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Q&A: KQED’s Jamali talks about covering PG&E

July 23, 2020

Posted by Chris Roush

Lily Jamali

Lily Jamali is co-host of KQED’s “The California Report,” which airs on NPR stations throughout the state. She also serves as a correspondent for the show.

The program covers a wide range of topics that matter to Californians, including the economy, education, and immigration.

She has closely followed the unfolding story of PG&E’s bankruptcy. Her work is shaped by her reporting on the 2018 Camp Fire while it was still burning in Butte County, a region she first covered as a local television reporter from 2004 to 2006.

Prior to joining The California Report, Jamali was the anchor of “Bloomberg Markets: Canada,” where she steered editorial coverage for her hour-long daily news program covering financial markets, economics, and politics.

She also reported for Bloomberg News, coordinating with the editorial team to break stories on-air and writing enterprise stories focused on impacts of the Trump administration’s immigration policy on the Canadian economy.

Previously, Jamali worked as a reporter and producer for Reuters TV, covering tech, company news, and economics from both San Francisco and New York.  In 2014, she was part of the Reuters team at the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Jamali spoke with Talking Biz News about her coverage of PG&E. What follows is an edited transcript.

How did you get interested in covering business and economics?

I got interested as a general assignment reporter at NY1, which is a local TV station in the city. During the financial crisis in 2008, for a solid month, I kept getting sent to Wall Street every morning. And I remember standing in front of the camera and reading rewritten wire copy that I didn’t understand talking about futures. And I said to myself, “I don’t even know what futures are, and yet I’m talking about this in front of hundreds of thousands of people!” It became really clear to me how important it was to both understand finance and be able to explain it to our audiences.

That was a turning point that prompted me to decide to go to business school and get a formal education in finance.

So how did you make the shift to public radio?

I was in Canada for Bloomberg for about a year and a half, which was a great experience. I got such a broad-based education on everything from finance and economics to more Canada-specific things like foreign exchange and trade. But I’m from California and the opportunity to work at KQED and in public radio was too good to pass up. I co-host and serve as a correspondent for “The California Report.” I liked the idea of sharing business stories with a more mainstream audience. I still enjoy getting in the weeds on finance and economics stories, or tech stories when I can. “The California Report” reaches 3 million listeners.

Was it because of your business and economics background that they said to you, “Hey, we need somebody covering this PG&E story”?

I think it’s fair to say I sort of assigned to myself to that story in a way.  One of my first major stories when I got here was the Camp Fire, which burned the town of Paradise and was really the most heart wrenching story that I’ve ever covered. Eighty five people died, and tens of thousands of people were left homeless and many are still homeless. The fire was sparked by badly maintained power lines belonging to PG&E, and so up until the pandemic, I made regular trips to Paradise. It was stunning for me to see the contrast between conditions on the ground there — the slow pace of rebuilding after the destruction of that town — and the bankruptcy court in San Francisco where lawyers are getting paid north of $1,000 an hour.

I felt compelled because of my finance background to cover that story. It’s a human story for me, frankly, as a local news reporter or regional reporter. But I felt like I could bring my background in financial reporting and my education, my MBA, having taken a course in bankruptcy — I felt like I could bring something unique to the table.

How hard was it to get people from the company to talk to you when you started reporting on them?

It was challenging. They are always responsive as far as actually writing back or calling me back, but they rely heavily on statements. So you don’t always get answers to specific questions and I think that became particularly pronounced in the final months of the bankruptcy. There was a June deadline that PG&E needed to meet to have its bankruptcy plan confirmed so it could qualify for a state fire insurance fund. And so, in the face of that deadline, a lot of fire survivors that I’ve spoken felt things were rushed through. Leading up to that, we broke a lot of stories as a local news outlet that were subsequently followed by others.

So in March, the committee that officially represented fire survivors in the bankruptcy ended up splintering. Three of the 11 people on that committee resigned in very stunning fashion, saying that they felt that the compensation settlement that PG&E had brokered with lawyers was flawed. We had that story that night. And we also, that same evening, had an exclusive about how PG&E was trying to use the trust money for survivors to pay a $3.5 million fine for the manslaughter charges that they were pleading guilty to.

PG&E was offering its own stock as part of the settlement. So it was half cash and half stock, which is actually very unusual. PG&E officials would say that it’s actually very common for companies to offer stock as compensation. But when I started researching that, it became clear to me that that’s simply not true. It’s exceedingly rare and we were able to tell that story from the perspective of fire survivors who thought it was problematic to have their settlement tethered to the company’s performance.

One of the things really stood out to me as a reporter covering this bankruptcy was that PG&E was in the hands of hedge funds throughout this process. So those hedge funds owned not just PG&E stock but bonds and insurance claims against the company. We also broke a story about how some of those hedge funds and private equity firms had provided litigation funding to a lawyer representing the largest group of fire survivors in this case. So in some ways, Wall Street was really on all sides of the bargaining table.

