Professor Peter Madrid at Arizona State University recalls the day, about six years ago, when one of his reporting students came to him after a sportswriting lecture.
“Charlie approached me after class,” Madrid said of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s newest columnist — Charles T. Clark. “He said he … was worried about the assignment. I told him covering a sports event was like writing a news story.”
Madrid, a former sportswriter and editor who helped the Kansas City Star win a Pulitzer Prize in 1982, advised him to read game stories in the Arizona Republic and watch ESPN. And: “I also told him that sportswriters love to use cliches and war hyperbole.”
But Clark, who lived in Tempe* , took the last part as command instead of caution.
His story about a Gilbert High vs. Gilbert Highland football game began with: “Gilbert High shot itself in the foot last night.”
Madrid says he doubled over in laughter.
“When he showed up in class the next week, he tried to avoid eye contact,” Madrid said. “I think my comment to him was, ‘Charlie, flag on the play — I mean your story!’ He stayed after class to discuss — and apologize — for the cliche … and a couple more.”
Clark’s writing the rest of the semester was “clear, clean and to the point,” Madrid said Friday. “He finished as the top student in the class.”
This week, Charles Taylor Clark, 25, became one of the youngest columnists in U-T history. His debut essay Monday recalled San Diego voters’ 1987 rejection of a street renamed for Martin Luther King Jr.
Friday’s piece, about the Biden inaugural address, included: “So, as a Black man, I’m breathing a little easier today and I’m encouraged by Biden’s call for unity. … So we’re either going to unite, push back hatred and division and improve on this American experiment together, or we’ll self-destruct and die in our little factions.”
His budding career includes stints at Bloomberg News and The Day in New London, Connecticut, and internships at the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and The Seattle Times. He came to the U-T in 2018 as part of a hiring spree in the wake of the paper’s sale to billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong.
U-T publisher and editor in chief Jeff Light introduced Clark’s twice-a-week column to the staff: “He will explore one of the most vexing and urgent questions of journalism: How can the same facts hold such different meanings for different people? Charlie will be covering the many ways in which our experiences, our values and our perceptions are connected. He will write about the forces that shape our attitudes, actions and identities in all the domains of local news: government, politics, business, arts, sports and entertainment.”
(Addressing people who “decided to focus on damage to physical things rather than the loss of life,” he wrote: “It’s taking every ounce of the Catholic school kid in me to refrain from calling you some very un-Christian things. But I guess I’ll just leave you with this, it sucks to be you. Because whether you like it or not, things will eventually change.”)
“He’s a journalist who has something to say,” Light told Times of San Diego. “Over the last year, he and I have spent time talking about the sort of role he wants to play. He proposed a column. I thought it was a great idea. … Charlie is smart. I’m looking forward to seeing San Diego through his eyes.”
ASU interim journalism dean Kristin Gilger, Reynolds professor in business journalism, said it was clear to her that Clark would do great things — even though it wasn’t clear what that was.
“He developed his narrative writing skills, and he plunged into investigative reporting,” she said Saturday via email. “The common denominator, though, was always a determination to make a difference.”
While taking an investigative journalism course, he and other students discovered that some Arizona homeowners, mostly in the poorest neighborhoods, were losing their homes for owing as little as $50 in back taxes, Gilger said.
“Their story drew attention to an injustice that almost no one knew existed – vintage Charles,” she said. “I expect that as a columnist, he will continue being a voice for those whose voices are rarely heard.”
His fast ascent is no surprise to Professor Madrid at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“His final day of class, he came over and shook my hand,” Madrid said via email. “As he walked out of the classroom I thought to myself, ‘There goes a young man who’s going to make a name for himself in journalism!’ And he has.”
This interview, edited for length, was conducted via email:
Times of San Diego: Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
Charles T. Clark: I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Although I spent the first four years of my life in Overland Park, Kansas. I moved around quite a bit when I was growing up and spent 12 years in southwest Minneapolis and the tail end of my high school years in Phoenix. Generally I identify Kansas City as my hometown, though.
