Tony Ortega was raised in Los Angeles, California. He received the John Jay Scholarship to attend Columbia University, where he completed three semesters before continuing his studies at California State University, Fullerton where he obtained his B.A. and M.A. in English. Ortega pursued more graduate work at UC Santa Cruz prior to landing his first journalism job as a freelancer at the Phoenix New Times in 1995. In 1996, Ortega reported on alleged corruption in the office of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, writing a series of stories concerning "misuse of state funds, poor morale inside the department, the high cost of the sheriff's posses and evidence of abuse of jail inmates," for which he was nominated for the Arizona Press Club's Virg Hill Award in 1997.
As a graduate student at the University of California, Ortega researched the California Agricultural Strike 1933 under the tutelage of Louis Owens. He later wrote an article about his research in the Village Voice. In her review of Ortega's article, Carolyn Kellogg wrote, "When Ortega gets his grandfather and great half-uncle to tell him stories of the strike, it's exactly the first-person narrative he'd been hoping for. But I found, reading the stories in his article, that they were simply personal anecdotes — interesting anecdotes, sure, but simple anecdotes. The men camped under eucalyptus trees. They played clarinet and violin for the strikers."
Ortega spent nearly seventeen years working for various alternative weekly newspapers in the Voice Media Group (VMG). He has worked at the Phoenix New Times, the New Times LA and The Pitch. His earliest positions ranged from staff writer to assistant editor and managing editor. In 2001 Ortega spent time with and profiled detective and conspiracy theorist William Dear for the New Times Los Angeles newspaper after Dear spent several years constructing a case around Jason Simpson (son of O.J Simpson) in the O. J. Simpson murder case. Ortega was highly critical of his methods, in particular spending two weeks impersonating a doctor in an attempt to access Jason Simpson's medical records and of manipulating the story in order to write a book for personal gain.
He became the editor-in-chief at the Broward-Palm Beach New Times in 2005 and then at The Village Voice in 2007.
On 31 October 2013, it was announced that Ortega had been hired as executive editor at online news website The Raw Story, a position he held until 2015.
Tony Ortega first reported on Scientology in 1995 while working at the Phoenix New Times and continued covering the subject throughout his career under various media outlets in the Voice Media Group. In September 2012, Ortega publicly announced his resignation from The Village Voice in a post to the Voice's "Runnin' Scared" blog. According to former staffers, Ortega’s "exit from the Voice was not his decision" and "his relentless pursuit of scoops on the controversial church may have been a distraction during his final months at the paper."
The executive editor of the Voice told the Media Decoder blog of The New York Times that Ortega "...did a great job for us and managed a difficult transition in a miserable economy... During that time he became the single most informed reporter on Scientology. No one is better positioned to write the book on that organization.” Ortega has also been referred to in British press as 'a leading expert on Scientology'.
Ortega was featured in Alex Gibney's documentary Going Clear, discussing how Scientology smeared critics. On the way to the Sundance Film Festival both Ortega and another film participant, ex-Scientologist Marc Headley, were surveilled and photographed at Salt Lake City airport by presumed members of the church, with the New York Times noting "The documentary showed ex-Scientologists being harassed and surveilled, a tactic that according to the film, is part of the doctrine of the church: its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, said that all of the church’s attackers were criminals whose own misdeeds should be exposed".
In 2015 Ortega was informed by the United States Attorney that his emails had been hacked by New York private investigator Eric Saldarriaga in the previous year. Saldarriaga had received payment by clients whose names remain private and used an illegal overseas hacking group to break into several private accounts including Ortega's and ex-Scientologist and former church spokesperson Mike Rinder. Both Ortega and Rinder filed victim impact statements and requested the client's name(s) be made public. Goldstein in the New York Times reported "The client is said to be someone who has done investigations on behalf of the Church of Scientology, said people briefed on the case but not authorized to speak publicly." 50 victims of hacking were identified and Saldarriaga was given a 3-month prison sentence in June 2015. Saldarriaga claimed he feared retaliation from naming clients while cooperating with the FBI and was never required to name the client publicly in court.
In May 2015, Ortega released a book about Scientology critic Paulette Cooper and her conflict with the organization, entitled The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, which was published by Silvertail Books, an imprint of London-based literary agent and independent publisher Humfrey Hunter. The book focusses on the journalist Paulette Cooper, codenamed 'Miss Lovely' by the church, who became one of the first journalists to investigate the practices of harassment and intimidation of anyone who spoke publicly against the organisation with her own published book, The Scandal of Scientology. Ortega's research into Cooper's story uncovered many previously unpublished operations by the church against Cooper, and included testimony from FBI Special Agent Christine Hansen. In an official response to the book from the church a spokesperson declined to revisit the subject and referred to Ortega as 'a parasite'. The book was well received by critics of Scientology and has been described as among the best of the genre as well as shocking. Although Cooper reached a financial settlement with the church in 1985, Ortega was accompanied by Cooper on some of the subsequent international book tour.
After leaving the Voice in September 2012, Ortega began writing a freelance blog entitled The Underground Bunker that is focused solely on Scientology. The website has been described as 'devastating' to the organisation and 'influential'. It concentrates on monitoring activity within Scientology and is updated daily.
The blog's webmaster is Scott Pilutik, who also works as Ortega's legal adviser.