Investigative Journalist, Teacher, J-Ed Reformer, Media Innovator
Paul Grabowicz, an old-school newspaper reporter who became an ardent supporter, innovator and teacher of digital journalism, died Thursday.
He was 66. The cause was cancer.
Grabowicz was a senior lecturer and administrator for two decades at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he held the Bloomberg Chair. At the School, he is remembered for an unstinting devotion to his students. In return, they adored his brusque and irreverent façade, which barely disguised his generosity and commitment to the development of their careers.
He is survived by his wife, Anne.
Known to nearly everyone as “Grabs,” he had been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years, mostly at The Oakland Tribune, where he developed an early prototype for a newspaper website -- which was rejected.
"Nobody embodied the character and mission of the School of Journalism as fully and irreplaceably as Grabs," said UC Journalism Dean Ed Wasserman.
“He was deeply principled and thoroughly professional, and he was also endlessly skeptical and profane. He was pivotal in shaping this school and gave himself unsparingly to more than a generation of students. If anybody in this place deserves to be called universally loved, he was that person. We are all in his debt."
Grabowicz arrived at the School in 1995 and founded its pioneering New Media Program. “Grabs made a flawless transition to teaching," said Prof. Tom Goldstein, the dean who hired him. “He instantly became invaluable.”
“He understood the corner that journalism had turned and he figured out how to teach it, and that became a signature of the School. Without him, the School would not have entered the 21st century,” Goldstein said.
In 2002, Grabowicz helped teach the Journalism School’s first class about blogging – a highly successful prototype, which, predictably, was blasted by some bloggers. "Mark my words, this [Berkeley class] is going to be the Altamont of the blogging movement,” one wrote at the time.
Grabowicz emerged as one of the nation’s most respected experts and exponents of multimedia journalism. He developed a training program, the Knight Digital Media Center—now the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute—for working journalists to learn digital skills.
“I found him a sort of marvelously wry, sardonic, irascible person who combined a lot of crankiness with a lot of kindness and good cheer,” said Orville Schell, a former journalism dean and now Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.
“I always experienced him as one of the most decent, hardworking and responsive people to students that was on the faculty.”
As a youth growing up in Southwick, Mass., Grabowicz helped pick tobacco, an unlikely major crop in the area. Both his parents died while he was a teenager. A top math and science student in high school, he attended Clarkson University in far northern New York. He soon transferred to UC Berkeley with its warmer weather and hotter political scene. He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in sociology, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
In 1975, Grabowicz began reporting for the Berkeley Barb, one of the country’s first “underground” newspapers, known as a fierce advocate of free speech. Over the years, he wrote for The Washington Post, Esquire magazine, The Village Voice, Newsday, the Online Journalism Review and Nieman Reports. He is co-author of a book, "California Inc.," about how the entrepreneurial spirit shaped the politics, culture and economy of California.
At the Tribune, Grabowicz morphed from the political radical to a fast and effective rewrite specialist and top-notch journalist: “A hard news reporter—hard drinking, cussing, smoking while he typed, writing cop stories,” recalled Lance Williams, a former Tribune colleague, now a reporter at the Bay Area-based Center for Investigative Reporting.
“He could get away with saying outrageous stuff to the editor of the paper, and if it hadn’t been Paul, and delivered in the way Paul did it, he would have gotten in trouble. And that was part of his charm,” Williams said.
Eric Newton, another former colleague at the Tribune, recalled: “Paul was a huge part of how the Tribune systematically investigated almost every major institution in the region from the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s. He was the backbone of the investigative team.
“He would often help other reporters who were on to some kind of investigation but needed help digging something up. He was constantly helping other people,” said Newton, former head of journalism at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and now on the faculty at Arizona State University.
Grabowicz became ill in December 2014, and because of declining health made only occasional trips to campus in the past year. Berkeley students who attended the annual Online News Association in Los Angeles meeting in September carried his photo on wooden sticks as a way to make sure his presence was felt.
A former student, Brad King, now on the journalism faculty at Ball State University, recalled Grabowicz’s tough love approach in the classroom: “You’re going to get kicked off the side of the boat, and you’re either going to swim or not swim. He’s eventually going to help you. He just wants you to first understand who you are.
“You find out later that you were never going to drown.”
Another former student, Amanda Dyer, a multimedia producer, said, “There are few people who have that ability to have that mix between gruffness and grit and also toughness, and balance that with a softer, good heart. And he’s one of the few people who do that well. I mean that guy’s moral compass is straight north, and he’s got a heart of gold even though he doesn't want you to know it.”
Funeral arrangements were pending as of Thursday. A memorial service at the Journalism School will be held in January. Details forthcoming.
Other Obituaries and Remembrances:
“He understood the corner that journalism had turned and he figured out how to teach it,” Tom Goldstein, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley who hired Grabowicz, said in the school’s obituary. “And that became a signature of the school. Without him, the school would not have entered the 21st century.”
“He was one of the best investigative reporters I’ve worked with in my 50 years at the Oakland Tribune,” Oakland Tribune reporter Harry Harris told the newspaper (http://bayareane.ws/1mEi5mX). “His coverage of crime, corruption, terrorism and other issues should be textbook material for anyone in journalism. Bay Area journalism has lost one of its greats.”Grabowicz had a famously gruff demeanor, but students and faculty say he was kind and extremely helpful.
From the Contra Costa Times:
Cynthia Gorney, a contributing writer at National Geographic, shared memories of meeting Grabowicz four decades ago while she was a UC Berkeley journalism student.
