Once upon a time, in a newsroom far, far away, a
21-year-old intern sat before an ink-smeared typewriter, neatly stacked
two sheets of carbon paper between three sheets of copy paper and, with
every ounce of creativity he could muster, wrote his first
I think the slug was VFW.
My fiancée and my mother told me it was really good.
city editor must have thought it was good enough, because in the days
ahead he assigned me many more briefs, along with a few obituaries and
even some dictation from our statehouse reporter in Annapolis. This was
heady stuff, this journalism. They even pay you for it, one old-timer
told me, wistfully shaking his head.
Yes, getting my work
published was pretty darned exciting. But looking back, I realize that
my love affair with journalism truly began on the day my city editor
invited me, after the 2 p.m. edition was in, to join the daily
procession to Burke’s Café. (For him and his hearty band of staffers,
the trip to Burke’s amounted to the start of another eight-hour shift
– unless they decided overtime was required.)
What do I
remember most about those afternoons at Burke’s? The chips of ice
rimming the lip of the frosted beer mugs? The slightly greasy onion
rings? The occasional sighting of a major league ballplayer in town to
face my beloved Orioles?
No, what I remember most were the stories.
afternoons turned into evenings, I listened as editors, photographers
and reporters recalled, in great (and sometimes embellished) detail,
tales of exclusive scoops, unforgettable characters and great heroism
(on the part of the journalist, of course).
What stories they had.
learned about courage and compassion from reporters like Dick Irwin,
who, on a horrible Good Friday night, pulled a mortally wounded cop out
of the line of a sniper’s fire. In all, the gunman shot
six police officers during the long standoff. Back in the
newsroom, Dick was typing the story when he realized he still had the
officer’s blood on his hands. (His editor, recalling the sight of Dick
at the typewriter, pausing from time to time to look at his red hands,
was moved to tears.)
I learned about dogged reporting from
reporters like Mike Olesker and Joe Nawrozki. Even as two other
reporters were relying on a now-famous anonymous source to unravel a
cover-up in the Nixon White House, Mike and Joe were gaining access to
confidential police files to report on a state legislator suspected of
smuggling heroin. As Olesker recently wrote in his column in the Baltimore Sun,
their work ‘jump-started” the federal investigation; the legislator was
eventually charged with smuggling $10 million worth of dope. Weeks
before the trial was to begin, the legislator was killed.
And what stories I heard about John Steadman,
the son of a deputy fire chief who became Baltimore’s most beloved
sports columnist. Though he still had almost 30 years of columns left
in him when we met in 1973, John already had a reputation for
championing the underdog, bringing history alive and offering his own
very unique take on the sports news of the day. And how about “The
Streak?” John attended every Baltimore Colts football game ever played
– both home and away — as well as every Baltimore Ravens game until
the cancer stopped his streak in December 2000. He was a legend.
might say telling “war stories” is just a lot of breast-beating,
typical of journalists who focus on themselves instead of their
communities. Well, I can only say what stories like these meant to me.
They reminded me that journalism, when done well by committed
professionals, can enlighten, explain, delight and help people and
communities to improve their lives.
That’s why I came to
believe that newsroom leaders do well to create opportunities for their
staffs to share their stories with each other. And it’s why, over the
past several months, I have asked some journalists to share with me
stories from their work that remind them of the great potential of
journalism done well.
I hope they help remind you of the potential of your work.
And after you read them, I hope you’ll send me a story of your own that I can share.
You might help someone else remember why their work matters.
is managing editor/acting vice president for news and information at
National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. He spent 21 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer, and was later named managing editor, then editor of The Baltimore Sun.
the day before Thanksgiving in 1983, an excellent source asked me to
come to his house for what he promised would be an important
conversation. “Bill,” he said, “the K-9 unit is using people for target
practice, and it isn’t right.” His description was detailed, vivid and
laced with profanity, and he gave me the name of a young man whom he
said had been handcuffed, held at gunpoint by police and then attacked
by a police dog.
