Talk of the Town: How Voice’s Andy Keatts Became SPJ Journalist of the Year

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Andy Keatts of Voice of San Diego and his wife, Carly, make their home in Golden Hill. Photo via Carly Keatts

By Ken Stone

At Ohio Wesleyan University a dozen years ago, Andy Keatts took creative writing classes from award-winning novelist Robert Olmstead.

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But Keatts says he had journalism in mind since high school.

“My mom became adviser for the high school paper where she taught,” Keatts says. “I read a lot of Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe and was taken by [the] New Journalism. Knowing what I know now, I should have been reading more straight reporting.”

All is forgiven — especially by the local professional chapter of SPJ, which recently named the Voice of San Diego reporter and assistant editor its Journalist of the Year for his work exposing misconduct at the San Diego Association of Governments.

But at OWU in Delaware, Ohio, Keatts mostly cared about fiction writing and got close to Olmstead, who “made my writing simple and honest. He was unsparing in his criticism yet made me confident.”

Olmstead says he remembers Keatts fondly, but not his writing product.

“My memory is more of good and wide-ranging conversations,” the English professor said from Portugal, where he was traveling this week.

“He had many and varied interests and a keen and inquisitive mind, these all so key to any writer,” Olmstead said, calling his former student “sincere, earnest and deeply curious about the world. Just a delight to work with, but it felt collaborative in nature.”

Olmstead says he would make suggestions, “maybe show him a few things, but then he’d run with them.”

Keatts never stopped.

He first moved to San Diego after college in 2006 but didn’t land a news job.

“I made enough money to make ends meet [by] giving kayak tours in La Jolla and working for a company that researches commercial real estate,” says Keatts, now 34.

Not long after, he moved back to Maryland for a woman who would later become his wife. But he tired working for an Annapolis magazine publisher (“It wasn’t the work I wanted to do, but someone was paying me to write and edit, which seemed pretty wild at the time”).

So he returned in 2010 when the San Diego Daily Transcript offered him a job.

“I guess most journalism majors applying for entry level real estate reporting jobs hadn’t previously researched commercial real estate,” he says. “Joe Guerin hired me and eventually promoted me to City Hall reporter, where I covered the 2012 mayoral election.”

His path to Voice of San Diego wasn’t a straight one, though.

Andy Keatts dotes on his son, Callum, 10 months old. Photo by Carly Keatts
Voice CEO Scott Lewis and former executive editor Andy Donohue started paying attention to his reporting at the Transcript and appearances on KPBS “Roundtable.”

Lewis asked him to apply for an open position — but didn’t hire him.

“They went with Lisa Halverstadt instead (a good decision, she’s a better reporter than me),” Keatts says.

But he and Lewis kept talking, he says, “and it turned out we both thought the city could use a full-time land use reporter.”

Sara Libby had become managing editor when he was hired in late 2012, and Keatts calls her “as responsible as anyone for turning me into a decent journalist.”

Lewis recalls noticing Keatts for the first time on radio.

“He was explaining something on KPBS ‘Roundtable’ and I thought he did it really well,” Lewis said this week. “It’s no minor skill to be able to explain complex public policy in a broadcast setting.”

Libby says Keatts’ best quality is that people love to talk to him.

“That means reporters in the newsroom seek him out to talk through ideas and the best way to approach a story, and it means people in town seek him out with their insights and tips,” she said.

She called him a “very engaging guy” in all respects.

“He’s hilarious and thoughtful on Twitter, he’s a stellar interviewer on our podcast and he’s a good writer,” she said. “Couple that with his serious journalism chops and his ability to pull off an incredibly complex story like the SANDAG scandal, and I think that’s why you see him being honored the way he is.”

Lewis called Keatts a mentor and confidant to many on the staff and appreciates how he led the newsroom’s daily production while Libby was on maternity leave.

“But really he’s a player-coach,” Lewis said. “There’s nobody in the office who people want to talk to as much as Andy.”

One reason for Lewis: baseball.

“Andy is probably one of the smartest baseball analysts in town,” said Lewis, who played and now coaches Little League. “He loves the game and teaches me new things about it all the time. He has a mastery of all the analytics and new theories about it.”

And Libby? “He’s a devoted Phish fan,” she says. “He talks about that a lot!”

Born in the Baltimore suburb of Columbia, Keatts lived there until leaving for college. (His parents, high school teacher Janet and medical equipment salesman Bill, still live in the house he grew up in.)

Carly, Andy and Callum Keatts. He also has two rescue dogs — a 10-year-old cocker spaniel-poodle mix named Bodie (“after my favorite character from The Wire”) and a 2-year-old English sheepdog mutt named Bertha (“after my favorite Grateful Dead song”). Photo via Carly Keatts
His lone sibling — 40-year-old Adam Keatts — is an economist who works for an NGO that does agricultural economic development in the developing world. (“He and his family lived in St. Thomas until the hurricane last year destroyed their home. He now lives in D.C.”)