This spring, KQED learned that some fire survivors did not get mailed ballots to vote on their settlement deal until days before — or even after — the voting deadline. Over several weeks, we asked PG&E to explain what happened. We still don’t have answers. They’re also reluctant to have executives face the media. For me, the only opportunity to interview the CEO has been on the sidelines at regulatory or court hearings. Those opportunities are harder to come by now because of the pandemic.

This is a national story with national media covering it. How do you compete with the national media and how do you find story angles that they’re not covering?

I have so much respect for my colleagues at other outlets that have been telling this story through the lens of their publications, some of which I’ve worked for. Their audience is just very different. Our audience is the people of California. We serve the 40 million people that live in the state and so I think my colleagues and I tell this story through the lens of the people of California, the fire survivors and the ratepayers.

My colleagues Marisa Lagos, for example, has done original reporting on just how much this bankruptcy is costing Californians, plus the political dimension to all of this. My colleague Dan Brekke has closely followed decisions by U.S. District Judge William Alsup overseeing PG&E’s probation. Most people following this case will say Judge Alsup has probably held PG&E’s feet to the fire more than any other figure. We also have people with tremendous expertise like Lisa Pickoff-White, who knows the California Public Utilities Commission better than anybody.

How have you been reporting this now, given the pandemic when you’re limited in where you can go and actually meet people in person?

That’s a really important question because being in the middle of this pandemic has dramatically curtailed our ability to go out and do field reporting safely, which for me as a reporter is so core to what I do. My role is such a unique one in the sense that I’m not just a host, but I’m also a correspondent who is expected to – and really relishes – going out and meeting people and talking to people. I used to take monthly trips to Paradise and Chico, I haven’t been there since probably February, I think maybe even January.

The last trip that I took was to Tennessee in March for KQED and NPR for a story that’s airing this weekend, about a group of fire survivors from Paradise that have landed in this tiny town in eastern Tennessee. As I was flying back, it was becoming very clear that there was not going to be any more field reporting for some time. The contacts and the relationships that we had built before the pandemic as a highly trusted news organization in this area made a huge difference. I spent a lot of time on the phone with people in Tennessee, people in Paradise, lawyers who are close to the story. But that groundwork had been laid before the pandemic.

One of my realizations early on was that the bankruptcy process is not about delivering justice. Chapter 11 is about getting a company out of bankruptcy. It’s about trying to get the company on solid footing. You have this whole class of people who never wanted to be a part of this process, these fire survivors who just didn’t have a choice. They were thrown into this.

One of the encouraging things about the pandemic was that it was suddenly easier for them to participate in the bankruptcy process. Before they’d have to drive, if they lived in Paradise, three hours each way to San Francisco. It was a whole day affair. And it was just not possible for everyone to do that. This is not a community where many people have the means to spend that kind of time and money. Even calling into the court, it was easily $100 a hearing. After the pandemic, the court started moving calls to Zoom. A lot more people could monitor and hear what was happening.

I hope that in the future, those voices are at the table, and might be more amplified in bankruptcies because of the pandemic.

How do you explain the very complicated bankruptcy court system to consumers and employees who are interested in the process, but may not really understand what’s going on?

I had the privilege of taking a bankruptcy course at NYU Stern with Ed Altman, the guy who invented the Z score. That course to me helped demystify this process in a way that made it very interesting and accessible. What I’ve been so encouraged by is watching fire survivors — many of whom don’t have a financial background — network among themselves on places like Facebook. They’ve kept each other updated, and educated themselves and each other. That social networking aspect has been so critical.

Some fire survivors will say they didn’t get the outcome that they wanted. Their settlement was sold to them as being worth $13.5 billion. But because of this stock component, it’s now worth closer to $11.5 billion as we sit here and talk to each other. But they didn’t stop raising awareness of what many perceived as flaws.

For financial reporters, it’s really on us to try to explain these complicated stories to people in a way that is meaningful. That’s always a struggle. But that’s what we do. I try to get better at it every day. My audience is not a financial audience. It’s a mainstream audience but I have so much respect for them and the questions that they pose. It helps to ask people what questions they have and then using our Rolodexes to get answers.

You still have a Rolodex?

I don’t have a Rolodex. I think it got trashed in my last move.

Have you been covering any other business- or economics-related stories beside PG&E for the radio station?

I’ve done a lot of reporting about the universal basic income experiment that’s happening in Stockton, California. I’ve spoken with Mayor Michael Tubbs a number of times starting about a year and a half ago when they first kicked it off. That story has been really relevant in this moment where a once-fringe idea is being embraced by people like Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. It’s really special that a place like Stockton has already experimented with it and it has data to show how people are spending that money. They call it guaranteed income because it’s just a small $500 payment. It’s not enough to cover all of your expense. It’s been illuminating for me reporting a financial story that has real impact for everyday Californians and everyday Americans.

These days, I’m supposed to cover everything– politics, education and of course, the pandemic. Even though business is no longer my primary beat, I do find myself constantly gravitating back to it.

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