"We entered into a relationship of love and quarreling that never ceased," Gorney said. "I loved that guy. Nearly every one of our conversations involved cussing. If he wasn't swearing, you knew there was something wrong...It's a cliché to say I never met anyone like him and I never will, but it's absolutely true."
One of many popular memories of Grabowicz was at the university's graduate journalism school holiday party.
"The highlight of the J-school holiday party, including last year if my memory serves, was Grabs walking in about an hour after it started in his Santa suit," Gorney said.
His old-school journalism values and visionary approach on the promise and potential of multimedia platforms stood out for many.
"He would tell all of us print reporters that everything we wrote was too long, and that it would be better on the Internet, but we knew he still respected print reporting," former student and instructor Kara Platoni said Thursday. "He taught public records ... until he got sick, so he was a great champion of teaching students how to dig, how to go to the assessor, how to ask difficult questions, how to dig up court records, how to read a spreadsheet, how to find documents.
"In a strange way, although he was at the cutting edge, he was deeply rooted in traditional reporting skills and in conveying them to a new generation of reporters."
Gorney recalled the workshops Grabowicz began as a weird experiment on teaching the team-built construction of multimedia websites.
"Before long, veteran journalists were calling me to try to pull strings to get higher on waiting lists. He remained absolutely steadfast in this and won all of us over to this clearer understanding of what was going to have to happen," she said.
Grabowicz drew praise for his work investigating city and regional institutions with equal measures of aplomb and care.
George T. Hart, a 36-year Oakland Police Department veteran who retired as the Oakland police chief in 1993, offered his condolences and memories.
"Paul was a straight-up guy if there ever was one. He called it as he saw it," Hart said. "In my experiences with him, he would always get the full story, the factual story. He wasn't quick to rush to judgment. Because of his research and getting the facts right, when the story came out in the Tribune it was right on."
Tom Orloff, a former Alameda County District Attorney with a 40-year career as a prosecutor, recalled Grabowicz's work with respect.
"He was one of the really good guys," Orloff said. "He was extremely insightful and competent and fair and he had fun with his work." As a youth growing up in Southwick, Massachusetts, Grabowicz picked tobacco, according to the journalism school. He attended Clarkson University in northern New York and soon transferred to UC Berkeley. He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in sociology, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
In 1975, Grabowicz began reporting for the Berkeley Barb, and over the years, he wrote for the Washington Post, Esquire magazine, The Village Voice, Newsday, the Online Journalism Review and Nieman Reports, according to the journalism school.
Eric Newton, another former colleague at the Tribune, recalled on the journalism school's website that "Paul was a huge part of how the Tribune systematically investigated almost every major institution in the region from the early '80s to the early '90s. He was the backbone of the investigative team.
"He would often help other reporters who were on to some kind of investigation but needed help digging something up. He was constantly helping other people," said Newton, former head of journalism at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and now on the faculty at Arizona State University.
Roy Mejia, the owner and bartender at Oakland's 19th Street Station bar, remembered Grabowicz's pairing of work and relaxation.
"He was young, younger than me, and he cussed a lot. I'd say 'hey Paul, you eat with that mouth?' He was a little salty, salt and pepper," Mejia said. "But he never was disrespectful, a decent person, a nice guy. He drank bourbon, they all drank bourbon with a beer back, a little glass of draft as a chaser."
Mejia recalled meeting Grabowicz in the early 1980s.
"He was a very hardworking reporter. He would not stop. I remember he and (former Tribune city editor) Bob Cuthbertson would sit there and talk business. It was different times back then, but he used to be in there every night and talk about how stories were going to come together. Him and (another former Tribune city editor) Sam Williams and Dale Montgomery, the political writer, it was like a bunch of kids playing cards."
His longest-lived legacy will come from the students he taught and inspired to pursue journalism.
Meghann Farnsworth, managing editor of the Center for Investigative Reporting, recalled his inspirational role.
"There's so much criticism of journalists because of the changes and fluctuations in the industry, but Grabs represents so many of the reasons we stay in: to embrace opportunity, and to follow traditions," Farnsworth said. "We can take inspiration from someone willing to give knowledge to others, but pursue innovative avenues. Hopefully, those of us can take that spirit and constantly reinvent ourselves and embrace youth and change."
Lily Mihalik, senior designer on the Los Angeles Times' data desk, remembered Grabowicz fondly.
"He was the person you might least expect to be pushing multimedia at the grad school, you would think it would be younger faculty pushing," Mihalik said. "He was really the driving force behind the school so, in some ways, it worries me a little that he's gone. It benefited me in the end to work on storytelling tools for journalists, and I wouldn't have gone into that if it hadn't been for him."
"The biggest thing is that he was ahead of his time in his reporting, in the way he taught," said Kara Andrade, a former student now pursuing her doctorate in American University's communications program in Washington, D.C. "He showed you could be an academic and still continue to do your work and make your work be relevant and have social impact, so that's what I continue to do now.
"Whatever you learn in the ivory tower, make it relevant and do public good with it. I'm going to miss him a lot. It was always heartening to know he was training the next generation of journalists with the same openhearted spirit. He was a great mentor in every way."
Paul talking about one of his innovative projects (using video games to teach urban history and politics)
Paul's 2014 Commencement Address
What jounralism needs: a product people want (Media Shift)
When will video games become easy to create? (Media Shift)
More of his writings for Media Shift
Paul's Twitter Feed