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So, with prodding from my editor, I began to investigate. Over a period of about six months, I cold-called dozens of businesses (using Yelp as a lead) and found several others who corroborated the allegations and even said positive reviews disappeared after they declined to advertise. Instead of just regurgitating the company's denials, I went with the conclusion that came from my reporting: 'Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0.'
The story went viral and was picked up by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and others. For weeks, months, and even years afterward, I fielded desperate phone calls from business owners around the country who said they had experienced the same thing. I joked that I had become the Yelp crisis line.
But it also made Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman's continued denials all the more infuriating — either he was lying or ignorant of his employees' behavior. Business owners filed lawsuits against the company, but Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act basically protected Yelp's actions, no matter how unethical-seeming. It was a brutal, eye-opening moment about the pitfalls of powerful tech companies.
My article didn't lead to any new laws — although the company did appear to change its ways — and I felt frustrated that I couldn't help these business owners more. And yet, just listening to their stories and believing them seemed to be a comfort on its own. Really, that's been the most rewarding part of working at the Express — not giving credence to those who happen to have the biggest megaphone but helping elevate the voices of those who felt powerless. Collectively, their voices were too loud to be ignored."
34. "The Manhattan Project of Marijuana," by David Downs, March 4, 2009
Express readers really love stories about weed. In fact, 12 of our most-read stories ever on EastBayExpress.com were on cannabis (see page 17). We've also produced numerous in-depth reports on the marijuana industry. One of the first and best was David Downs' "The Manhattan Project of Marijuana," in 2009.
Also by Downs: "Oakland's Grow House Hazards," March 9, 2011; "How Green Is Your Pot?" July 13, 2011; "Greenwashing the War on Drugs," Oct. 9, 2013; plus, "Back to the Underground," by Darwin BondGraham, April 18, 2018.
35. "Swimming in Sex Abuse," by Kathleen Richards, April 7, 2010
Before sexual molestation scandals rocked U.S. gymnastics, Kathleen Richards was among the first to pull back the curtain on rampant sexual misconduct in U.S. swimming in her groundbreaking investigative report in 2010, "Swimming in Sex Abuse."
36. "The Shrinking Stage," by Rachel Swan, April 4, 2012
Of course, the Express had been covering the East Bay arts and culture scene long before 2012, but reporter Rachel Swan was arguably one of the paper's best-ever. Her 2012 in-depth report on the changes in the local theater industry garnered a first-place award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California.
37. "The Bacon-Wrapped Economy," by Ellen Cushing, March 20, 2013
"Tech has brought very young, very rich people to the Bay Area like never before. And the changes to our cultural and economic landscape aren't necessarily for the better."
Yes, Ellen Cushing, as usual, was five years ahead of the story.
38. "When the Mind Splits," by Sam Levin, Oct. 29, 2014
Sam Levin is known as the Express' best ever editorial intern. After all, he wrote three cover stories in one summer. But he also became one of the best staff writers in the paper's history. Among his most brilliantly researched and written in-depth features was "When the Mind Splits," which explored dissociative identity disorder.
It won a first-place award in the Association of Alternative Newsmedia Awards for excellence in journalism and a first-place award in the 38th Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards contest in the serious feature category.
39. "Making Black Lives Matter," by Darwin BondGraham May 13, 2015
For the past few years, Darwin BondGraham has come to personify the East Bay Express. Indeed, for many readers, he is the Express. At times, it feels as if he's everywhere, covering court hearings and council meetings, tweeting out nuggets of can't-miss journalism.
And when he's not working late nights, BondGraham is penning must-read cover stories, like "Making Black Lives Matter," in 2015.
Here's a snippet: "[L]ong before Ferguson, Missouri became a flashpoint of protest against police brutality, before the killing of Eric Garner galvanized a movement, before Baltimore erupted and #BlackLivesMatter became a call to arms, Bay Area families have been fighting back by building a network of those directly affected by police violence."