PD reporter Phil Barber: What part of “temporarily” didn’t he understand? – The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa | Team Cansler

Behind the Byline introduces you to those who write stories, take photos, design pages, and edit the content we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We are more than journalists. As you will see, we are also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences that proudly call Sonoma County home.

Today we introduce Phil Barber, one of our senior reporters.


My first job was delivering the Appeal Democrat newspaper after school in the seventh grade in the deeply weird town of Marysville in the Sacramento Valley.

In this role, I learned all the important aspects of the news business, from folding to the porch, bandaging dog bites to collecting bills at the customer’s doorstep.

This last assignment involved a lady with a heavy Eastern European accent, who paid monthly in silver dollars and each time told me to “go to Reno,” and an elderly gentleman whose apartment the sales manager warned me not to enter when I was about to Kool-Aid — consultancy that functioned as child protection services in the 1970s.

No, the job was not the starting point for a lifelong career in journalism. You obviously read too much past the bylines.

In fact, I paused a quarter of a century in the newspaper business. I’ve always worked with the typed word, either as a writer or as an editor. But I wasn’t a journalist.

I worked in the National Football League’s Creative Services Division for seven years and then freelanced at home for eight years. That first gig gave me an incredible range of experiences at a young age, and not quite withered my soul despite my role as a propagandist for one of America’s most oppressive brands. The second allowed me to watch my four young daughters grow before my eyes – an immeasurable gift, even if the compromise was poverty.

I sold some stories to newspapers as a freelancer. I’ve even covered city council meetings for the Weekly Calistogan and St. Helena Star. But most of what I did was a lot fluffier than that.

I’ve written pamphlets for hospitals, personality features for Super Bowl programs, food stories for The Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, copy for illustrated books, fitness tips for WebMD, and stunning reports on offbeat culinary gatherings for Bon Appetit. If you had to write a check I would write your copy.

When I joined The Press Democrat in 2003, it was in response to a higher calling. I was broke and had six hungry mouths to feed. Coincidentally, this paper was close to an Oakland Raiders beatwriter.

I fully expected it to be a short-term learning opportunity. Then I got hooked on the miracle of health benefits, and my wife, Kara, went back to school to get a master’s degree, and all four kids needed braces… and here we are.

With typical shrewdness, I got into the newspaper business at the worst possible time. Completely unprepared for the digital age, the industry soon faltered. We had layoffs. The Press Democrat was briefly owned by a Florida company that valued news gathering on par with that of carpet cleaning.

And by the way, my job changed. The PD liquidated their Raiders beat in 2007, and for a decade I’ve covered a choppy mix of pro and local sports. Sometimes almost simultaneously.

Example: On October 28, 2012 I reported on the victory of the Giants’ World Series in Detroit (viewership: 45,152) and flew home smelling of clubhouse champagne and cigars. Two days later, in the cold rain, I was covering a boys’ playoff soccer game at Rancho Cotate High (viewing capacity: about 30).

Finally, in 2017, I replaced my friend, the legendary Lowell Cohn, as the PD’s “Bay Area Sports Columnist,” meaning I analyzed and offered my perspective on the region’s top teams and issues.

It was a dream job. I wrote about just about anything I damned well loved and flitted from dressing room to dressing room so often that nothing got boring. I’ve been there for almost the entire run of the Warriors dynasty, the 49ers’ return to the Super Bowl, controversy and scandal.

Then – and interrupt me if you’ve heard – the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Suddenly there was very little to write about in sports and far too much to report in the news. So I joined a couple of colleagues, Kerry Benefield and Lori Carter, and switched to the news site.

Don’t worry, I was assured. It’s temporary.

And here we are.

When I first got on the news, I felt like a little kid walking around the house in his dad’s oversized boots, coat sleeves hanging to the floor. I feared that at any moment I would be exposed as a scammer. I didn’t know how to submit a Public Records Act request or use people locator software to trace sources. I couldn’t name the five Sonoma County supervisors or tell you what Sonoma Clean Power does.

I had known long, long days at the stadium. But the news coverage has an intensity I wasn’t ready for.

Somehow I was able to survive without completely humiliating myself or dropping dead in front of the keyboard. And the real kicker is: I don’t really want to be a sports journalist again. I… sort of… (whispers on a frequency inaudible to management) love this job.

My patient editors allow me to write stories that I feel make sense about decades of forced sterilizations at the Sonoma State Home and the horrific experiences of Sonoma County’s Japanese families after Pearl Harbor. About the insidious work of a local neo-Nazi and the breathtaking rescue of frail seniors from Villa Capri’s assisted living facility during the 2017 Tubbs fire.

Yes, I’m still trying to explain all of this to my disgusted 10-year-old self, who’s looking at me like I’ve just traded a Reggie Jackson baseball card for a photo of Walter Cronkite. But the truth is, I was ready for a career change and didn’t even know it. And all this for a newspaper I still admire, in a community that still fascinates me, with colleagues who amaze me even more now that I know what they actually do on a daily basis.

I would be happy if this was my last “temporary” job change. Though I can still throw a newspaper off a moving bike with deadly accuracy should it come to that.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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