Roy J. Harris Jr.

Roy Harris is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor who has also edited and written for online news sites and magazines. He is the author of the 2008 book "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism," published by the University of Missouri Press, and brought out in an updated 2010 paperback version. The president of the ASBPE Foundation, an educational nonprofit affiliated with the American Society of Business Publication Editors, he was ASBPE's national president from 2005 to 2007. Most recently he was editorial director, until April 2012, of CFOworld, an online corporate-finance startup created in January 2011 by International Data Group, based in Framingham, Mass. Previously, he served as senior editor for 15 years for what was then The Economist Group's CFO Magazine, a 450,000-circulation, Boston-based publication, also helping run its CFO.com website. In 23 years with The Journal he spent two decades in Los Angeles, with six years as deputy chief of the 14-member L.A. bureau. Early in his career he served stints reporting for the Los Angeles Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. An authority on the Pulitzer Prizes, he contributes often to Poynter Online on that and other topics. He also has served on the adjunct journalism faculty at Boston's Emerson College, where he originated a class in "impact journalism." He lives in Hingham, MA.


This undated photo provided by Stack’s Bowers Galleries shows the first Pulitzer Prize for Public Service to ever come to auction. The 1932 Pulitzer was awarded to the now-defunct New York World-Telegram, and put up for auction in Baltimore on March 29, 2014, by the New York-based Stack’s Bowers Galleries. (AP Photo/Stack’s Bowers Galleries)

Pulitzer Preview: Snowden factor, and more on prize prospects for Monday

The Pulitzer Prize announcements shook with real-world drama last year, interrupted by reports of bombs exploding at the Boston Marathon finish line.

This coming Monday, though, expect another kind of drama: over whether blockbuster coverage of the shocking level of National Security Agency surveillance of Americans – coverage based on whistleblower Edward Snowden’s stolen top-secret documents – will win a Pulitzer for the U.S. website of the British-based Guardian, and perhaps The Washington Post as well.

Glenn Greenwald’s, Ewen MacAskill’s and Laura Poitras’ Guardian coverage, “The NSA Files,” has taken top honors from Scripps Howard, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Online News Association and the Polk Awards, with the Polks adding Barton Gellman’s Post reporting of NSA data mining to its citation.

When the ONA announced its winners last October, it honored The Guardian with its Gannett Foundation Award for Watchdog Journalism. But the real buzz about The Guardian’s and Post’s chances for a Pulitzer – perhaps in the Public Service category – escalated after the February announcement from Long Island University, which administers the Polks. That led to a series of online stories and discussions, including a Politico article and, later, a discussion on The Huffington Post about the coverage’s Pulitzer prospects.

All this has provoked comparisons to the Pentagon Papers coverage that roiled the Pulitzer organization 42 years ago. After much debate, the 1972 Public Service Prize was awarded to The New York Times, and now is among the most celebrated in Pulitzer history, recognizing a masterpiece of analytic journalism. That makes it a tough act to follow. Still, judges for the Selden Ring Award, in declaring the Washington Post’s NSA reporting its runner-up, said: “The coverage was courageous, enterprising, and notable for its lucid explanation of complex technical matters and how they bear on the privacy and security of Americans.”

Whether or not the Pulitzer Board votes a prize for coverage of the Snowden documents, though, their decision is likely to be among the biggest stories coming out of Monday’s announcements.

Meanwhile, lots of other reporting, commentary and photography is being considered for recognition among the 14 Pulitzer journalism categories: investigative projects from Sacramento to Milwaukee to Miami, and incisive breaking-news coverage from Boston to Phoenix. As always, remarkable work at The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times Pulitzer powerhouses is getting a look. And then there’s the seven-year-old question of whether The Wall Street Journal will win in a news-related category for the first time in the seven years Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has owned the paper. (It has been a finalist in news categories eight times.)

So let’s get started.

Once again, Pulitzer jurors meeting Feb. 20-22 kept mum, although Politico did say it had “confirmed” that the Pulitzer Board would be considering both a Guardian and a Post entry related to the Snowden documents. That would mean jurors listed them as nominated finalists, the first step in the two-stage Pulitzer process. The 19-member board is winding up deliberations today, typically picking a  winner and two finalists in each of the 14 categories. (The board also makes selections in 21 Pulitzer arts and letters categories.)

Since leaks from Pulitzer jurors have dried up in recent years, this annual preview has turned to earlier journalism competitions for clues about who might be in the running for 2014 Pulitzers. It’s an imperfect approach, at best – especially given the board’s penchant for Pulitzer surprises.

Here’s some of the work standing out from other competitions:

• Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staffers Ellen Gabler, Mark Johnson and John Fauber, who won the $35,000 Selden Ring Award for their “Deadly Delays” investigative series, raising questions about blood-screening programs designed to find and treat ailments in newborns. In addition to the Selden Ring, presented by the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, they also won Scripps Howard and IRE awards, and one of two ASNE Deborah Howell Awards for Nondeadline Writing. The other ASNE winner was The Washington Post’s s Eli Saslow, for a variety of narrative articles. Saslow also received a Polk for National Reporting for his work covering the federal food stamp program.

• Andrea Elliott of The New York Times, whose ”Invisible Child” chronicle, introducing readers to one of New York City’s 22,000 homeless, won for her the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Human Interest Storytelling award, and a Polk.

• The Sacramento Bee, which claimed the Worth Bingham Prize, and its $20,000, from Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation. The Bee’s “Nevada Patient Busing” investigation found that a psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas had transported more than 1,500 mentally ill patients to other states by bus, a third of them to California.  The Bee also won a Polk for that work.

• The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a branch of the Center for Public Integrity, won both Scripps Howard and IRE awards for a report titled “Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money Maze.”

• A team of journalists from the Center for Public Integrity, along with a team from ABC News, won the Goldsmith Prize, and $25,000, from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It reported on the continuing plague of black lung disease.

Wall Street Journal projects won no major contests in the year. Some Pulitzer-watchers, though, noted that its long-running “Waste Lands” series, primarily by John Emshwiller, could be a Pulitzer prize-winner or finalist, perhaps in National Reporting. Along with stories detailing post-Cold-War environmental dangers remaining after decades of nuclear-site buildups, the series has a strong interactive component that lets readers in every state examine their vulnerability.

Michael M. Phillips’ “The Lobotomy Files,” detailing how the U.S. operated on mental patients after World War II, was a Goldsmith finalist. So there’s still a chance the Journal can break its string of winless years in news categories – going back to its Public Service Pulitzer for exposing corporate stock-options abuses. (Journal columnist Bret Stephens won for Commentary last year, with the paper’s Joseph Rago winning for Editorial Writing in 2011.)

Other work named as Goldsmith finalists: Scot Paltrow and Kelly Carr’s “Unaccountable” series for Reuters, exposing widespread accounting malpractice in the Defense Department, and Tim Elfrink’s “Biogenesis: Steroids, Baseball and an Industry Gone Wrong” series in Miami New Times, about the anti-aging clinic and its links to some of baseball’s biggest stars.

Pulitzer candidates may be found among these other honorees, as well.

POLK

• State Reporting, Shawn Boburg of Northern New Jersey’s Record, for his coverage of the infamous George Washington Bridge lane closures and the traffic jam they caused last September.

• Political Reporting, The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman, Laura Vozzella and Carol Leonnig, for covering Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s ties to a wealthy entrepreneur.

• Medical Reporting, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Meg Kissinger, for her definitive study of Milwaukee County’s mental health system.

• Justice Reporting, The New York Times reporters Frances Robles, Sharon Otterman, Michael Powell and N.R. Kleinfield, for digging up the story of a man unjustly jailed in a rabbi’s killing.

SCRIPPS HOWARD

• Breaking News, The Arizona Republic, for coverage of the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 firefighters and destroyed 127 homes.

• Community Journalism, The Portland (Maine) Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, for a series examining problems meeting the needs of the state’s aging population.

• Environmental Reporting, The Seattle Times reporters Craig Welch and Steve Ringman, for a five-part series on ocean acidification.

ASNE

• Punch Sulzberger Award for Online Storytelling, The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commerical Appeal’s Marc Perrusquia and Jeff McAdory, for an archival search that illumined, years later, the day of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

• Local Accountability Reporting, The Washington Post’s Debbie Cenziper, Michael Sallah and Steven Rich, for exploring the process of tax lien auctions in the District of Columbia.

IRE

• Freedom of Information Award, ProPublica’s Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein, Jennifer LaFleur, Jeff Larson and Lena Groeger, for “The Prescribers,” on money wasted in the health care system.

• Print/Online, Large, Reuters staffers for “The Child Exchange.”

• Print/Online, Medium, John Diedrich and Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for “Backfire.”

• Print/Online, Small, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “Breaking the Banks.”

• Multiplatform, Small, the website inewsource, “Money, Power and Transit.”

The Pulitzer Prizes are the oldest and most revered American journalism prizes, dating to 1917. They draw more than 1,000 entries each year, although the total has fallen by roughly a third since the mid-1990s. Pulitzers are given primarily for newspaper work – with magazine and broadcast journalism generally excluded from consideration. In 2009, the Pulitzers allowed entries to be submitted by U.S. online operations unconnected to newspapers.

