Updated at 11:55 a.m. June 16, 2016

The local reporter who toppled a school board president is an ex-convict who nearly missed getting an education in his craft.

Mario Koran of Voice of San Diego. Photo courtesy Mario Koran

“As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, I was actually denied acceptance to the School of Journalism,” says Mario Koran of Voice of San Diego. He also spent a year in jail after 13 felony charges, “mostly ‘bail-jumping’ for breaking conditions of absolute sobriety,” he once wrote.

That’s little consolation for Marne Foster, a target of Koran’s investigations. She resigned in February from the San Diego Unified School District board in the wake of his revelations about her misconduct.

Last week, Koran learned from Voice colleague Lisa Halverstadt that he had been named Journalist of the Year. The honor — a unanimous decision by the board of the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists — was announced Friday.

“We’re grateful for his work this past year and looking forward to what he does next,” said Matt Hall, president of the local SPJ chapter and San Diego Union-Tribune editorial and opinion director. “The board … ultimately picked Mario because his work stood out above everyone else’s.”

It was the first time that a primarily online journalist had won SPJ’s top award.

Koran, 34, contributed to The New York Times and took part in its college journalism institute. But he’s come a long way since joining Voice in October 2013.

“Mario is one of the most gifted writers I’ve ever worked with,” said Sara Libby, managing editor of the nonprofit news site. “But beautiful writing and strong reporting are two different skills – that’s what makes this award so meaningful, in my opinion. It shows that Mario has become a powerful and effective investigator on top of just writing the hell out of a sentence.”

Libby said Voice flew Koran out from Wisconsin for a job interview, and seemed nervous.

“His co-workers in Wisconsin raved about his work [at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel], and his clips were impressive. But we were a little on the fence about his shyness. After he left the interview, he wrote us a long, impassioned email about his life story, his views on journalism and what he thought he could accomplish at VOSD. That really sealed the deal.”

Scott Lewis, editor in chief of Voice, confirmed that Koran didn’t fare well on first blush and brush.

“He wasn’t a good interviewer! A lesson that [job] interviews shouldn’t mean much,” Lewis told Times of San Diego.

“Mario was persistent all year, not just on this story, and it got tense and difficult,” he said. “It is wonderful to see him recognized and, as editors, we feel great. It reflects on all of us.”

Lewis isn’t looking to lose Koran, but is sure he’ll have “ample opportunities” to advance in the profession. (He was considered for a David Carr Fellowship at The New York Times.)

“I’m very proud of our journalists who went on to more prominent gigs,” Lewis said. “They’re now all over the world — at NPR, the NY Times, LA Times and many other prestigious posts. It’s always hard to lose talent but recognition like that helps [Voice] recruiting.”

Koran’s work on the education beat and Foster story wasn’t a product of scoop mentality, Libby said.

“Getting scooped is actually something we actively tell our reporters not to focus on,” she said. “After all, the grand jury report raising questions about Marne Foster’s behavior had been public for months – and yet Mario still got scoop after scoop on this story by earning the trust of those involved and writing about it fairly.”

Koran also made an “enormous time investment,” she said, despite working for an organization that lacked the deeper pockets of a newspaper.

Ellen Gabler, an assistant editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said she knew Koran had great potential after working with him during his internship.

“After the internship, the goal was to get him to a news organization that would help him grow as a reporter and writer,” she said. “Clearly the editors at Voice of San Diego rose to the occasion, scooping him up for his first full-time job and giving him support and guidance along the way. It has been fun to watch Mario’s grit and perseverance lead him to success.”

Also hailing Koran was former mentor Andy Hall, executive director and co-founder of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

“When I learned that he was named Journalist of the Year, I had one immediate reaction: Goosebumps,” Hall said Monday.

“Mario brought to life the center’s three guiding values: Protect the vulnerable. Expose wrongdoing. Seek solutions. Through relentless reporting, he demonstrated that the state was unfairly punishing offenders after their GPS devices lost contact with satellites. He documented how coerced confessions can lead to wrongful convictions. He sensitively examined the toll of population loss in rural counties.

“In each of these projects, Mario drew upon his own experiences with the criminal justice system and small communities to identify broken and failing systems and explore potential solutions, in the finest traditions of investigative journalism.”

Hall concluded: “Because of who he is, his determination to seek the truth, and his passion for using journalism to help others, Mario is one of my heroes.”

Koran was interviewed via email:

Times of San Diego: What was your reaction to the SPJ award?  Did you know you were
being considered?

Mario Koran: I was touched. I didn’t know I was being considered for the award, and to be recognized by a group of my peers is truly an honor.