He also might be related to the great 19th century English poet John Keats. But Keatts is skeptical.

“My dad’s family is from England,” he says. “Family lore claims one of my ancestors moved to the U.S. and added another ‘T’ in his name to differentiate himself from his famous brother John. I’m sure it’s bullshit.”

(Keatts will be honored Tuesday night at the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists awards banquet at the Kona Kai Resort & Spa on Shelter Island.)

Now living in Golden Hill with Carly, his wife of five years, and 10-month-old son Callum (“the center of my world right now”), Keatts was interviewed by email.

TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: Why Ohio Wesleyan (instead of Maryland Terps)?

ANDY KEATTS: I chose Ohio Wesleyan because I really liked the idea of a small school with a classic liberal arts education, and because I was recruited to play lacrosse there. Due to injuries, I only played for two years and eventually started caring much more about journalism and creative writing than lacrosse.

How did you learn of the SPJ award? What was your reaction?

Lisa [Halverstadt] is on the SPJ board and told me the day after the vote. I was thrilled. Journalism is a relentlessly disappointing field, which is probably why most journalists are such cynics. Most of what we write gets ignored. It’s gratifying to be recognized by my colleagues for something on which I spent a year of my one and only life on earth.

Halverstadt wasn’t eligible for the top award because she’s SPJ president. Do you feel lucky her Hepatitis A/homeless coverage wasn’t in the running?

Lisa’s a great reporter and colleague and she did incredible work on that story. If SPJ decided she wasn’t eligible for the award, I think that’s pretty dumb.

You once asked on Twitter whether “PeeWee’s Big Adventure” or “White Man Can’t Jump” was the greatest movie of all time. What’s your pick?

The answer is “White Men Can’t Jump.” It’s a perfect film. I was being serious but in retrospect I probably should have included “Bloodsport” as well. I regret the error.

Do you get mixed up with KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen?

I don’t think so, but we both cover public transportation and urban development, so I’ve heard activist-types refer to “the other Andrew” from time to time. He’s a great reporter and San Diego is better for his presence.

What led you to look at SANDAG revenues? Did the item in Oct. 12, 2016, meeting agenda (265 pages!) catch your eye? Or did someone tip you off to the issue? If so, was tipster within SANDAG or associated with the board?

Someone asked me how sure I was about the $18 billion revenue figure that the agency was talking about so much, so I made some record requests. I’ll leave it at that.

Although the outside review confirmed your reporting, some mysteries remain. What are the main leftover questions? Are you close to answering them?

Lots of people have incorrectly surmised that the entire thing was intentional, or said that I proved [resigned SANDAG chief Gary] Gallegos had instructed his staffers to cook the books to produce a number. My reporting didn’t find that, and neither did the investigators. I don’t have any expectation that evidence like that is going to turn up.

The one area that I will keep covering, and that I think hasn’t gotten enough scrutiny, is the financial assumptions that continue to drive SANDAG’s long-term spending plan for TransNet. SANDAG acknowledges that they’re going to collect far less revenue than initially projected, and has responded by simply projecting that they’ll collect more funding from the state and the federal governments.

In one year, their long-term assumption for how much they’d get from outside San Diego jumped from $10 billion to $18 billion. SANDAG staff openly said in a board meeting that the “projection” for how much they can get from other governments is really just the amount of money they need to get in order to build everything they’ve promised voters.

They’ve exchanged one overstated revenue assumption for another, but it has allowed them to continue claiming they’ll build everything they promised.

Some board members recognized that this isn’t how a budget is supposed to work, but it’ll still be years down the line when they have to drop the idea that everything is fine.

To put it more simply, they acknowledge that they’re bringing in less money than they expected, and that everything costs way more than expected, but they continue to argue that everything is fine. Some board members are being critical of the way they’re handling this and I hope that continues.

Your coverage led to resignations, legislation and lots of scrutiny of SANDAG. But does the public — especially your generation — care enough about this relatively obscure government body?

I don’t know if it’s a problem with my generation. Maybe it is. SANDAG is an opaque government for anyone, I think.

Carly and Andy Keatts have been married five years. Photo via Carly Keatts
Nothing they do is easy to understand, and after covering it for many years I’d have to conclude that’s by design. Based on phone calls I got while the investigation was ongoing, I’d say there are some high-ranking officials who don’t fully grasp how the agency works.

But SANDAG is basically in control of how we get around the county. I hear people complain about not having a public transportation system here like they see in other cities they visit, and everyone has an opinion about traffic. If you care about those things, you should care about SANDAG.

Given the fact documents were ordered removed from public view, are you confident you know the whole story of Measure A and TransNet finances? What is being done to keep SANDAG documents available for public/media inspection?

I’m sure there’s plenty about the Measure A and TransNet finances and what led to the scandal that I don’t know, but to some extent that’s the nature of reporting.

