Patient approach key to journalism alumna's career covering California's Capitol

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a Penn State student, Laura Mahoney did all she could to not become a statistic.

Many students change their intended major multiple times but she was not one of them. She just waited as long as possible to officially declare a major.

Maybe even a little longer.

“I just never declared. At the end of my sophomore year they were calling me from the advising office telling me I had to declare a major,” she said. “I was always in communications. I think I was a public relations major for a month, and then I switched to print journalism.”

Her approach was more patience than procrastination, and that approach has served Mahoney, a 1987 journalism alumna, well throughout her career. Mahoney has worked for Bloomberg BNA for 25 years, covering the California Legislature and legal news from the state’s Capitol.

Earlier this year she was one of only five journalists named to an annual list of the 100 most influential people at the California Capitol by Capitol Weekly.

In 2015, her longtime reporting on the Board of Equalization (the nation’s only elected tax board) uncovered payments to a nonprofit organization founded by a board member’s wife from taxpayers who had business before the board. In 2010, she wrote a series that showed a correlation between campaign contributions and positive tax appeal outcomes before the board.

Both series were the result of general curiosity and persistent, solid reporting. While state and federal courts, government regulators, and policy areas like campaign finance, employment, health care, privacy and taxes might not appeal to some, Mahoney brings the issues to life for her readers.

It helps that subscribers have an interest in the topics (while Mahoney has been patient she’s also been somewhat prescient by working in a journalism niche where readers pay for quality content) and it helps that Mahoney does her job well. 

Again, it starts with curiosity. The campaign contributions series started with a few sincere questions.

“Weird things seemed to be happening and I was wondering ‘Why did that person just lose?’ or ‘Why did that one win?’ and ‘How can a bad case win or a good case lose?’” she said. “Someone said I should probably check the campaign contributions for board members and that set all kinds of wheels in motion.

“It turned out that for sophisticated taxpayers the more you gave to board members the more likely you were to win your appeal. So, it was just a classic example of beat reporting, of being there, noticing things and asking questions that grew into a huge story.”

Her reporting prompted the legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to strip the elected board of most of its duties in June, including its authority to hear tax appeals. 

Along with persistence, Mahoney knows passion and some right-place, right-time luck help journalists. She learned that with two stories she wrote as a student for The Daily Collegian — stories she remembers vividly some three decades later.

The first was about the then-annual “case study” at the All-American Rathskeller. During the daylong event, bar patrons exclusively drank cases of seven-ounce Rolling Rock beer in an attempt to set a record.

“I got there at door opening, talked to the first person who bought the first case, and she looked familiar. Then I remembered, from a journalism reporting class when we covered borough council. She was on borough council’s task force on alcohol abuse,” Mahoney said. “As a reporter, I was thinking ‘This is fantastic!’

“When I quoted her and mentioned it in my story, though, my editors didn’t believe me. They made me call her at home to confirm and ask if it was OK to include her. She said sure, so that was super fun.”

To this day, a framed copy of the story hangs not in Mahoney’s house or office, but on a wall outside the women’s restroom in the Skeller.

Along with reporting and some right-place, right-time luck, Mahoney’s curiosity serves her well. She remembers another Collegian story about a proposal for minimum grade-point averages for student-athletes to remain eligible to compete. She figured the University’s most high-profile coach would be a good source for the story.

“It seemed like JoePa would be a good one to call, so I asked the people at the sports desk for his number. They all just kind of rolled their eyes and said he’d never call back,” Mahoney said. “One of my friends from high school had a roommate who worked in the football office as a work study, though. She answered the phone when I called. 

“Back then the Collegian offices were in Carnegie Building and we all worked not far from each other. So, about an hour later when the phone rang, I answered it. It was JoePa calling for me. All the sports writers got to hear me say ‘Coach Paterno! Thanks for calling!’”

These days, as president of the Sacramento Press Club, Mahoney mentors other reporters and aspiring journalists through the club’s scholarship program, which awards $34,000 a year through seven different scholarships to juniors, seniors or graduate students studying journalism and who have a connection to Sacramento.

Mahoney and husband Joel Schwartz have two children, a 17-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, and she cites her family as a daily motivation. 

Last Updated January 19, 2018