Over the next three months, I documented that
case — and many others. The cases were deeply disturbing incidents in
which police dogs, either commanded by their handlers or on their own,
had attacked and mauled innocent and unarmed men and women on the
streets of Philadelphia. Many of them were corroborated by independent
eyewitnesses, innocent bystanders who had no reason to support either
the victims’ accounts or the police officers’ reports.
eyewitness, Peter Solmssen, a Philadelphia lawyer, horrified by what he
saw, said at the time: “Either the dog was out of control, or the dog
was under control, being handled by a vicious police officer.” The
victim of that attack was Joseph Patrick Loftus, a 17-year-old high
school senior, who was lying inert, face-down on the sidewalk outside
1317 Spruce Street.
The first of the K-9 case stories –
including the Loftus case — ran on a Sunday in mid-April 1984 and took
up four full pages of the newspaper. The next morning, Philadelphia’s
mayor, Wilson Goode, ordered an investigation of the attacks reported
in The Inquirer, and said that the city needed a written
directive on when K-9 officers could order their dogs to attack. Later
that week, the FBI and the U. S. Attorney’s office began a criminal
investigation of the K-9 cases.
By summer, Mayor Goode had
removed 12 of the K-9 unit’s 125 officers and implemented new reporting
and training procedures for the police dogs. In the six months after The Inquirer‘s
series began, attacks on civilians dwindled to a handful — a trickle
compared to the 358 that were recorded between September 1981 and May
Dirk Shadd is a photographer for the St. Petersburg Times.
most of the six years I covered the Tampa Bay Lightning, they were the
worst team in hockey. Then, two years ago, they started to make a
playoff push. When they were playing at home, I used the back elevator
to get to the locker room area, and I’d usually ride with players’
wives — they’d talk about their husbands, telling me things like all
they did was play PlayStation. We got to know each other.
after the team won the Stanley Cup in 2004, one of the players — Pavel
Kubina, from the Czech Republic — asked if I could get him a few
photos for his “Cup Day.” He said each of the players would be given
the Stanley Cup for a day of celebration in their home towns. Could I
come? If I got to the Czech Republic, Kubina said, he’d take care of me.
After talking with my editors, we decided that I would spend a good part of the summer
traveling with the Cup. I really didn’t want this Cinderella story to
end — that moment on the ice, with everyone crying, as they hoisted
the Stanley Cup over their heads.
Sure enough, when I walked out
of the airport at the first stop in the Czech Republic, there was
Kubina, leaning against his yellow Ferrari. “You’re late,” he said.
the next few months, I traveled with the Cup to players’ homes in the
Czech Republic; Slovakia; Prince Edward Island; Burlington, Vt.;
Hamilton, Ontario; and back to Tampa. Our time in the Czech Republic
was the most challenging for me; not only did I not speak the language,
but as an African-American, I definitely stood out. On one occasion, as
I was photographing two members of the team signing autographs, a line
of kids seeking autographs began forming behind me. “No hockey,” I
protested; “Me afraid of puck-o!” My efforts failed, and I
started signing. I realized that for these kids, seeing me was an
experience as unique as meeting an NHL champion.
the real significance of this story hit me after one all-nighter in the
Czech town of Pisek. As dawn approached, I found Lightning player Stan
Neckar lying on his back on the cobblestone sidewalk near a
14th-century bridge, the oldest in the Czech Republic. Two baguettes
served as pillows beneath his head; he was hugging the Cup to his
He told me he had taken the Cup to the bridge to watch the sun rise and think about his life.
realize it’s the last hour and that could be the last time,” he said.
The seldom-used member of the team cried hard, tears of joy. “Even when
I had a kid, I never cry. Even when I’m injured.”
Kobe sitting on Shaq’s lap, saying bling, bling, bling. This was a
hockey player who had been assigned a small role and had played his
heart out. He knew he might never have this opportunity again. He also
knew, with pride, that his name would be inscribed on the Cup.
At times like this, I shot through my own tears. I didn’t want it to end, either.