As always, previews like this must note the Pulitzer Board’s seeming fondness for picking work largely off the radar screens of other competitions. Last year’s dark-horse National Reporting winners were staffers from the fledgling InsideClimate News site, for their reports on flawed oil-pipeline regulations. The Public Service winner, Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel, was an ASNE, IRE and Scripps runner-up. But its inventive, meticulously reported series, documenting the frequency of deadly speeding by off-duty south Florida police won over both the jury and the board, bringing the paper its first-ever Pulitzer.

Finally, the Boston Globe’s work during and after that harrowing April day last year may well put it among 2014’s Pulitzer winners or finalists – bringing the Pulitzer-Marathon connection full-circle. The Online News Association named Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com winners in Breaking News for large publications, while ASNE gave Globe columnist Kevin Cullen its Mike Royko Award for his marathon-related and other columns. And among the Globe feature articles that stood out was Eric Moskowitz’s tale of a carjacking victim of bombers on the lam.

For the record, the marathon – 200 miles up the coast from Columbia University, where retiring Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler will make his final Prize announcements on Monday – this year is being held a week later.

Roy Harris, in his 12th year writing about the Pulitzer Prizes for Poynter, is author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.” He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor in The Economist organization. A new edition of “Pulitzer’s Gold” is being prepared for Columbia University Press, and is due out in advance of the 2016 centennial of the Pulitzers. Read more

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Last rite of friendship: A journalist lobbies for an obit

Mark Twain once called reports of his death exaggerated. But what can be done if the media doesn’t give a person’s actual passing the serious attention it deserves?

Martyl Langsdorf (courtesy Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which published an appreciation of Langsdorf on April 9)

The question confronted me early this month as I sat shocked and saddened at my computer screen, riveted to the St. Louis Beacon online news site. “Martyl Schweig Langsdorf: Landscape painter; created ‘Doomsday Clock’” read the headline of a graceful obituary about the feisty 96-year-old artist – who in recent years had become a dear friend.

That personal connection led me to widen my Internet search, to find what else had appeared in the six days since she had died in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Ill. (Last year I traveled from Boston for a visit at her home there. Among our topics: the “glory days” of the Post-Dispatch, which she admired as a strong liberal voice in our mutual native city, St. Louis.)

Surprisingly, I found no mention in either the Chicago Tribune or the Post-Dispatch — let alone The New York Times, where I was certain an obit belonged.

Anger then supplanted my shock and sadness. Not only was my friend gone, but key media outlets appeared to be blowing the last chance to tell their audiences about this woman’s many contributions to history and to the art world.

There was much to write about, starting with the intriguing tale of Martyl Langsdorf’s Doomsday Clock. After beginning what would become a vibrant 75-plus-year painting career, she married scientist Alexander Langsdorf Jr. and moved with him in 1943 to Chicago, where he worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

Langsdorf’s famous June 1947 cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (courtesy Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

Four years later, after both became involved in warning the government about nuclear power’s dangers, she created the clock for the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Her design — a distinctive quarter-face, with minute hand moving ominously toward midnight — soon became, according to the Beacon obit, “the universal symbol for the world’s proximity to nuclear apocalypse and, recently, catastrophic climate change.”

While I couldn’t do anything about losing Martyl (as she signed her art), I resolved to send a few emails to see if those obit “wrongs” could be righted.

How persuasive could emailing a newspaper obit desk be? I still don’t know what impact my campaign had in any decisions to run stories, but it seems possible that it at least was a factor.

My first email was to the Post-Dispatch. Not wanting to emphasize the rival Beacon’s story, I pointed out the only daily-newspaper story on Martyl I’d been able to find, from the Chicago Sun-Times.

For Chicago’s second-largest paper, which had followed Martyl’s life over the decades, an obit was a natural. In the St. Louis Beacon’s case, a nephew of Martyl had brought news of her death to associate editor Robert Duffy — a former Post-Dispatch staffer and himself her longtime friend – and freelancer Gloria Ross was assigned.

My April 3 note to the Post-Dispatch received a reply showing the paper’s interest, and three days later, a lovely story by veteran reporter Michael Sorkin ran.

A Chicago Tribune staff acquaintance, replying to my April 4 email, asked me to copy the paper’s obituary editor. On April 9, the Tribune, too, weighed in.

On April 4 I also emailed William McDonald, The New York Times’ obituary editor, noting that Martyl’s hometown Tribune hadn’t covered her death yet, but linking the Sun-Times article. His first reply, in what would become a most informative exchange: “I hadn’t heard about this. We’ll certainly take a look.”

Days earlier the Times had been embroiled in a gender-related debate about its obit for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, whose “mean beef stroganoff” was referenced in the original lead. Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan had opined that the article’s “emphasis on her domesticity — and, more important, the obituary’s overall framing as a story about gender — had the effect of undervaluing” her scientific work.

I chose to avoid that much-discussed subject in my emails about Martyl.

As I waited on McDonald, though, I got a happy surprise: The Washington Post obit desk caught up with the Langsdorf story – on its own, without my intercession – running an elaborate April 6 Matt Schudel piece that was picked up by others, including The Boston Globe.

Schudel’s editor had noticed the Sun-Times obit “on the Doomsday Clock lady,” passing it along for a look. Schudel, who’s been on the Post’s obit desk for nine years, likes the work because he’s “writing about people, and how the person’s life affected others,” he told me in an interview.

Working on a Saturday, he began contacting sources, including one of Martyl’s daughters. Schudel also looked into Martyl art hanging in the Smithsonian and elsewhere in Washington. (Among the tidbits also mentioned: the early painting she had sold to George Gershwin, and the time she finished second in a college play-writing contest — with third place going to Tennessee Williams.)

One other element he found interesting. “The idea of nuclear annihilation is a big deal in Washington. It’s something we’re all concerned about,” Schudel noted. As he continued reporting, the planned length of his story grew, from around 22 inches, to 27. The obit desk didn’t seem to mind. “If the Times doesn’t have it, we’re more interested in doing it,” he added. “That played into the decision at least a little.”

I remained on the Times’ case, on April 7 sending McDonald links to the Post, Post-Dispatch and Tribune stories, along with a three-year-old article by a group of designers saying her Doomsday Clock “might be considered the most powerful piece of information design of the 20th century.”

Doomsday Clocks in Hong Kong, 2007 (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

The quote didn’t hurt, I’m sure, but when reporter William Yardley’s obit of Martyl Langsdorf appeared on The New York Times’ website on April 10, the reference wasn’t there.

After several days of not seeing the Times obit appear in print, I wrote McDonald another note, concerned that no print version would appear. His reassuring reply: “99.9 percent of what we publish online also appears in print, though not always on the same day.”

Indeed, he explained, while major obits must appear in print immediately, those involving less-well-known individuals “get nudged aside when a heavyweight shows up. They will get in, but we have to wait for the space to accommodate them….” The day’s news hole for obits is determined largely by the number of paid death notices that also appear, he pointed out.

On April 18 William Yardley’s Times article finally appeared in print with this lead: “Martyl Langsdorf’s clock has yet to strike midnight.”

A month after her passing, I still miss my friend deeply. But I like thinking how Martyl would have laughed heartily to hear of my efforts. And that’s a reward greater than all the obituary column inches combined.

Roy Harris, who began his career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was a long-time reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.”

Related training:On the Beat: Writing Obituaries,” a free News University course Read more

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Winners to watch for when the Pulitzers are announced today

About a half-dozen journalism organizations have already weighed in on their versions of 2012’s best reporting, commentary and press photography. Today at 3 p.m. ET, it’s the Pulitzer Prize Board’s turn — for the 97th time — to announce the winners of American journalism’s oldest and highest honors.

The Pulitzer announcement follows the meeting of its 19-member Board, mostly representing news organizations but with a sprinkling of academics and writers, to make its final selection for each of the 14 Pulitzer journalism categories, along with seven for arts, letters and music.

The process started in February with a diverse pool of journalists who assembled at Columbia University’s Journalism Building to nominate three finalists per category. The choices were shrouded in secrecy — a silence finally mastered by Pulitzer administrators in 2009, after years in which members of the juror pool almost comically began leaking within hours of swearing not to disclose their selections.

With the wraps now on the finalists and winners, this year’s main security breach was a harmless unauthorized release of a partial juror list by Quartz.com. “No leaks that I know of” among nominated finalists, Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, told Poynter in an email.

It is Gissler who will make today’s announcement of winners and finalists in the historic World Room at Columbia, the school that has managed the Pulitzers since press pioneer Joseph Pulitzer set up the awards under terms of his will.

But again this year, the secrecy isn’t stopping us from previewing the prizes — drawing mainly on what seemed to thrill non-Pulitzer judges the most in select earlier competitions. (Caution: Don’t place any bets based on this preview; the Pulitzers are known for surprises.)

Contenders for this year’s Pulitzers

Here is some of the impressive work honored by others, especially for investigative prowess, which can translate into Pulitzer categories beyond Investigative Reporting, including Public Service; Local, National and International Reporting, and Explanatory and Breaking News Reporting. (The other Pulitzer journalism categories: Feature Writing, Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing, Editorial Cartooning, Breaking News Photography and Feature Photography.)

