Jeff McDonald of U-T San Diego’s Watchdog Team has been named local Journalist of the Year for “covering a story so complex and bureaucratic many journalists wouldn’t even know where to start” — the costly shutdown of San Onofre nuclear plant.

The San Diego Society of Professional Journalists made the announcement Thursday after choosing the honoree last week.

McDonald, 52, thought a $4.7 billion settlement to pay for the shutdown of the aging plant seemed “somewhat lopsided” since customers would foot 70 percent of the cost, SPJ said.

Jeff McDonald of U-T San Diego. Image courtesy
Jeff McDonald of U-T San Diego. Image courtesy

SPJ noted that McDonald, a U-T reporter since 1998, “discovered the deal was hatched in secret at a luxury hotel in Poland and prompted state politicians and California’s Office of Ratepayer Advocates … to criticize and take a closer look at it.”

McDonald’s reaction to the award?

“Confusion and disbelief morphed quickly into what took so long?” he told Times of San Diego. “Seriously, it’s a terrific honor, and one made especially meaningful because it is judged by my peers.”

Also hailing McDonald’s work was Ray Lutz, a veteran activist for public interests and government transparency.

“Jeff has been a critical player in getting the word out and staying on top of this very complex issue,” Lutz said. “It is true that perhaps the lion’s share of the data that was revealed was due to CPRA requests by [Aguirre & Severson LLP] or myself, but the U-T did a lot, too.”

Jeff McDonald at work at U-T San Diego. Image via San Diego SPJ
Jeff McDonald at work at U-T San Diego. Image via San Diego SPJ

Lutz, with Citizens’ Oversight Projects, said McDonald “connected the most critical of dots…. He noticed that the ‘RSG Notes on Hotel Bristol Stationery’ listed in the state [attorney general] list of evidence collected from [state PUC president] Michael Peevey’s home referred to the ‘Replacement Steam Generators’ and discovered that the Hotel Bristol was where Peevey and [Southern California Edison] met for their secret meeting in Warsaw, Poland.”

Lutz says he and fellow critics of shutdown charges were swimming in data, but “we did not put two and two together and connect those critical dots. Jeff has been able to dig through literally over 123,000 documents in just a matter of hours and encapsulate for the reader what is going on.”

McDonald far surpassed reporters from the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee “in finding the kernel of truth and putting it in terms the average reader can comprehend,” Lutz said via Facebook.

“This story is now being followed in San Diego with bated breath as each new installment reveals even more malfeasance,” Lutz said. “What a masterful job he has been doing. I can’t even think of a reporter in recent memory that measures up to this level of performance.”

San Diego SPJ said McDonald will be honored at the group’s awards banquet this summer.

Matt Hall of U-T San Diego, president of San Diego SPJ, said: “We’re glad to recognize someone who had such an excellent, enterprising year and who has turned out quality investigative work and other journalism for a long time.”

Hall said the paper, being sold to L.A. Times owner Tribune Publishing, hopes McDonald’s best work is still ahead of him, “and we’re grateful for all the digging he does for the industry and for San Diego.”

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, shut down since 2012 and now being decommissioned. Photo courtesy Southern California Edison
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, shut down since 2012 and now being decommissioned. Photo courtesy Southern California Edison

“He works every day to safeguard the public interest, and the business could use more like him.”

McDonald, profiled Sunday in a Page 2 feature, acknowledged that the San Onofre story has been difficult to report, “not only due to the complex subject matter and the arcane rules and procedures employed by the utilities commission, but all the more so because state officials have completely circled the wagons and resisted responding to questions and Public Records Act requests.”

He told Times of San Diego: “I’m not sure we’ve accomplished anything yet beyond embarrassing the regulators, which they appear quite immune to. But we’ll see what happens.”

Hall, who at U-T is public engagement director, said he sits near McDonald — and overhears his conversations.

“Every one of his phone calls with a source could be the subject of a college class on professional, tough but evenhanded interviews,” Hall said. “The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics holds that we all must ‘seek the truth and report it’ and also ‘minimize harm.’

“It can be a difficult balancing act for any reporter but especially for a diligent watchdog reporter. Jeff balances it with aplomb. He is often calling people — and calling people out — on things they would prefer not to address.

“They talk to him because they know they’re treated fairly.”

McDonald grew up in West Los Angeles and earned bachelor’s degrees in English and communications studies from Sonoma State University and a master’s from University of San Diego.

He lived in San Diego County for a couple years during high school, when he also freelanced for the Valley Roadrunner in Valley Center.

He said he learned of his latest award when a smiling Hall approached him at work Wednesday and announced he had some good news.

“Naturally, I assumed he’d come to his senses and abandoned the dreaded Patriots in favor of the Chargers,” McDonald said, showing his lighter side.

But he stressed that he wasn’t alone in covering San Onofre shutdown fallout.

“My colleague Morgan Lee has authored many important reports about the failed power plant and its cost to ratepayers and my editor Ricky Young has deftly shaped and managed this continuing story,” McDonald said.

Asked his hopes as the U-T leaves Doug Manchester’s ownership for Tribune Publishing, he said: “My hope and expectation is that The San Diego Union-Tribune will continue to thrive and keep the community informed about matters of public policy that directly affect the people who live here.

“Of course, enterprise and investigative reporting plays a key role in serving the community by holding government and institutions accountable to the people they serve.”

Said Hall of his longtime colleague: “We’re very pleased his name will be added to a long list of journalists who have done outstanding work for San Diego.”

Last year’s Journalists of the Year were KPBS senior news editor Mark Sauer and his reporter team for coverage of the Bob Filner sex-harassment scandal.