Steve E. Swenson. Photographed by Alex Horvath, The Bakersfield Californian.
On Aug. 22, 2014, the Kern Press Club honored Steve E. Swenson with its Lifetime Achievement Award. The following is a slightly longer version of the bio that ran in the program.
Steve Swenson, 65, graduated in 1971 from San Jose State. He spent 40 years as a newspaper reporter, having decided early on never to become an editor. “I always wanted to be where the action was, not behind a desk,” he said.
Before coming to The Bakersfield Californian in 1978, he worked at the Fremont Argus, the San Rafael Independent Journal, The Fairfield Daily Republic, The Valley and Contra Costa Times, and the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune.
For most of the 33 years in Bakersfield before retiring in 2011, he covered “crime, gore, human misery, tragedy and smut. Put another way, that’s the police, courts and fire agencies.”
For a short time he also covered banking, real estate and agriculture, as well as blogged for Bakersfield.com.
Swenson was known for helping other reporters from TV and radio understand the intricacies of the court system. “I believed if we all got the process right, it added to the credibility of the news media,” he said.
He also pursued public access to records and court hearings. According to him, the newspaper hired lawyers to help him 22 times, more than any other reporter.
Swenson covered one or more aspects of every major crime story that occurred during his tenure – Offord Rollins IV, Vincent Brothers, Alan Klein, David Keith Rogers, Joseph Danks, Christopher Lightsey, to name a few. He and partner Rob Walters won the State Bar Golden Quill for exposing an attorney who grossly overcharged the court system. Swenson also won numerous Kern Press Club Awards, mostly for breaking news.
Swenson has been an avid supporter of the Kern Press Club, serving as president in 1982-83 and 1988-89. During his time on the board, they created the popular Media Roast. He was also president of the Bakersfield Newspaper Guild for 16 years, the longest tenure in the 68-year history of the union.
Swenson was known for talking to people in their worst moments – after they lost a loved one in a crime or accident, lost their home in a fire, or suffered a devastating conviction or civil judgment.
“I approached them human being to human being, acknowledging how they were feeling at that moment and freely giving them the option not to talk to me,” he said. “I spent my entire career treating everyone as a source. I wanted people to feel they could be my friend and I would treat them accurately and fairly. My goal was to report the truth in the proper perspective.”
Many of Swenson’s best stories were not printed. They were about how he got his information – bygently talking to a mother who lost a child, giving a couple who lost their house to a fire a chance to compose themselves before approaching them, or befriending heroin users in a ghetto house to enlist their support to interview the father of a murdered prostitute.
“I had fun almost every day in my career because I set out to do so,” he said. “I enjoyed the relationships and trust I built up with my sources, including judges, lawyers, investigators, clerks, criminals and people in all walks of life. I enjoyed pursuing the news wherever it was, at the home of a wealthy person or deep in the heart of gang territory.”