We start with three big-money competitions — the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting and Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism — whose winners historically do well winning Pulitzer honors. (All come with checks larger than the $10,000 that accompanies all Pulitzers with the exception of the prize for Public Service, awarded to a news organization in the form of the Joseph Pulitzer Gold Medal.)

A Chicago Tribune team won this year’s $25,000 Goldsmith from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The Tribune’s series, “Playing with Fire,” did a powerful job of detailing how, and why, both the chemical and tobacco industries promoted toxic flame retardants that didn’t work as promised, while being extremely harmful to consumers. The series also won in the Public Service Reporting category of the Scripps Howard Foundation awards.

The Selden Ring Award from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School – and the Ring’s $35,000 — went to Alexandra Zayas of Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times for her “In God’s Name” series, uncovering abuses at unlicensed religious children’s homes.

One of the two Ring finalists — New York Times reporter Sam Dolnick — also was recipient of the Worth Bingham Prize and its $20,000 from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, and the George Polk Award for National Reporting from Long Island University. Dolnick was cited for his series “Unlocked: Inside New Jersey’s Halfway Houses,” about a broken correctional system in the private institutions that tolerated gang activity, drugs, and sexual abuse.

A number of other New York Times entries look strong for Pulitzers, based on awards won so far. One of the most honored: “Wal-Mart Abroad,” by David Barstow and Mexico-based reporter Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab. Their work won the Polk Business Reporting Award for piecing together a hidden corporate drama of corruption and bribery that accompanied the retailing giant’s expansion in Mexico.

The series, which spurred Department of Justice investigations and a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission, also was a Goldsmith finalist and won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award in the large-publication print/online category.

The award in Scripps Howard’s Digital Innovation category – an area that the Pulitzers have aimed to emphasize – went to The New York Times’ “Snow Fall” project, which tells the horrific story of 16 expert skiers trapped in an avalanche in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. John Branch, who wrote the story, also won the American Society of News Editor’s Punch Sulzberger Award for Online Storytelling.

A Polk award for Foreign Reporting also went to the Times’s David Barboza for his China coverage in “The Princelings,” which looked into the financial interests of government officials and their extended families. Bloomberg News was cited in that Polk category, too, for its study of hypocrisy within the Chinese ruling class. A second Bloomberg project, looking at abuses in higher education finance, won in the Polk National Reporting category.

The Scripps Howard Investigative Reporting Award went to Spencer S. Hsu of the Washington Post for his “Forensic Science” series, showing flawed data used by the Justice Department in criminal convictions. The series provoked responses from Congress, the courts and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Scripps Howard also awarded its Breaking News prize to the Denver Post for its coverage of the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting, in which 12 were killed and 58 injured. Bolstering the Post’s work on that story is the ASNE Deadline News Reporting Award.

Among other Scripps Howard winners were two from The Wall Street Journal: for “Watched,” an ongoing project that exposes how corporate and government data-trackers gain personal information on citizens, and to Michael M. Phillips, for Human Interest Storytelling in his series “War’s Wake,” which is about the latest American generation of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. (The Journal — a Pulitzer powerhouse before it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2007 — has won only one Pulitzer since then: an Editorial Writing prize in 2011. It’s been a finalist eight times since then, though, according to the Pulitzer online archives.)

Other Polk awards of note went to Gina Barton of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in Local Reporting; to Peter Whoriskey of the Washington Post in Medical Reporting; to a team of McClatchy Newspapers correspondents for their “Inside Syria” War Reporting; to the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Colin Woodward for Education Reporting, and to Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch in the State Reporting field.

Gabrielson’sBroken Shieldseries, on the problems of the Office of Protective Services in curbing abuses, also won the multiplatform award in IRE’s medium-sized category, and a major investigative award from the Online News Association. The Pulitzers have found at least one winner in the digital arena in each of the past few years, suggesting that Gabrielson may get a close look. Online News Association awards cover a period ending in mid-June, and therefore its winners often are hard to fit into the calendar-year Pulitzer pattern.

Last week’s IRE awards announcement was much better for the purposes of pre-Pulitzer prognostication. Mark Horvit, IRE’s executive director, said via email that the organization had purposely timed the announcement to come ahead of the Pulitzers.

Other IRE winners were USA Today’s Brad Heath for “Locked Up” — an investigation about men imprisoned for gun possession despite a court’s conclusion that they had committed no federal crime. Hoy Chicago and CU-Citizen Access won in the Small Multiplatform category for “Crunch Time,” which examines racial inequality in law enforcement. The Chicago Tribune’s David Jackson, Gary Marx and Alex Richards won IRE’s Freedom of Information Award for detailing problems with school attendance statistics published by city officials. The Belleville (Ill.) News Democrat and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review also won IRE awards for print and online work.

ASNE’s choice for Local Accountability Reporting was a joint project of the Raleigh News and Observer’s Joseph Neff and David Raynor and the Charlotte Observer’s Ames Alexander and Karen Garloch, who together investigated the story behind high margins at the state’s nonprofit hospitals at the same time the hospitals fell short in serving the public.

Reaction, approach to the prizes

Once the Pulitzers are announced, the Pulitzer organization will once again be open for praise and for blame — the latter in the cases of work passed over in its 14 categories.

Some lamenting always crops up over how Pulitzer finalists — including strong contenders that won other major awards — end up looking like also-rans in the Pulitzer system. An oft-suggested alternative: an approach like the movie industry’s Oscars, where nominees get plenty of attention before the statuettes are handed out.

This is something that irks Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, who has spoken before about the wisdom of the Goldsmith Awards’ approach. He said via email that a “way to bolster high quality journalism would be to announce the finalists for the Pulitzers when they are chosen, so that for the weeks before the final decision is made, the finalists and their news organizations would get to tout their achievement.” (This is how Syracuse University’s Newhouse School handles its annual Mirror Awards for media reporting.)

If the Pulitzers operated the Goldsmith or Oscar way, Jones wrote, on Pulitzer Day “the finalists would still have had their moment and, as Rick said to Ilsa at the end of ‘Casablanca,’ ‘We’ll always have Paris.’”

Gissler said via email that the Pulitzer finalists are “kept confidential primarily to prevent lobbying and preserve the element of surprise.”

If the Pulitzer Board’s annual announcements are known for anything these days, it’s for mixing in a few shocks — often citing work overlooked by rival competitions — to go with some “consensus picks,” such as a few that may appear in this article.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.” Over the weekend, Parade Magazine featured Harris’ thoughts on four of the best stories from the Public Service Pulitzer files in the last 25 years. Read more

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Nicholas Kristof accepts Goldsmith Career Award

Heralded as part Rachel Carson, part Mother Teresa and part Indiana Jones, Nicholas Kristof was called to accept his Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism on Tuesday night with an introduction designed to set him apart.

In a profession so many join with ambitions of global impact, “the reporter who’s done more than any other to change the world is Nick Kristof,” said Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Ticking off the 53-year-old New York Times reporter’s often harrowing topics –  reported from the world’s darkest corners of human suffering and, especially, systematic crimes against women – Jones echoed the thoughts of many in the Cambridge, Mass., audience: “He sometimes shames us; he always inspires us.”

Clearly uncomfortable on a pedestal, Kristof jumped in with tales reflecting insecurities and fears that might be familiar to average reporters and editors. Like his memory of an address he was to give years ago at Harvard (his alma mater), accompanied by his daughter. Watching in surprise as his potential listeners bolted across the street to hear an impromptu Harvard Yard talk by Bill Clinton, Kristof turned to her to observe that “you may be the only person in the audience.” Her response: “Dad, may I go hear Bill Clinton?”

After noting his pride in sharing the platform with recipients of the year’s Goldsmith investigative-journalism prize – a Chicago Tribune team honored for its painstakingly reported six-part series on deceptive industry promotion of toxic flame retardants – Kristof noted how he and other investigative reporters shared the frustration of not being able to gain enough attention for subjects that are difficult for the public to grasp.

Sometimes, he remarked, it’s a readership or ratings problem, with the audience increasingly attracted to lightweight banter. “You can put a Democrat and a Republican in a studio together and their ratings will go up,” he said. Meanwhile, stories of human trafficking around the globe, or the horrors of African warfare, for example, can’t get the same attention.

In the midst of his Darfur reporting about eight years ago, Kristof recalled being amazed at the wide attention being given to the eviction of nesting red-tailed hawks from their skyscraper roosts in the Central Park area. “New Yorkers were up in arms, outraged” about the homeless birds, he said, while he continued to have trouble drawing attention to a subject of global horror.

Kristof won his second Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his commentary on the Darfur genocide. He won a 1990 Pulitzer for international reporting with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, then a fellow Times reporter, for their coverage of the Chinese democracy movement.

Photo courtesy Bill Mitchell

Kristof expressed concerns about things that he might do to soften the impact of the inhumanity he often details in his reporting. In pursuing the work in “Half the Sky” – the 2010 book on the oppression of women world-wide that he wrote with WuDunn – he noted that they recently initiated a videogame to attract new audiences to learning about the harrowing subject. “We worry that it’s going to cheapen what are really life-and-death issues,” he said. But the need to increase understanding is great. “We’ll let you know how that experiment unfolds.”