Virginia Smith is a medical writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
wrote a story in 1994 about Ted Souchuck, Sr., a 74-year-old former
coal miner whose dream was to raise $125,000 to build a miners’
memorial like the Vietnam veterans’ wall in Washington, D.C. Thousands
of boys and men endured low wages, terrible conditions, maiming and
even death in the anthracite mines of northeastern Pennsylvania, where
common wisdom had the wealthy mine owners treating mules better than
men “because they believed a good mule was harder to find.” Souchuck’s
father, two uncles, two brothers, dozens of friends and 28 male
boarders in his parents’ house had all worked in the mines; he began as
a “breaker boy,” picking slate out of trays of coal, at age 8.
plan was to raise the money in $100 increments; donors would buy
memorial bricks in honor of loved ones who had worked (or died) in the
mines. I interviewed him at length, and several other senior citizens,
some still suffering from black lung. It was very moving.
was enormously grateful when the story ran. I heard no more from him
until October of 1998, when a packet arrived from him. It contained a
letter and a dozen photographs of a dedication ceremony for a truly
beautiful memorial to the miners.
“You should be very proud of
what you have done,” he wrote. The story had run on the wire all over
the country. More than $340,000 had been raised!
Tracy Davidson is a consumer reporter for WCAU-TV, the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia.
ago, I began investigating a local moving company. I had received a few
complaints from consumers who were claiming their belongings were being
held hostage, either on the trucks or at a storage facility. Other
consumers complained that when they went to pick up their items in
storage, some of the more valuable items were missing. They claimed
they were told the moving company would search for them. Often, when
the consumers returned, they were told, “We couldn’t find your stuff,
but look: We have this nice TV” — which, of course, turned out to be
After my first story, which included the do’s
and don’ts of hiring a moving/storage company, victims came out of the
woodwork. Meanwhile, I was talking with the moving company owner. He
wanted to make the story go away, which wasn’t going to happen. I
invited all of the victims to the station for a mass sit-down interview
of their experiences, and I invited the owner to come face the
Then he promptly took each
person into a private room and wrote checks to make them whole. He
wrote more than $42,000 in checks… and they cleared. The story
The owner of the company actually thanked me,
insisting that he had not known what was going on within his company
until I brought these situations to his attention. Regardless of the
truthfulness of that, the bottom line for me was that he thought I was
fair in doing a story that could have been a sensationalized slam-dunk.
Of course, the consumers were elated. And, hopefully, the viewers
learned even more about how to protect themselves from the practices of
Charlie DeLaFuente is a staff editor on the copy desk of The New York Times. He has been a city editor at three other newspapers.
I was a rookie reporter at a now-defunct New York City newspaper (The Long Island Press)
in the mid 1960′s when I noticed that most ambulances never used their
sirens, even when they appeared to be heading out on emergency calls. I
wondered why and asked for time to investigate, which was readily
granted. My recollection is that some ambulances in that era were run
by hospitals, and others by the city, and that all were regulated by
It turned out that the regulations prohibited the
ambulances from using their sirens, except to take severely injured
patients to a hospital. They couldn’t use the sirens to go to wherever
a gravely injured person might need assistance, or to take someone not
at death’s door back to the hospital.
The explanation of
whatever city agency was in charge of ambulances was that the sirens
annoyed people in residential neighborhoods, and so they were banned
some years earlier. (Police cars and fire trucks were not covered by
I determined that, in some cases, the few minutes
that might be saved by cutting through traffic could spell the
difference between life and death, and that’s the way I wrote the piece.
Even though the Press
was a paper of limited influence, circulated in only one of New York
City’s five boroughs, city officials changed the policy soon after the
piece appeared, so that ambulances could use their sirens at the
drivers’ discretion. That’s the rule to this day.
think of that piece from time to time, for its powerful illustration of
how newspapers can be a force for good, without adopting or advancing a
reporter’s or institution’s political agenda, but just by forcing
bureaucracies to apply common sense.
John McIntyre is assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun.
At The Sun, they call me the Death Slot, because of the propensity of notable people to drop on the nights that I work the desk.
