By Jerry Roberts of Newsmakers
In the past 25 years, Scott Wilson crafted a terrific career at The Washington Post: Foreign correspondent posted to Latin America and the Mideast, Chief White House Correspondent during the Obama years, National Editor for much of the Trump presidency.
But he had to move back home — in the sweetest gig in the news biz – to win a Pulitzer.
“I have no argument to the contrary,” Wilson smiled, when asked if he, in fact, has the Best Job in American Journalism; Bbased in Santa Barbara, he now serves the Post and its vast audience as Senior National Correspondent, reporting on California and the West.
“When I proposed moving out to California, to begin covering the West…Marty Baron, who was the Executive Editor at the time, said, ‘don’t tell me, let me guess — Santa Barbara,’ and rolled his eyes,” Scott recalled in a Newsmakers interview this week. “But he smiled and let me do it.”
“I think everyone knew I was about to step into the best job in American journalism,” he added.
Deep roots. A second generation Santa Barbaran (born at Cottage Hospital, raised in Montecito and schooled at Laguna Blanca, Wilson covered the first Walter Capps for Congress campaign — in which his future bride worked as a volunteer — for the local paper), Wilson returned here en famille in 2019.
Since then, he’s energetically chronicled, excavated and explained Left Coast events, people and trends to Post readers around the globe. From natural disasters, politics and demographic change to housing, homelessness and the post-George Floyd world of race relations, his pieces consistently are characterized by deep reporting, insight and stylish writing..
Most notably, Wilson’s contribution to a ground-breaking series of articles and multimedia presentations on climate change, which brought the Post the 2020 Pulitzer for Explanatory Journalism, is distinguished, not only for its clarity and intelligence, but also for a remarkable, local angle reveal.
Headlined “Fires, Floods and Free Parking: California’s Unending Fight Against Climate Change,” the piece makes use of an extraordinary data base, built by colleagues at the paper, that tracks temperature change in every U.S. county for the past 130 years. Wilson writes:
“The cradle of the Earth Day movement is confronting the consequences of a warming Earth.
“The coastal curve that bends south from Santa Barbara through the Los Angeles metroplex to the arroyos along the Mexican border is warming at double the rate of the continental United States, according to a Washington Post analysis of more than a century of temperature data. And during the past five years, the pace has accelerated.
Since 1895, the average temperature in Santa Barbara County has warmed by 2.3 degrees Celsius, according to The Post’s analysis. Neighboring Ventura County has heated up even more rapidly. With an average temperature increase of 2.6 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times, Ventura ranks as the fastest-warming county in the Lower 48 states.”
So there’s that.
The personal angle. In a recent speech to the Community Environmental Council, Scott spoke about the reporting for that piece, and the award-winning series, in very personal – and local – terms:
“At the time, my editors did not know I was raised on these beaches, out at those islands, in this ocean. This became personal to me and to the photographer assigned to the story, Michael Robinson-Chavez, who grew up in Ventura…
“The cradle of the Earth Day movement, I wrote, is now confronting the consequences of a warming Earth.
“We know this – especially those of us who have lived here for some time. We can feel it.
“We have seen it in the Thomas Fire and the immediate weather whiplash, from flames to flood, that brought down the mountainside behind Montecito, killing nearly two dozen people. The rush of mud and debris carried some of the victims out of their houses and to the sea.
“We feel it in the warming ocean, which as I wrote last year, has in part led to a large northward expansion of Great White shark nurseries, including a thriving one off the beach at Padaro and Santa Claus lanes, as every summer surf-camp parent here knows. It’s almost that time of the year again.”
“Coffee and tropical fruits are being grown for the first time on Gaviota farms. So is agave for a local craft tequila. The success of these crops are the result of our changing climate and our smart farmers adapting to it.”
In our interview, Scott shines a light on some of the biggest stories he’s covered as the WashPost’s Man in Santa Barbara, and also offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the unprecedented debates and decisions roiling the nation’s newsrooms about the role of journalism – and the nature of truth itself – at a time when American democracy teeters on the brink.