Mostly, though, Kristoff worries about his profession’s ability to call more attention to global issues, reflecting the sharp reduction of emphasis that U.S. news organizations have devoted to international coverage – as well as to domestic investigative reporting, which like the world-wide variety is extremely costly. Foundation money has helped, he noted, but a new dedication among publishers and broadcasters is needed.

An even deeper concern, though, reflects the fall-off in the public’s view of the media, so high in the post-Watergate days three decades ago, when Kristof joined the Times. Citing a recent study that shows “two-thirds of people say that media regularly gets the facts wrong,” he suggested that today’s audiences further may have a frightening reaction to news reports: using them “to confirm our biases, rather than making us question them.”

He remains hopeful. At its best, journalism “can still really play such an important role in any society.” And courageous reporting, he suggested, still has the opportunity to win over the public.

Kristof shared the story of one tension-filled trip he made to cover a Pakistani warlord who was wreaking havoc in his district and buying off the police who might otherwise protect visitors. The columnist, terrified that he might be in danger after hearing locals tell their stories, “tried to make a quiet exit” from the area. So he was shocked, and a little unsettled, to find people crowding around his departing team, cheering: “Long live journalists!”

Said Kristof, gesturing to the Goldsmith-winning investigative reporters in the audience, “I wish we’d hear that more in this country.”

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism” (U. Missouri Press, paperback, 2010), often writes about award-related topics for Poynter. Read more

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Patriot-News’ first Pulitzer win honors paper’s legend, Sara Ganim mentor

There’s no question that the investigative soul of The Patriot-News now resides largely with its first Pulitzer Prize-winner: 24-year-old Sara Ganim, whose reporting of alleged sexual abuse by an ex-Penn State football coach shook the paper’s 67,000 central Pennsylvania readers, and resonated with journalists far beyond.

“Better than any award,” she said in post-Pulitzer newsroom remarks to the 19 full-time staffers on Monday, “the most rewarding thing through this whole process has been people telling me that this story and our courage has changed their minds about local reporting, and we all know that there are a lot of minds yet to change.” Continuing that rallying cry in a telephone interview Tuesday, she said that “there’s been a feeling that we don’t do what we used to do, and that we’re not as good as we used to be. A lot of that changed with the reaction to this story. People have been telling me that it restored their faith in local journalism, and that it was wrong what people had been saying about local newspapers.”

That faith is tangible in the sprawling suburban Mechanicsburg, Pa., offices of the 157-year-old Patriot-News. In accepting the Ben Bradlee Award from the National Press Foundation for his role in the story, 10-year veteran editor David Newhouse said a new approach to covering news took hold under his predecessor, John Kirkpatrick, now the Advance Publications paper’s publisher. Rather than be a paper of record, staffers basically have “one assignment,” Newhouse said. That is to “bring us the stories that no one else has,” he said, bringing a laugh with his next line: “Of course, who knew Sara Ganim was actually going to take me seriously, right? My kids never did.”

Many papers express similar philosophies, though, and they don’t develop one of the stories of the year, in spectacular, prize-winning fashion.

So it’s worth examining the invisible elements that helped build the drive and tenacity at the Patriot-News — elements that underlie much of Ganim’s own experience there.

Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim, 24, left, calls her sister while hugging Patriot-News reporter Jan Murphy after winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, Monday, April 16, 2012. (Christine Baker/The Patriot-News, AP)

One is the peculiar power of the Penn State story itself, which basically was the paper’s alone from March until early November. That’s when the announcement of the indictment of former coach Jerry Sandusky – whom Newhouse describes as “in many people’s minds one step below Mother Theresa” because of his charitable work — suddenly created a national reporting frenzy. With 200 reporters suddenly “crawling around Penn State,” as Newhouse described in an interview, that put Ganim and the entire news operation in the position of trying to stay out front, building a special pride in their role in what had become their signature coverage. This week’s Pulitzer, in part, is an acknowledgment of how far ahead they stayed.

Such “ownership” of a story brings to mind the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning 2002 expose of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and a Church coverup of it – with the paper’s legal campaign to unseal court documents playing a big part, along with its reporting. And Patriot-News comparisons also have been made to the Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate break-in and its aftermath, 1972 reporting that other publications were slow to follow. Both the Globe and Post cases famously reflect the tenacious leadership of managers like then-Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, and Globe editor Marty Baron.

While Patriot-News staffers celebrate their top editors’ support of the story, though, they express a deep additional debt to the legacy of investigative reporter Pete Shellem, who died at 49, in October 2009. That was more than a year before Ganim was hired from her previous job, at the Centre Daily Times in Penn State’s hometown of State College, about 90 miles from Harrisburg, but Ganim says that Shellem’s power in her career is hard to overemphasize.

A 23-year Patriot-News veteran most known in journalism circles for reporting campaigns that freed wrongly-convicted prisoners – often by exposing erroneous laboratory evidence and coerced confessions – Shellem committed suicide, something people at the paper discuss only in hushed tones.

Pete Shellem learned of Ganim’s work while she was a college student at Penn State; later, she worked for one of his former editors while she was at the Centre Daily Times.

As assistant managing editor Mike Feeley put it, Shellem “just had a phenomenal way of putting together stories. He was like a prosecutor; he would create a case that people couldn’t punch holes in.” Feeley added, “He was our standard bearer, and a guy who never got as much credit as he deserved.”

If there was a problem with his work, Newhouse said laughingly, it was that it required years of meticulous research through court documents, even before writing began. When it got prisoner-freeing results, that came even more years later. And this made Shellem’s accomplishments hard to submit for awards, which generally look at work accomplished during the calendar year.

Newhouse did submit one Shellem project for a Pulitzer, he recalled, but realized the chances were slim because he had to attach background stretching back to past years.

None of that, of course, mattered to the staffers and editors who worked with the curt, soft-spoken Shellem.

“Pete was a legend for us,” executive editor Cate Barron simply put it.

“I knew he was kind of like this legend guy,” Ganim told me, but “he was an incredible mentor for me. I would run things by him all the time.” And — in one of those peculiar newsroom relationships that involves far-flung reporters who never actually meet face-to-face — “it was a phone friendship,” one that reflected not only their pursuit of similar stories but other bonds.

In an eerie twist, it wasn’t until Shellem died that Ganim learned something else about Shellem: It was his recommendation that had led Barron and Newhouse, in late 2010, to hire her.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism (U. Missouri Press, paperback, 2010.) Read more

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Winners to watch for when Pulitzer Prizes are announced Monday

With its once-plentiful Pulitzer Prize juror leaks now plugged, handicapping the year’s premier journalism awards is harder these days. To predict who and what will win Pulitzer stardom now involves scanning what most think of as lesser constellations: contests younger than the 96-year-old Pulitzers with winners already announced. Among those winners, one often finds work with that special glow that the Pulitzer board loves.

Secrecy pervades the Pulitzer organization, whose journalist-jurors met the last weekend in February at Columbia University, which administers the prizes. So there will have been relatively little buzz when Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler steps into the Graduate School of Journalism’s fabled World Room at 3 p.m. Monday to announce winners and finalists in the 14 journalism categories, along with seven for arts, letters and music.

Pre-Pulitzer stargazers, though, certainly must take note of the terrific investigative work of the Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot-News, whose Sara Ganim broke the story of sexual-abuse allegations against Penn State football defensive coach Jerry Sandusky – winning a George Polk and a Scripps Howard award, along with honors from the American Society of News Editors and Society of Professional Journalists.

Few could count out these winners of the most lucrative competitions, either:

  • An Associated Press team that claimed the Goldsmith Prize (offered, with $25,000, by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center) for a probe of New York Police Department spying in the Muslim community;
  • A Los Angeles Times team that won the Worth Bingham Prize ($20,000, from Harvard’s Nieman Foundation) for “Billions to Spend,” a study of mismanagement among Los Angeles community colleges;
  • Seattle Times reporters Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong, winners of the Selden Ring Award (and $35,000, from USC-Annenberg) for the journalists’ study of fatal overdoses involving the painkiller methadone.

Pulitzers, by contrast, come with $10,000, except for Public Service, which earns a gold medal for the winning news organization.

Among other investigative projects honored in earlier award programs this year:

  • The Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune’s “Unfit for Duty,” in which reporters Matthew Doig and Anthony Cormier detailed the questionable backgrounds of hundreds of Florida police officers;
  • The Boston Globe’s examination of an astoundingly high acquittal rate in bench-trials of drunk driving defendants, which showed how judicial leniency was undercutting tough new laws.
  • Danny Hakim and Russell Buettner’s New York Times “Abused and Used” series, on the need for reform at New York state-run homes for the developmentally disabled;
  • Bloomberg’s “The Fed’s Trillion-Dollar Secret,” about bank bail-out loans, and its “Wired for Repression,” which looked at surveillance technology being sold by U.S. companies to repressive regimes around the world;
  • ProPublica projects that included “Dollars for Docs,” about secret drug-company payments to physicians; “Presidential Pardons,” in collaboration with the Washington Post; and Paul Kiel and Olga Pierce’s exposure of failures that contributed to the home-foreclosure crisis.
  • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s “Pipeline” stories, raising questions about Marcellus Shale-oil-drilling, which also won an Online News Association award.

