Jim Boren's questions deserved an answer, says former California Gov. Pete Wilson
Jim Boren, executive editor and senior vice president of The Fresno Bee, retires Friday after a 48-year career at The Bee that’s included serving as editorial page editor and national political reporter. The length of his tenure at one newspaper is a rarity in the media industry.
“Jim has been a remarkable journalist for nearly half a century,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said. “He embodies the spirit of Fresno and chronicled its many stories with verve, candor and insight.”
As an award-winning reporter, Boren covered national political conventions and traveled with presidential candidates during campaigns that resulted in the election of presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton.
Jim has been a remarkable journalist for nearly half a century.
California Gov. Jerry Brown
Former California Gov. Pete Wilson said Boren’s career can be summed up as a chronicler and conscience of Fresno and the Central Valley, always speaking from “deep knowledge and principle.”
Boren oversaw a newsroom that won top journalism awards while he was executive editor. In May, The Bee was named the best newspaper in the state in its circulation division by the California News Publishers Association. The Bee received the same top award for work published in 2013, and second place for work published in 2014. The Bee was judged against California newspapers with circulations ranging from 35,000 to 150,000, which covers most papers in the state.
“It’s a very competitive category,” said CNPA executive director Tom Newton about The Bee’s General Excellence awards, “and to achieve that more than once is really remarkable. Being the best newspaper in that circulation size in California is something that is very special and should be congratulated. It means his leadership has had tremendous impact for both the newspaper and the community.”
Boren is humble about his hand in those achievements.
“To be able to have a staff that we have,” Boren says, “that has done the kind of work that we’ve done over these years – it’s incredible. … That’s really gratifying to me because it represents the collective work of all the people out in this room.”
Boren also furthered The Bee’s digital transformation. That progress is no small feat, especially considering Boren began his career writing stories on a typewriter.
The Bee won first place in Online General Excellence during the CNPA’s 2015 statewide contest and second place for work published in 2016.
“He’s tweeting and he’s using social media to put stuff out,” said Kathy Mahan, The Bee’s former audience editor. “He’s extraordinary. He’s changed and adapted and it’s remarkable.”
The ace reporter
The Fresno native was hired at The Bee in 1969 at age 19 to fill in for reporters on vacation in the paper’s Visalia, Madera and Merced bureaus.
He was hired at The Bee by then-executive editor George Gruner, who says Boren has “always exemplified the highest standards of the journalism profession, both locally and in national posts.”
Boren went on to cover many high-profile stories, including the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping.
He later uncovered phony allegations of a child molestation ring in Bakersfield in the 1980s.
“It didn’t pass the smell test and we started looking into it,” Boren recalls of the investigation that he and the late Paul Avery of The Sacramento Bee undertook. “Ultimately the attorney general came in and spent a million dollars confirming what we reported.”
This is my hometown. I’ve always wanted to make Fresno better.
Fresno Bee executive editor Jim Boren
Their investigative reporting helped reunite children with their parents. Boren said their work “showed what two reporters can do to find justice and right wrongs when the justice system goes terribly off track.”
Boren also received awards for his education reporting, including an investigative reporting award from the Society of Professional Journalists for a story that uncovered financial irregularities involving the California State Teachers’ Retirement System.
Boren continued to excel as a journalist even in the face of devastating hardship: the death of his young wife, Joy, when their daughter, Marissa, was just 20 months old.
Diana Dooley, secretary of the California Health & Human Services Agency, said she watched Boren “with admiration as he balanced his increasingly successful career with his role as a single parent … never letting one interfere with the other.”
Dooley first met Boren in the 1970s when she was on the staff of Gov. Brown. She and Boren later became friends.
“Jim was recruited many times for journalistic opportunities that would require leaving Fresno,” Dooley said, “but he always found ways to advance his professional growth without compromising what he thought was best for his family.”
Dan Walters, former Sacramento Bee political columnist who now writes for the online news site CALmatters, said Boren was able to hold leaders accountable while maintaining his “friendliness and sunny attitude about life.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to remain a nice guy in this business,” Walters said. “In particular, it’s easy to get really jaundiced when you deal with politicians all the time, but he always maintained generally an upbeat attitude on life.”
Michael Der Manouel Jr. said he benefited from Boren’s “tremendously gracious” personality when he was a young chairman of the Fresno County Republican Party. Boren once took Der Manouel out to lunch to explain “the rules of engagement” with the media – a lesson in the meaning of terms like “off the record” and “on background.”
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Der Manouel said. “I think he was genuinely concerned that I didn’t know what I was doing and he wanted to have quality material for the paper.”
An editor and icon
Boren served as editorial page editor for 17 years before becoming executive editor.
Bill McEwen, who succeeded Boren as opinion page editor before leaving The Bee last year, said Boren believes in the power of editorials and encouraged him to “fearlessly challenge those who were on the wrong side of an issue.”
“He is fiercely loyal to the facts,” McEwen said, “and to the vital role that journalism has in a functioning democracy.”
Boren served as a juror in 2016 and 2017 for the Pulitzer Prizes administered by Columbia University.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Boren is well-known for being a “straight shooter” and worked tirelessly to provide a local angle to national news.
“Democracy succeeds and thrives when you have a well-informed public,” Costa said. “Democracy, I believe, depends upon participatory democracy and you can’t have a good participatory democracy unless you have a public that’s engaged and involved. He’s always understood that the paper allows people to have their voices heard.”
Mahan, who now works as Costa’s district director, said she has always been impressed by Boren’s “appetite for information and desire to advocate for people and issues.”
He has true compassion for helping those in need.
