Bio

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Photo by Kathy Ryan

It feels like I’ve been a journalist forever. I’ve done the daily journalism thing with The New York Times. I’ve written long-form journalism for everyone from The New York Times Magazine to Wired to Newsweek, Mother Jones, and the American Bar Association Journal. I’ve written a couple of e-books and also five books, including most recently, KATRINA: After the Flood.

I worked as a staff writer at the Chicago Reader through most of my twenties. There, I wrote primarily about Chicago politics. I inaugurated a regular “City Hall” column and for a time I co-wrote (with my good friend Ted Cox) the paper’s “Hot Type” column but mainly I wrote long cover articles delving into the distressing race politics dominating Chicago in the 1980s elected Harold Washington as its first black mayor. That experience led to my first book, Fire on the Prairie: Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, winner of the 1992 Carl Sandburg Award for best non-fiction and also the Chicago Sun-Times’s non-fiction book of the year.

I thought I might write about Chicago politics forever but love intervened and I headed to the San Francisco Bay Area. After a short stint covering politics for the Contra Costa Times and its sister publications, in 1991 I took a staff job at the East Bay Express, the alternative weekly in Oakland and Berkeley. There I began writing about the youth violence epidemic plaguing Oakland, among other major U.S. cities. That work earned awards from the California Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the Society for Professional Journalists, and the San Francisco Bay Area Media Alliance, which named me its print journalist of the year in 1993. That led to my second book, Drive-By, the true story of a single drive-by shooting that left a 13-year-old dead, put two other teenagers in the hospital, and led to the imprisonment of three young men aged 15 to 18. That book, a 1995 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, was a finalist of Pen-West’s “Best of the West” award.

I was ready for a new topic in the mid-1990s. Attending the funerals of 14-year-olds and speaking to kids locked inside California’s juvenile detention facilities can do that to a person. Meanwhile, the Bay Area was going Internet crazy and had something of a computer background. I had written in Fortran, an early computer language, in my short-lived life as an engineering student at Northwestern University and I had programmed in BASIC in high school. I started writing about Silicon Valley for a range of publications, including Salon, Feed, The New Republic, and San Francisco. Shortly after the publication of my third book, The Plot to Get Bill Gates, I took a job as a senior writer at The Industry Standard, and, after that publication’s unfortunate demise, I became a regular contributor to Wired.

In 2003, the tech editor at The New York Times approached me about covering Silicon Valley. I told him all the reasons that didn’t make sense and gave him the names of people with more experience as a daily journalist. But he persisted and  it proved an opportunity too enticing to refuse. At the Times, I covered Google going public, H-P’s canning of Carly Fiorina (that piece won a “best in business writing” award in the breaking news category from The Society of American Business Editors and Writers), and wrote some of the earliest articles about Facebook. In 2005, I was temporarily moved to the National desk, where I spent eight months writing about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I loved the Times but missed books and longer-form articles. In 2008, I took a buyout from the paper to start work on a new book that would take readers into the lucrative world of fringe financing. In 2010, I published BROKE, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business. That led to a miserable year working for “NewsBeast”—Newsweek and the Daily Beast. The silver lining of that experience was that my unhappiness propelled me to meet with Jon Karp, an old editor who was now the head man at Simon & Schuster. Jon offered me an escape hatch, signing me up to write a book about the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina. That book is KATRINA: After the Flood – my latest book and, I believe, also my best.