Farrell is well-known on Digital Journal for his thorough reporting on a variety of issues affecting the city of San Francisco, California, where he has lived most of his life. He covers everything from the revitalization of a local movie theatre to the debut of new city buses to touring wine country. Since he joined Digital Journal in 2009, he has written more than 300 articles, almost exclusively including interviews or first-hand accounts.
Among the many people Farrell brings to life with his stories, one “character” is always in the background — the city of San Francisco. “No matter where we lived when I was a child, or wherever we traveled, San Francisco was always home base,” Farrell says. Journalism has helped him see the city even more closely than he could as a child.
“San Francisco is really just a great big small town, made up of neighborhoods and districts. Each one unique that contributes to the life of the City,” he says. “Yet for all its charm and liberality in San Francisco there are rules and grid lines.”
Farrell, 50, didn’t always want to be a journalist, however, and it took him well into adulthood to finally embrace journalism as a career. He was doing social work at the Independent Living Resource Center in the early 1990s, and at first thought he wanted to write the Great American Novel, only to find that the opportunity for journalism work was quite literally calling him.
Read on for his story, which led him from a dream of an arts career to scoring a story in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Digital Journal: What were you interested in while in high school?
Farrell: I attended and graduated from Justin-Siena High School in the Napa Valley. All through my schooling years from kindergarten to high school, I was attracted to artistic and creative endeavors. Although I never thought of myself as having any particular artistic talent. I was always involved in some sort of music program, (like a glee club, holiday music program) collective art project or creative outlet. When I got to high school, I was part of the spring musical and I really wanted to be involved in acting and art in some way after high school.
I lacked confidence. Being an actor/singer is not easy and the business aspect of it can really tear apart a person’s self-esteem and well being if that person is not firmly rooted in a sound and practical foundation of skills and talent.
The high school I attended really did not have much of a real journalism curriculum until my junior year. The little bit of yearbook and journalism the school offered was taught by the English Dept. It was in 1981 when the school hired an alum to take over the journalism program.
Mr. Richard Ault was perhaps one of the best teachers for journalism any high school could ask for. Our school paper was a joint-effort with the two other high schools in town. It was called, “the Tri-High Gazette.” The local daily, The Napa Register would devote on full double spread page each week to high school news.
Our class had to go to the Register each week to submit our stories, proof copy, put together layout design and think up and write headlines and sub-headlines. It was a great experience. Yet me being young, lacking confidence and a firm sense of direction, I did not realize what a gem of a opportunity I had.
Why I mention this is because, when one of the nuns at the school talked to me about my participation in journalism, she said something to the effect of, “I hope you are not considering being a reporter as a career. Investigating into people’s lives and all that, dear, it just isn’t very respectable.”
How did you get involved with journalism?
I was determined not to go back to social work. The experience at ILRC was great in that I learned a lot and was very grateful for it. But it was very stressful, lots of crisis management and lots of paperwork and stats to fill out everyday. The thought of leaving to be a writer seemed right.
My parents were worried and my mom insisted that I move into my grandparent’s house. My grandmother had passed away just before I left my social work job and so fortunately, the house was vacant. It all seemed ideal.
I moved in and no sooner had I gotten my new phone line installed when I kept getting phone calls for Chris Rivers, the editor at the Sunset Beacon. The number my new phone line was assigned was the old phone number of the Sunset Beacon, a neighborhood newspaper published every month in San Francisco’s Sunset District.
Well, when my mom heard about that she immediately told me, call the paper see if you can write for them and “go back to school!” I called him, and that is how I got to work for The Sunset Beacon and then the Richmond Review.
Well, that “Go back to school” was also the mantra of the editor and Chris’ co-owner and publisher Paul Kozak, “go back to school, take a few courses at City College,” he said. “There are some things you need that I just don’t have time to teach,” he said. No doubt, I got the deadline routine down. But there were things like discerning of sources and understanding which quotes to select as the best for a story. That sort of thing. I resisted that request. Because I felt I had learned it all before. And, I was a bit scared.
Even though I resisted and got scolded, Chris and Paul kept giving me stories and showing me the routine. Just like in high school, I lacked confidence or was fearful of the work.
