The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, has named San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken as Journalist of the Year for his hard-hitting coverage of the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural-gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno, CA, in September 2010.
Van Derbeken spent hundreds of hours combing through tens of thousands of pages of documents to prove that the explosion could have been prevented and that PG&E has consistently failed to protect customers in San Bruno and elsewhere in California. In the process of turning out dozens of stories, Van Derbeken, the Chronicle’s longtime criminal justice reporter, was forced to learn a whole new field. This past August, the National Transportation Safety Board essentially rubberstamped his efforts, concluding that PG&E’s cozy relationship with state regulators and a culture of shoddy safety practices caused the deadly explosion.
“Judges were impressed by the depth of reporting and the variety of story presentation Northern California journalists provided their audiences this year,” said Liz Enochs, SPJ NorCal chapter president. “The work of this year’s winners shows Northern California journalists are setting the pace for using all manner of media tools to dig for hidden facts and tell the stories that best serve Northern California’s citizens.”
Van Derbeken is the recipient of one of seven special awards chosen directly by the SPJ NorCal board of directors.