Paul Sisson (left) spoke with Sharp HealthCare physicians in April, 2020, early in the pandemic. Photo by Nelvin Cepeda, The San Diego Union-Tribune.

In the late-1990s, reporter Paul Sisson wrote: “There is something about digging in the dirt that appeals to me.”

He was speaking literally — albeit comically — as an Augustana University journalism student in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he declared prophetically: “I can’t think of a better occupation than to sit all day, slightly paunchy, in the luxury of an air-conditioned dirt scooper.”

On Thursday, at a Liberty Station awards ceremony, Sisson will scoop up the highest honor bestowed by the local chapter of the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists.

The San Diego Union-Tribune health writer will be feted as 2021 San Diego Journalist of the Year for distinguishing himself as the “region’s leading COVID-19 reporter, keeping San Diegans informed during an unprecedented, ever-evolving crisis,” the group said.

“Since Jan. 28, when he wrote his first story on the virus, Paul has produced more than 300 articles, from profiles of frontline health care workers to daily case-count and policy updates, sometimes risking his own health to make sure readers had accurate information,” San Diego SPJ said. “He told stories from emergency rooms and ambulances, culled through staggering amounts of data and pressed public officials for critical information.”

Correction: Sisson’s byline is on more than 350 pandemic-related articles. And counting.

San Diego-born Paul Sisson, a Santee native, returned from Iowa in 2002 to work for the North County Times. Image via Sisson

“He was the first reporter given an intimate look inside a COVID ward,” his editor, Tarcy Connors, told SPJ, “doing so at great risk to himself, as little was known about the virus in the early months.”

Jeff Light, U-T publisher and editor in chief, hailed Sisson as a remarkable reporter with detailed knowledge of health care in San Diego and an “extraordinary commitment to journalism.”

“You can see all of that in the work he has done over the last 18 months,” Light told Times of San Diego. “Every story speaks of the meticulous care, compassion and work ethic he brings to the job. Paul, courageously, was on the front lines of this story from the start.”

Even county officials — often on the receiving end of his tough questioning — tip their hats.

“This is well-deserved,” said Michael Workman, director of the County Communications Office. “Paul is well-read, well-sourced and retains critical accurate information. In this ever-changing environment, Paul kept up and was often ahead in his inquiries. A true professional journalist.”

Oceanside resident Sisson, 45, is a San Diego native — born at Kaiser Zion — who grew up in Santee. He’s married to Aimee, his college sweetheart, and they have two daughters, ages 15 and 13.

At Augustana College, Sisson wrote for the campus paper, The Mirror, sometimes with a light touch. (PDF)

Sisson came to the U-T in 2012 along with other refugees of the shut-down North County Times, including the late Bradley Fikes. Sisson had covered health at that U-T-owned paper as well.

Before joining the NC Times in 2002, then owned by Howard Newspapers, he worked for smaller Lee papers in Iowa — first at the Newton Daily News and then the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Nancy Newhoff, the Courier’s recently retired editor, was managing editor when Sisson was on staff.

“Paul was an excellent reporter, one of the best I have worked with,” she said recently via email. “I remember distinctly how I leaned on him during our coverage of the 2000 U.S. Census. He was skilled at taking the numbers and making story after story of local impact for our readers.”

The Courier wouldn’t have had such coverage, she said, but for Sisson taking the data and working with it to create readable, interesting stories.

“We had Paul cover many aspects of local government for us during out time together and he always did a great job,” Newhoff said. “He earned the respect of those around him in whatever he did. I knew he would go on to great things.”

Sisson labels his Iowa days as amazing.

“[I] did the cops beat and ended up covering a string of small-town bank robberies,” he said. “I ended up spending time in federal court, and I later heard a rumor that [the suspect’s] mom would go buy out the newsstands.”

In his two years at the Courier, perhaps his biggest series of stories involved a local principal accused of inappropriate conduct and “who, we found out, had faced similar accusations in another state.”

Janet Blank-Libra, chair of the English and Journalism Department at Augustana, recalled Sisson as smart, kind, curious and generous.

“He smiled frequently and yet was generally serious in manner,” she said. “He was certainly an excellent reporter and writer, but he was also a computer wizard.”

When problems arose with newsroom machines, Blank-Libra said, they turned to Sisson.

“He was a wonder — and clearly he still is,” she added. “When I think of Paul, I remember a determined young man who possessed absolute integrity. It comes as no surprise that he is a leader in his profession. I can scarcely believe that he graduated 23 years ago.”

She said her colleagues at “Augie” were thrilled to learn of his award.

Sisson himself got the scoop on his award before it was officially revealed.

