The San Francisco Bay Area is widely considered to be an epicenter of a housing crisis that stretches across the nation. But as real estate here has grown increasingly out of reach for more and more people, it’s gotten harder to tell which companies are sitting on the largest portfolios of land, how they wield their power and what their actions mean for the nearly 2 million residents of Silicon Valley.  

Over the last year, reporters and editors from The Mercury News, NBC Bay Area, KQED, Renaissance Journalism and Telemundo 48 Área de la Bahía joined Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in a collaborative effort to dig into these questions and find an answer to the critical question: Who owns Silicon Valley? 

Reporters from The Mercury News and NBC Bay Area interviewing a representative from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which is one of the largest landowners in Silicon Valley. Credit: Sumi Aggarwal for Reveal

As part of our Local Labs initiative, our data team trained and assisted the reporters in organizing, scrubbing and analyzing half a million property records to determine the most significant landowners in the county. Our engagement team made on-the-ground connections with local community groups to understand their information needs.

Identifying shell companies and subsidiaries and tracing them back to their parent entities was no small feat – Stanford University and its holdings were listed under more than a thousand different names. But we emerged with top 10 lists of the largest owners by value and size, across several categories. 

That Google, Apple and other tech companies were among that top 10 wasn’t surprising. What did catch us off guard was that just days after our first piece on Google and Apple’s differing approaches to corporate responsibility was published, Apple – whose founder Steve Jobs famously told the Cupertino City Council that other than paying taxes, it wasn’t accountable for any problems that might result from its expansion into the city – announced an unprecedented $2.5 billion pledge to help with California’s housing crisis.

This announcement thrilled the roughly 50 journalists who had played a role in the collaboration. It also suggests the power of a collective. 

A group of newsrooms working together on a story creates a reverberation across a media market. When a piece is featured across many platforms – television, radio, print and online – it can have a multiplying effect that makes audiences and stakeholders sit up and pay attention. We saw this with “Who Owns Silicon Valley?” as we launched more than 20 stories over the course of five days. Audiences repaid the effort with their attention; the stories were successful at garnering page views, ratings and engagement.

We capped off the stories with a public forum, bringing audiences from all the outlets into the conversation, and offering child care, translation services and transportation reimbursements to make sure the event was inclusive and accessible to all. Joining our reporters on stage were several local stakeholders, including a representative from Google, a former mayor of Mountain View, California, and a local community organizer.

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While the obituary for local news has been written countless times, projects like this offer reasons for hope. The decline of the traditional business model has encouraged journalists to innovate and question old ways of working. Outlets are putting aside competition and collaborating on complex and resource-intensive projects.

Reveal, as part of our Local Labs initiative, is focused on creating news collaborations to develop in-depth, investigative storytelling. We believe that training and mentorship on data journalism, audio skills and engagement will increase capacity for strapped local news organizations to prioritize ambitious projects of great civic importance. 

A key component of Reveal’s involvement centers on managing the collaboration – the work we affectionately (and GIF-tastically) referred to as “cat herding.” In San Jose, this involved editorial input during the reporting, logistics, managing rollout schedules, partnering to help create data visualizations, fact-checking articles and everything in between.

One of the many memes shared over the course of the collaboration.

We also provided community engagement support to help steep the reporters in the experiences of those most affected by the housing crisis. We tried to understand what residents wanted to know and use their insights to provide context and depth to our reporting. But we didn’t want to merely extract their wisdom. We designed and led workshops to help individuals and organizations conduct property ownership research in their own neighborhoods, so they could help themselves and others understand the displacement many of them were facing. 

Though not immune from the pitfalls and challenges that befall every collaboration, this one has blossomed into a partnership rich enough that the participating organizations have decided to pursue several more stories. In many ways, to us, that is the mark of a successful collaboration. 

But we aren’t done yet. We’re launching two more Local Labs. One in Appalachia featuring 100 days in Appalachia, PublicSource in Pittsburgh and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And another one in Akron, Ohio, with The Devil Strip, WKSU Public Radio, WEWS, The Akron Beacon Journal and Your Voice Ohio.

Stay tuned!