Even when I moved to Minnesota, I rather defiantly never thought of or referred to myself as a Minnesotan and my sports fandoms have always been KC connected. I’ve been a rabid – and until last year tortured – Kansas City Chiefs fan my whole life and I have a borderline religious devotion to watching them every Sunday because it makes me feel connected to my hometown and to my brother, who is also a diehard Chiefs fan. I’m also partial to KC BBQ and will eagerly argue with anyone who believes any other style is better.
Tell me about your family and where you live.
I have one brother and he is currently a student at Arizona State University studying cybersecurity. My mom, Michelyn, is an oncology nurse and my dad, Mel, is an ophthalmologist. My folks both live in Scottsdale with their dog Ronin, a 80-pound Australian Cattle Dog/Pitbull mix. I live in southeast San Diego. I am not married, but I do have a girlfriend.
How did you get interested in journalism or writing? What were your original career goals?
I developed a passion for writing and storytelling at a very young age. My dad used to like to do these creative storytelling games with my brother and I when we were little, and my cousin Marceil and I relished telling scary stories of our own creation when we’d go on family camping trips.
When I was in grade school, I also liked creating comics with my friends, and me and a couple of my buddies even wrote our own little novella (although I wouldn’t have known that was the term) when we were in fifth grade.
Oddly enough, my first byline actually came when I was 7 years old and contributed a piece to the Mindworks section of the Star Tribune (the largest paper in Minnesota). My folks actually have a framed copy of that paper sitting in their living room.
So writing was always a part of my life and something I excelled at. As far as transitioning that to journalism — that didn’t really happen until my sophomore year in college at ASU when I decided to take a journalism course for fun. I was a psych major who came in with a lot of credits, so I had a bit more flexibility in my schedule to try new things. I was instantly hooked and by the time I took my intermediate reporting class (taught by the awesome Peter Madrid), I was pretty sure I wanted to give journalism a go as a career.
Where else did you go to school?
I graduated from Saint Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix in 2013. I spent my freshman and sophomore years at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis. I started at Arizona State University’s Honors College (Barrett) in the fall of 2013, and later graduated from the program in the spring of 2017 with two degrees: a B.S. in Psychology and a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications.
I did my honors thesis focusing on the effectiveness of family homelessness services in Phoenix.
Why did you attend ASU instead of my alma mater, Kansas, or a school closer to Minneapolis?
Haha, so honestly, growing up everyone always thought I was heading to Lawrence (University of Kansas). My dream was to play basketball there. I never entertained the notion of going to a school in Minnesota, and even when I lived there my parents can attest I was eager to get out of the state as soon as possible.
Ultimately, between my junior and senior year of high school I kind of set my mind on going one of two paths. I would either go to Lewis & Clark College in Portland, where I’d study pre-law and environmental science (in theory my path to becoming an environmental attorney), or I would stay local and take advantage of my scholarship offer at ASU, where I could do my undergrad without going into debt.
Given the assumption that I was going to go to grad school (either law or medical school like my dad), I figured it made the most sense to stay local and not go into debt until I had to. That decision turned out to be one of the best I ever made.
How do friends and co-workers address you — Charles or Charlie? What do you prefer? Why “Charles” in byline?
Friends refer to me as Charlie. Professionally I go by Charles. As far as Charles in the byline, I’m not really sure. I think it is probably the combination of coming from an academic/research background where I used my full name on research papers/studies and it just carried over. I also though just like the sound of “Charles Clark.” It has a certain Clark Kent vibe.
When did you first propose a column? How did those column conversations evolve? What was the original inception? Who helped you focus your idea?
So I believe I floated the idea of transitioning to a column in July or August. As Jeff mentioned, earlier in the summer I had written a piece about George and Gianna Floyd that [U-T opinion director ] Matt Hall later approached me about reprinting it in the paper.