“A member of their board let me know a bit before the public announcement but swore me to secrecy,” he said. “I was stunned, for sure. But I’ve also experienced a little feeling of impostor syndrome knowing that there is so much good work out there, and that I was on a team that collectively did great work.”

Sisson wrote for the West Hills High School newspaper in Santee and found he liked “functional writing.” But he said things were “crowded” at San Diego State, so his parents — Patrick Henry High alumni Stan and Robin Sisson — took him to a Lutheran college fair, and they “hit it off” with an Augustana recruiter (though the family isn’t Lutheran).

When in 2002 a job opened up in the North County Times’ Encinitas bureau, “only a few blocks from Stone Steps,” he said he couldn’t resist coming home, “especially if it meant working at the beach.”

He and Aimee — who does part-time bookkeeping while keeping the girls headed in the right direction — both got their second Pfizer vaccines in mid-May. This Q&A was conducted via email.

Times of San Diego: I count at least 350 COVID-related stories in your U-T archive since late January 2020. Did you have any suspicions at that time the pandemic would explode and claim more than 650,000 American lives? When did the enormity of the danger hit you?

Paul Sisson: I really didn’t know what to expect, but since I’m on the health beat, it’s expected that I will go after the story full bore. The enormity hit me when [photographer] Nel Cepeda and I got a tour of Sharp Memorial Hospital back in early 2020 and we saw that they had converted their entire ambulance bay to serve as a kind of triage waiting area. It’s serious when you’re willing to make your ambulances park out in the parking lot.

You appear to be the point man for U-T coverage. Who were your mentors on the beat? [Group editor] Tarcy Connors? Anyone outside the paper help inform your coverage? County health staff or local medical experts?

Tarcy is my editor, and she definitely had input. We put together a COVID coverage team that met every morning at 8 a.m. for more than a year. Reporters Morgan Cook, Lyndsay Winkley, Lauren Mapp, Gary Warth and Jonathan Wosen were part of that daily crew which also benefited from the work of others, especially Kristen Taketa who covers schools, Brittany Meiling, Lori Weisberg and Phil Molnar.

You do little social media. Is this because of the trolls that victimize reporters on the COVID beat?

I always intend to do more. But I find that I spend most of my time talking to sources.

What were/are your working conditions at home during the pandemic? Were you sidetracked to help your daughters with Zoom school or homework?

I’m lucky to have an extra bedroom that has served as a home office. Aimee and I are lucky that the kiddos are mature for their ages and took to Zoom well enough. But, to be clear, Aimee did most of the work on the home-education front.

A state appellate court said San Diego County acted properly when it refused to release the specific location of COVID-19 outbreaks. What is the status of that case? What other info was hard to glean? What info would you still like to have?

I’m not sure what the current status is. I’d love to know more about the specific situations of those who have died from COVID.

You covered the hardships of health-care workers, but journalists have their share of burnout and mental suffering. How did you manage to keep your head? Take any breaks? What was your sanctuary or respite from the brutal beat?

There have been many long days and have bled into weekends for sure. I think visiting COVID wards helped me keep perspective. Compared to gearing up in protective equipment 50 times per shift and going into rooms with infectious patients, typing words on a keyboard didn’t seem particularly fraught. I’m also lucky to have married my best friend. She listens.

Have you had any in-person run-ins with anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers? How did you deal with them? What have critics of your COVID coverage sent your email in-box? How do you respond?

I get a fair amount of blowback, and I try to engage with facts and sources when I can. I think the toughest was a little girl at an anti-vax protest recently who, upon learning I was a reporter, asked why none of us can tell the truth that COVID is made up. Her mother is a nurse.

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

I’m super into working with my hands, whether it’s home remodeling or repacking the wheel bearings on my truck.

Would you like to work at a major outlet someday — like New York Times, Washington Post or a group like ProPublica? How do you see your career developing?

I’m pretty happy where I’m at, working in my hometown. Interestingly, I work for the paper that brought my father and his family to San Diego from Indiana in the 1960s. They subscribed and had the paper mailed to them in Indy to see if it was their sort of town.

You also have done a lot on ransomware attacks on local hospitals and data breaches. How much damage did these do to Scripps and others and their patients/clients?

It’s a little unclear, though patients did have their procedures delayed. I think it will take a little more time to understand whether stolen data will be used for nefarious purposes.

When do you see San Diego County returning to pre-pandemic normalcy? What percentage of the county population would have to be vaccinated?

We definitely will, though when exactly that will be is an open question. I understand that, with the transmissibility that Delta exhibits, we’ll likely need to be north of 80 or even 85 percent fully vaccinated.

Anything else readers should know about you or your COVID coverage?

Just, I guess, that it has been humbling. I feel lucky to get to do this job.

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