The directions staffers were given in this case — to hide or destroy documents and to stop putting anything remotely sensitive in writing — were especially troubling. Hopefully, the new auditor and audit committee at SANDAG that were created by AB 805 can rebuild trust.

All I can say is that I’ve made public records requests since then and as far as I know I’ve received all of the responsive documents.

On a podcast, you noted the “drones” claim by [SANDAG chief economist] Marney Cox and said: “When I read this, my hair literally caught flames” (The quote: “Cox … argued at length that the discrepancy between falling job growth and rising productivity could have been caused by the use of drones.”) Did you ever learn how Cox could use drones to justify his figures?

I think he meant that increased automation would account for the discrepancy. What drove me crazy is that it’s clear that he was no longer interested in hearing about the problems his very competent staffers had discovered, and was instead simply arguing from a place of pride that he could not be wrong.

His forecast was right, because it was his forecast. To make matters worse, SANDAG leadership sided with him, even though all of the evidence and all of the data was on the other side of the argument.

I don’t want to get too sanctimonious, but one recurring frustration I have with local government is when employees internalize a criticism of a public agency as some sort of personal attack. There’s nothing scandalous about screwing up a spreadsheet. It becomes a scandal when you’re unwilling to admit an error and fix it.

Outside of the SANDAG series, what other stories are you most proud of? At Voice or earlier.

I’m proud of my investigation into Operation Lemon Drop, a law enforcement sting that took place in Lemon Grove. I think Maya Srikrishnan and I did a good job investigating Lilac Hills Ranch three years ago.

I’m proud overall of the reporting I’ve done on community plan updates, San Diego’s housing crisis, the Climate Action Plan, the state of public transportation in the area and the ways in which those things relate. I think I did a good job covering the Barrio Logan community plan update and the shipbuilders’ referendum of it.

What do you do for fun or relaxation? Hobbies or special talents?

I play in adult basketball leagues and hike a lot. I travel to maybe a half dozen Phish shows a year, which has become how I stay close to friends who live all over the country. My wife and I love traveling and have had some great recent trips to Vienna, Prague, Belgium and Italy, but I think for both of us our favorite destination was Laos.

What fun fact can you tell about yourself that nobody knows?

I made a brief appearance on the Nickelodeon show “What Would You Do?” when I was in elementary school. It was the show Marc Summers did after “Double Dare.” Also, I am not this Andrew Keatts.

Would you like to follow the example of Mario Koran and other Voice alumni and work at a major investigative outlet someday — like The New York Times, Washington Post or ProPublica? How do you see your career evolving?

Those are great publications. So is Voice of San Diego. Local reporting is important, I have freedom to pursue big stories and me and my family have a happy life. I don’t feel compelled to look too far ahead right now.

You recently tweeted: “If you don’t feel compelled to vote today, or if you just don’t have enough time, that’s fine too.” Any regrets after the pushback?

Not really. Voter turnout is consistently low in this country, and I wish the media, elected officials and political parties spent as much time interrogating why so few people are inspired to participate as they do shaming those people.

Frankly, I think the common sentiment that people who don’t vote aren’t entitled to an opinion is far more offensive than anything I said. I want voting to be as easy as is humanly possible, and I want us to have a political system that inspires people to participate (and for people to have the option of protesting the system by opting out of it).

It’s easy to blame people who don’t vote and write them off as lazy or stupid. Maybe we should look at our own role in the situation?

Ever think you might run for elective office?

Ha, no. That is not something I would be good at.

How do you defend use of anonymous sources in your stories? Ever been burned by a confidential source giving you bad info?

Andy Keatts explores Venice, Italy — among a number of travel destinations. Photo by Carly Keatts
We have a high bar. It needs to be significantly newsworthy, and we need to have exhausted all other viable ways to get it on the record. Ultimately, there’s some information that is simply never going to become public otherwise. I think plenty of national outlets are far too frivolous with anonymity. I’ve never been burned.

How many CPRA requests do you have outstanding now? Can you name any of the agencies you’ve queried?

I’ve got a handful out right now. It’s all public record, but I’ll leave it at that. I think reporters are aware that most of the time, records requests don’t turn up anything interesting. That’ll probably be the case with everything I’m waiting on.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m teasing some big investigation or something by mentioning stuff I’ve requested.

Does San Diego have enough media outlets, and watchdog reporters, to uncover other SANDAG scandals? What topics, agencies or people would you like to check out that haven’t already been scrutinized?

We need more reporters. Whether they work for existing outlets or new ones doesn’t matter to me so much. It is almost certain that major scandals are hiding in plain sight right now in city halls, school districts, water agencies or local offices of state and federal agencies in San Diego.

There isn’t a government in the county that’s scrutinized as closely as the city of San Diego, and yet reporters uncover issues there deserving investigation all the time.

There are good reporters covering the city of Chula Vista and the South Bay, but there aren’t anywhere near enough considering how many people live there and how many separate entities are represented there.

Anything else readers should know?

You’ve got to run like an antelope, out of control.

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