I found writing that piece very therapeutic and fulfilling, and was frankly flattered by some of the feedback I had received from folks across the political spectrum and in my personal life. A childhood friend who I hadn’t spoken to in years sent me a really interesting heartfelt message about how it had opened his eyes a bit to the way I view the world and live in it, and one of my dearest friends from Arizona really opened up about how the piece made him a little bit more hopeful about everything that was happening at the time.
Looking back, I think those two comments in particular, as well as the support I received from my colleagues at the U-T and teammates on the watchdog team, really gave me the confidence that this was something I wanted to pursue.
As far as the other parts of your question. Jeff Light was definitely the one who really helped me nail down on the idea. I think in our initial conversations, the idea was really broad and frankly a bit unfocused, but I kept mentioning two things. One, was this idea of looking at identity in a very broad sense be it race, religion, occupation, political party, fandom, etc. And two, was this idea of trying to move beyond politics and think about things from different perspectives.
Jeff was very receptive to the initial idea, but rightfully recognized it needed some fine-tuning. So he encouraged me to develop kind of a mission statement of sorts, as well write out 10 column articles/stories I would want to write if we did this thing.
That exercise proved really helpful in ironing this thing out, and I think ultimately after two or three meetings we really had cemented the idea and kind of moved on to the technical aspects of getting this off the ground.
As far as my editor on the project, I am very fortunate to be working with Denise Amos, who is the editor of our watchdog unit. She weathered a couple of tumultuous elections with me, helped me do some really cool stories as my editor when I was a politics reporter and frankly has just been a great sounding board throughout these last few years.
And given her own previous experience writing a column and passion about this column idea, I think we’re going to be able to do some really cool work.
How do you tell family members what your column is about?
This really is a column that focuses on how identity in its many forms intersects with civic life and daily news in San Diego. As Jeff mentioned, that carries into a variety of news genres, which for me is very important when all of us really think about it there are a whole lot of different factors from different facets of our lives that inform our identity and how we view the world.
The ultimate goal here, hopefully, is really to provide a venue that offers people in our community the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. I don’t expect everyone to always agree with the perspectives shared in the column or my takeaways, but I do think there is real value for our community at large if people are given an opportunity to get a bit uncomfortable and try and understand each other better.
Was this job description crafted to avoid making you a “Black columnist” or someone who represents people of color? Do you feel any pressure to “live up” to some Black columnist stereotype?
That’s a good question. As far as the description, I don’t think so. I am a Black man and obviously the way I’ve experienced the world is through that lens, so that will inform a lot of how I approach this job and likely my view on many issues. At the same time I’m a firm believer in meeting people where they’re at and one of my greatest strength as a reporter was always that people from different backgrounds seemed to feel a certain comfort in opening up to me.
I think that’s probably what makes me an ideal fit for this role. Regardless of your political ideology and irrespective of whether you are from one of the region’s Middle Eastern, Black, AAPI, Latino, immigrant, Jewish communities, or one of the many other diverse communities, I’m here to listen and learn, and more often than not I’ve found people are pretty receptive to that. And obviously, I’m certainly hoping readers will be too.
As far as feeling a sense of pressure, to be honest not really. As someone who is being given a platform and pretty good megaphone, I feel a responsibility to my community and frankly other minority communities to be a voice in the conversation as well as be someone who lifts up and shares the voices of others.
But that’s not really “pressure” — it’s motivation and something to aspire to in this new endeavor. I’m very comfortable with who I am as a person, and the perspectives I’ll share in my columns are inherently my perspective informed by my lived experience as well as by the people in our community who are generous enough to share their time and perspective with me.
Technically, you’re a millennial. Do you see yourself representing Gen Z as well?
To be honest, I haven’t really given that much thought. I am certainly a younger voice in the newsroom and in news media generally, and I am definitely on the younger end of the millennial scale. But as someone who has also had the opportunity to teach some really incredible high school kids who are actually Gen Z, it’d be a little presumptuous of me to claim that my perspective is necessarily the same. It’s important to uplift their perspectives and voices as well, and I’ll be here to hear them out.
