Kelly Davis is San Diego SPJ’s 2023 Journalist of the Year

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is thrilled to announce our 2023 Journalist of the Year, freelance reporter Kelly Davis, for her continued attention to the San Diego County jail system.

Davis first began covering jail deaths in 2013 while working at San Diego City Beat, revealing with then-colleague Dave Maass that the county had a higher inmate mortality rate than any other large jail system in the state.

Davis’ digging continued despite significant pushback and pressure, including via a subpoena from attorneys representing the county. In 2019, she co-authored an investigative three-part series in the Union-Tribune, “Dying Behind Bars.” The six-month reporting project examined the unusually high death toll in the local jails and the failure of officials to take action.

After the series published, two members of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors hired a consultant to conduct an internal review, which validated the reporting. The series also prompted citizen groups to focus attention on the jail system and push for reforms.

As deaths continued, Davis continued her reporting. Her coverage eventually prompted separate investigations into the jails by the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board and the California State Auditor.

The findings of the state audit, which were released in February 2022, once again validated Davis’ years of journalism and also called for new legislation to improve jail conditions.In 2022, Assemblymember Akilah Weber introduced the Saving Lives in Custody Act, which was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. In 2023, state Sen. Toni Atkins has reintroduced the bill to improve jail oversight and mental health care in jails, citing Davis’ work.

The reporting has had other effects on San Diego County. Sheriff Bill Gore announced his resignation on the day the state audit published and forced the issue of jail conditions front and center in the 2022 election for his replacement.

Union-Tribune reporter Jeff McDonald, who co-authored the “Dying Behind Bars” series with Davis, said he is grateful to have worked with her on the 2019 project and the reporting that has followed since.

“Kelly has made San Diego County a better place by almost single-handedly forcing the issue of jail deaths and other negligent practices in local jails to the forefront of the public agenda,” McDonald said. “We are so much better as a community for her efforts, and she continues to make me proud to be her collaborator and friend.”

San Diego SPJ has a tradition of not selecting its own board members as Journalist of the Year. However, as the impact of Davis’ reporting continues to grow, the other board members agreed that we could no longer ignore the significance of her journalism to the San Diego community.

“Kelly’s years-long investigation of deaths and conditions in local jails directly inspired – and likely will continue to inspire – significant change,” SD-SPJ board president Lisa Halverstadt said. “Kelly’s fellow board members decided it was time to recognize her game-changing work and its undeniable impact.”

Please join us in celebrating Davis and our other award winners at Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in Liberty Station on Tuesday, June 20, from 6 to 9 p.m. 

You can check out our list of award winners here and buy tickets here


Party, Journo Style, at SPJ-SD’s Annual Awards Celebration

There’s nothing like an outdoor event in June in San Diego — the sunset, the weather, the summer vibes. Come join us on Tuesday, June 20, for our annual awards dinner and celebration. We’re heading back to Stone Brewing in Liberty Station for a fun, relaxed outdoor gathering, full of good food and drink in the company of your favorite journalists. Pre-sale tickets (through May 19) are $60 for SPJ members and $65 for nonmembers and include a tasty food spread and dessert. Drink tokens, available on our ticket website, are $6 for craft sodas and $9 for a beer, wine or hard seltzer.

The evening will include a short program when we’ll announce the winners of our special awards and honor our Journalist of the Year (TBA). Once again we’ll be holding a silent auction, so come prepared to drop some extra cash on one of our fabulous items.

We’ll be announcing our awards winners soon, so keep an eye on this space.

As in past years, first-place winners will receive a plaque and second and third place winners will receive a certificate. You can pick up your awards at the event.

When: Tuesday, June 20, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Where: Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens @ Liberty Station, 2816 Historic Decatur Road, Unit 116, Building 12

Buy tickets via our ticket website.

Panel Discussion: Journalists Share ‘Lessons From The Newsroom’

Join the Society of Professional Journalists’ San Diego Pro and San Diego State University chapters for a lively discussion featuring four longtime San Diego journalists who will answer questions, offer advice, share stories and reflect on their careers. Come prepared with questions — this is your chance to ask them anything — and get ready to laugh and learn.

What: Lessons from the Newsroom

When: 6 p.m. Thursday, April 13, 2023, at the Professional Studies and Fine Arts Building, Room 325, at San Diego State University, Campanile Mall.

Tell us what you want to hear: RSVP and submit your questions and topic ideas in advance.

Parking: We recommend parking in SDSU parking structure P12 (levels 3-8), which are visitor parking spots and closest to the Fine Arts Building. You will be instructed to download an app on your smartphone to pay. It should cost around $3 an hour. (Please see below for a campus map.)

Live Streaming: For those who can’t attend in person, we will livestream the event and will send the link around to everyone who submits an RSVP!