Tricia Holt, donor relations director for The Salvation Army
Former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said Boren is a “Fresno icon” and applauds his tenacity in working to understand both sides of an issue before offering an opinion.
“As mayor, some days I loved Jim Boren. Other days? Well, not so much,” Swearengin said. “But, every day, I knew that Jim was striving to be fair and diligent with the facts to the best of his ability. He has my respect and gratitude for serving Fresno and the Central Valley well.”
Gail Marshall – now The Bee’s acting editorial page editor who first met Boren when they worked as student reporters for Fresno City College’s newspaper, The Rampage – said Boren shares her passion for social issues.
“As editor, Jim was a fierce advocate for women’s equality, family health, children, mental health and education – he accepted no excuses,” Marshall said. “Domestic violence and child abuse were always among his core concerns. All these priorities resulted in award-winning work for the newspaper, but they emerged from a genuine well of compassion, empathy – and righteous anger.”
Boren also recognized the impact his editorial page could have, such as in a letter to the editor from 9-year-old Angel Arellano in 2003 asking every community member to give $1 to save the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.
Boren went out of his way to make sure the letter got printed, driving to the girl’s home to verify it after it was mailed without a phone number. Boren also got a photo of Angel that was published alongside her handwritten and illustrated letter.
Angel’s plea in The Bee helped raise more than $750,000 for the zoo, in addition to millions later raised by the passage of Measure Z, which resulted in more than $125 million in zoo funding since 2004.
Boren was named executive editor in 2012 by then-publisher Tom Cullinan.
“Jim was the clear choice to lead the newsroom,” Cullinan said. “He possessed the experience, the credibility and respect within the newsroom and community. Most importantly, he had the motivation and leadership skills that were necessary to transition a newsroom that was primarily a print-driven operation to a digital-first, 24-hours newsgathering media company.”
Boren implemented layoffs in May that eliminated several positions in the newsroom. Boren said while the company continues to develop a new business model as the newspaper industry transitions from print to fully digital, The Bee is now read by more people than ever in its 95-year history between print subscribers and online readers.
Current Publisher Ken Riddick said Boren has a deeper understanding of the community than anyone he’s met.
“He has great credibility in a craft where integrity is the coin of the realm,” Riddick said. “He has brought clarity and amazing leadership to his staff during times of great change.”
Boren began teaching advanced reporting classes at Fresno State this spring semester. Fresno State President Joseph Castro said Boren is a “model journalist who understands the vital role that newspapers like The Fresno Bee play in communities throughout our nation.”
Boren sponsors a Fresno State scholarship in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development in memory of his late wife, Joy, who was a teacher. His many journalism awards include several from his alma maters, including being named Fresno City College’s distinguished alumnus in 2015.
Boren said the time was right to retire from The Bee.
“We held people accountable and we’ve told some great stories,” Boren said. “It’s not just watchdog journalism, but it’s giving our readers the tone and the texture of our community.”
In his retirement, Boren will also volunteer with a number of community service groups – including one of his personal favorites, The Salvation Army.
“He’s just an all-around good person who is compassionate about Fresno and all of the people in our community,” said Tricia Holt, regional donor relations director for The Salvation Army. “Jim has always been fair and very insightful, which guides his work and will serve him well in his community service.”
Retired Fresno County Superior Court Judge Robert Oliver said the volunteering Boren did throughout his career helped Bee readers see that newspaper executives “were not sitting in their ivory tower on E Street without any idea of what the real community is like.”
“Jim has an outgoing personality without being effusive,” Oliver said. “He can work a crowd, he can be in the mix, but as a true journalist, his antennae is always up.”
At Boren’s urging, The Bee started sponsoring a regional spelling bee in 2016 so Fresno students could compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which previously only advanced students from locally sponsored contests. Last year, Ananya Vinay of Fresno won the Scripps National Spelling Bee at age 12.
“Without his leadership and determination, we would have missed out on Ananya being the best speller in the world,” said Paul Loeffler, announcer for the Scripps competition and a broadcaster for Fresno State athletics. “I thought that was so amazing and impressive and speaks to his character – that he saw the lack of opportunity, saw the need, and stepped up to make sure that need would be met. As a result, the rest of us got to celebrate an amazing young champion.”
Boren has been an ardent supporter of the annual Kids Day fundraiser for Valley Children’s Hospital. Records have consecutively been broken over the past few years in money raised through the annual sale of special Kids Day newspapers printed by The Bee. The fundraiser, sponsored by The Bee and ABC30, raised more than $633,000 for the hospital last year.
Boren also bolstered a partnership between The Bee and Kirk Elementary School in west Fresno, near The Bee’s office downtown. The Bee has donated more than $50,000 in cash to the school in about 15 years, much through an annual fall book sale.
Newton sees Boren’s 48-year career as a “love story for the community, for The Fresno Bee, and for the newspaper industry.”
“You got to love what you’re doing to do it for that long in the same place for the same folks.”
Loeffler said Fresno has become a better place because of people like Boren, “when the best and brightest see the value of what’s there instead of the grass being greener” somewhere else.
“I think Jim Boren’s career is a testament to that,” Loeffler said, “and hopefully more will follow that example.”
Boren stresses that he’s not perfect and seems to welcome critics.
“I’ve got a type-A personality, sometimes I kind of go off,” Boren says, “but you mellow with age.”
The value he places on teamwork is central to his leadership.
“Nobody does anything on their own,” Boren says. “It’s about relying on each other and leaning on each other.”
On a whiteboard in Boren’s office is a quote: “Be inspiring to all you meet.”