Have you reviewed the work of Ozzie Roberts, the last major Black columnist for the U-T? Been in touch with him?
I haven’t had the chance to review Mr. Roberts’ work or been in touch with him. That certainly would be cool to connect, though. I would also note though that my colleague Lisa Deaderick is Black and writes a Sunday column about social justice issues that’s really fascinating. So there is also another major Black columnist here doing great work already.
Your Twitter feed is mainly retweets. You rarely express an opinion. But on Dec. 22, you replied to a Darrell Issa tweet about the Duncan/Margaret Hunter pardon: “This isn’t surprising given Issa floated the idea of Trump granting clemency to Hunter a year ago. But we should all make note of it for the next time East County’s newest congressman says anything about the importance of accountability or ‘law and order.'” Will being a columnist free you up to express more personal thoughts on social media?
Short answer: Yes, I suppose so. I’ve always been very hesitant to get all that into things on Twitter because I frankly dislike the platform and think it has harmed a lot of discourse. Although, it can be said that is true of most social media. There is never any nuance on the internet, right? But in this role, yes, I will probably feel more comfortable opening up on social media.
Columnists sometimes break news. Will you share such news with the U-T Newsroom if your column isn’t scheduled for several days? Or will you be doing more analytical work? Any columnists you like or want to emulate?
Given my goal with this column, I don’t anticipate I will be breaking much news. Naturally I tend to be pretty analytically minded, so I’ll tend to approach things from that approach and mix reporting with commentary. As far as columnists, there are definitely quite few I really admire.
Obviously I’m very fond of all the U-T columnists and especially our political columnist Michael Smolens, who I consider a friend and a mentor. I also think that Erika D. Smith over at Los Angeles Times does really incredible work as does her colleague Frank Shyong. Margaret Sullivan over at WaPo is great as well.
Tan Vinh over at The Seattle Times is also an exceptional writer, although I’m not sure if he is technically a columnist. I also LOVE reading anything that Mina Kimes, Fernanda Santos or Jason Reid put out. Although again not necessarily columnists and in the interest of full disclosure, Fernanda used to be a professor of mine, so I’m a bit biased.
Who is your target audience? Political wonks? Younger folks? Liberals/progressives?
Target audience wise, I really don’t have one. The idea of this thing is really to try and bring everyone to the table. I’m a realist, so I know that’s not what’s going to happen, but it’s still my goal nonetheless. Ultimately, my column is for anyone who wants to learn something new or gain some insight into a different perspective in our community. We’ll have to see if there’s an audience for that. I thinks so, but I could be wrong.
Are you soliciting story ideas? How should people contact you?
Definitely! I really enjoy hearing from readers and plan to incorporate feedback and ideas into columns from time to time. Although I also do want to encourage people to keep it respectful. The best way to reach me is by email: Charles.firstname.lastname@example.org.
What will upcoming columns be about? Any teasers?
I’ve got something I’m working on about San Diego and some of the region’s challenges elevating Women of Color to significant positions of leadership. I will also be working on something related to QAnon over the next week or so. For a bit lighter column, I also might try and rope readers into sharing their perspectives on their sports fandoms: how they’ve informed their life and why they’ve developed a lasting bond to whatever team. But if the Chiefs lose Sunday, maybe I’ll sour on that, haha.
Anything else readers should know about your column or goals?
I guess the only thing I’d really add is I want people to know this column isn’t about “attacking” anyone.
My goal here is to hopefully provide a venue for us all to better understand each other and be a bit more considerate of other perspectives. For as long as I do this, I want this to be a conversation, which means I’m listening to readers and not just speaking.
So I hope they’ll join me on this journey. Not every column is going to be a knockout, but I think there’s an awful lot we can learn from each other and I’m looking forward to hearing from them.
Updated at 7:34 p.m. Jan. 23, 2021
*An earlier version of this incorrectly story said Clark lived in Gilbert, Arizona, at time of game story for Peter Madrid’s class.