All this work likely was represented among the entries reviewed by the 14 Pulitzer jury panels that quietly decided which 42 (three per category) to forward to board members for their final vote this week.

“As far as I can tell,” wrote the Pulitzers’ Gissler in an email, “jurors have impressively honored their pledge of confidentiality.” He said little else in answer to questions, except to note that entries have “been running about 1,100 a year in recent years” and that he would announce the 2012 number on Monday when Pulitzers are awarded for Public Service; Breaking News; Investigative, Explanatory, Local, National and International Reporting; Feature Writing; Commentary; Criticism; Editorial Writing; Cartooning; and News and Feature Photography.

To be a good Pulitzer prognosticator requires more than aggregation skills. Attention must be paid to special considerations facing the 18 voting Pulitzer board members: top editors and publishers from a range of news organizations, along with a handful of educators. Since 1917, after all, the board has been charged with picking the best of the best – what the Oscars (begun a dozen years after the Pulitzers) are to motion pictures.

One such 2012 consideration may relate to its controversial decision not to name a Breaking News winner last year. That suggests a mission to “restore” that important category. Work honored by other award programs includes the Arizona Republic’s coverage of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, and the Joplin Globe’s coverage of a devastating tornado in its southwestern corner of Missouri.

The pressure continues to mount, as well, for acknowledging more online journalism, especially among the growing number of entries published online only, or representing collaborations between Internet-based and print outlets. (Work done primarily for magazines or broadcast is barred from Pulitzer consideration.) Critics say the Pulitzers should do a better job of recognizing projects that reflect the type of online journalism that today’s readers increasingly view on computer or tablet screens, or tap from smartphones.

Last year, only one Pulitzer went for primarily-online work: to ProPublica reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein, for articles on Wall Street practices that contributed to the financial collapse.

Other online journalism honored so far this year includes two projects from investigative nonprofit California Watch: “On Shaky Ground,” which exposed serious flaws in seismic safety compliance and oversight at public schools, and “Decoding Prime,” illustrating cases of waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare reimbursements, and generally throughout the health-care system.

When it comes to citing the work of established giants of print, the Pulitzers can face controversy, too. In the four years since The Wall Street Journal was acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the paper has won only one Pulitzer –  to editorial writer Joseph Rago last year. (It had 2011 finalists in Feature Writing, Explanatory, National and International.) In the nine years leading up to the acquisition of the paper, the Journal or its staffers won 15 Pulitzers, and were finalists eight more times.

Journal work honored with other awards so far this year has included the “Disabled System” series by Damian Paletta, about mismanagement of the Social Security Disability Insurance system; “Inside Track,” a series of articles examining new means of insider trading involving Washington officials and savvy investors; and “The End of Privacy,” about government and corporate tracking of individuals through their electronic devices.

In addition to the Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times comprise the “big four” of traditional Pulitzer powerhouses – all submitting a raft of entries each year, and often appearing somewhere among the final 14 winners and finalists. Their performance among other award programs so far this year has seemed relatively muted, although any number of their staffers still could find Pulitzer favor, of course.

One trait displayed by the Pulitzers over the years has been a penchant for Pulitzer surprises: acknowledging work, often by small news organizations, that may have been largely unheralded. Such picks are hard to predict, of course. But prior to awarding last year’s Public Service prize to the Los Angeles Times for the celebrated work of reporters Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb in exposing governmental abuses in the city of Bell, Calif., the 2010 and 2009 gold medals went to the smaller Bristol, Va., Herald-Courier, and the Las Vegas Sun, respectively, for investigations that were largely off the national radar.

Among the small publications whose work has been praised in other contests this year:

  • The Norfolk, Va., Virginian-Pilot’s Corinne Reilly was a Scripps Howard winner for “A Chance in Hell,” a series about a combat hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
  • Florida’s Palm Beach Post won an IRE award for a breaking news story that found details about a suspect in the killing of two children, and raised questions about failures in state and private agencies.
  • The tiny Advertiser Democrat, of Norway, Me., which explored shocking conditions in low-income housing after a rooming-house fire exposed blatant disregard for health and safety, was a choice for a Polk award.

Among other Pulitzer trends, in recent years the board has seemed to honor an unusual number of younger staffers – especially for their work on Public Service winners. One of the two reporters on the Los Angeles Times Bell stories, Ruben Vives, was 32. Daniel Gilbert of the Bristol Herald-Courier was 28, and Alexandra Berzon of the Las Vegas Sun was 29 at the time their papers won. Both Gilbert and Berzon now work for the Wall Street Journal.

If that interest in youth continues to hold sway with the Pulitzer board, it could augur well for Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim, who is 24.

What do you think has been the best journalism overlooked by judges? Tweet your picks using the hashtag #bestoverlooked.

Correction: This article originally gave the Patriot-News an extra win. It did not receive an IRE award for its reporting on Sandusky. The original version of the article also misspelled Joseph Rago’s name.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism (U. Missouri Press, paperback, 2010.) For the fifth straight year, he will conduct the Washington Post’s online chat on Tuesday at 11 a.m. Read more

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How The Wall Street Journal’s improvised 9/11 battle plan helped it to a Pulitzer

There’s an old joke that refers to newspapers as “the daily miracle.” But one edition a decade ago, assembled by Wall Street Journal staffers on Sept. 11, 2001, was truly miraculous.

First, it was astounding that the Journal could be published at all, given that its newsroom and corporate headquarters were directly across the street from the World Trade Center. Hell began to rain down on the Journal’s doorstep as most reporters and editors were filtering in for what they thought would be a normal Tuesday. The Journal’s building was evacuated just before 9:30 a.m., about 45 minutes after the first plane smashed into the north tower.

Moreover, the edition that reached all but 15 percent of the Journal’s 1.8 million readers on Sept. 12 was a masterpiece of American daily journalism, much greater than “something for the scrapbooks,” as then-Managing Editor Paul Steiger feared could have resulted.

The Sept. 12, 2001, edition of the Journal carried a six-column headline for the first time since Pearl Harbor. (Click on the image to see the full page.)

That newspaper was filled with “comprehensive and insightful coverage, executed under the most difficult circumstances,” as the Pulitzer Prize Board said in awarding the Journal the 2002 Pulitzer for Breaking News Reporting.

The staff did that exceptional work despite being cut off from “most of the things that reporters and news organizations count on to allow them to deliver extraordinary work, under high pressure,” Steiger said. “People had to make their decisions on the fly.”

The staff’s reactions that day were a form of improvised battlefield journalism, complete with command posts, forward positions and endangered scouts — which suggests the third miracle.

“It seemed impossible that we wouldn’t have lost someone,” Steiger said in a telephone interview, recalling a couple of anxious days until everyone had been accounted for.

Demanding leadership, and a key decision

Like most successful wartime operations, this one depended on the rapport that leaders have with the troops and good command decisions about deployment.

“We were all iron filings being magnetized in the same direction,” Steiger said from his current office in Lower Manhattan, where he is editor-in-chief and president of ProPublica. (The Journal, purchased in 2007 by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has moved the paper’s newsroom to Midtown.)

That magnetizing force, of course, doesn’t materialize automatically. The Journal had forged it in everyday, non-crisis situations. In a publication focusing on Steiger’s management style, then-Assistant Managing Editor Cathy Panagoulias described him as “always very clear in demanding a level of excellence one step above what you think you can provide.”

“So on Sept. 11,” she said, “literally hundreds of staffers around the world did what we know he wanted at a level one step above what any of us thought possible.”

Within minutes of the first tower being hit, Steiger made one critical decision, without which there may have been no Sept. 12 Journal.

Steiger and Jim Pensiero, then an assistant managing editor of the paper, had begun that day early, with an 8:30 a.m. meeting about the newsroom budget, according to a remarkable, diary-like memo that Pensiero later wrote to chronicle the day.

It was not yet 9 when the two men rushed to the newsroom’s east-facing window. As they watched three high floors of the north tower engulfed in flames – not yet knowing the cause — Steiger “asked me if we had another place to produce the Journal in case we were forced to evacuate,” Pensiero wrote.

Pensiero, who also was an expert in the production system, had been helping to establish a training center at the parent company’s South Brunswick, N.J., offices, about 50 miles southwest of lower Manhattan. A small backup newsroom recently had been set up there, though it was never envisioned as a replacement for the main office, and Pensiero wasn’t sure if it was ready to operate on any scale.

He told Steiger that the training center might work if editors and graphic artists could get there quickly and technicians could link it with other Journal operations. At Steiger’s direction, Pensiero used the still-working phones to line things up with South Brunswick.

The two editors felt the impact on the second tower at 9:03 a.m. – this time shaking the Journal newsroom violently – and it became clear that a plane had caused it. Steiger headed down to the street to advise arriving staffers to head for South Brunswick, and asked Pensiero to compose an email to top editors and the Washington bureau. Pensiero hit the send button at 9:23, just as a security guard showed up to press him to evacuate.

