about telling stories.

If that’s not your cup of tea then go write corporate press releases for a living because that’s really what your writing is going to sound like.

Write with emotion but be aware of your biases and learn to spot them in your writing. If there’s something you spot that doesn’t belong or isn’t truthful then kill it no matter how much the writer in you says that it sounds good.

As Conn Hallinan would say “There are sometimes you just have to drown those cute little puppies.” Think of those well written paragraphs as cute puppies if they don’t pass the test then well…you get the picture.

The only time  that emotions ever become a problem is for those who aren’t aware of their feelings towards the story or are too quick to latch on to the prevailing feelings about a story. I think back to Conn Hallinan’s class and our discussions about traditional views on balanced reporting. There aren’t just two sides to a story as you may have been taught to believe and to make that assumption that there are only two sides is not doing your due diligence.

Life isn’t always binary and neither are news stories. There are shades of  gray between good and evil and often The Media is quick to pound you over and over again with what you already know.

Take my column on Jim Capoot. The main story as covered by my colleagues at the Times-Herald is the death of a well-liked officer and the reactions of the community members. There’s also the basketball team and his impact on the sports community, a subject only lightly touched on by my colleagues simply because they were never involved in that aspect of his job.

This was a story I was in position to tackle because of all the work I had done covering this beat and will continue to follow for the next few months.