Saturday evening in 1997 I was in the slot, looking at the stories that
had been laid out for Page One, when a bulletin came over the wires
that Princess Diana had been in an automobile accident. “That’ll have
to be tucked into the front somewhere,” I muttered.
a write-thru arrived that Diana had been seriously injured, and the
weekend editor decided to move the story above the fold. At that point,
we got a call from Bill Glauber, our London correspondent, who was on
vacation — in France. We got a staff story about Diana’s automobile
accident in the lead position for the first edition.
called back. “Be ready to change that story. I think she’s dead.
They’re not talking about her the way they would if she were alive or
expected to live.”
I had just set the story in type for 1A for
the second edition when a bulletin came over the wires: “Princess Diana
dead.” The weekend editor picked up the phone, called the printing
plant, and said — for one of two occasions I’ve heard this in a
quarter-century as a copy editor — “Stop the presses.” And, by God,
We got a staff story about the death of Princess Diana on Page One for the bulk of our home-delivery editions, for a day when The Washington Post, which had earlier deadlines for the editions that go to our circulation area, did not. And it happened, in part, because The Sun has a copy desk that can move fast and surely, and on deadline.
Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent on National Public Radio’s national desk.
some ways, I’m slowly getting more demoralized by the general state of
the world — by pollution, by the greenhouse effect, by people’s
prejudices and hatreds, by poverty and religious vendettas and by
corporate greed. But every once in a while, I get to see or hear how my
stories have affected people, and it reinvigorates me all over again.
It reminds me why I love being a journalist. It reminds me why I feel
lucky to be a journalist.
It happened again late last year. I
spent months investigating how the Department of Homeland Security is
treating — or mistreating — immigrants whom they’ve decided to
deport. I had never done much reporting about immigration, and so I was
stunned to discover that the government locks up tens of thousands of
non-citizens in jail every year.
Some stay behind bars for months, some are locked up for years, even though the government has not accused them of any crime.
are immigrants who’ve merely overstayed their visas, or who committed
some sort of crime years ago — and in many cases, got off by simply
paying a fine — but under the nation’s tough immigration laws,
Homeland Security rounds up everybody who hasn’t followed all the rules
and “detains” them in jail while the department arranges to deport them.
of these immigrants are locked up in terrible conditions. One day
they’re at home, raising a family, working hard, paying taxes; the next
day, government agents show up and shackle their hands and feet with
metal chains, sometimes in front of their children, and haul them off
to the same jail where the government puts murderers and rapists. Some
jails are crowded and filthy. The guards slap them around and call them
I was able
to document how guards at one jail (in New Jersey) were using attack
dogs to terrorize detainees; in fact, they ordered their dogs to maul
immigrants, for no apparent reason, and the immigrants ended up in the
hospital. Immigration lawyers told me that they had been protesting the
use of dogs for years, but that the government kept ignoring them.
also documented how a group of guards at another jail in New Jersey
beat up two detainees while they were handcuffed — and repeatedly
kicked them in the head — while about a dozen other guards watched.
I plodded through five months of investigating all this, my mood
started to sink. I was worried that I’d get in trouble with my managers
for taking so long and for not getting on the air. I was worried that
when listeners finally heard the pieces, they’d shrug — “So, big deal,
the abuses at Abu Ghraib were worse …” And most of all, I assumed that
the government would ignore the stories as though they never existed. I
started to brood, “I shouldn’t have ever done these stories in the
But the moment after the first of two pieces
was broadcast, NPR started getting deluged by e-mails from listeners,
saying, “This is why we support public radio. This is why we need more
investigative reporting — because we need people like you to expose
this dark side of America.” Some said they had already sent angry
letters of protest to government officials and to the jails.
Over the next few days, even more amazing things happened. The Department of Homeland Security announced
that it was banning the use of dogs at all the jails where it detains
prisoners. And the jail where the guards beat up detainees called to
say almost a dozen employees were to be disciplined over the incident;
at least two guards were being fired.
And here’s the kicker:
when I called two of the victims whom I had profiled — one had been
deported back to Egypt, the other to Guyana — and I told them how the
stories had changed government policy, it sounded like they were about
to cry. Their lives had been turned upside down — in fact, each felt
that his life had been ruined, and that hardly anybody in America
cared. But now they say they feel as if people across America do care.
