Columnist Sal Pizarro Finds His Voice

Growing up in the Bay Area, newspaper readers got to know Herb Caen and Leigh Weimers over their morning cup of coffee. That’s how it was. Regular columnists became old friends or the source of a good argument. Relative newcomer Sal Pizarro is only forty years old and just six years into the job, compared to Weimers’ forty year tenure. Pizarro is still finding his voice, both in print and through new forms of social media. Published six days a week, his Around Town column for the Mercury News is witty but never opinionated. When will he bring on the funny or unleash the grumpy old guy in the corner?

“I have been doing the column for six years, but I don’t feel like I have earned the right to be that crotchety yet,” asserts Pizarro. “It is being encouraged at the paper for me to insert more of my own voice into the column. I didn’t want it to be that suddenly you’re going from Leigh to this guy, and we don’t know who he is. I feel more comfortable making comments about what I perceive going on in the city. Taking what people tell me and sort of throwing it through my head and saying, ‘Here’s the word on the street.’”

So how will Pizarro make the column his own? Could he become a gossip columnist? He answers, “That’s so funny. I ask people who say they wish my column had more gossip in it, ‘What do you think is gossip? Do you want to know who’s dating who?’ Because no one really cares. It’s just not that kind of community.” Just by talking to so many people, Pizarro knows the local community well. “People are very comfortable telling me things because they’re pretty sure I’m not going to print it. And that’s something Leigh taught me: always know more than you write. So I sometimes know things that I really can’t write.”

But he still comes across as someone with a genuine desire to get positive news out there again. “My goals are to be entertaining and informative, and a lot of times that translates into being the person who writes about the good things. I happen to love that idea because I’ll say, ‘If I don’t write about this, no one else is going to.’ A missing girl in Morgan Hill is going to trump a lot of things I write about. It’s going to take up three reporters that aren’t going to be able to cover the Boy Scouts Character Awards. So I like doing that.”

He also likes being a stay-at-home dad with an 8-month-old son and a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Pizarro does diapers and daycare from 7am until 3pm when his wife comes home from work as Public Relations Director for Presentation High School. They chat together and do a little download of the day’s events before he sets off for his job, which he will work at until late. His parents chip in and watch the children two mornings a week, which frees him up for the occasional morning interview or charity luncheon. Most of his writing is done at night in his converted office in the garage. His daily deadline is noon, so he can edit and read through his column the following morning during naps. “Not mine,” he quips.

The social butterfly lifestyle is not so easy when combined with caring for children all day. “Some days it’s really exhausting. I can be with the kids for basically nine hours, and then I’ve got to go to an event. But, on the plus side, after nine hours with really small kids, it’s nice to be able to talk to adults and have a glass of wine,” Pizarro says with a grin. “I get to spend a lot of time with my kids, so any time I think about complaining about my job and my hours, I just think: I get to spend all day with my kids and how many guys do I know who get to do that that aren’t collecting unemployment checks?”

When Pizarro gets dolled up for a Saturday night event, his daughter Mia often asks him if he is going to a wedding. “I don’t know where she picked that up. No,” he says. “Daddy’s going to work. I feel especially guilty because before we had kids, my wife used to go to a lot of these things with me, and it was great fun, and now we pick our spots carefully. It’s partly her choice, too, because she says if we’re going to use up a babysitting chip, then she doesn’t want to be going to work. Let’s go to a movie or dinner.”

While he relishes the flexibility of his job, Pizarro also misses the structure of his thirteen years working as an editor at the Merc—starting work at 4pm and clocking out by midnight. Many of those years were spent as Leigh Weimers’ direct editor. “Those years really prepared me. I’ve learned how [Leigh] took something and made it briefer. That’s the challenge of writing in this space. I have about 450 words a day. I try to fit as much as I can in. I will spend a lot of time trimming things down, and sometimes an entire item will go away because it’s sort of like doing surgery: once you’ve had to cut off both legs and both arms, what do you have left?”

