Tony Cipolla has been a familiar face in San Luis Obispo County for years now, delivering the news as early as 1989 as an evening anchor at KSBY. Twenty years later, he became the morning anchor at KCOY, and then extended his broadcast experience to Cal Poly students as a lecturer in the journalism department. And just recently, he took another leap to become the new face of the SLO County Sheriff’s office.
Since July 2, Cipolla is the new public information officer for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office. He was hired in June and is responsible for serving as the spokesperson for the office, handling media requests and letting the public know what the sheriff’s office is up to on a consistent basis, Cipolla said.
Cipolla, who’s been in broadcasting for almost 30 years, said he is looking forward to a positive change and experience in his new career. He left his career as a news anchor at KSBY and KCOY, but will still be teaching part time at Cal Poly.
“When this position presented itself, I thought it would be a good challenge,” he said. “(It’s) a new opportunity that would still allow me to utilize my skills in broadcasting and hopefully lead me down a new path.”
Giving the media information as a public information officer, rather than receiving the information and reporting it, is an interesting change of perspective, Cipolla said.
“It has been a little bit of transition for me, learning to see what it’s like from the other side (of the media),” he said. “I feel that knowing what it takes to get a story as a reporter — having that as my background — helps me in getting them information that they need to write fair and objective reports.”
Despite only being on the job for a month, Cipolla said in the office, he experiences a lot of the “controlled chaos” he was used to daily in the newsroom. For example, his first week consisted of dealing with a major mail theft case, calling for a bomb squad and a homicide, he said. In these situations, Cipolla is responsible for being the “media point man,” gathering as much information as quickly as possible to relay to different media outlets. This can be done through press releases, interviews with newspapers, TV or radio or updating the sheriff’s website and Facebook page, he said.
Also similar to his days in the newsroom are the unpredictable hours at the sheriff’s office, Cipolla said. Being a morning anchor at KCOY familiarized him with getting up when everyone else is just going to bed.
“I think any time there is a major investigation of a major case, you get those callouts at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Cipolla said. “Not really knowing what to expect when you show up at the scene — that’s one of the challenges that I face in this position.”
It wasn’t a simple process to get the job, Cipolla said. He went through an extensive selection process, filling out a 32-page background check along with all kinds of interview questions.
“Several (of the questions) are related to the law and if you have broken it at any time in your life,” he said. “I like to think that I have a very clean record.”
San Luis Obispo County sheriff Ian Parkinson said the main reason he hired Cipolla was Cipolla’s media background and positive relationship with the community.
“Tony offered us a really different perspective than our typical (law enforcement mentality),” Parkinson said. “It was important to find someone from the media side that would understand what the media is looking for.”
However, what the decision boiled down to when considering Cipolla among other candidates was his deep roots in the community, Parkinson said. For example, Cipolla actively participates in and contributes to the Women’s Shelter Program of San Luis Obispo County.
“(Cipolla) has really good ties with the community,” Parkinson said. “He comes in with a lot of credibility already, so it really made it an easy choice for me.”
Former Cal Poly journalism lecturer Jason Hilford has known Cipolla since high school and said he has always known Cipolla as “a very approachable, friendly person.”
“Somebody like Tony is going to do awesome at a job like (public information officer) because he knows how to talk to people from the media,” Hilford said. “I think he definitely adds that media experience (to the sheriff’s office).”
Working at the sheriff’s office has served Cipolla well. He said his favorite thing about the job is that there is never a dull moment.
“Every day is different, and I really kind of thrive on that, seeing that there are so many people we serve and protect,” he said. “Seeing that they’re not just cases, but they’re people, and we see them as people who are in need of help. I think seeing that human element (has always been) what I try to focus on in my reports.”
Targeting that human element is something Cipolla’s been doing throughout his whole career, he said, and he stresses its importance through teaching at Cal Poly.
The most rewarding part of teaching is students’ excitement about turning out good broadcast news stories, he said.
“It’s been said that journalism is the first draft of history,” Cipolla wrote in an email, “and I think of how exciting it is to be on the leading edge of the information age. It’s so gratifying to see that same passion in my students.”
Kim Westlund, a journalism sophomore, took a broadcasting class with Cipolla last year. Westlund said Cipolla really makes students think in his classes, putting them in real-life situations regarding stories, deadlines and pressure.
“He always has a smile on his face,” she said. “He’s definitely one of my favorite professors at Cal Poly.”
Succeeding Rob Bryn, who died March 1 of natural causes, gives Cipolla the extra incentive to serve the public well, he said.
“I know that I have very big shoes to fill,” Cipolla said. “I hope that I can do that — uphold the integrity, his high standards and his work ethic. I hope that I can continue his legacy here at the sheriff’s office.”