(Moderator) Jakob McWhinney is a lifelong San Diegan who discovered his passion for journalism during the COVID-19 pandemic. He now serves on the board of SPJ’s San Diego Pro chapter and works as the education reporter at Voice of San Diego.

Dana Littlefield is public safety editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune and an adjunct lecturer in the Journalism and Media Studies Department at San Diego State University. Before becoming an editor, she was a reporter at the U-T for 17 years and covered state courts for most of that time.

Jeff McDonald is a member of the investigative reporting team at The San Diego Union-Tribune and was named Journalist of the Year in 2015 by San Diego SPJ. He writes about government and institutional misconduct and waste in San Diego County and beyond.

Andrew Dyer spent 10 years enlisted in the Navy and served as ship’s company on two aircraft carriers. He covered the military for The San Diego Union-Tribune and is currently the military and veterans reporter at KPBS.

Adam Racusin is an investigative reporter at ABC 10News in San Diego. He set his sights on helping consumers and his reporting has led to people getting their money back, bad actors getting locked up and lawmakers promising new legislation.

Congratulations to our annual Wall, Window and Sunshine and awards winners!

Every year, the San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists honors public officials, individuals and agencies who did the best (and the worst) job of ensuring that government is accessible and transparent. We’re proud to announce this year’s award winners and will celebrate them with a reception at Mujeres Brewing in Logan Heights (1983 Julian Ave.) from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 15. Light refreshments will be served. An RSVP is required. Please note that this is an outdoor venue, so dress appropriately.

Window Award: Paul Parker

SD-SPJ’s annual Window Award goes to a person or public agency that has prioritized transparency and access to information. This year’s recipient is Paul Parker, executive officer of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, or CLERB, which provides oversight of the San Diego Sheriff’s and Probation departments, including investigating deaths in custody and making policy recommendations. Under previous executive officers there was little engagement between CLERB and the community and strict rules about communication with the media. Under Parker’s leadership, CLERB has become a more proactive, responsive organization, which helps bolster the public trust in the review board’s mission. Parker has proactively met with community groups and organizations to discuss how CLERB functions and the role of oversight. He’s also authored more detailed, insightful annual reports. Perhaps most important, though, are the summaries of cases the board’s investigative staff provide for review each month in which they include every morsel of information they’re legally allowed to provide. Parker regularly meets with families of people who’ve died in jail and, last year oversaw virtual town halls about in-custody deaths and the Center for Policing Equity’s report on racial disparities in traffic stops and use of force. Parker is also very responsive to media requests and each month posts to CLERB’s website his communications with board members about important updates and news articles concerning CLERB and law enforcement oversight. We hope other public officials and agencies take note.

Wall Award: San Diego County 

The Wall Award goes to the person or public agency that made it difficult for journalists to do their jobs by ignoring information requests or otherwise compromising the public’s right to know. Unfortunately, this award will again go to San Diego County, marking the third time in six years. Reporters from multiple news organizations throughout the region continue to struggle to gather basic information from the county’s communications team in a timely manner. The communications office, led by Michael Workman, typically requires reporters to submit requests through email and often provides terse responses that only raise more questions. Officials leading county agencies and initiatives are rarely made available for interviews, which could provide reporters — and thus the public — with more context and insight on their work. Public records requests can  sit unanswered for unreasonable lengths of time. We became hopeful for real change when the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to establish a new transparency advisory committee, and when officials agreed to create an online public request portal to track and manage requests. But we have not seen the shift to a more transparent county government that the committee presented and the request portal is taking longer to roll out than we would have liked. The same problems continue and it’s happening at a detriment to the community. We hope this award will remind San Diego County that the public deserves transparency.

Sunshine Award: Trust SD Coalition

SD-SPJ’s Sunshine Award goes to a journalist or community member who went above and beyond to make the government more transparent and hold elected officials accountable. This year’s recipient is the TRUST SD Coalition, an alliance of 30-plus community organizations that advocates for government transparency in surveillance.

The coalition formed in 2019 to address the city of San Diego’s “smart” street lights, which were being used for surveillance without the public’s knowledge or consent. Since then, TRUST SD has written two city of San Diego ordinances that outline how the city acquires and operates surveillance technology, such as streetlight cameras, noise-detecting microphones, body-worn cameras and license plate readers. 

TRUST SD’s first ordinance, adopted by the City Council last April, established a privacy advisory board to provide community oversight on surveillance proposals, with seats reserved for residents who have been historically affected. Its second, called the Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology ordinance, was adopted last August. It ensures that any proposed surveillance measures are reviewed by the City Council initially and annually, and guarantees that these meetings allow feedback from the public, with sessions held in districts that will be affected. 

These achievements, in addition to the coalition’s ongoing educational and advocacy work, have significantly improved transparency and protected San Diegans’ civil liberties.