The Oaklandside is thrilled to introduce readers to our newest reporter, Eli Wolfe, who joins our newsroom to cover Oakland City Hall.
Wolfe has deep roots in the Bay Area, and has worked in journalism for a decade, both locally and in Southern California. Most recently, he was a senior reporter for San Jose Spotlight, covering county government and transportation.
Wolfe is eager to dive into his beat and get to know Oakland community members. The Oaklandside’s housing and homelessness reporter Natalie Orenstein chatted with Wolfe this week about his plans for reporting on city government, and his background in the Bay Area and journalism.
Natalie Orenstein: You recently moved to Oakland from Los Angeles. But it’s not your first time in the Bay Area, right?
Eli Wolfe: That’s right. I was born and raised in San Francisco, out in the Sunset near Golden Gate Park. Then I went to UC Santa Cruz, where I majored in history and graduated in 2013. Shortly after that, I moved to Berkeley, which is where I started my career in journalism—and then I made the mistake in 2016 of moving to LA. I actually very much enjoyed it there, but I am very happy to be back in the Bay, because this is where I’ve spent most of my life and where I consider home.
What were some of the first places that you revisited when you got back here?
When I was in LA, I was out on the Eastside and I never saw the ocean out there, really. So just going down to Ocean Beach was a big one. In Oakland, I wanted to go back downtown and spend time at Lake Merritt. When I was living in the East Bay, it was my favorite place to hang out. I also wanted to make sure that the Great Western Power Company was still open because that’s where I used to do some of my climbing when I did bouldering. I was very excited to see that it is there and I can go in and destroy my arms again.
What drew you to work at The Oaklandside?
I’ve been aware of The Oaklandside and reading it since it launched during the pandemic. I was immediately struck, and have been since then, by just how thoughtful and in-depth the coverage is. It’s clearly informed by what readers want. That’s really cool, and unfortunately pretty rare in our news environment. I knew after I left Spotlight that I wanted to keep covering local government, and nonprofit newsrooms in my experience are the best place to get the resources and the support to do that best. When I saw that The Oaklandside was hiring for a City Hall reporter it felt like everything was lining up exactly with what I wanted to do. It seemed like a great opportunity to jump in and contribute to a newsroom that I really admire.
We’re all fans of your work, so the excitement is mutual! You mentioned that you started your career in journalism in Berkeley. Tell us a little more about your reporting background.
I got my start working as a reporter and managing editor for my college paper, City on a Hill Press. But I actually got one of my first internships at Berkeleyside. I really appreciated the culture and the staff there. When I moved back to the East Bay, I had this image of freelancing—I thought it would be fun and romantic to try my hand at it. My mom worked as a freelancer for decades. So I freelanced for The San Francisco Chronicle, for Oakland and Alameda magazines, and for UC Berkeley’s alumni publication, California Magazine.
But freelancing didn’t really pay the bills. So I ended up picking a job in LA at The Daily Journal, which most people haven’t heard of unless you’re a lawyer. They had me covering law firm business, which was not really my jam. But then they put me on the federal courts beat, which I really enjoyed. I kind of became a nerd for white-collar litigation. It also gave me a taste for investigative work, which is how I ended up joining a nonprofit newsroom called Fair Warning in Pasadena, which was a really cool place. We did consumer protection and labor issues. I got to investigate things like deaths on small farms, auto safety regulations, shady vape companies, solar sales practices—kind of everything under the sun. But then Fair Warning dissolved and I took a job as a senior reporter at San Jose Spotlight, which is a really terrific nonprofit newsroom in the South Bay. I covered county government down there, and transportation, and that’s where I realized that I love covering local government.
How do you plan to approach the city government beat in Oakland? You’re starting this job at an interesting time, shortly after City Hall reopened for in-person public meetings, for the first time since 2020. How will you help residents access the important information and decisions happening there?
I’m going to try to watch every meeting that happens at City Hall—all the regular council meetings, but also the committee meetings. I would also really love to watch and follow as many of the commission and committee meetings as possible, although there are many of them! I want to stay as abreast as possible of everything happening in Oakland city politics, and then distill the most important items on agendas and from meetings into high-quality, in-depth stories that our readers can access for free on The Oaklandside website. I’ll also provide Twitter threads at meetings where interesting stuff is happening.
You’re undoubtedly still learning a lot about the civic and political landscape in Oakland, but what initially jumps out at you as some of the major stories and tensions you’re eager to begin following?
We have a new mayor who has made a lot of promises to voters. I’m definitely going to be tracking what her administration is doing to address things like reducing street violence, expediting or fixing the permitting process so we can have more houses built, and fixing the staffing situations in different city departments, some of which have a shortage of workers. I’m also going to be following the fallout from the ransomware attack. It’s a pretty dire situation, but we don’t have a ton of information about what the city has been doing recently to resolve that.
We also have the biennial budget meetings that are coming up, where the mayor and the City Council are going to discuss city funding. And that’s going to be really interesting because Oakland has a lot of serious service needs but also a serious money crunch, and every councilmember has priorities in their districts. I’ll definitely be tracking that really closely as those conversations happen over the next month or so.
There’s just so much on the radar. I’m going to be following the political fallout from the A’s just-announced move to Las Vegas. I’d like to see what’s going on with the Registrar of Voters. I know The Oaklandside has its own lawsuit out for records that the registrar hasn’t furnished us with yet. Also, City Hall encompasses a lot of things in theory, and there are other very good, capable reporters in our newsroom who will continue to cover subject areas—housing and homelessness, the arts, and traffic safety, for example—that flow through this news beat too.
It sounds like you’ve done your homework and are diving right into some of the major issues and questions that city leaders and residents are grappling with. How else are you getting to know Oakland and the beat in these first days and weeks on the job?
This first week, it’s talking to the editors and reporters. There’s so much handy information on Legistar (the city’s platform for meeting calendars, agendas, and legislation), and I can learn a lot from it. But that critical context that allows me to know what is newsworthy, what is not, what is really important to address now, and what isn’t—that all comes from the people who’ve been covering Oakland for years now.
The second step is talking to readers. Because, obviously, the people who live in Oakland know it best. They’re the ones I really want to hear from, so I’ll know what is relevant to their lives, and what they want to be reading about when they look at my stories. That’s going to be absolutely essential. And I’m really hoping that folks will reach out to me as soon as possible, because I want to hear everything that they have to say.
And how can they do that? What’s the best way to reach you?
For anyone who wants to reach out to me, I’m happy to talk on the record or on background or off the record—whatever is appropriate given the situation. Please do reach out. I want to hear from residents who want to share story ideas with me, or tips, or critique my work—that’s also really helpful. I’d also love to hear from city workers. They have a very good view of what’s happening inside the city and what’s working and what isn’t.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Eli. We’re happy you’re here!