Ryan Lillis has taken readers inside the Pre-Flite Lounge, Darlene Jeffery’s home along the Sacramento River and the Broadway Triangle in Oak Park as part of a new column designed to bring a slice of Sacramento life to The Bee’s coverage.
You might recognize Lillis’ name because of his extensive coverage of the battle to keep the Sacramento Kings in town and city plans to build an arena. He’s covered City Hall for six years, finding offbeat stories during that time but not always getting the time to develop them. His Monday column gives him that chance.
I asked Lillis a few questions about his approach to the column and what readers might expect. Here’s what he said:
Your career goal has been to become a columnist. Why? What do you hope to do for readers?
I believe newspaper columnists play such a vital role in their cities. The good ones are voices for their cities and tell stories that connect real people with one another. And as my family has settled down in – and grown to love – Sacramento, being a columnist in this city has really become a dream come true for me.
You will have a challenge that opinion columnists don’t have – you have to maintain objectivity to continue credible reporting on your beat, yet find a column “voice.” How are you tackling this?
It’s actually been a little easier than I thought it would be. I’m staying away from politics. I’m not focusing on officials or leaders. And I believe there are some universal truths that I can express a point of view about – like the nostalgic connection we feel toward an old bar or dry cleaner, or how the heart of the city can be found in a dingy, urban park.
What are the biggest story lines on the city beat this year? How might that affect column choices?
The arena and elections are the biggest. I’m not touching the elections in my column… (and) I’m not going to express an opinion about the arena. But I have been able to use it as an ongoing issue to explore other stories – the closing of the Pre-Flite Lounge to make way for the arena, and how Cesar Chavez Plaza remains the city’s gathering spot, even as the arena takes shape.
You are the first Bee columnist to launch with a multimedia approach and will shoot a video with most columns to post at Sacbee.com. How will that affect your approach?
The video has been fun. It’s forced me – in a good way – to write about stories that involve strong visuals such as a place or a person. One thing you’ll never see in my videos is me.
Readers see the result of your work but not how you go about the job. Talk about your recent trip to Los Angeles to cover Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson speaking about the NBA decision to sanction L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. You reported the news and then did a more analytical piece about Johnson’s role on the national stage. But not everything about your job is so serious. I hear that because of this trip we might see you in a movie?
That was a crazy day. I was in Los Angeles for five hours. And yes, I might be appearing in a movie. I was waiting for the mayor’s press conference to begin at … City Hall and decided to look for a coffee shop. I asked a police officer for a suggestion. He responded, “Hey, I’m an extra in a movie.” I looked around and realized I had wandered onto a movie set. Before I could react, a crew member yelled for all the extras to get ready and then said, “We’re rolling.” I just stood there and took out my phone, trying not to look dumb. Fake FBI agents started walking toward me, and a couple started playing Frisbee. The crew blocked off the sidewalk and wouldn’t let me leave until they were finished filming. It was a fun moment in what turned out to be a pretty historic day that Mayor Johnson played a huge role in.
You are a dedicated runner, as is the mayor. Didn’t you run with him once to get a more complete picture of Johnson for a profile?
The mayor runs pretty regularly. Yes, I ran with him back in 2008, right after he was elected. It was 5 a.m. and we met with a group in Oak Park. I really got a sense of how he interacts with people he’s close to – the group included some of his closest friends and advisers. We haven’t run together since, although I’d like to, given that he recently used running to shed 25 pounds he gained during the Kings saga last year.
What do you do for fun?
My life is pretty much about hanging out with my wife and 4-year-old son. That means a lot of sports, camping and superhero games. I also just ran my fifth marathon, and I’m a wannabe triathlete who gets crushed in competition. I’m also the shortstop on a softball team that plays in the lowest tier of the city’s co-ed league.