Beleaguered Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom hopes Pulitzer win signals a new beginning

The Philadelphia Inquirer has been in the news a lot lately, but on Monday it was for the right reasons: the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, for its investigation into violence in city schools.

This is the Inquirer that contrasts with the drip-drip news of staff cuts and another sale — news its owners tried to quash.

This is the Inquirer that now has won 19 Pulitzers, all, according to the paper, after Gene Roberts became editor in the early 1970s.

And it’s the Inquirer that announced two weeks ago that it had rehired Bill Marimow as its editor after demoting him to reporter because he didn’t have the digital skills to lead the newsroom.

Marimow green-lighted the reporting that became “Assault on Learning” when he was still editor. The work continued under Editor Stan Wischnowski, who called it “old-school Inquirer journalism.”

On Monday afternoon the staff was watching the Pulitzer website and the AP wire, but they learned about the prize on Twitter. “I think I shouted, ‘We won!’ and the newsroom — assembled in front of us — cheered!” Kristen A. Graham, one of the five core reporters on the project, told me in an email.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Susan Snyder, from left, David Swanson, Martha Woodall and Kristen Graham celebrate after the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service, Monday, April 16, 2012, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

“It was a bolt of energy that this place hasn’t seen for many years,” Wischnowski said. He recounted what Graham told him as they celebrated: “It is so great to be happy again.”

“To me,” he continued, “that really speaks volumes about what this newsroom has been through, through this ownership struggle, the vicious economy and the consequences of losing many, many good people. What that has done is it has overshadowed some really outstanding journalism.”

John Sullivan, then a member of the Inquirer’s investigative team, pitched Marimow and the investigations editor on a deep look at school violence in 2009, after a number of Asian-American students had been beaten at a South Philadelphia high school. The superintendent criticized the newspaper’s attention to this incident when it hadn’t covered similar incidents.

“The superintendent at the time said, ‘This happens to African-American students all the time, and people ought to write about it,’ Sullivan said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, we ought to.’”

Five reporters teamed up to work on the project: education writers Graham and Susan Snyder, investigative reporters Sullivan and Dylan Purcell, and regional reporter Jeff Gammage.

The Inquirer’s story on the award describes how they reported the story over the next year and a half:

  • Conducted more than 300 interviews “with teachers, administrators, students and their families, district officials, police officers, court officials, and school-violence experts.”
  • Created a database with records of more than 30,000 violent incidents over five years.
  • Used “police reports, court records, transcripts, contracts, and school security video.”

What the Inquirer story doesn’t convey is what it took to devote 60 to 70 percent of five staffers’ time, for about a year and a half, to the story. “It was only possible through a lot of sacrificing,” Wischnowski said. “When you have a much smaller staff, that’s the only way you can do this level of reporting.”

Marimow acknowledged that it is harder to continue this kind of work in a much-diminished newsroom, though he pointed back to the work that he and a colleague at the Inquirer did to earn the 1978 Pulitzer for Public Service.

“It was a newsroom that wasn’t a lot larger than the current newsroom,” he said. “Whether the newsroom was 230 or 600-plus, the commitment to public service journalism was a core part of the mission, and as long as I’m editor, it will be a central part of the core mission.”

Marimow was in the newsroom for Monday’s announcement, having traveled to Philadelphia over the weekend to prepare for his return on May 1. (He said he had “an inkling” that the newspaper would win.) He described five minutes of applause, after which Lewis Katz, one of the new owners of the newspaper, spoke “about teamwork and serving the community, and how these stories epitomize public service journalism at its best.”

Inquirer reporter John Sullivan (center) hugs reporters Susan Snyder (left, back to camera) and Kristen A. Graham, as Editor Stan Wischnowski applauds the Pulitzer Prize announcement Monday in the Inquirer newsroom. (Michael Bryant/Inquirer)

Sullivan, too, flew back to be with his former colleagues. “They wanted me to be here, and I wanted to be here with them,” he said.

Sullivan is now senior lecturer and assistant director of Medill Watchdog, in which interns work under the guidance of experienced journalists. He said Marimow’s demotion and the departure of a couple of other editors was a key reason he left the Inquirer last June. “I didn’t see how things were going to get better.”

The story of the Inquirer over the last eight or nine years, he said, is one of a staff that has produced great journalism despite “this continual drumbeat of bad news. … The big problem in American newsrooms is largely morale. It’s hard to go in every day and maintain energy levels and commit to do your best work when you’re being pummeled by this bad news over and over.”

Philadelphia Daily News reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2010, and the Inquirer had two finalists in 2009.

With the new, local owners and Marimow’s return — and that gold medal — his former colleagues are hopeful.

Snyder said she felt like she had endured “some sort of wonderful trauma. … Here it is, the dream has come true at a time in our industry when things have been so difficult, and so stressful. In the middle of this, there’s been this wonderful burst of hope.

“It’s just a really beautiful moment. I have hope. I have hope for our future, and for our industry.”

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