Some of what Pizarro writes about comes directly from real people who call or e-mail and say, “I know about this thing that happened. It’s kind of a funny story. Chances are, if I’ve got room, I’ll get it in.”

A big chunk of his work concerns deciding which event to attend. His record is four in one night. “I don’t recommend that. It was crazy—downtown San Jose, Palo Alto, Mountain View. Driving all over the place and then stopping in at an event for an hour, and then moving on to the next thing. Politicians do that all the time, but it’s a little easier for them because all they have to do is shake a few hands, and then they can leave.”

Unfortunately, Pizarro has no entourage driving him around or sorting his mail. “If I had dreams, it would be to have an assistant of some sort. I always read about how Herb Caen had somebody going through his mail, taking his calls. Having the same general type of column, people make that assumption. Clearly you must have a staff. No, I don’t.”

Driving around is not so difficult because he knows the area like the back of his hand—Pizarro grew up in San Jose. “Being downtown in San Jose in the 1970s was, well…dangerous is a kind word. One of the reasons I transferred from San Jose State to Santa Barbara was because downtown San Jose wasn’t really there yet. The Jazz Festival, Cinequest, and Music in the Park all started in the ’90s because there was nothing to do. Now it’s changed with Sofa District getting going, cool places to eat. Eventually, San Jose grew on me to the point that I did not want to leave.”

But the future is uncertain for Pizarro—at least in print. Pointing at the paper, he says, “I think you will be surprised if we have that ten years from now. If you had said that to me when I started in 2005, I would have laughed and laughed and laughed, but now it is where we are. We have a point where we need to figure out how to make money digitally. It’s not just online ads; it’s a whole host of possibilities which aren’t just print advertising. That’s the joke. If Fry’s or Macy’s goes out of business, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

Pizarro’s tenure began during the recession, and he admits, “It’s strange thinking that I’ve only really done this job during hard times. I’d be really interested to see what things are like when the economy is up because it makes people a lot happier. I can’t imagine how many times I have written ‘despite the current economic woes.’ I might as well have that saved on a copy-and-paste.”

Many of the colleagues Pizarro began working with twenty years ago at the Merc are gone. “When I started writing this column, we had an art writer…a philanthropy writer, a dance writer. We had more education and theatre writers, and all those positions have gone away. And so everything eventually found its way to me. The reason I am saying this is because during all these bad times, these agencies need more help, and I am trying to get the word out. When things get good again—and I am counting on that they will—the agencies won’t need me as much. Wow, I am going to have some space to fill.”

But Pizarro has a new audience, and it is online. Social media allows him to express himself more freely, without space limitations. He can even crack jokes. “Twitter and Facebook are interesting,” agrees Pizarro. “This is maybe where eventually the crotchety old man will come out one day, but I still feel like it’s better for me to get in someone’s event or an extra few names than to make some joke that I’d have no problem making on Twitter or Facebook.”

Take last Friday night, for instance. Pizarro was covering a fundraising gala. “I was one of the few guys wearing a tie because it was all venture capitalists and they are all in shirts and sport coats looking hip. That’s what I was tweeting about. ‘Man, I am the only one wearing a tie.’ Or ‘MC Hammer’s here.’ So I am tweeting all these things, but none of that got into my column because that’s not about their organization—it’s just me making funny asides. I hope at some point we have someone covering their event and writing a story about what they do, and then I don’t have to carry that weight, and I can say okay, here’s what was fun about that. They had the most crazy expensive scotch I’ve ever seen at an event. They made fun of Jack Dorsey for wearing jeans by pointing out that Reed Hoffman from LinkedIn didn’t.”

“I don’t miss writing about gossip that much, but who knows, if I do this job for another twenty years, I may have a lot more bile,” says Pizarro. “I may just start writing about all these youngsters who are who knows doing what…I can’t imagine what this place is going to be like twenty years from now.” With any luck, he will be a little more crotchety but still bringing his positive message to a new generation of readers in San Jose and beyond.

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Article originally appeared in Issue 4.2 Vacation (Print SOLD OUT)