Orders from the Upper West Side

Pensiero found his way to a ferry, which turned out to be the last one across the Hudson, and watched the twin towers collapse behind him. When he arrived at the South Brunswick office just before noon, he determined that the paper had a good chance of being produced there and was encouraged by the number of personnel assembling in the office. Still, “I had no idea where Paul Steiger was, let alone the other top editors of the paper.”

Some staffers feared the worst. The Upper West Side apartment of Byron “Barney” Calame, Steiger’s key deputy managing editor, became the main outpost for top editors who determined that they couldn’t get to New Jersey.

They established communications with Pensiero and the Journal’s Washington office and other bureaus, using Calame’s two PCs and four BlackBerries among all of the editors. “Email turned out to be the most reliable way to stay in touch,” Calame said in an interview. Those editors, too, waited for word about their managing editor.

Steiger had had a series of close calls outside the Journal building as he sought out staffers. He fled with the crowd after the first tower collapsed. “I remember saying to myself, ‘You don’t die of smoke inhalation in the open air’,” Steiger said. ”It’s not always true, I knew, but it was a nice thing to tell myself at the time.” Then the second tower collapsed, repeating the terror.

His best blue suit dusted white, he made his way by foot and bus to his apartment on the Upper East Side, emailed Pensiero at 1 p.m. and called Calame. “I say, ‘Hey, Barney, it’s Paul,’ and he starts to cry. He thought I was dead,” Steiger recalled. “I didn’t realize I was lost; I thought everybody else was lost.”

Pensiero emailed the Journal news bureaus the story budget at 1:38 p.m., drawing on story lines proposed by then-National Editor Marcus Brauchli, who was working from his home, and other bureaus around the country. Soon, Steiger made it by car across town to Calame’s West Side outpost.

The next key decision by Steiger created a new challenge for his subordinates. Considering the production pressures, Journal designers in South Brunswick proposed using the then-standard layout of one-column headlines on the front page, featuring only three stories.

“I wanted to put a six-column headline on Page One,” said Steiger. “If ever you were going to put a six-column head on a story, this was the day.” Luckily, he said, page designer Joe Dizney had found his way to the Journal’s Midtown advertising office and had access to a Mac. “In 15 minutes, he did it; I looked at it and it was great.”

It was the paper’s first banner headline in 60 years; the previous time was when the paper reported the Pearl Harbor attack.

The final edition’s headline this day would say: “TERRORISTS DESTROY WORLD TRADE CENTER, HIT PENTAGON IN RAID WITH HIJACKED JETS.” Below it, six stories were slotted, including two detail-packed roundups, an analysis on lax airport security, and a piece on recessionary fears.

The sixth story was a first-person account by then-Foreign Editor John Bussey, who had been on the streets near ground zero for most of the day.

‘The Eye of the Storm’

Despite the remarkable balance of the stories on that page, Bussey’s riveting and graphic first-person story, headlined “The Eye of the Storm: One Journey through Desperation and Chaos,” is what many Journal readers remember most about the Sept. 12 edition.

With a phone in his hand but no notebook, Bussey had made his way from the Journal office to the street about the same time as Steiger and Pensiero, at one point pulling a muscle, he recalled in an interview, and impeding his escapes from the imploding buildings.

He absorbed the horror around him, “formulating in my head what I was going to say if I got the chance.” Eventually, he made it across the Hudson on a private power boat and to South Brunswick by cab.

“At about 7 p.m., a limping John Bussey arrived and asked if we’d be interested in a first-person account,” Pensiero recalled in his memo. Sure, Pensiero replied, alerting special sections editor Lawrence Rout, who filled in as Page One editor that day. From the West Side, Steiger signed off on the idea.

“I just started typing. In a way it was just like any other day, at least at that point,” Bussey said. “Pensiero was at my shoulder saying, ‘If we’re going to get anything in the paper I’m going to need your copy right now’.”

His story began:

If there’s only one sight I’ll remember from the destruction of the World Trade Center, it is the flight of desperation – a headlong leap from the top-most floors by those who chose a different death than the choking smoke and flame.

Bussey’s account, “to me, is still the single best thing I’ve ever read on what it really felt like that day,” Pensiero, now a Journal deputy managing editor, said in an email.

The image that Bussey opened with — and Paul Steiger himself witnessed — still haunts Steiger’s nightmares. “It’s something,” he said, “that you just don’t forget.”

Roy Harris is the author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism. A Wall Street Journal reporter and editor from 1971 to 1994, he currently is editorial director of CFOworld.com. His account of lessons from the New York Times “Portraits of Grief” 9/11 coverage ran on Poynter.org on Aug. 30. Read more

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‘Portraits of Grief’ 10 years later: Lessons from the original New York Times 9/11 coverage

The New York Times retrospective on the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — an enterprise that includes the currently online “Portraits Redrawn,” and a special Sunday, Sept. 11, print section under the heading “The Reckoning” – is designed to help readers focus on the future, rather than the past.

Wendell Jamieson, the deputy Metro editor charged with managing these new “Portraits” — as he did with the originals in 2001 — describes how relatives of 9/11 victims seem to be “turning the corner” in their lives now.

“More people have remarried, and more seem forward-looking and well-adjusted,” he told me in a telephone interview. That’s in contrast to the five-year retrospective the Times ran, featuring mini-profiles that “were very dark,” he recalls. “People were suffering, and only one or two had reached some sense of resolution with it all.”

Times Editor at Large Laura Chang, who was asked in March by Executive Editor Bill Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson to begin coordinating the anniversary section and related interactive stories, adds in a phone interview that this year’s approach is “focusing on the consequences of the attacks, 10 years later – on the present. We will not be focusing on 10 years ago.”

Yet for many readers who experienced the original 2001 New York Times coverage, the stories are bound to resurrect memories of the truly remarkable journalism that came together in the paper in the weeks and months after the disaster – journalism that still carries lessons for today’s reporters and editors.

The original “Portraits of Grief,” and what became their home section, “A Nation Challenged,” were responsible for the Times winning the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, to be sure. The section that ran through Dec. 31, 2001, “coherently and comprehensively covered the tragic events, profiled the victims, and tracked the development of the story, locally and globally,” the Pulitzer Board said.

But behind all the praise was an astounding combination of newsroom discipline and managerial talent under extreme pressure, along with inspiration from rank-and-file staffers. And how the editors packaged it all – that often underrated element of journalism – helped fill a gaping hole in the psyche of New Yorkers, and all Americans, both with critical information and interpretation, and with a compassionate style.

Unlike the long-planned efforts behind “Portraits Redrawn” and the forthcoming special section, with their August deadlines, the 2001 coverage plans had scant days to take shape, of course. And time was only one of the pressures in describing disaster on an unprecedented scale in the city, and trying to make some broader sense of it all.

The late Times managing editor Gerald Boyd praised his newspaper’s culture for underpinning the decisions that were made back then. But Boyd, a veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch and New York Times reporter and editor who was on only his fifth day as Times M.E. the day of the attacks, spread credit around the newsroom in an interview that I had with him a few months before his November 2006 death, at 56, of complications from lung cancer.

“I was always amazed how on a given day, someone I never would have thought of would have a brilliant idea,” he said. One lesson he said he had learned from the post-9/11 coverage: that when such extreme heat is on, “inspiration comes from a lot of different places, and you’ve got to have a mechanism that encourages people.”

Times editors still recall that among the greatest newsroom inspirations was that of Christine Kay, then deputy Metro editor for enterprise. Among her first assignments for Metro editor Jonathan Landman was to come up with a way for the paper to treat the dead and missing around Ground Zero.

Think a moment about her challenge. “We had no idea what we were facing,” she recalled in a 2005 interview with me, noting that her closest previous experience dealing with survivors had involved the 1996 TWA Flight 800 airline crash that killed 230 off the coast of Long Island. (She was then with Newsday.) With a passenger list, at least, editors can make a start at compiling information about where the victims were going, and what their lives had been like. But for days after 9/11 the numbers of the dead defied calculation, and even the names of the missing only slowly accumulated — all while the paper’s cry for some kind of accounting grew stronger.

Working with reporter Janny Scott, Kay began to build an approach around the desperate “missing” flyers that seemed to be floating everywhere on the Lower Manhattan breeze – containing snippets of information about a loved one, while seeking information.

“I know people want to hear that we had this thoughtful conversation and sat in a room for three hours, and came up with this magical approach,” Kay said. “But that is not what happened.” Under pressure to come up with something that could be published, in the absence of actual lists of the missing, they proposed having reporters immediately begin preparing short 200-word vignettes, each with a photo, that would capture some facet of the life of a person being sought by loved ones.

As lists of first responders, World Trade Center corporate tenants, and others finally began to appear, the approach would continue – creating intimate mini-profiles, scores at a time on the page. Each day’s pages would renew a sense of the tragedy’s scope, while the individual portraits made each person intimately real. The normal trappings of an obituary generally were absent; few credentials or other signs of status were included, beyond the jobs they held, and family descriptions. The portraits identified one aspect of life – a woman gardening, a man taking his daughter to ice-skating lessons, or perhaps indulging in a fondness for cigars.

Landman and others together refined the approach, and on Saturday, Sept. 15, the first mini-profiles ran, under the heading “After the Attacks: Among the Missing.” They were further described as “snapshots of their lives with family and at work.”

