Tracy Wood, Voice of OC’s Civic News Editor, Dies at 76

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Voice of OC Civic Editor Tracy Wood.

Voice of OC’s civic news editor, Tracy A. Wood, a legendary and pioneering investigative reporter, editor, and war correspondent, died Thursday in Fullerton due to complications with cancer. She was 76.

“We are deeply saddened to lose sight of our cherished comrade in arms,” said Voice of OC Publisher and Editor in Chief, Norberto Santana Jr.

“Our newsroom mourns the loss of a true leader, and we all feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from Tracy, always drawing deep inspiration from her steely dedication to the public service role of journalism.”

A founding member of the Voice of OC editorial staff and a newsroom leader, Wood began her storied journalism career with the Los Angeles City News Service in 1965 after attending the University of Missouri. She quickly moved on to general assignment and government reporting for United Press International (UPI), working first out of the Sacramento Bureau and later UPI’s New York office.

From New York, Wood successfully advocated for herself to be sent to Saigon, Vietnam in 1972 – over an editor’s objections about sending a young woman to the war zone – to cover the Vietnam War.

At age 25, she took a leadership role in the news coverage of the release of American prisoners from North Vietnam in 1974, and was the only U.S. news reporter present when John McCain and other American prisoners of war were released from the Hanoi Hilton in March 1973.

Photo from "War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam"

Voice of OC Civic Editor Tracy Wood in Vietnam, 1972.

Wood’s war-time service was featured in ‘War Torn,’ a compilation of stories of war from women reporters who covered Vietnam.

From the private collection of Tracy Wood

Tracy Wood covering a 1973 speech by former South Vietnamese Pres. Nguyen Van Thieu at an outdoor ceremony in Pleiku in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

She continued her work for UPI, working out of the Hong Kong bureau until her return to the U.S. when she joined the staff of The Los Angeles Times as an investigative reporter working in Los Angeles and Orange County. As an investigative reporter, she received numerous awards from LA and OC press associations for her work.

She was part of the Los Angeles Times team that won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Rodney King riots.

Later, she led the Orange County Register’s investigative team, and went on to serve as editor-in-chief of Ms. Magazine.

A decade ago, Wood brought her talent to Voice of OC as the new digital, nonprofit news start up took off. She became  a leader on investigations and civic coverage, with her journalism at Voice of OC earning numerous awards from the OC and LA Press Clubs.

Wood’s coverage of the county’s health care insurance agency for the poor and elderly, known as CalOptima, became noted for its ability to protect residents and hold officials accountable. Her journalism on complex topics such as political fundraising, officials’ expense reports, park poor cities and DNA contracts at the District Attorney’s office were all recognized by her colleagues with a string of awards.

As an editor, she mentored an entire newsroom on the fundamentals of accountability reporting and strong citizenship.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Voice of OC Civic Editor Tracy Wood leading a news meeting.

Wood also took an active role in training new reporters beyond Voice of OC’s newsroom, serving as a guest lecturer at CSU Fullerton, USC and UCLA.

Wood summarized her accountability approach to news reporting in her own words in a 2015 retrospective piece she wrote about the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.

“The corrosive effects of government corruption can be seen wherever the symptoms appear, like political patronage, attempts to stifle a free press, government secrecy—and where complacency takes hold of the electorate.

It can even happen, and has, in a place as outwardly peaceful as Orange County.

Wood Cronkite Keyes Beech Hanoi POW release 1973 use

From the private collection of Tracy Wood. Final U.S. POW release at Hanoi’s Gia Lam airport March, 1973. From left, Keyes Beech, reporter for the Chicago Daily News; Walter Cronkite, CBS network news anchor; Tracy Wood, UPI; Hugh Mulligan, AP.

As a young reporter covering the Vietnam War I saw first hand the horrors of combat. And, compounded by political corruption, thousands died for no reason.

I remember Newsweek correspondent Alex Shimkin. One day he was sitting with several of us in the UPI Saigon office, discussing a range of recent war events. Three days later he was dead from a North Vietnamese hand grenade.

Three years later, a key member of the UPI staff disappeared after the Khmer Rouge brutally conquered neighboring Phnom Penh, Cambodia barely two weeks before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. He, like thousands of other Cambodians, never was found.

And then there are those I knew only by name. The young men who died or were wounded on firebases, believing they were defending the essential principles of freedom. The civilians who died or were injured because they were in the wrong place when fighting broke out.

Remember, in war, it is the young fighters and civilians who die. The leaders who initiate it almost never face discomfort. And when the system also is corrupt, big profits can be made from ordering people to die.

Fighting government corruption is the responsibility of voters, a free press and honest leaders. It’s a never-ending battle but the stakes are democracy and hope for the future.”

The final series of articles Wood edited were published last week. She worked closely with reporting intern Noah Biesiada on the series, which focused on transparency questions surrounding hundreds of millions in extra taxes for the Great Park in Irvine.

She will be greatly missed but forever felt by her colleagues at Voice of OC.

A memorial is currently being planned. In lieu of flowers, Wood’s family has asked any donations be directed to Voice of OC given Tracy’s love for investigative journalism, or to your local animal shelter, given her love for domestic pets.