And they feel proud that by being brave enough to tell their stories
publicly, they helped make life a little bit better for detainees who
will be locked up after them.
My journalistic batteries were recharged.
Jane Hansen is a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
me, the greatest privilege of being a journalist is the role I’ve
gotten to play every now and then of being a catalyst. I never cease to
be amazed by individuals’ basic decency and their ability to change
things for the better when we, as journalists, do our jobs well.
passion, for a long time, has been to write about children and the
issues affecting them. There are two reasons: One is that without
journalists, children really have no voice. A second has to do with
confidentiality rules and regulations, which I believe have contributed
directly to some children’s deaths, serve more to protect government
workers than children, and should be constantly challenged. During the
last two decades, with the help of our attorneys, I’ve twice sued the
state attorney general for certain child abuse records and both times
I’ve written about children prostituted on the streets of Atlanta, children who die from parents’ abuse or neglect after they’ve come under the so-called “protection” of the state, children raised under the scourge of their parents’ crack-cocaine addiction. The challenge in all was to overcome confidentiality so I could show the face of one child behind these issues.
public’s response to all these stories was overwhelming to me. After
the child prostitution series ran, the U.S. attorney’s office and FBI
conducted an overnight sweep and eventually prosecuted 11 pimps who
were prostituting children as young as 10. The Georgia Legislature
passed a new law, making it a felony to prostitute children under 18.
After the child abuse series ran, the public demanded change and the
legislature responded. The heads of both the state and county child
welfare agencies were fired over a cover-up involving a child who had
died. Again, the legislature passed several bills to reform the child
welfare system. The governor pushed through legislation to include
certain child abuse records under the state’s Open Records Act. And
dozens of individual citizens came forward and offered to give one of
the children I’d profiled a decent burial and his own headstone.
though, the most overwhelming reaction to me was the response we got to
the series about children raised by parents addicted to crack. Hundreds
of people responded, and they were from all walks of life. They ranged
from people who got together and created a shelter for crack-addicted
babies abandoned at birth — a shelter that thrives today — to
individual acts of kindness. A synagogue adopted a drug treatment
program for women and wound up refurbishing the facility, buying the
children clothes and babysitting for free while the mothers attended
treatment sessions. Several young men volunteered to mentor teens whose
addicted parents had left them to raise themselves. A single mother
putting herself through college called to say her two-year-old had
outgrown all her baby clothes and, while she had a sentimental
attachment to them, she wanted to give them to someone who really
One call like that makes me feel I’ve done my job. It
really restores my faith in people and makes me grateful that I work in
Tom Coakley is “Globe NorthWest” editor at the Boston Globe.
the tales you hold in your head never get into the paper, but are an
aside to the story, a momentary emotional release from the job of
Photographer Bill Wunsch and I were in Mexico for The Denver Post
to tell the tale of a young undocumented worker who was run over by a
truck and killed while fleeing an Immigration & Naturalization
Service raid on a farm near Boulder, Colo.
We had come to his
family homestead — a small, tidy place with a spotless, uncluttered
dirt floor — and his mother, dressed in mourning black, was making us
dinner: rice, beans and tortillas, cooked fresh on a wood stove.
was a white horse in the yard, and for some reason, I got on him and
started him down the slope to a broad, meandering branch of the Rio
Papigochic. The horse stopped at the river and started to drink.
I did my very best East Coast, city-boy giddy-up but the steed would not budge.
then, Wunsch had made it to the river. A mountain-states native who had
grown up with rodeo, he was shaking his head and chuckling as I slid
off the horse in frustration.
Up gets Wunsch on the horse,
wheels him around halfway up the hill and takes him at a gallop across
the river as if chasing bandits in some spaghetti western.
that horse could tell a patsy from a player without ever looking back
to see who was on top. (Incidentally, Wunsch’s pics were so good I felt
like my story was a 2,000-word cutline. Twenty years and two jobs
later, the photos still hang in a room in my home.)