Given a choice of shorter rubrics for Sunday – most editors liked the idea of “portraits,” but were stuck between candidates like portraits of despair or sorrow or loss or grief – assistant Metro editor Patrick LaForge flipped “a mental coin” and used Portraits of Grief. It stuck.

Getting reporters to contribute the short pieces came easier. Though there were no bylines, and staffers received only tagline-box mention, they rushed to help with interviews and writing, some even coming from the Washington bureau to help. “It became this huge machine,” according to Kay. “We had 10 to 13 reporters working on it nonstop.” By year-end they had turned out 1,910 of the mini-profiles. (The death toll from the Twin Towers disaster eventually rose to more than 2,750.)

A 555-page book compiling them, “Portraits: 9/11/01,” eventually was published by the Times. Then-executive editor Howell Raines wrote in his introduction that a “democracy of craftsmanship” guided their preparation. “I have seen reporters crying at their telephones, even as they summoned the professional discipline to keep reporting, keep writing until the task was done,” he wrote.

Affection for “Portraits” wasn’t unanimous. Some Times editors, as well as relatives of the dead, thought they should have a more traditional approach, mentioning victims’ typically newsworthy attributes. Kay, for one, heard from family members who complained that the Times should have concentrated more on real accomplishments, rather than “things that they perceived to be trivial or prosaic.”

But those who love them – and who continue to read the collection of old ones with updates through the years, and the several video versions that have now been produced – have made a stronger argument. As they continued their original 2001 run, San Francisco attorney James Schurz wrote the Times of his family’s ritual of reviewing the entries every day. “In an important sense,” he wrote, “the Times has been part of the healing process in our family. For that, you have my deepest gratitude and respect.”

Back in the depths of the post-9/11 coverage, Christine Kay, now editing investigative projects, never considered the possibility that a new generation of portraits might be prepared 10 years on. “Then, we were just thinking about how we hoped that nothing like this would ever have to be wrttien again,” she said in a telephone interview.

“And yet,” she adds, “I guess we’ve seen that there’s still value today in having what’s become sort of a national monument of grieving.”

Roy Harris is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism,” which featured a chapter on the Times 9/11 coverage titled “A Newsroom Challenged.” A former Wall Street Journal reporter, he currently is editorial director of CFOworld.com. Read more

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pulitzerprizes

Handicapping the Pulitzers as prize season peaks with the top award

In the run-up to last year’s Pulitzer Prizes, the rumor mill furiously churned over the National Enquirer’s coverage exposing the marital infidelity of one-time Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards. First, reports circulated that it would be barred from the Pulitzer competition. (It wasn’t.) And later, the word was that it might actually win one. (It didn’t, and, in fact, wasn’t even a finalist.)

With Monday’s 3 p.m. announcement of the 94th edition of the Pulitzers fast approaching, most talk has reflected how little buzz the oldest and most revered of American awards now is garnering, and how that buzz might be increased.

Why has discussion nearly evaporated this year about who will win in the 14 Pulitzer journalism categories? (There are also seven prestigious Pulitzers for arts-and-letters and music, of course.) In addition to a shrinking supply side – with fewer journalists these days trying to pry the names of finalists from jurors who met at Columbia University March 7-9 — it could be argued that there’s a much weaker demand side, too.

In part, the decreased pre-Pulitzer interest stems from the explosion of other, earlier journalism-award announcements. These prizes put the 19 Pulitzer Prize board members in the position of annointing work that is at the very top of an existing pyramid of winners. Plus, interest in the Pulitzers may be tempered because of their relative narrowness. Nearly all the other awards honor top work across the platforms of newspaper, online, broadcast and magazine – and, increasingly, for collaboration among the media.

Despite some movement toward rewarding collaboration, though, the Pulitzers have expanded only slowly beyond newspapers — mainly into papers’ online efforts, and to independent investigative organizations like ProPublica.

Among last year’s Pulitzer Prizes, for example, only one for Investigative, and an Editorial Cartooning prize, specifically honored online work. (A reporter for online-based ProPublica, Sheri Fink, won for her investigation of life-or-death decisions made in a hospital battered by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — a collaboration with the New York Times Magazine, while cartoonist Mark Fiore won for his work on SFGate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle’s site.)

The Pulitzer Board has earned recognition itself in recent years for picking one or two winners — often among smaller papers — that were largely overlooked in other national competitions. Dark horses in Public Service the last two years were Virginia’s Bristol Herald Courier, for the work of Daniel Gilbert in exposing a mineral-rights scandal, and the Las Vegas Sun for Alexandra Berzon’s stories on construction-worker deaths.

We’ll soon know what 2011 surprises the Pulitzer Board dreamed up during its April 14-15 meetings at Columbia. But any last-minute handicapping effort — in the absence of the once-rampant, reporter-based rumor mill that involved interviews with jurors and Pulitzer Board members — must assume that most of this year’s Pulitzers again will be found among the following winners of other awards.

What’s already won

Some of those are big-money prizes: the $35,000 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, the $25,000 Goldsmith Investigative Reporting Prize, and the $20,000 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism. The Pulitzers, despite their unrivaled cache, bring winners $10,000 in cash – and no money at all for the most prestigious of them: the Public Service Pulitzer, which is in the form of a gold medal. While the Ring, Goldsmith and Bingham all target investigative reporting, its winners frequently have also won in Pulitzer categories such as Public Service, Breaking News Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, Local Reporting, National Reporting and International Reporting. (Other journalism Pulitzers are for Feature Writing, Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing, Editorial Cartooning, Breaking News Photography and Feature Photography.)

A team of Los Angeles Times reporters, led by Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb, won this year’s Selden Ring Award in February for their celebrated series of articles “Breach of Faith,” exposing corruption in the city of Bell, Calif. The 22-year-old Ring is bestowed by the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. As finalists, it selected The Wall Street Journal for its “What They Know” series on Internet spying by businesses; Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times for “The Radiation Boom,” on medical uses of radiation; and three Bloomberg News reporters for “Education, Inc.,” exposing a financial-aid scandal among for-profit colleges.

For the Goldsmith Prize, Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy named the Las Vegas Sun and reporters Marshall Allen and Alex Richards for “Do No Harm: Hospital Care in Las Vegas.” The L.A. Times’s “Breach of Faith” was a finalist for the Goldsmith, an award now in its 19th year, with other finalists being National Public Radio, a ProPublica collaboration with NPR, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Washington Post.

First awarded in 1967 by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, the Worth Bingham Prize last month went to Michael J. Berens of the Seattle Times, for “Seniors for Sale: Exploiting the Aged and Frail in Washington’s Adult Family Homes.”

In February, the American Society of News Editors awards honored work in nine categories: with ProPublica’s A.C. Thompson winning its Batten Medal for uncovering police misconduct and vigilante justice after Hurricane Katrina. Other categories with winners likely to receive Pulitzer consideration were Deadline News Reporting, for which Connecticut’s Hartford Courant staff was honored for its coverage of a workplace shooting.

Also in February, Long Island University’s George Polk Awards honored the Associated Press for its coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin for National Reporting for their “Top Secret America” series; and Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News for columns on corruption in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

Polks also went to the New York Times’s Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti for Military Reporting, and the paper’s Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry for their Russia-based Foreign Reporting; the Newark, N.J., Star Ledger’s Amy Brittain and Mark Mueller for Metropolitan Reporting, covering steroid use by public employees; and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s John Diedrich and Ben Poston for Criminal Justice Reporting, for coverage of poor federal controls on revoking licenses for lawbreaking gun dealers. It also gave awards to the L.A. Times for the Bell series, and to Bloomberg’s reporters for “Education, Inc.” (Polk also honors magazine and broadcast reporters, who don’t qualify for Pulitzers.)

Last month, Scripps Howard Awards went to the Las Vegas Sun’s Allen and Richards for Investigative Reporting, and to an L.A. Times team for “Grading the Teachers,” a study of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Its Business/Economics Reporting award went to Paige St. John of Florida’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune for reports on abuse and deception in the property insurance market.

Investigative Reporters and Editors named 20 award winners earlier this month, with a number of them likely to get Pulitzer recognition as well. The L.A. Times and its Bell reporters won a top IRE Medal, with a second Medal going to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and BBC International News Services, for their study of the global asbestos trade. Another story IRE honored was “The Hidden Life of Guns,” by four Washington Post reporters.

Seattle Times reporters Ken Armstrong and Jonathan Martin won an IRE award for “The Other Side of Mercy,” following last year’s Pulitzer-winner for Breaking News. (They investigated the criminal history of the man who killed  four police officers in a shootout.) IRE also gave prizes to three St. Petersburg Times reporters for “Under the Radar,” about a fake charity scheme; and to three New York Observer reporters for “Bloomberg’s Offshore Millions,” about the mayor’s tax shelters. Other IRE awards recognized work honored in other contests, including the Seattle Times’s stories by Michael Berens, and the Las Vegas Sun and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune projects.

With the Pulitzer Prize organization aiming recently to honor online journalism, one might expect some duplication with the Online News Association’s 11-year-old Online Journalism Awards. But the ONA doesn’t use the calendar-year approach of most other awards. Rather, it judges work published through June 30, and times its award announcements to its national conference in the fall.