Somehow I managed. But always felt uneasy or not good enough. Chris or Paul would chastise me a bit for not going the distance and of course one or both would add in their critique…”Jonathan, just go back to school, take at least once course at City College.”
After two years with Jean and her crew at the Actor’s Lab I happened to run into Paul Kozak in the neighborhood one day. And he asked me to do a story. So I did and then again, he said, “Jonathan, you have some talent, but really just go to City College and that will help you, really it will.” He confided that early on in his career he too didn’t like school. But when he went to J-school everything changed and it helped.
So, I went to City College and I took one course. Then I took another and then another. And Juan Gonzales who was Journalism Dept. chair said to me, “Hey Jonathan, stay for the entire program, you are doing well and you bring a lot of experience to it.”
At first, I felt that I owed it to [my mom], especially after she lost her battle with cancer and died. But then I later realized she was urging me to find my calling and passion in life. And, that I owed it to myself and my sense of integrity to really pursue it.
After completing J-School at City College, besides the Beacon and the Review, three other neighborhood newspapers asked me to contribute. And, I also got an article published in The San Francisco Chronicle. That was an honor and a thrill.
How did you get involved with Digital Journal?
A friend from J-school at City College referred me to Digital Journal. I was hesitant at first. I think my first submissions were blog articles. And, then once I started submitting regular articles and features, I just kept going.
The one aspect to Digital Journal that is often over-looked at least from my perspective is that DJ is journalist driven. That really says a lot. And, I think it is important because journalists have the skills and savvy to bring the news to the people from angles that people need to know. This is why I believe having a sound foundation in journalism school is important.
How do you decide what to write?
Perhaps this might sound a bit funny or odd, but stories come to me. They literally find me.
I have learned that once a journalist has gained some skills and basically paid the dues of being a reporter, after a while, stories jump up and want to be featured. People will refer you to stories or send things to you. Once that journalism sense or “radar” is up and running, story ideas and leads just flow.
And, honestly, there were times when I would turn a story down because either it was something I thought was too hard, or something I was not worthy to write about. But somehow those stories would come back to me. Often times, more than once. If it is an important topic, believe me there is an angle there that is speaking directly to a given journalist.
What is it about San Francisco that attracts you so much?
San Francisco is home. Both my parents were natives. My grandparents and relatives lived there.
When I immersed myself into living in the City and skipped out on opportunities in the suburbs, such as jobs along The Peninsula, The Napa Valley, etc. I made a real effort to immerse myself in the City. Working at ILRC was one place that gave me a wider-sense of the City and its needs.
There have been times it was not easy, especially seeing San Francisco change over the years. San Francisco is a much different place than when I was a kid. Yet, just when I get sentimental and feel sad, I realize all the changes that have happened in San Francisco is because the world itself has changed.
Like any place were people live, San Francisco is not a playground like Hollywood or Las Vegas. It has limits to what it can manage and withstand. For example, when the weather is warm and sunny San Francisco is gem, sheer delight to be in. But if it gets too hot and that heatwave lingers on for more than a few days, San Francisco wilts. Seriously, the City can’t take it. People get cranky, upset.
Also, for all its open-mindedness, there are certain circles of the City that can be very “provincial” and closed to outsiders. Even with the Sunshine Ordinance, if a powerful group wants to shut people out, they can. For a large metropolitan area, San Francisco is the easiest to dominate politically. That is why each decade the City seems like it has a new theme or lifestyle. In the 1950s it was the Beat generation, in the 1960s it was the hippies and so on. For this current day it is the high tech industry or “techies” that have taken the lead.
What else are you passionate about, that maybe you haven’t written on before?
I am very interested in archaeology, it is fascinating. Yet, I seldom have the chance or feel qualified to write about antiquities. Psychology/psychiatry is another subject. Yet like religion and other such subjects, I really step gingerly when approaching them because people can be very emotional or intense. Also, since I am not an academic or scholar, I approach science-like subjects as a novice. I just need to know what is needed to be known. I let the scientist or professor say the rest.
When I feel I am out of my league so to speak or the subject matter is above my head, I go to the experts. That is what my journalism teachers at City College would say. ‘If you don’t know, go the experts. You are only trying to gather information, let the experts provide the details. You as journalist just write them down.’