Being a reporter doesn’t always feel good. A lot of the work is dull and unsexy. Folks question your facts and motivation. They tell you you’re flat-out wrong. Often, the closer you get to finding answers, the more intense and personal that pushback becomes.

That’s all part of the deal, I suppose. So in some ways an award like this comes down to a group of journalists telling another journalist: “Good job. You hung in there and until you found something.” And I really appreciate that compliment.

The Marne Foster story is far from over. What else do you hope to learn from CPRA requests, etc.?

It’s almost hard to remember now, but the Marne Foster ordeal started with a simple question: Why was a high school principal forced to suddenly leave a school?

So I started looking into it, and it didn’t take long before all this other weird stuff spilled out.

By that point, there had been a lot of rumors, and even a Grand Jury report about what happened at the school, but nobody was talking publicly about it.

Sources were key to advancing the story, but so were public records. Emails gave us a glimpse of how Foster and district officials acted and what they said when all these decisions were being made.

But they never gave us the full picture, because the district redacted a portion of records. They gave little indication of what Superintendent Cindy Marten was telling her staff to do at the time, for example.

So last month we decided to sue San Diego Unified because we think we should have access to records the district doesn’t want to release. And that case is ongoing.

Marne Foster resigned in February, so in some ways it feels like the story has moved on. But we don’t want to stop until we’ve taken this story as far as we can. And we’re not there yet.

How did you get interested in journalism? Did you grow up in Wisconsin? Where did you live growing up? What part of San Diego do you live in now?

I grew up in part of Wisconsin that people like say has more cows than people. I actually don’t know if that’s true, but people said it, and it felt right.

I wasn’t much of a student until grad school, really. As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, I was actually denied acceptance to the school of journalism. I never learned why, but the truth is I wasn’t serious about much back then and my application was probably sloppy. I majored in Spanish literature, instead.

I didn’t pick up journalism until I got into my late-20s, when I became more interested in social issues. Journalism just felt like the right tool to explore systemic problems. It gave me license to simply call people up and ask them questions. And I’ve always like writing and found the storytelling process transformative.

In 2011, I went to back to the University of Wisconsin to get a master’s in journalism. I spent those two years working as intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which trains a few aspiring reporters each year. Grad school was good, and I’m glad I went, but I credit WCIJ, and its editor, Andy Hall, for actually training me up as a reporter. It was like a school within a school. And I’ll always be grateful to Andy for bringing me in.

That’s part of the value in an award like this. It causes you to pause and appreciate the people who took a chance on you at pivotal moments. Only in looking back do you realize the degree to which these people fundamentally changed your life. I count Voice of San Diego editors Scott Lewis and Sara Libby in that same group.

Married? Kids?

My wife and I live in Golden Hill with our 3-year-old daughter. We have another little girl on the way this fall.

We landed in Golden Hill sort of by chance, but the neighborhood really grew on me. I like the location, and I love seeing so many Spanish-speaking families. I’m Latino, but didn’t go to school with many kids who looked like me. I’d like something different for our kids.

Have you been recruited by other news outlets?

Nah, I haven’t been seriously recruited by any other news outlets, and that’s OK by me. It would would have to be a pretty sweet offer for me to leave San Diego any time soon.

Journalism, at its best, reflects a deep understanding of the neighborhood and the people you’re writing about. Those are qualities that show up in the reporting in a way you just can’t fake.

But it takes time to learn those systems and understand that place. I’ve been here three years and I think my stories are just starting to take on some of the texture I want.

I was also just awarded a fellowship by New America, which is a nonpartisan think
tank based in Washington, D.C., that weighs in on a wide-range of public policy issues. New America launched a program for people out here in California who are working to address complex social issues.

So over the next year, together with Voice of San Diego and New America, I’ll be looking at how we might use journalistic resources to improve parent engagement in San Diego schools.

Are you the first San Diego SPJ Journalist of the Year to be from a mainly online news outlet? If so, what does this say about the changing media environment?

There’s a certain amount of anxiety around future-of-journalism questions because they suggest that journalism is changing in ways we might not like, or be ready for.

But if this story had a moral — and I’m not necessarily saying it does — it might be that even an online world rewards deep reporting.

When news moved online, part of the fear was that journalistic traditions would be lost and credible voices would be drowned out in all the noise.

I think now we’re realizing that readers will seek out deep reporting and even be willing to pay for it.

What other stories of yours this year are you the most proud of?

Well, in its Journalist of the Year announcement, SPJ said they were giving me the award both for my work on the Foster investigation and for helping parents by being able to sort of demystify what’s happening in their kids’ school.

Being recognized for that second part meant a lot to me. Don’t get me wrong, investigations are exciting and important. But as a reporter, it would be great to be known for problems you helped solve as much as the ones you revealed.