Still, the ONA watches closely how much online journalism is recognized by the Pulitzers. “Putting aside the deep cachet and history that Pulitzers have in recognizing the best in journalism,” says Online Journalism Awards chair Anthony Moor in an email, “they’ve been really slow to embrace online news formats,” and have found it “difficult to catch up.” The ONA awards also recognize online work of TV stations and magazines, unlike the newspaper-centric Pulitzers.

Last year the ONA honored CNN with a Breaking News award for its coverage of the Haiti earthquake, and a team from Mother Jones magazine won a prize for its work covering the Gulf oil spill. “But of course,” says Moor, who also is a Yahoo lead local editor, “neither CNN nor Mother Jones are eligible for a Pulitzer.”

If there are front-runners for the 2011 Pulitzer mix, then, this last-minute review suggests they are:

  • The L.A. Times for its “Breach of Faith” Bell, California salary disclosures – rooting out wrongdoing with classic reporting techniques prized by the editors who dominate the Pulitzer Board (Selden Ring Award winner, IRE award winner, George Polk Award winner)
  • The Las Vegas Sun for “Do No Harm: Hospital Care in Las Vegas” (Goldsmith Prize winner, Scripps Howard award winner)
  • The Seattle Times for the “Seniors for Sale” (Worth Bingham Prize winner) or “The Other Side of Mercy” (IRE award winner)

Then, finally, don’t forget to factor in those Pulitzer Board surprises.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism (U. Missouri Press, paperback, 2010), has written for Poynter about the Pulitzer Prizes since 2003. He is editorial director of corporate-finance online site CFOworld.com, and currently teaches a class in impact journalism at Boston’s Emerson College. Read more

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The shot heard ’round the Globe — still: Boston’s Catholic Church scandal turns 10

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how Martin Baron, or any brand-new editor, could have had a stronger start than he did his first day at the Boston Globe. Within hours of his inaugural morning staff meeting, Baron “lit the match,” in his words, to ignite the Globe’s Pulitzer-winning investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and its cover-up by church authorities.

It happened almost 10 years ago — July 30, 2001, to be exact. Surprisingly, Baron says his days at the Globe “seemed kind of slow at the beginning.” That no doubt reflected the turbulence of his previous job, as executive editor at the Miami Herald, when that newspaper had produced Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Elian Gonzalez immigration case, and stirred investigations of the Bush-Gore presidential election that teetered on Florida’s “hanging chad” ballots. (Baron’s Boston plans also took a sudden detour, as did the work of so many journalists, just six weeks after he started his new job, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. As a local Boston story that trumped all others, including the church investigation, and the first priest-related pieces by the Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team didn’t actually appear in print and online for five more months, running Jan. 6-7, 2002.)

Baron’s Boston experience was different from the start. He recently reflected on what journalists a decade later can learn from the Globe’s investigation, when he spoke to a class called “Impact Journalism” that I teach at Emerson College. Baron was the seventh in a group of Globe editors and reporters who worked on the 2001-2002 project to speak with my students. His discussion stood out as unusually detailed and personal. It occurred in the same glass-walled Globe conference room where Baron had first sounded out his skeptical sub-editors about delving into reported sex crimes by priests.

The class is studying the Pentagon Papers and the Washington Post’s landmark coverage of Watergate, among other historic cases, seeking to understand not just how they changed history, but how they changed journalism.

“Super-distribution” and damning documents

“The reverberations of [the Globe’s priest investigation] story are still being felt today; the church is still trying to figure out how to apologize,” Baron told the 15 Emerson students. Indeed, the class had just examined a two-day-old front-page Globe article about Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who stepped in after the paper’s coverage drove Cardinal Bernard Law from office. O’Malley was pictured washing the feet of abuse victims in Ireland.

And Baron agreed that the Globe’s investigation made journalistic history with what New York University professor Clay Shirky has called a very early example of the “super-distribution” of news, initially through the paper’s Boston.com website. The combination of print and online publishing made the priest revelations and the cover-up “a synchronizing story [that] kicked off this rolling wave of concern that’s now gone global,” Shirky said last year at an appearance at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Essential to the online reach of the story, Baron told the Emerson class, was how “we used the tool of the Internet,” still in its relative infancy for such applications, to display for readers the extensive range of damning court documents that the Globe’s lawyers had managed to get unsealed in late 2001.

“It’s not the first time people had written about abuse in the Catholic Church,” he told the students. “But it was the first time you could see everything laid out before you. And the church couldn’t deny it, because there it was.”

Since the successful challenge to the sealed documents was Baron’s idea, asked Emerson student Zachary Lucius, “to what extent do you think of the story as yours?” Baron answered, “I don’t think it’s any one person’s — certainly not mine.” He pointed instead to the research skills of the reporters on the Globe’s Spotlight Team — skills that helped identify abusive priests — and to interviewing skills that drew out so many victims’ stories. Globe lawyers deserve credit, too, Baron said, for winning the challenge that opened “a treasure trove of documents.”

Baron admitted that when he arrived in Boston in 2001, he “didn’t know about the Spotlight team at all,” although when told of it, he “thought it was a curious name.” Indeed, he said he had then and has now mixed feelings about standing investigative units in general. “I have no particular ideology about it,” he said. “Some people think they’re good and some think they’re not so good.” At the Globe, he allowed, he now has learned that “it works very well. It has a great tradition, and they produce results.”

Responding to a question from student Meena Ganesan, Baron said his direct supervision of the investigative team had been very limited. “My sense was they were digging into it and digging into it well,” he said. Having “lit the match,” he said, the team was “off and running, and eventually, you’ve got a bonfire.”

But Baron’s answers to further questions from class members suggested several other ways in which his leadership made a critical difference to the outcome of the investigation.

“What’s the truth here?”

“To have impact, you have to say, what’s the truth here?” Baron told the students. The truth that eventually emerged included at least a 40-year history of priests raping children in the Boston area under the protection of church leaders — the tip of an iceberg of abuse around the nation and the world.

Baron was determined to avoid “he said, she said” accounts. He saw that unsealing court documents would be the key to opening the fuller story about what Father John Geoghan, the subject of scores of lawsuits, along with other priests and the church itself, had done to victims over the years.

When a Globe lawyer declared the chances of getting those documents unsealed to be 50-50, Baron declared those to be good odds. He persuaded then-publisher Richard Gilman. (Baron believes in “a no-surprise rule: Don’t surprise the publisher.”) He also determined that the paper’s success was more likely because the church was handicapped by “inept legal counsel.” And he calculated that the paper would benefit from the assignment of state Judge Constance Sweeney — a Catholic woman from Springfield, not Boston — to rule on the sealed documents.

Baron also tried to set a restrained tone for the Globe’s stories. “I wanted to be careful with the language, avoiding words like ‘explosive,’ ‘stunning,’ ‘shocking’,” he said. The words applied to priests raping children, of course, but “adjectives like that are the kinds of things people seize on,” Baron told the students. “You don’t need to do that, because the story speaks for itself.” Instead, he imposed an “almost dispassionate” standard. (On the day the Globe’s public-service Pulitzer was announced in 2003, then-Spotlight team leader Walter Robinson had joked about Baron to his fellow staffers that “somewhere within sight of this newsroom there has to be a closet full of adjectives he excised from these stories.”)

Emerson student Jovvann-Dominique Cafua asked if, during the coverage, Baron had come to think of it as Pulitzer material. Baron laughed, “Oh sure, I’m not that selfless.” He recalled a January 2002 press conference in which Cardinal Law responded to the Globe stories with a mild apology, rather than the expected counterattack on the paper. Baron said then-projects editor Ben Bradlee Jr. — son of famed Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee — told him, “Marty, we hit one out of the park.” (The students, who had heard the same story from Bradlee, smiled.)

A “gratifying” feeling

Beyond the revolution in news that the Internet brought on, Baron elaborated on the evolution of investigative reporting since 2001. He noted the sharp increase in collaborative projects between newspapers and other organizations, such as ProPublica. The Globe itself has developed a close relationship with students at Northeastern University, who are guided in investigations by former Spotlight leader Robinson, now a professor there. The relationship has led to numerous front-page exposes in the Globe, where the Spotlight Team continues to operate.

Baron was also asked if it felt like a decade since the church project had started. “Yes, it does seem like 10 years ago,” he said. In fact, even some shorter stretches of time since then seemed to last forever, Baron told the students, referring to a brief period two years ago, when the Globe’s New York Times Company owners discussed shutting down the Boston paper.

The last question was one Baron often gets these days: With the financial constraints facing the paper — and all newspapers — would the Globe pursue a story like the church scandal if it came along now?

Of course, he answered without hesitating — and, Baron said, not just because he now knows the impact that the story had, and continues to have. “It was a cover-up that lasted for decades, and that would have lasted for decades more,” had the paper not done that reporting. Knowing that the Globe changed so much is “gratifying,” he said.

It was an adjective apparently understated enough to escape Baron’s closet.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is editorial director of corporate-finance online site CFOworld.com. He is the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism” (U. of Missouri, paperback, 2010). Read more

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